Sham Shazam — Black Adam

I mentioned in the October edition of TFINYW that the latest DCEU film, Black Adam, looked from the trailer to be a ripoff of just about every superhero movie trope in existence. What I didn’t expect was that it would be so much more, in that it would also crib from non-comic properties in its endeavor to give Dwayne Johnson a caped starring vehicle. It’s about the best I can come up with to describe anything remotely close to creativity in this endlessly boring, aggressively mediocre franchise entry, where it feels like the production’s effort stopped the moment someone suggested a flick about The Rock punching people in a form-fitting onesie.

There isn’t a single original thought to be had in this film, but at least it lets you know that pretty early on, as narration concerning the history of the once great fictitious nation of Kahndaq quickly turns into an almost shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark in spots (with shades of Braveheart and The Matrix thrown in for good measure) before revealing itself as a spinoff of Shazam! without the fun or comedy. As we’re told about a tyrant king who made a crown with the power of evil gods, we get our last immediate quasi-parody, as Teth-Adam (Johnson), is shown as a slave digging for the ultra-rare mineral, eternium. Now, even though the character has been around in the comics since the 1940s — and thus eternium could technically predate others — for movie purposes, this is either a just barely legally distinct IP theft from Avatar or Black Panther. Take your pick. I go for the former, because it sounds just as stupid as unobtanium.

In the present day, Kahndaq, formerly known as “Insert Generic Arabic-Sounding Name Here,” is under the thumb of mercenaries from an organization called Intergang, and at this point, I’m all but checked out. I’m not the biggest comic book aficionado out there, and if these names are sacred to the fanbase, that’s perfectly fine. But for a casual viewer without a deep knowledge of the lore, these names are just dumb and uninspired. I mean, “Intergang?” Really? Your bad guys are literally soldiers of fortune from an “International Gang?” That’s the best you can come up with? Freaking BioSyn in Jurassic World Dominion is more subtle and creative. Hey producers, you know you’re allowed to come up with more interesting stuff in these movies, right? You’re not bound to the lamest ideas from decades ago.

Anyway, mercs run Kahndaq now, instituting roadblocks and checkpoints for… some reason, and an archaeologist named Adrianna (Sarah Shahi from Person of Interest) needs to be smuggled out by her colleagues. She wants to find this evil “Crown of Sabbac,” which was hidden 5,000 years ago, in order to prevent it from getting into Intergang’s hands. At a nearby cave, where the crown is literally just floating in the air between two statues in an open room (great hiding place, guys!), she is betrayed by her partner Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari, only slightly more convincing as a baddie than he was as live-action Jafar) and ambushed by Intergang. Quickly reciting some ancient text she can instantly read on the stone floor, she summons the long-slumbering Teth-Adam, who according to legend was a champion chosen by the Shazam wizards to protect Kahndaq.

It is at this point that most of the audience is roused from their 20-minute nap by one of the few good scenes in the movie, when Adam silently kills pretty much everyone who’s not a main character in ways that push right up to the edge of an R-rating. There’s even — gasp — blood! Comics be damned, if you want to unleash a superpowered, flying Dwayne Johnson to just blitz around and eviscerate fools for an hour and a half, I’m in. Sadly, after a quick romp, we have to get back to what DC and Warner Bros. somehow think is a story.

Adrianna, her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer, basically just here for cheap fat jokes), and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), are part of a resistance movement to liberate Kahndaq, and they ask Adam for help. Somehow able to speak perfect English with no accent (along with everyone else in this vaguely Middle Eastern country), Adam insists (for the first of at least 37,000 times) that he’s no hero, but is willing to help.

Now, let’s talk about Teth-Adam as a character. His backstory is the same tragic one we always get, about a dead family. This is meant to be a big twist in the story, that his son was the chosen hero (I’m guessing it was because of the oh so inspirational hand signal that looks like a mix of the Hunger Games three-finger salute, a Triforce symbol, and 1/4 of the YMCA), and gave up his powers and died to save him, but that was literally revealed in the trailer, so it’s not even a spoiler for me to say it now. He lived his life as a scrawny slave (with Johnson’s head CGI-ed onto a smaller actor’s body) digging for eternium, his son led an uprising, and then got killed, which incited a rage-fueled vengeance where Adam took out the old king and laid waste to much of Kahndaq before going dormant.

Now, while extremely derivative, this could have been compelling if we ever saw any of that rage in Johnson’s performance, but most of the backstory shots are from behind him to preserve the “surprise,” so we don’t get to experience that anguish in service of something the marketing team gave away. As such, we get nothing out of his past, and in the film’s present he’s almost entirely stoic and monotone, save for a few glib one-liners or Amon playing John Connor to his Terminator and trying to teach him action movie-style catchphrases (complete with a scene from a Clint Eastwood film that they recreate moments later, so there’s another stolen bit). Johnson shows absolutely no personality in this role. There have been literal rocks this year that have had more depth than The Rock’s character here (if you’ve seen Everything Everywhere All At Once you know what I’m talking about).

