By now, even the most enthusiastic fans of superhero movies seem to be fatigued. The genre is at a transition point, or perhaps a midlife crisis. After over a decade of nonstop releases, these movies have essentially become synonymous with box office tentpoles, feeding the increasing need for new movies and TV to be based on preexisting intellectual property. Black Adam, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and out today, is a paint-by-numbers exemplar of this problem, but also offers hints of what a more creative superhero film could look like.
Johnson plays Teth-Adam, a denizen of the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq. Once a person enslaved by Egyptian royalty, he was granted supernatural powers by the Council of Wizards but was eventually imprisoned by them after he lashed out violently. When the film starts, resistance fighters have finally released him from prison, seeking to bring back Kahndaq’s protector.
Adam is enormously powerful, but he himself does relatively little to drive the plot forward. Instead, several people try to use him for their own ends or push him toward different ideas of what they think he should be. Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), an academic and member of the Kahndaqi resistance, wants the power to protect her people, while her young son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), a superhero enthusiast, pushes Adam to fit into the mold of classic heroes he’s seen on TV.
Meanwhile, the Justice Society, an American superhero team that includes Carter Hall, aka Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), and Kent Nelson, aka Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), heads to Kahndaq to apprehend Adam. And Intergang, the private military contractor–style syndicate that has taken Egypt’s place as Kahndaq’s oppressor, invades the country, looking for a mystical crown that was locked away with Adam.
Black Adam, a DC Films production, throws pretty much everything at the wall, drawing threads from several of its predecessors. There are thudding Guardians of the Galaxy–style needle drops. There are slow-motion action scenes that evoke Zack Snyder. There are moments of Marvel-style quipping in the midst of destruction, complemented by the gravitational pull of The Rock — a star who has his own distinct flavor of eyebrow-raised, bemused comedy. And fans who stay through the ending credits will be treated to a Marvel-like stinger teasing the next installment in the broader cinematic universe, this time featuring Henry Cavill’s Superman. (There’s no date set for that movie; Cavill’s cameo was filmed at The Rock’s insistence just a few weeks ago.)
Black Adam throws pretty much everything at the wall, drawing threads from several of its predecessors.
There’s plenty of enjoyable stuff in Black Adam, if you’re into this sort of thing. In particular, Brosnan has a blast playing Doctor Fate, a weary sorcerer who fully understands the cosmic nature of the battle between good and evil, and Adam’s place in it. Mohammed Amer is very funny as Karim, Adrianna’s hapless brother. Buildings get destroyed like they’re made out of Legos in a way that feels genuinely kinetic. Henry Winkler shows up! But Black Adam’s insistence on coloring inside the lines is disappointing, particularly given the state of its creative parent, DC.
DC’s movies have been alternately defined by two qualities: not being Marvel movies, and a series of elaborate plans that never seem to go anywhere. For a while, Zack Snyder held the reins. And while he eventually released his own four-hour cut of Justice League in 2021 after years of partly astroturfed, partly legitimate fan outrage, it doesn’t seem like we’re getting the full Snyderverse anytime soon.
The Flash, set to come out next summer, is supposed to be the centerpiece of a new era for DC, featuring several different versions of Batman, the Superman villain General Zod from Snyder’s Man of Steel, and time travel shenanigans that will probably connect years’ worth of disparate threads. But The Flash star Ezra Miller has been accused of abuse and assault and has been arrested multiple times. Meanwhile, Batgirl has been shelved entirely, seemingly as a tax write-off. Warner Bros. recently expressed interest in making another Superman movie with Man of Steel star Henry Cavill, seemingly scrapping the plan to tell a Black Superman story with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Things are up in the air.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing. The most successful DC movies of the past few years — and, really, the most successful superhero movies overall — have tended to be off in their own little worlds, uninterested in being part of a larger architecture.
