You’re better than this, Dwayne.
I want to begin by saying that I’ve always been a fan of Dwayne Johnson or, as I originally knew him, The Rock.
Johnson wasn’t the first wrestling star to make a mark outside the ring. Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant would like a word there, please. But he might have been the first of that line who, when he spoke into the microphone and delivered his schtick, prompted you to think:
This man is too good and too talented to have to work for Vince McMahon.
And so he was.
Mr. Rock-Johnson has since thrilled legions of fans worldwide with his exploits onscreen, proving himself to be a very serviceable actor. His commitment to hard work, generosity, and positive outlook on life has inspired millions. But perhaps the greatest aid to his success has been his unceasing work as his own PR team.
Do you need to know what The Rock had for lunch today, what he gave his mother for Christmas, or about the epoch-shattering script he’s reading that promises to change the power dynamic of the universe?
Probably not, but it’s all there if you want it.
All of it.
Sadly, this master of promotion may have backed himself into a corner with Black Adam, the latest misstep by the shambolic corpse that is the DC Universe of films.
The fictional seeds of this very real train wreck were sown thousands of years ago in the Middle Eastern Kingdom of Kandaq. Teth-Adam (Johnson), as he was then called, was a slave to a ruthless king. But because Adam was so pure of heart, the same Space Wizards that gave the mighty Shazam his powers (please refer to that film for details) granted Adam the same abilities.
Basically, he’s Superman with a less colorful suit and a smaller PR team.
And without compassion. Quickly deemed unworthy of his gifts, Adam is imprisoned for eternity under the sands of Kandaq, and as time unfolds, he is relegated to legend.
Fast forward to today, when the country is ruled by a cadre of mercenaries imaginatively called “Intergang.” They’re the generic villains you use when your film relies heavily on international sales in the very part of the world where your fictional country is said to exist.
Crimes against…what now?
Wisely, Black Adam tap-dances right past any hint of real-world geopolitics and into a bland, universal narrative about oppression. It involves a group of freedom fighters, led by Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), who do all they can to defy Intergang. But they stand no hope of long-term victory against their vastly superior foe.
Fortunately, because this is a superhero film, there is an Object of Great Power that could put victory in the hands of whoever possesses it. In the struggle to possess the OGP (a magical Crown, if you must know), Teth-Adam is released from confinement.
He proceeds to flamboyantly murder absolutely everyone in sight.
That is, except for Adrianna and her team. He knows they are not a threat because he somehow speaks and understands perfect English. It’s a contradiction that could be resolved with a couple of lines of dialog, yet Black Adam leaves you scratching your head over such trivialities when you should be paying attention to the plot.
But since this is the badly written origin story of a 5000-year-old guy in disco boots who can shoot lightning from his face, I guess I’ll allow it.
Let’s get back to that murder spree I mentioned.
It’s the kind of scene usually reserved for the story’s climax when the villain appears to have won, and the hero is on his knees, seemingly defeated. The music swells, the hero rises, and proceeds to fight back with all the vigor, wit, and compassion of someone who respects the sanctity of life.
There are, after all, kids watching.
For fuck’s sake, please think of this particular child…
Ah, but as Teth-Adam grimly states throughout this (probably barely) PG-13-rated film, he has never claimed to be a hero. This appalling incident continues for an uncomfortably long time and serves as our introduction to the character we are meant to eventually root for. It’s a bold move, and I’m not against it.
We are shown that the Space Wizards were right to imprison this man, and it gives his arc a beginning. But even as the other characters are revolted by Adam’s penchant for mass killing, the film itself can’t resist clowning around with it in the form of cutesy visual flourishes or by having the Rolling Stones rock out over the carnage.
It’s clumsy and off-putting.
So too, is the team sent in to stop it. With the reception to the Suicide Squad being slightly less tepid than that for the Justice League, a third group of people who perform the exact same function is introduced here.
The Justice Society, as they’re called, is led by the enigmatic Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan, bringing the same energy he does to questions about James Bond), who is completely different from Doctor Strange because one of them wears a helmet.
Second in command is Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), one of those cocky “guy with an armored wing-suit” characters.
Six of one, half dozen of the other.
Their bland personalities feel lifted from an episode of The Venture Brothers, and that’s not a compliment. Still none too happy with Adam’s violence, they seek to apprehend him and, later, to obtain the OGP (Crown) for… safekeeping…obviously.
And now we’ve circled back to the Colonialism narrative, which is all the rage in genre film these days.
It’s well and good if your movie has a valid relationship with the topic. But Black Adam isn’t a movie. It’s a marketing exercise that barks about the past despite its own status as a blatant act of economic expansionism. On the one hand, it wants to tell a story about the futility of greed – for money or blood – while unabashedly wallowing in and glorifying the same.
It’s a tightrope act that Francis Ford Coppola could walk, not so the director of Disney’s Jungle Cruise. Black Adam also seems to want credit for setting and casting the film appropriate to the Middle East, but without having anything more meaningful to say about it. And while on that front, there is a lot of overt posturing about Imperialism, it doesn’t go beyond a few instances of inelegant monologuing.
Whatever agency this film thinks it has reads more like opportunism than activism, which is somehow ironic when the subject is global domination. Black Adam tries to make serious points without committing to them. It crams in songs from nearly every decade of the Cold War, casting as wide a demographic net as possible.
I’m surprised our heroes didn’t pause halfway through to drive Tesla sedans in promotional livery to McDonald’s for Bitcoin-themed Happy Meals served by a barely disguised Lady Gaga.
Don’t be drag, just be a queen.
They even lifted the killer/brat dynamic from Terminator 2 down to the unamusing process of a child teaching an impassive killing machine to deliver murder-based catchphrases.
This was meant to be Adam’s and The Rock’s Man of Steel. The soundtrack even borrows themes from the Hans Zimmer and John Williams iterations of Superman’s theme. But Man of Steel, despite its flaws, was at least a decent movie that did an adequate job of laying out and exploring its themes.
Black Adam is just a loud, joyless spectacle that is unjustifiably convinced of its greatness. It earns nothing, offers just as much, and leaves you with even less. It is an unmitigated disaster that is unquestionably the final nail in the coffin of Zack Snyder’s version of the DC Universe.
Lost in all this is a measure of vindication for Quentin Tarantino’s recent assertion that the characters, rather than the actors, are the stars of superhero franchises. Johnson forgot this and in making it all about himself may have killed not just his own project but an entire existing universe of characters.
Only James Gunn and his team know for sure what comes next. But the one thing we can already thank him for is that, mercifully, it will not be any version of this.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."