With Marvel in its current state — having released probably their three worst movies, all in a row — now would be a great time for DC to become what it has occasionally flirted with being: the anti-Marvel. Where Marvel can feel like a movie factory, adhering to a strict formula and hiring directors mostly for their name recognition while forcing them to color within rigidly-defined lines, DC has, at least at times, seemed to allow for more creative freedom, living and dying by their latest director’s vision, for better or worse.
If the MCU put out a more consistent product at the expense of sometimes being boring, DC was at least a little weird. Their more freewheeling approach meant that sometimes we might get a total misfire like Batman V. Superman, but other times we’d get an Aquaman or a Shazam (the latter being far and away my favorite superhero movie of the last five, if not 10 years). Which brings us to Black Adam, who also wears a lightning bolt on his chest and says “Shazam” (we’ll get to that).
Released hot on the heels of a high-profile corporate shakeup at Warner Bros (shelving Batgirl and whatnot) Black Adam at first flirts intriguingly with being a genuinely anti-Marvel kind of film. It gets our hopes up juuust long enough to make it extra disappointing when they’re eventually crushed by the demands of yet another expanded universe. This has only ever worked for Marvel and even for them it’s not so great lately. Maybe stop making five-year plans and try to make one scene work first?
The film, written by at least three dudes and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, requires a lengthy prologue scene set in the ancient kingdom of Khandaq, where the darker-skinned locals have been forced, by the tyrannical colonizer Ahn-Kot, to mine for “Eternium.” This in order to create for him “the crown of Sabbac,” which would, presumably, be bad. A young Khandaqi boy tries to inspire a revolt, and just when he’s about to be executed by Ahn-Kot’s big-nosed, large-toothed henchmen (Ahn-Kot himself has extreme art bangs and no eyebrows), the council of wizards who control the universe step in to Shazam the boy into a badass superhero. Djimon Hounsou reprises his role as the lead wizard from Shazam, making Black Adam the second film in the expanded Hounsouverse (the DJEU, if you will).
This superhero becomes the champion of Khandaq, vanquishing Ahn-Kot (destroying the palace in the process) and returning to the Earth to hibernate until the people of Khandaq need him again. Fast-forward five thousand years, and Khandaq is being controlled, and once again stripped of its natural resources, by a gang of mercenaries known as the “Intergang” — who seem mostly to be British soccer hooligans in fatigues. An archaeologist named Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) worries that Intergang is getting too close to digging up the Crown of Sabbac, but when she goes to move it, she’s captured by Intergang. With her only move left, she once again summons the Shazam man, who we discover is actually named “Teth-Adam,” for reasons unclear.
Teth-Adam (The Rock) starts merc-ing bread pie eaters left and right, which seems like a pretty good thing (if a bit vengeful). But that’s when Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the evil (ish?) government functionary from Suicide Squad, decides to send in The Justice Society on their fancy plane. They arrive saying they’ve come to “restore global stability” in Khandaq by putting a lid on this “weapon of mass destruction.”
You don’t have to be too conspiratorial to see the metaphorical value here. A deep state agency ignores 5,000 years of a middle eastern country being pillaged by colonizers, and, just when that country finally finds a champion strong enough to stop it, that agency says “no, not like that” and sends in a team of super soldiers to preserve the status quo.
Now here, HERE was a genuine, and ballsy, opportunity for DC to become the perfect anti-Marvel. Marvel’s entire project has been basically to invent a fictional supra-democratic apparatus that goes around the universe restoring stability. They always seem to know best and we can still root for them because they have, like… trauma (Black Widow) and post-modern dialogue and people who they love and with whom they have slow missionary sex on the beach (Eternals). The Avengers are basically the CIA as the CIA would like to imagine itself.
At least at first, Black Adam flirts with being a movie that asks “what if this CIA-esque agency was actually kind of ignorant about the places they hoped to ‘save,’ and ended up just causing more problems at best and maintaining systems of imperial theft at worst?”
When the Justice Society shows up to try to capture Teth-Adam (thanks to a muddy sound mix I had to hear this name at least seven times before I could make out what they were saying) the locals rightly turn on them. Buzz off, super-geeks, we like this ruthless superman killing all the mercenaries. All this was refreshing, smart, surprising to see, and at the very least seemingly ideal counter-programming. “Khandaq” ends with a Q and “the Crown of Sabbac” even evokes “Savak,” the infamous Iranian secret police who did dirty work for the Shah, who the CIA helped overthrow after Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the country’s oil.
Unfortunately, the Justice Society showing up also raises a lot of questions, which the movie is forced to answer. Questions such as… what the fuck is the Justice Society?
The Justice Society apparently consists of Hawkman (Aldis Hoge), whose powers are exactly what they sound like, Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who can grow very big, Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who can see the future and play mind games, and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a low-budget ass Storm who can make wind (Le Petomane did it better). At this point, rather than clearly establishing The Justice Society as a source of parody, a team of bumbling imperialist goons with a self-delusional figleaf of good intentions (which DC sometimes does pretty well with Peacemaker) and a ruthless Machiavellian leader (in the form of Waller), Black Adam instead gets caught up in all their drama.
Soon we’re off trying to find out whether Hawkman and Doctor Fate’s friendship can survive the latest battle. Is Hawkman too impulsive to be a proper hero? Is Doctor Fate too beaten down by all the possible futures he’s seen with his magic alien helmet? Hey! Who cares?! Who even are these people?
Black Adam tries to become Marvel rather than counter it, and ends up having to try to explain why Black Adam is even here, if not to destroy Intergang and send the Justice Society packing. The answers become hopelessly convoluted. At one point, Adrianna defends Black Adam by telling Hawkman, “Sometimes the world needs someone who can do what you heroes can’t. Something darker.”
What? The Justice Society aren’t the heroes, that’s the whole point! As for Black Adam being “something darker,” it’d be charitable to read this as a wry joke about having a “darker” superhero of color defending a resource-rich land from presumably “lighter” imperialists, but I don’t think that’s how they meant it. Collet-Serra and The Rock both spent their press tour calling Black Adam “the Dirty Harry of superheroes.” As if the problem with most vigilante superheroes was that they… uh… weren’t vigilante enough.
I could accuse them of wildly missing what seemed like the whole point of Black Adam (a story about a slave who breaks chains but becomes a master), but it seems more like everyone got so caught up trying to balance all these unnecessary characters and explain what the hell the Justice Society even is that Black Adam just sort of got squeezed into this awkward, convoluted role.
Or maybe a real critique of American institutions is just impossible coming from an entity so closely entwined with them.
It’s not that I especially expect my superhero movies to have coherent messages or good politics (though Black Adam does dangle that possibility, tantalizingly) it’s that Black Adam’s ambiguous function in the story feels not only un-crowd-pleasing but kind of cowardly. The demands of an expanded universe and all these cross-platform characters force the narrative to be more complex when simpler would’ve been a lot more fun.