‘Black Adam’ wants to have something to say about super-colonialism, but mostly doesn’t
A needlessly dark pile of steaming genre trash that takes itself way more seriously than it should, Black Adam is still pretty entertaining in parts. It would be inaccurate to say that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has never been in a bad movie. He’s almost never been in a good movie. But he’s The Rock, and that seems to be all that matters to the audience.
BLACK ADAM★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshhirvani
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Pierce Brosnan, Aldis Hodge, Sarah Shahi
Running time: 124 mins
This is a DC comics movie, so there are immortal gods, an indestructible substance, lightning bolts and fire coming out of people’s chests, and people hurling other people into buildings. The Rock plays a slave from a society older than Babylon (that’s old) who acquires powers that he can’t control. So a bunch of wizards imprison him a tomb. A determined anti-colonialist college professor, well-played by the appealing Sarah Shahi, unearths him 5,000 years later by saying a magic word, and the game is on.
Black Adam winks and quips and bulges out of a Spandex suit that can barely hold his massivity, which was enough for the phalanx of chortling Comic Book Guys who were in the theater with me. In an early sequence, he murders hundreds of people while ‘Paint It Black’ plays on the soundtrack, a mix of seriousness and irony that befuddles the rest of the movie as well.
Meanwhile, something called “The Justice Society,” which has never before appeared in a DC movie product, and which, as is the DC way, this movie barely bothers to introduce. They zip off from headquarters, mysteriously located in Louisiana, to the Middle East to stop Black Adam. These are the “heroes” that the movie deploys to crank on its Black Adam anti-hero with increasing futility. The murky script never gives them anything interesting to say, fills in their backstories with expository dialogue, and gives them very little to do other than kick ass based on their various powers. Fortunately for us, they’re all pretty engaging to watch.
Pierce Brosnan plays Dr. Fate, basically DC’s version of Dr. Strange, who has a golden helmet that allows him to bend reality and see through time. Brosnan brings dignity and gravitas to some ludicrous dialogue, and has something close to a complete story arc, though only because he gives us his origin story in a monologue.
Aldis Hodge, last seen effectively playing Jim Brown in ‘One Night In Miami,’ is Hawkman, a top-20 DC character. The movie doesn’t explain who Hawkman is, why he is the leader of the Justice Society, why he has a super spaceship located in a secret Louisiana headquarters, or why he has magical Hawk armor or wields a mystical mace. We’ve never seen this character in another DC movie (though he has shown up from time to time on TV), so liking him requires a knowledge of Hawkman and a willingness to say, “whoa, that’s Hawkman.” Considering that he basically exists for other characters to pummel into the ground constantly, Hodge still does a really nice job with Hawkman, leaving me and the Comic Book Guys to think “I’d see a Hawkman movie.”
The other two members of the team are Atom Smasher and Cyclone, both of whom are pretty cute, but we don’t know much about them other than that Atom Smasher got his costume from Henry Winkler and some evil scientist injected nanobots into Cyclone’s blood. They make a few quips and occasionally wink at each other. In the last 20 minutes, we meet the CGI villain, who is a demon without a personality.
These characters are all basically props for Black Adam, and for The Rock. Unlike the rest of the characters, Black Adam gets approximately three origin stories in this movie, though the story keeps changing through a series of dusty and predictable flashbacks that allow us to see The Rock in a loincloth, which must be in his contract. We also follow a boring but demographically necessary modern Middle Eastern family as Black Adam “saves” their city and their home by progressively turning it into rubble, which they don’t seem to mind for some reason. They have more lives than the average superhero. It’s one thing for Superman to emerge from the rubble time and again. It’s another to see a 12-year-old skateboarding whiz survive an insane amount of supernatural abuse with barely a scratch.
But this is an approach that DC seems to take a lot when it comes to “liberating” foreign lands. James Gunn’s Suicide Squad ravaged Latin America for laughs. Black Adam pillages the Arab world for our amusement. Though there’s some sort of anticolonialist message hiding underneath this movie’s ample capes, it exists mostly to serve a series of slow-motion fight scenes, bland speechifying, and murky cinematography. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Unlike ‘Ms. Marvel,’ or ‘Moon Knight,’ which made excellent use of actual mythologies and histories to spotlight cultures that American entertainment has degraded or neglected, Black Adam features a made-up country, a made-up pantheon, and made-up and generic problems. The so-called Third World exists in this universe for one reason alone: to show off The Rock’s rack. Maybe, given how much the world loves The Rock, and given an awesome end credits sequence promising much more, that’s enough.