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Moving Pictures: ‘Black Adam’ and the Hierarchy of Mediocrity

What makes a superhero movie a “good” movie? Is being enjoyable simply good enough?

By Entertainment, Featured 120

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in “Black Adam” (2022). Image from IMDB.

I was so unengaged by the first 90 minutes of “Black Adam” that to keep myself awake, I started drafting my review. That is always a sign I’m having a bad or, worse, a boring time when watching a film

Here was my first option:

The Rock over the years has gained a reputation as the guy you call to rejuvenate your franchise. He replaced Brendan Fraser in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” usurped Vin Diesel in “The Fast and The Furious” franchise, and supplanted Channing Tatum in the G.I. Joe movies. In all three instances, the Rock led the sequels to bigger box office openings, bigger explosions, and bigger biceps. But are any of those franchises better off because the Rock joined? It’s hard to say. We’d have to conduct an experiment. We would need to find a flailing franchise, unable to find its footing, struggling with its stars, and rudderless in its future direction. Luckily for us, the DC cinematic universe has had its fair share of recent troubles, including one actor running a cult, an armada of Twitter bots, and flagrant racism from one of its major producers. The DC Universe’s newest entry, “Black Adam” is the perfect opportunity to put the Rock to the test as its titular character.

Here was the second:

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have heard that the hierarchy of power in the DC universe is about to change. You must have seen the headlines, the Instagram posts, the tweets. And if you did not, you must have heard the whisperings in the air, the bellowing from the mountaintop. You must have been preparing, as I have, by rearranging your graphs and  organizing your bomb shelter in preparation for this momentous, historic shift. Because whether we like it or not, with the DC Universe’s newest entry, “Black Adam,” the hierarchy of power in the DC universe is about to change. But will it change for the better?

And here was my third:

What is the point of reviewing the superhero movie anymore? You know exactly what you’re going to get. Most of the time, you could play a game of bingo on what’s going to be in my review. There will be a comment on the staleness of the formula. Something about the ineptitude of the film’s comedy and its disrespect to the source material. If we’re lucky, maybe there’ll be a recognition of the few bold choices the filmmakers made, probably inflections on tropes of the genre or technically competent aspects of the film’s visuals. What’s the point? The movies, and my reviews, are all the same. I try to review these movies not based on what I want them to be but on what they aspire to. But when so many superhero movies aspire to mediocrity, how can I possibly criticize them for reaching their lofty goal? What’s left to say? You already know what you’re going to get. And you’re going to get exactly what you expect with the DC Universe’s newest entry, “Black Adam.”

Those were the three I had locked and loaded.

And then something changed.

I started to enjoy myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to go to bat for “Black Adam.” I will not say this was a good movie. I am already an “Avatar” Apologist — I won’t add “Black Adam” Apologist to my list of sins.

But I have to admit, that despite my boredom and disdain for the film’s first 90 minutes, I ended up having a good time. And therein lies probably the most complicated thing about “Black Adam.” It was stale enough in its first 90 minutes for me to fully draft three different introductions in my head. But in its last 30 minutes, it managed to find some juice and enough fun for me to forget those paragraphs. In its third act, I got lost in the sepia-tinged land of Kahndaq, in the bizarre Kubrick-esque stare of Black Adam zooming through the sky, and in its paltry attempts at crafting a superhero team.

Again, and I can’t state this enough, “Black Adam” is not a good movie. In case you doubt that for some reason , here are a couple reasons why.

The film’s dialogue is some of the clunkiest we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie. Every line is guided towards giving the Rock something clever to say, regardless of whether it connects to the conversation. It’s all about setting up the Rock for badass one-liners, without adhering to any conversational conventions.

On that same note, many of the film’s action scenes are designed to facilitate this image of badassery. But most of them do not feel earned. Watching Black Adam tear through a squadron of soldiers armed with their pesky little rifles is not exciting. But based on how many times we watch that happen, the film seems to think it is. Slow motion alone is not enough to make a fight cool. We have to have some grounding in the characters and their setting. But instead, we’re zooming from bit to bit and meant to marvel at the callousness at which Black Adam disintegrates his foes. Most of the film’s action scenes seem designed for the film to be spliced into different Youtube clips, with names like “Best Black Adam Scenes (5/7)” or “EPIC! Black Adam wrecks soldiers.”

None of this is made much better by Black Adam’s heroic counterparts, the Justice Society. It’s a good enough reason to get Pierce Brosnan in the movie, possibly the only person in the film who tries to act. But outside of him, the heroes are relatively thin and either frustratingly simplified from their comic book origins or poor facsimiles of characters already in the MCU. We’ve already got one out-of-place, stumbling man-of-the-people who can grow to the size of a building. I’m looking at you, Atom Smasher.

To top it all off, the film is by and large pretty ugly. Much of the film’s CGI looks like it came from the early 2010s. You could put stills from “Clash of the Titans” (2010) beside “Black Adam” and not be able to tell the difference. Or better still, you could put clips of the original “Clash of the Titans” from 1981 beside “Black Adam” and wish that Ray Harryhausen would come back with his puppets to save us from this CGI drudgery.

Again, I enjoyed the last 30 minutes. Why? Maybe because the film gives up on trying to make the Rock look cool. When the plot shifts away from being a Dwayne Johnson vanity project, it’s much more endearing. To say the ending sticks its landing implies the film ever took flight in the first place. At the very least, it isn’t aflame on the runway. There are some surprising twists late in the movie when it’s not beholden to its executive producer’s demands. Granted, these are still twists within the superhero convention so nothing is going to leave you reeling. In fact, it could be that those twists are only rewarding because of how utterly empty the first 90 minutes of this movie are.

It could be that the movie’s limbo bar racing to the bottom for its first two acts makes the slightest lift seem stupendous. Maybe the final third simply understands that all these movies need is to be loud enough to distract us from our everyday woes, something not achievable when we’re so keenly aware that we’re watching the Rock preen and pose for the camera. It could be that the film’s vague gestures to a criticism of neocolonialism make it slightly more cerebral than most of the American propaganda that makes it into other superhero films. Or maybe “Black Adam” only kind of works because of its relative position compared to the franchise-building schlock of Phase 4 of the MCU or Sony’s torturous attempt with “Morbius.”

I can’t quite put my finger on what makes “Black Adam” not wholly terrible. But if you go in with zero expectations, perhaps you could find yourself having a not-awful time. And in this day and age, that’s a lot to promise. All I can say for certain is that next time I do a review of a superhero movie, I’m sending out bingo cards with them too.

Myle Yan Tay (MFAW 2023) cares a lot about movies and comic books. One day, maybe they will care about him. Find more of his writing at www.myleyantay.com.

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