For years Dwayne Johnson has promised (or perhaps threatened?) that with the arrival of Black Adam the “hierarchy of power” in the DCEU will change. Now I’m not totally sure what that existing hierarchy of power actually is as the DCEU has been a bit of a mess for a while now. But there is no denying that with Black Adam the on-screen DC universe gets a lightning bolt of a movie, filled with huge action scenes, a brand new superhero team, some interesting lore, world-building, and lots of Dwayne Johnson’s signature scowl.
Overall Black Adam’s live-action debut doesn’t quite change everything as some of the marketing led us to believe, but it undoubtedly brings something fresh, or fresh-ish. As contradictory as it may sound the movie manages to subvert the typical superhero format in some ways, while being extremely predictable in others.
There are no huge twists or turns, and the one ‘twist’ we do get revolving around Black Adam’s origins is clear a mile out. But I also don’t think that the simple plot and superhero formula do anything toward ruining Black Adam as a film.
There are no doubt some issues here and there, but overall Black Adam is fun, full of action, and is absolutely a movie people will want to see again.
Story-wise the film revolves around Kahndaq – starting in 2600BCE when a young boy inspires an uprising against the dictator King Ahk-Ton. For his bravery, the boy earns the powers of Shazam from the council of Wizards (extremely similar to the events we saw in the 2019 Shazam! movie).
From there we jump forward to the modern day where Kahndaq has remained under subjugation and is currently being invaded/ruled by a group of mercenaries known as Intergang. Here Adrianna Tomaz searches for the crown of Sabacc, a creation of King Ahk-Ton, but as she finds it also awakens Teth-Adam from what she believes to be his resting place, but is eventually revealed to be his prison.
From there Teth-Adam clashes with Intergang and the Justice Society, building up to him eventually taking on the evil force of Sabacc with the help of the Justice Society.
While the movie does follow a basic overarching formula, it throws in a few more action scenes than your typical superhero movie and plays with some interesting themes such as why the Justice Society is only getting involved in Kahndaq when Black Adam shows up. Having previously ignored the country and its struggle against oppressors and invaders for decades beforehand.
But as interesting as all of that is, Black Adam doesn’t quite do enough to push those themes to an actual conclusion. Adrianna and the people of Kahndaq are absolutely correct to question the Justice Society and the involvement of people like Amanda Waller (who is behind the Society’s actions, and was responsible for questionable operations like we saw in the Suicide Squad).
But instead, the movie tows a line between making Black Adam an actual brutal murderer and a sort of struggling to adjust good guy. He does some brutal stuff, but with this universe in particular it’s not much worse than we’ve seen superheroes like Batman and even Superman do. And at the end of the day, he is doing these things for and with the support of his people against invading oppressors. On top of that, the Justice Society has shown up to imprison Black Adam simply as he might one day do something bad, or to stop him from killing people in a country they have nothing to do with, or maybe even as further punishment for his five thousand-year-old crimes which he was already entombed for – it’s not exactly clear, but either way, their motivations and morality are also relatively questionable.
The early action set pieces do a great job of showing Black Adam’s powers in a relatively unique and fun way. There’s a slow-motion scene that shows how fast Adam is moving compared to everyone else that is nowhere near things like the Quicksilver scenes from X-Men: Days of Future Past and Dark Phoenix, but it’s got some great visuals and some good jokes.
But from there the several action scenes kind of just retread the same beats of Adam being massively overpowered and killing people, despite the Justice Society’s protests, lots of building damage, big punches, and lightning zaps – over and over again.
There is some fun in the Atom Smasher sequences and seeing a unique live-action Cyclone creating tornadoes. The somewhat mind-bending magic with the Doctor Fate’s magical action scenes is a fun take on some MCU Doctor Strange-style fights as well. But other than that it’s kind of just going from one fight with Black Adam being an unstoppable badass to another, and at no point does it ever really feel like he is in danger in any way.
As much as I’ve commented on the somewhat predictable formula, how the film doesn’t push its questions on superhero jurisdiction and morality far enough, and how the action becomes a bit familiar after the first few scenes – all of that is said whilst still enjoying the film. Black Adam is fun, it brings something familiar but fresh to the DCEU, is full of action sequences, and most importantly introduces several new interesting characters like the Justice Society, and sets up a lot more to come. In short Black Adam is exactly what the live-action DC Universe needs.
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