It’s tough being DC Films these days, for almost every possible reason. They’re standing in the shadow of the pop culture juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is still expanding like crazy, in both movies and TV. There’s a clear vision behind Marvel’s plans, extending further into the future with movies lined up for 2026 and beyond.
In comparison, DC has been falling backwards downstairs for the last ten years, insecure about what they’re making and who should be in charge. Warner Bros started DC Films in 2016 after everyone didn’t like Batman v Superman, putting Geoff Johns and Jon Berg in charge. Then everyone didn’t like Justice League in 2017, so Johns and Berg were ousted, and replaced by Walter Hamada.
After Aquaman was successful in 2018, Hamada announced that DC was going to focus on individual character stories instead of worrying about how they all connect. After a few more movies, they backtracked in 2021 and announced that the films were all interconnected again… and then they released The Batman, a very successful standalone film, so they have no idea what they’re trying to do.
By this point, DC’s fans are polarized into warring tribes, who are trying to push the company into making decisions based on how a particular hashtag is trending on Twitter on any given day. And now the company’s been bought by Discovery Inc., and their terrible new CEO has ousted Hamada, and is reportedly looking for “a Kevin Feige type” to give the films “a coherent creative and brand strategy”, which is probably not going to work, because how many Kevin Feiges can there be in the world?
Amid this turmoil and uncertainty, it’s only fitting that this weekend they put out a new film that isn’t very good, but is doing very well at the box office, just to complicate things even more.
Black Adam is the story of a pleasingly bumpy ancient murder machine who is not called Black Adam. He’s the ancient hero of an imaginary country in the Middle East/North Africa region that’s being oppressed somehow by an international gang called Intergang (seriously). He’s released from his magical archaeological prison by a nice lady and her 13-year-old son, who encourages him to kill everyone in Intergang, which he basically does.
Then the dumbest possible collection of American superheroes arrives, to stop “Teth-Adam” from killing as many people as he can. They have some pointless superhero fights where lots of things get destroyed without injuring any of the main characters, and then that keeps happening for a really long time.
At some point, one of the guys that’s been hanging around on the sidelines turns out to be I think an ancient king and also possibly the head of Intergang, and there’s a standoff where he threatens to kill the kid unless they give him a magical crown that they’ve been carrying around, and then he dies and it looks like the movie’s over, but then it turns out that he’s not dead after all, he’s a fire demon and he’s even stronger and they have to kill him again! And it turns out that Teth-Adam is kind of friends with the superheroes, and maybe he could be a superhero too if he wanted, which he’s not sure if he does.
It is honestly not that easy to figure out what’s happening in Black Adam from one minute to the next, because they apparently decided that exposition is boring, so why not just skip it and have fights instead. Over the course of the film, there are several conflicting flashbacks about who Teth-Adam was and how he got his powers, with new origin stories rolling out periodically, just as you were starting to get used to the last one.
The really confusing plot element is Intergang. The movie provides no real explanation of who they are, how they work, where they’re based, who their leader is, what they’ve done to the country, why they have magical flying speedcycles, and many other questions along those lines. They’re kind of just an endless stream of murderable video game NPCs for Teth-Adam to amusingly throw off into the distance to their deaths.
I completely missed the revelation that the one guy was their leader, and I have no idea why he turned into a demon. I had to read the plot summary on Wikipedia afterwards, and I still don’t really understand it. But me understanding what was going on was apparently not something that the film cared about very much.
Teth-Adam has lightning powers and I think also fire powers, and he can fly and he’s invulnerable and he can slow time and basically everything. He has all the powers. He crashes through the wall every single time he enters a set, and he can char-broil someone whenever he wants to. If your fantasy life involves unstoppable killing machines wreaking havoc on randos, then you will like this film, and apparently many people do, because it made 67 million dollars this weekend, which is a lot.
The violence is definitely just on the cutting edge of PG-13; I read about a protracted negotiation with the MPA in which the producers cut exactly enough frames to avoid an R rating. That’s important, because they want to sell this character to kids; the film is coming out at just the right time to sell Halloween costumes, and there are multiple toy sets.
The way they get away with it is to not show any blood at all. The screen should be dripping with gore in this movie, and instead all you see is rubble and wreckage. Apparently it’s okay to show people burning, so they do that sometimes, and you see charred skeletons from time to time. That’s what they do in kids’ movies now.