This is maddening, because Dwayne Johnson is a funny, charismatic actor. Yes, his physical prowess is front and center due to his career in wrestling, but he’s shown plenty of times that he can cut loose and have a good time. And as I’ve said before, the best DC movies are the ones where the sense of humor is at the forefront, leaning into the absurdity of these situations (outside of Batman, of course). It’s a big part of why Shazam! worked, and since this character is supposed to be one of the forebears of those powers (and was apparently originally intended to be in that previous film), the fact that Johnson’s not allowed to have any real fun with this material is the only real tragedy.

It also doesn’t help that his gritty characterization is in stark contrast to all the chintzy nonsense that surrounds him, and not in an ironic sense. This isn’t a case where everyone is goofy and part of the joke is that he’s the only one not in on it. No, this is a case where Teth-Adam is built up as this avenging angel of death, a force to be reckoned with, and everyone else is just a second-rate chump. To wit, Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller (how has no one killed this character yet), who dispatches the Justice Society (oh my god…) to rein him in. So it’s not the Justice League, but their red-headed stepchild? I mean, they’re not bad guys, so what, they’re some kind of… Homicide Squad? You roll your eyes, but I guarantee you that I put more thought into that joke than whoever came up with fucking Justice Society.

Anyway, they’re led by everyone’s favorite hero, Hawkman, played by Aldis Hodge. Yes, the legendary HAWKMAN, who has a plane that comes up out of the ground at his headquarters ( X-Men ripoff) and has a giant dick head that pops off the end! I’m so invested! There’s also a “new” Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who’s there to be a pale imitation of Deadpool and Ant-Man, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), who’s there to be a pale imitation of Storm (as well as create a will they/won’t they dynamic with Atom Smasher that exactly -487 people care about), and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), who’s there to be a pale imitation of Doctor Strange. And again, I don’t care if these characters were created before or after their Marvel counterparts. In movie form, they’ve come way too late to be seen as anything but the Wish.com versions of the heroes we might actually enjoy. With Dr. Fate it’s even more egregious, as he has this magic helmet that lets him astral project and see the future, so naturally it’s worn in every action scene so that the VFX team can CGI the entire character and give him a physique that Pierce Brosnan simply doesn’t have anymore, if he ever did.

Once they arrive at Kahndaq, they try to bring Adam down, but he can easily waste them with a thought, and the citizens don’t even want them around, as in the film’s other good idea, they point out that as a non-white country, the supers didn’t give two shits about them until their hero (“I told you I’m not a hero!”) showed up and decided to give Intergang what for, so why should they back them up now? It’s a salient point, and one worth exploring in a nuanced way to bring light to the moral shades of grey involved in these cataclysmic battles. But nah, we’ve got to get to all the CGI fights that destroy buildings, somehow harm no one important, and come jam-packed with more slow-mo shots than you can shake a Zack Snyder at. Seriously, every time Cyclone does anything, the shot always freezes on her mid-spin, like she’s supposed to have a name font zoom into the frame or something. By the time we’ve had our cliché second act setback, fake emotional moments with characters that are showing up in their first movie but pretending they have longstanding histories, and reveal of the ultimate villain with one of the most shameful CGI designs this side of, well, for the sake of Dwayne Johnson consistency, the Scorpion King, I am just so far beyond caring that I’m not even fazed by the people literally sleeping three seats down in my row.

This is just such an empty movie, and it’s sad because it honestly could have been something worth recommending. The idea of Black Adam as a sort of R-rated Shazam has legs, evidenced by the one scene where he’s actually able to lean into some ultraviolence. The ethical implications of all superheroes could be called into question, especially when any group using the word “Justice” in their name is somehow under the command of Amanda fucking Waller. Instead, the idea is brushed off quicker than it was in Batman v. Superman, which also blasphemously used it in its subtitle. This could have been good, but the filmmakers decided to take a wholly ill-advised step backwards to the DCEU stuff that most assuredly did not work several years ago, and even worse, they did so with a dull, rote, imitation of far better superhero films that anyone can watch at home without shelling out $20 a pop.

This is a rare opportunity for DC and WB, as Marvel is on a sustained downturn, with diminishing returns on MCU movies and the Disney+ shows building nothing but franchise fatigue. They have a shot to become the dominant comic book force, and this is the best they can offer? Sure it may have won its first two weeks at the box office, but that’s not saying much. If Multiverse of Madness, one of the worst MCU movies ever, can pull $230 million to start to your $80, you’re not exactly wowing people are you?

But sure, try another “Man in Black” joke. I’m sure it’ll land eventually.

Grade: C-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you done with superhero movies at this point? Did you misread the title and get super disappointed that I wasn’t talking about Blackadder? Let me know!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on November 5, 2022.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com