Black Adam is not your usual superhero fare

Nov. 16, 2022, 5:30 p.m.

Though I’ve watched my share of Marvel and DC movies, I would not consider myself a superfan. I enjoy them in the moment but rarely look back and say, “wow, now there’s a movie!” There are two exceptions, however: Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) and now “Black Adam.”

With Nolan’s film, the story of a vigilante dressed as a bat taking on organized crime — and a cast of costumed supervillains — had a cathartic effect for those who saw parallels in the quagmire of the Great Recession. Did we not, after all, have our own cast of villains who brought on and profited from the ’08 recession? Flash forward to fourteen years later when another recession is rearing its ugly head, and it’s time for another dark hero.

But Black Adam (real name Teth-Adam) isn’t a hero. He tells you that in the movie, several times. But we want him to be one. Not only because he’s the titular character, but also because it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the ultimate good guy. The movie’s producers wouldn’t have made Johnson a bad guy … would they?

In case you haven’t watched the movie, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that Teth-Adam is a complex character with simple motivations — or a simple character with complex motivations. I haven’t decided yet.

Black Adam was everything one expects from a superhero film. And according to the box office numbers ($326 million worldwide since its opening), viewers tend to agree. The action was well-scripted, the dialogue was believable and the movie’s premise was sound. Although the initial setup ran longer than it should have, once Teth-Adam made his appearance, viewers could sense that this movie would be special.

So many elements exceed the superhero movie standard. “Black Adam’s” theme song is catchy and memorable; it is as good, if not better than, the one scored for “The Dark Knight.” The special effects are top-notch with no corners cut; here’s a non-CGI character who looks like he can punch a hole in the wall, even without superpowers. Black Adam’s costume is one of the better superhero outfits. The fight scenes were believable, and the belligerents’ powers were balanced enough not to render any fight one-sided.

The story — and I hesitate to spoil too much, because you should see the movie — is not about a typical superhero who wants to save us. Born in the fictional Kahndaq some 5000 years ago, Teth-Adam was a slave to an evil king. Rising up and fighting his people’s oppressor, Teth-Adam was imbued with superpowers by wizards. After the king’s defeat, Teth-Adam disappears, only to be awakened millenia in the future to a new reality where his people are downtrodden by a new overlord, the Intergang Corporation, who mines a rare mineral, Eternium. Before you roll your eyes at the name, remember that the rare mineral in “Avatar” was “unobtanium.”

But Teth-Adam isn’t interested in fighting this new oppressor. He’s not looking to free his people or be their hero. At the outset of the movie, he’s simply reacting to the actions of others. He fights because he’s attacked.

Unlike other DC or Marvel superheroes, our titular character holds nothing back. A rocket sent his way is returned to sender, and we see heads explode. Gun-fire is reciprocated with electrocution, and tank projectiles with shockwaves from the clap of his hands. While non-human baddies (of alien and human ilk) often meet their ends in such movies, human bad guys are rarely dispatched so ruthlessly. Even the Dark Knight hung his victims by the toes instead of letting them plunge to their deaths.

I would not have been surprised by all this killing if anyone else had played the character. Watching Dwayne Johnson kill humans on screen is like watching Santa assault his elves with a giant candy cane. It’s just a shock.

I can see Christian Bale being a dark and brooding people’s champion who wants to mete out justice by pummeling the bad guys into submission. By virtue of his good-guy personality, Johnson seemed an odd choice for Black Adam at the outset of the movie. How many people does he have to kill on-screen before I decide he’s the bad guy? Where is the fine line between anti-hero and villain? Precisely because this was Dwayne Johnson, we trust that there is more than meets the eye, and an opportunity for redemption will present itself.

Although I loved the movie, I still have some gripes with it. Either my ears have lost their capacity for loud sounds because I haven’t been to a theater in a while, or the movie was extraordinarily (and unnecessarily) loud. It seemed like the explosions and screams were a couple of decibels higher than was reasonable. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good sound system, but for an IMAX theater, the equalization was too emphasized on the midrange of the spectrum, seemingly to compensate for the overbearingness of the score.

Second, I thought the fast cuts, gratuitous slow-mos and constant music distracted from the content of the film. While Black Adam was not (thankfully) directed by Michael Bay, the movie certainly had the feel of a Michael Bay creation. The editing often left me wondering what had happened; one action scene jumped into another with no time for the audience to pause and consider.

While movies include music to help viewers better understand the gravity of certain scenes, the producers of Black Adam seem to believe its audience can’t do without it for even an instant. It was like too much sugar, and a constant flow of it.

While this movie has all the visual elements of a good action flick — superheroes, an anti-hero, the undead, magic, technology and a satisfying “boss fight” — what differentiates this movie from similar ones is that it questions our definition of what a hero is and what justice means.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

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