‘Black Adam’ Review
Black Adam has something I’ve only seen used sparingly in the past, and does it with a deftness that I’ve never seen: the filmmakers used CGI to remove, rather than add, muscle mass.
That comes late in the picture, when we see Teth Adam (Dwayne Johnson) in his human, non-magic-enhanced form. Sure, he’s still pretty buff, but you can see where an artist went in and shaved off about 80 percent of his delts, toned down his chest, squeezed his biceps in. Masterful work, really—nothing like the shoddy effort early in Captain America: The First Avenger, where it looked like they slapped Chris Evans’s head on a tubercular child’s body—and you wouldn’t have any idea if you didn’t know that in real life Dwayne Johnson is about as big as a house.
It’s the only particularly subtle thing about Black Adam, and I say that as someone who quite enjoyed a movie that can only really be described as “What if Superman were really into murdering people? Don’t worry, they’re all bad.” Given the tantrum that so many people threw when Superman murdered one (1) guy—who, it should be clear, not only had it coming but also gave Superman no choice—in Man of Steel, it’s probably not surprising that critics are pooh-poohing Black Adam. But I quite enjoyed its very specific brand of sadism.
I mean, this is a movie that lovingly crafts a slow-mo sequence of absolute devastation, Black Adam flying through a crowd of black-clad Intergang flunkies disintegrating some of them with lightning bolts, throwing vehicles into others, and, just for laughs, stuffing a grenade in the mouth of another. Literally, for laughs. It’s a punchline to a very dark joke, one just as designed to earn guffaws as Adam’s repeatedly bumbled efforts to deliver the line “Tell them the Man in Black sent you” before he murders a bad guy.
The catch phrase was coined by superhero-obsessed Amon (Bodhi Sabongui); he and his mother, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), are fighting for the freedom of Kahndaq, a fictional Middle Eastern nation that has been taken over by a gang of mercenaries who are strip-mining it for the precious metal eternium. That Black Adam is overtly violent is not a negative in the eyes of the people of Kahndaq, who not only have long yearned for a savior but also hope to deliver a little retribution for the years of colonial indignities they have suffered.
And don’t you dare tone police Black Adam’s rage, Justice Society! Neither Black Adam nor the people of Kahndaq are interested in Hawkman’s (Aldis Hodge) lectures about the need for criminals to face justice rather than extrajudicial killing; he, Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), should just stay out of it. That team of heroes is sent by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising a role she’s played in several other DC films) to capture Black Adam—he’s a weapon of mass destruction, dontcha know—in order to ensure “global stability.”
Now. There are all sorts of muddled political ideas in this movie (see the tension above about the hunt for WMD and a desire to maintain global stability by avoiding regime change). The movie positions itself as anti-colonialist agitprop but also posits as the savior of Kahndaq a group of foreign magical wizards who, thousands of years ago, armed the moderate rebels of Kahndaq with a superpowered savior who could fight the vicious king then viciously oppressing his people. At the end of the day, the film’s only real ethos is the following line, uttered by Adam: “Force is always necessary.”
That he is cheered for force’s application against his people’s enemies should not be surprising; the most recent run of DC films has focused its thematic energies on a single question, namely what would happen if it turned out gods were real and they showed up on Earth. Government agencies would fear their inability to control them (Suicide Squad), the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men would fear their loss of station (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), etc. Black Adam asks how the powerless would react to being given power, and the answer here is “with gleeful brutality.”
Which feels about right! This movie is nothing if not gleeful about its own brutality, and there’s something refreshingly honest about that. (At one point, Adam learns the importance of keeping prisoners alive long enough to torture them for information; you can’t say he isn’t making progress!) In an odd way, Black Adam serves as a reminder that Will Smith’s underrated Hancock came about a decade too early in the comic book boom to serve as the satirical tool it hoped to be.
Either way, Black Adam is brash fun, if not high art.