To the extent that the movie works, it works because of Amon, the thirteen-year-old kid who bonds with Teth-Adam and runs around doing cute things. The three steps to making the audience like a character is for them to make a friend, make a joke and make a plot point happen, and Amon does all three in the same scene without breaking a sweat.
He’s a huge superhero comics fan, and his bedroom is covered in toys, posters and comics featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, who are apparently real in this universe but the merch is exactly the same. Early in the film, he drops his backpack and some actual 2016 Rebirth comics fall out. Everybody else in the film looks like they’re struggling under oppressive rule except for Amon, who can somehow afford an impressive display of imported American collectibles. This is obviously shameless pandering to the core comics-fan audience, and it works like a motherfucking charm. There’s a superhero fight that takes place in Amon’s bedroom where some of his action figures are imperilled, and it’s the one moment when I felt emotionally engaged with the film.
Amon has a skateboard, obviously, and he’s disrespectful to authority figures, and at one point, he ziplines out of danger by holding his skateboard above his head and using it to slide down a clothesline. I love him anyway.
The worst thing in the film is the Justice Society, who would have been the worst thing in any film they appeared in. They are plopped down in front of us with very little regard for whether we understand them or not, and the only way to approach them is to think of them as the Avengers but worse.
Hawkman is clearly Iron Man with no backstory or charm; he’s insanely rich somehow, and he lives in a huge mansion that’s also his secret underground base of operations. He drives the team around in a Quinjet, which gets no explanation because we’ve already seen one in The Avengers and we know what it’s supposed to be. He has a spiky relationship with everybody, and I don’t think he has a single good scene in the whole picture.
Doctor Fate is Doctor Strange, but older. That’s it, that’s the whole character. I’ve seen several sad internet articles (like this one, and that one) that try to explain how they’re totally different characters, because Doctor Fate has a helmet and Doctor Strange has a medallion. It doesn’t help that Doctor Fate literally does the “I’ve seen all the possible futures, and I’ve chosen the one where you don’t die” trick from Avengers: Infinity War, which is the only truly memorable thing that Doctor Strange has ever done.
And then there’s Cyclone and Atom-Smasher, two brand-new teenage superheroes who have never met Hawkman and Doctor Fate before, and suddenly they say c’mon, let’s go fight someone dangerous, and now they’re all on a Quinjet and they’re the Justice Society.
It’s an incredibly peculiar choice, and I can’t imagine what they were thinking. I get why they’d want to jump into the action by deploying an existing superhero team, even if it’s a team we’ve never seen before; the movie spends a lot of time on Black Adam’s origin, and we don’t need to delve into four other origin stories. But if they’re going to just show up and say “We’re the Justice Society”, then it would help if the characters had ever met before this very second. Hawkman and Doctor Fate don’t even seem that interested in the new team members; they just leave them behind on the Quinjet and get pissed when they try to do anything.
The Justice Society characters are condescending and entitled, which is the opposite of what we need. They show up and say “We’re here to negotiate your peaceful surrender,” and “We’re the Justice Society. We restore global peace. We use force if necessary,” and “Say Shazam, we all go home.” It’s wretched. Every time they open their mouths, something terrible happens.
So what I’m saying is that Black Adam is not a good movie. It’s an irritating movie. There’s a lot of fighting and destruction and running around in circles after the MacGuffin of the moment, but most of the characters are grumpy and stupid, and the plot doesn’t really make sense.
And then it goes and makes $67 million on opening weekend, because I guess people like Dwayne Johnson and movies with a lot of fighting in them. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critics’ score is 39%, but the audience score is 90%, so there’s a disconnect somewhere.
Although it’s hard to get an accurate read on the pulse of the people these days. I looked at the audience reviews on Google today, and 15 of the first 25 reviews all say “This movie does not suck! Probably one of the best fan fun movies I watched in a while. I give it an atom smashing 10/10” but under different user names, so I guess the troll bots enjoyed it, at least.
So I don’t know what’s going to happen to the DC movies, which seem like they’re still being pulled in complicated directions. The new DC Films folks say that they want to focus on core characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, but I don’t know which Batman they’re talking about. They want to make a new movie with Henry Cavill as Superman, which is fine with me because putting Henry Cavill in a Superman costume is an obvious social good, no matter how the movie turns out. But now I guess we have to live with Black Adam and the terrible Justice Society. Well, at least everybody’s making money; that’s the main thing.
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— Danny Horn