Saturday, October 22, 2022

Holding Out For A Hero

I'm not sure the higher ups at Warner Bros. know what they're doing when it comes to making the most of their DC properties but after seeing Black Adam, I believe that Dwayne Johnson is aware of the possibilities. The marketing for Black Adam caused me to crinkle my nose with its emphasis on pushing an antihero in a cinematic universe that was guilty of leaving its big name heroes languishing. When you have a universe of heroes but you've sidelined the greatest one of them all, the message it sends is that you're in the wrong business. To see Black Adam, though, is to feel more encouraged about the future course of the DCEU. Not ecstatic but encouraged. I wouldn't bank on anything until it actually comes to pass but this is the first time in the entire DCEU era that I felt, ok, things might actually pan out here.  

Even though this is an antihero story it ironically offers up more straight-up fun than we've seen from Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman in the DCEU era. Black Adam might be a dark dude and he may be tortured in his own way but this is not a dour film. It's comic book-y and action packed. It has to be said, though, that the first twenty minutes or so are pretty rough. There's some painfully clunky exposition to get through but once Black Adam himself arrives, things take off and the movie barrels along from that point on, even as it remains hampered by several flaws. 

The main everyday human characters of university professor Andrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), both caught up in the resistance fight against presence of the organized crime syndicate Intergang in their homeland of Kahndaq, are not terribly interesting but this is a problem rooted in the writing more than in the performances. A bigger issue is that Black Adam also lacks a compelling villain. Again, this is more of a screenplay problem with actor Marwan Kenzari simply not given much to do as Ishmael Gregor, a militant leader of Intergang who has his eyes on obtaining the Crown of Sabbac, a long buried, ancient item that can grant its wearer great power. Ishmael comes across as such a non-entity that it feels like he must be just a temporary placeholder until the movie's real villain arrives but, no, he's it. It does help that he turns into a demonic creature eventually, complete with horns and a flaming pentagram on his chest, but still, in the adversary department, Black Adam is lacking. 

Where the movie shines is in the enthusiasm that it shows for embracing the DC universe. The core of this movie is the JSA vs. Black Adam and on that count, it entertains. It isn't made clear what the Justice Society's origins are, how long they've been operating, what authority Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has over them, or what makes them different from the Justice League but Carter Hall, aka Hawkman (Aidis Hodge), has a cool plane that he flies everybody around in and that's kind of all I care about. Yes, this movie could have afforded to be a lot more generous in filling in the details of its characters but they're still fun to see in action. We get to (somewhat) know the JSA on the run as they race from one conflict to the next. 

Once Black Adam starts tearing shit up in Kahndaq, Carter calls in a hand-picked team of JSAers to handle it. He's got two young heroes - the size-changing Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and the wind controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) - and a long time veteran of the JSA, the mystical mage Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan). Between the four, there's nice variety of powers and that's an important consideration on a visual level when the majority of the movie is going to center on this team using their powers in one fight scene after another. I'm sure most people who aren't especially into superhero movies regard every one of them as nothing but people in colorful costumes unleashing their powers on each other but Black Adam actually is that. This is the cinematic equivalent of a kid playing with their action figures and just having a ball bashing them together. It's not deep, it's not complex, but (depending on how much of a nerd for these characters you are, I guess) it's a good time.

Even though we aren't given much info about the history of the JSA, just seeing them in action helps foster the impression of a broader DC universe that includes a more far reaching menagerie of heroes than we've seen up to now and not just Suicide Squad style cannon fodder, either. 

Hawkman and Dr. Fate are not throwaway characters, they have roots that go back to the Golden Age of comics. While this movie only scratches the surface with them, Hodge ably establishes himself as a credible Carter Hall and Brosnan is every bit as cool as Fate as anyone would have expected. There is an act of sacrifice that takes place involving Fate but given the character's supernatural bent, I don't think it precludes a return. Where and when these characters might actually show up again remains to be seen and with the way Warners/DC operates, you never know if they even have long terms plans for them but come what may it's a treat to see these guys in live action on the big screen for the first time. Hawkman swings a mean mace and Fate gets some flashy spells to cast. That checked off the basic boxes I needed checked off. 


For his part, Johnson doesn't do much in this movie other than prove to anyone who comes at him that they don't have a chance. He is rarely, if ever, on the ropes. Watching Black Adam spend this whole movie completely owning everyone it feels like Johnson's main interest in this part was that he just wanted to play a guy who could whip the ass of the whole DC universe. That literally is the be-all, end-all of his character. When they say that Black Adam changes the hierarchy of power in the DCEU, all it means is that The Rock will not lose to any chumps. If he's going to come in to the DC universe, he's going to dominate it. And to that I say, fair enough. Helping Black Adam humiliate his adversaries, director Jaume Collet-Serra teams with Johnson again after Jungle Cruise and he continues to be an adept visual stylist, staging Black Adam's action with flair. 

Black Adam has been hyped as a turning point for the DCEU but while Black Adam as a character is a force to be reckoned with, the real shift in power is behind the camera. Johnson has taken the lack of a driving force in the DCEU as an opportunity to grab the ball and run with it. Black Adam's much talked about mid-credits scene, bringing Henry Cavill's Superman back into the fold, reportedly only came about due Johnson insisting that it happen and it signals that he understands what the DCEU's been lacking. A DC universe that doesn't make Superman a priority is a DC universe that isn't living up to its potential and the fact that Johnson understands that and made the effort to fix it is promising. Black Adam may be an antihero but, in the end, Johnson's firm handle on what the DCEU could be if handled correctly might make The Rock the hero DC fans have been waiting for.  

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