Matt Reeves’s The Batman, which came out this year, largely works, even after so many Batman movies, because it has a fun world and distinct version of each character. (What if Batman were Robert Smith?) James Gunn’s Peacemaker series, which also came out this year, fully draws out the psychosexual goofiness of its characters, largely by leaning into the odder qualities of Johnson’s fellow wrestler-turned-actor John Cena. Todd Phillips’s 2019 film Joker was polarizing but also enormously successful, earning an Academy Award for Joaquin Phoenix and warranting an impending sequel costarring Lady Gaga — in part because it wanted to be something specific, even if that was a Scorsese homage about how we live in a society. And James Wan’s 2018 film Aquaman allowed itself to be gloriously campy, absurd, and deadly serious all at once, like a movie made to be played on a screen at a prog-rock show.
These successes might be relatively rare, but they’re also more memorable than your standard Marvel movies, if only because of specific images like outer-borough Penguin, the Peacemaker opening credits dance, and yes, the Joker stairs. Marvel has perfected its assembly line production process. Unfortunately it’s often at the expense of the underpaid, overworked visual effects professionals who are expected to actually make the whole thing come together — to the point where the boundaries of the genre are largely coterminous with that which the studio will allow. In the last couple of years, it’s become harder and harder to avoid seeing the walls of the box as every subsequent movie and TV show gives a sense of diminishing returns.
In this respect, the issue with Black Adam might not be that the movie is too interested in being a darker take on superheroes — it’s that it’s not willing to go further. Adam’s comfort with killing people is a little unsettling; Hawkman’s goody-two-shoes insistence on doing things by the book makes him come across as a bit of a drip. It’s unfortunate that this conflict isn’t the core of the movie, which instead pivots to another well-worn superhero movie trope: the final battle with the fate of the world at stake. With an all-powerful demon on the loose, who has time to talk about silly things like morality or power?
It’s too bad that Black Adam ultimately punts on most of the big questions it attempts to raise, because the movie does have something sorely lacking in much of its peers: a willingness, however slight, to engage with the world around it. It’s hard to miss the similarities between Kahndaq, a Middle Eastern country occupied by white military personnel, and a variety of real-world analogs, ranging from the American occupation of Iraq to the ongoing occupation of Palestine.
The movie does have something sorely lacking in much of its peers:
a willingness, however slight, to engage with the world around it.
It would be absurd to expect a serious message about liberation from a movie with a $200 million budget. (Not for nothing, the superhero property with by far the most cutting politics is The Boys, a TV show with comparatively far less riding on its success.) Still, it’s genuinely surprising how much Black Adam manages to do. The movie is punctuated with intense, serious conversations about the resistance tactics being deployed by the people of Khandaq, and how they can best be free from the boot of Intergang. Adrianna in particular acts as the conscience of the movie, the person who is ultimately able to get Adam to think more before he acts and at least consider the damage he would cause.
She might be a resistance fighter somehow capable of finding and stealing magical artifacts, but Adrianna doesn’t want her son to learn how to be violent, and she at least hopes for a peaceful resolution to Adam’s conflict with the Justice Society. On the other hand, she has no problem with an open war against her oppressors. She repeatedly tells the Justice Society to mind its own business and get out of her country. Who are these American “heroes,” backed by all the money in the world and futuristic military technology, to tell the people of Kahndaq how to resist their occupation?
It’s pretty jarring to see a major superhero movie that even gestures at treating America as the bad guys in anything beyond a “there are a few bad apples in the military” sense. After all, the genre entered its modern era with 2008’s Iron Man, where a weapons contractor is kidnapped by terrorists and escapes captivity in Afghanistan. Black Adam isn’t the movie that’s going to continue exploring that territory, but it’s refreshing to see it try.
This is in line with some of the more successful recent Marvel properties, which similarly find superheroes at least attempting to punch their way out of the box they’ve been in for the past decade. The ending of the She-Hulk series finds the hero breaking the fourth wall by literally going to Marvel’s offices to complain about the limitations of the genre. It feels like at least a partial recognition that things can’t go on the way they’ve been going forever, in large part because of how successful the movies have been. (As She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany put it in an interview, “Marvel is doing alright; they’re going to be fine.”)
To put it another way, the cultural and financial dominance of superhero movies has made room for some experimentation, especially on TV. But it’s also led to an environment where Black Adam, a movie about a fairly obscure character that doesn’t have the cushion of the MCU, feels compelled to play it safe. But there’s also a sign of growing pains for doing something new. The superhero genre is stuck in time, and one way or another it’s going to have to change.●