People who know me know that I am a massive fan of the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game released by TSR in the mid-80s. One of the interesting things about it is how it handles experience points, which the game calls Karma. This is what’s used to improve powers and evolve characters. Karma is gained by performing heroic actions and lost by performing un-heroic actions. If a hero kills someone, regardless of context or circumstance, they lose all their Karma and have to restart from zero, hindering the character’s ability to grow. The message is clear: heroes don’t kill, and those that do pay a tremendously heavy price.
I thought of this quite a bit while watching Black Adam, the latest entry in the DC Universe and its latest attempt to contemplate that nature of an antihero in a dramatic sense. Whereas films like The Suicide Squad had a team of antiheroes framed in a more comedic lens, Black Adam attempts to more seriously dissect the concept through its main character. The results are decidedly mixed but ultimately enjoyable.
Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) was given godlike powers 5,000 years ago by the same wizards that gave Shazam his powers, meant to defend the nation of Khandaq. However, he was later entombed by those wizards for misusing his gifts. In the present day, he is accidentally released by Adrianna (Sarah Sahai), an archeologist and Khandaqi resistance fighter searching for a legendary artifact of great power. When Adam begins to cause chaos and destruction, the Justice Society is called to reign him in.
There isn’t a tremendous amount of plot in Black Adam. The main narrative takes place over what appears to be a couple of days at most and almost never leaves Khandaq. Most of the film is taken up by fights between Adam and the Justice Society; mostly physical confrontations but also ones of a purely intellectual or moral variety. The latter are honestly handled fairly well, and it’s clear that the script is trying to engage in some serious and even mature discussions on the nature of heroism. However, they form the minority of conflicts here, and that’s where we have one our first issues of imbalance.
The physical battles here are remarkably inconsistent in quality. Sometimes the editing is so choppy that it’s impossible to tell what’s happening. Other times, there seems to be some confusion as to space or choreography. Often, long portions of fight scenes are slowed down to a crawl, although to his credit, director Jaume Collet-Serra uses this extremely well. And given Adam’s powers of super-speed, it makes perfect sense. We’re not quite at Quicksilver in the X-Men films level, but Collet-Serra is definitely doing his best.
The fight scenes also have a tonal imbalance that ends up bleeding into the film itself. The film is surprisingly dark and violent for a PG-13 film, and there was apparently a fight between the filmmakers and the MPAA to even get down to that rating in the first place. To be clear, Adam kills people; in fact, the first thing he does after being released is electrify someone into a skeleton. There’s an attempt to add some comedy to the mix to lighten things up, but it often feels forced or out of place. It’s clear that the filmmakers weren’t trying to make a completely dark and brooding piece, but they also weren’t trying to go full absurdity like the Deadpool films. They never quite get the equation just right, especially in the first half of the film, but things seem to settle into something resembling harmony as the film races toward the climax.
A lot of this stems from the script, which aims to explore how Adam exists in the gray space between hero and villain, often contrasted with the more black-and-white hero binary espoused by the Justice Society. While it’s a noble effort, it sometimes falls short mainly because beyond Adam himself, nearly every other character is underdeveloped in some way. In classic DCEU fashion, it introduces a ton of new characters all at once and gives most of them only a couple traits to riff off of to make a personality. The Justice Society itself is introduced in a compressed bit of intensely clunky exposition, and we don’t get much more history or depth than that.
That makes the performances of the cast all the more impressive. Despite the thin material they’re given to work with, nearly everyone gives a dedicated if not stellar performance. The members of the Justice Society especially all come off as appealing characters in different ways. Aldis Hodge as Hawkman is the unflinching, Lawful Good-at-all-costs crusader, while Pierce Brosnan’s Dr. Fate is more pragmatic, even laidback in his approach to heroics. Brosnan himself gives a no-frills but highly appealing performance here, possibly the best in the supporting cast. Quintessa Swindell’s Cyclone is a genius outcast of quiet power, while Noah Centineo’s Atom Smasher is a himbo metahuman wise-cracker. I found myself constantly wishing they’d had their own origin film, because as a team, they do good work despite the script’s shortcomings.
But the focus of the film, is of course, our title character. Dwayne Johnson has been angling to play Black Adam for over a decade at this point, and it’s clear that he believes in the character. This role is far from the typical charismatic rogues he usually plays, and it can initially be off-putting to see him as someone so stoic and unemotional (aside from rage and anger, which Adam is intimately familiar with). However, part of Adam’s journey is re-learning emotion and humanity, and Johnson is good at getting this subtle evolution across. While I’ve been ragging on the script thus far, I will give it credit for not giving Adam a last-minute, 180-degree shift in his personality toward the climax, giving him room for more growth and development in the future.
That part is especially important, because Black Adam is an insanely powerful character from a superhero standpoint. He’s essentially a god. Whereas a newbie hero like Atom Smasher has the potential to develop and refine his powers, Adam’s only real place of improvement is internal. Going back to the Marvel RPG, as a character, Adam’s powers are all basically maxed out. He doesn’t need experience points to improve them. One of the things that the script does best is leave Adam with more room to evolve after the film is done, and given Johnson’s clear devotion to the character, it leaves the audience excited for more.
Another thing the script did right is placing the action in a politically complicated setting like the foreign-occupied Khandaq. This also allows Sarah Shahi to shine in her role as Adrianna. While she hopes for peaceful solutions, she also doesn’t outright condemn Adam’s brutal treatment of the occupied forces. She also gets in the Justice Society’s face about their equally disrespectful and imperialistic approach to “helping” Khandaq when they cause as much destruction as Adam himself. DC comic fans will likely know where this character may be headed in the future, but in the present she’s fierce just as she is. I did find myself, however, lamenting that her character’s primary focus often seemed to be her son Amon, played by Bodhi Sabongui. It’s not so much from a narrative perspective as it is from the fact that even by the standards of child actors, Sabongui gives a flat and even irritating performance, and I eventually dreaded seeing him on screen.
One other positive aspect I have to give the film credit for is that it’s visually appealing in a very dynamic way. Where something like Wonder Woman dazzled us with color and light, this film puts the heroes on a more neutral canvas and draws our attention by how Adam and the Justice Society stand out. Massive props have to go to Dr. Fate’s hypnotic magical effects, the shining metal of Hawkman’s armor, and especially to how Cyclone’s powers are depicted with such grace, vibrancy, and skill. In most regards, the CGI is beyond reproach aside from some moments in the finale. (The ultimate villain of the piece looks…rough.) And not for nothing, but the men in this film are all pretty damn fine, from Johnson’s and Hodge’s superpowered physiques to Brosnan’s debonair appearance to Centineo’s bulking bro.
Black Adam is not a perfect film, but it really wants to be. It has a lot of great ideas hidden under a pretty standard and shallow narrative that occasionally peek out during the quiet parts between the fight scenes. Its saved primarily by an enjoyable cast, a distinct visual style, and especially by the desire of the cast and crew to make something different and something that will push the DCEU forward in new directions. It might not win any Karma for what it does, but it’s certainly interesting to watch it try.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
P. S. Make sure you stay for what’s possibly the most satisfying mid-credits sequence of any DCEU movie, period.