Final Score: (C-)
If I had a nickel for every time a studio released a film starring a villain dressed in black who famously opposes a hero dressed in red, evolved into an anti-hero because of their popularity and got a film in October that had poor critical reception but positive audience reception, I would have two nickels. It’s not a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice, right?
The two movies in question are 2018’s Venom, and the subject of the review, Black Adam. The superficial similarities surrounding the films are funny to me, even if neither the characters or the films are anything alike. For one thing, Venom was a good movie.
Black Adam stars Dwayne Johnson as the titular character. Five thousand years ago, he was given the power of the gods to help overthrow an evil tyrant and stop him from using the Crown of Sabbac, a magic crown carved from eternium that gives its user supernatural power. Black Adam and the evil king battled, but both the crown and Black Adam himself disappeared in the battle. Now reawakened in modern day Kahndaq, he is tasked with liberating the country from military occupation by terrorists looking for the Crown of Sabbac. But as Black Adam starts taking back his home country, the Justice Society steps in to stop him from killing any innocent people.
The conflict between Black Adam and the Justice Society is one of the best aspects of the movie. Black Adam is killing the bad guys, but has the support of the Kahndaq citizens behind him. These same citizens criticize the Justice Society for not having done anything before, and probably not even being aware this was happening. Black Adam is hurting people, but he’s the only one who’s actually bothering to do anything. The Kahndaq citizens are assuming that the Justice Society is just going to get rid of Black Adam, then leave. They don’t trust these outsider heroes, and why would they? Their first impression of Justice Society trainee Adam Smasher is him accidentally breaking a building, with the other three members getting into a destructive fight with Black Adam.
The problem with this conflict is that not enough is really done with it. The conflict can’t escalate or introduce a lot of new ideas because the Justice Society isn’t powerful enough to actually stop Black Adam. So we get a lot of moments where team leader Hawkman and Black Adam get into an argument that goes something like: “Hey stop killing people.” “Fuck you.”
There’s also the problem that the conflict doesn’t get enough time to breathe. Nothing in this movie gets enough time to breathe. Not even Black Adam gets a satisfying arc because the movie is nearly over when the arc gets interesting. But the villain of the movie gets the worst of it. I didn’t even realize who the main villain was supposed to be at first. I thought he was just the right hand man for somebody bigger, namely a military commander of some sort. We never really see the effect the occupation is having on Kahndaq life beyond a single military checkpoint and futuristic bikes. It also doesn’t seem like the military has much of a goal beyond finding the Crown of Sabbac, which could easily be accomplished without taking over the entire country.
The Justice Society takes up nearly half the movie, with Adam Smasher and Cyclone being the worst offenders. These two are pointless additions that only serve to add comic relief and extra muscle in a movie that stars Dwayne Johnson. Hawkman is alright, but he mainly seems to be here to argue with Black Adam. He feels more necessary than Adam Smasher and Cyclone, but still could have been dropped. Pierce Brosnin’s Doctor Fate is a welcome addition, though his magic is much too similar to Marvel’s Doctor Strange. It lacks the unique Egyptian flair that his powers typically have in the comics. Still, Brosnin is one of the best parts of this movie.
The acting across the board for Black Adam is solid. Everybody is giving it their all, with Johnson and Brosnin deserving special mention. Johnson perfectly captures the intense fury and stoicism of Black Adam, with Brosnin making Doctor Fate feel genuinely world weary and wise. The direction of this movie is also strong. Zach Snyder’s influence can be felt everywhere in this movie. From the many slow motion shots, the framing of the heroes as untouchable gods, and especially the scenes in Ancient Kahndaq. Those remind me a lot of 300, Snyder’s Spartan war epic. Black Adam has solid action, though it’s nothing spectacular. Superhero films have had bigger and better action scenes before, but the action beats are far from the worst in the genre.
I brought up Venom at the start of this review, comparing the film to Black Adam as one that did badly with critics, but well with audiences. On Rotten Tomatoes, Venom currently sits at 30% for critics and 80% for audiences. Meanwhile, Black Adam sits at 40% for critics and 90% for audiences. Venom was a gigantic success, earning over 850 million dollars at the box office and receiving a sequel in 2021. It’s unclear right now if Black Adam will earn the same sort of runaway success that Venom did, but I believe that one of the reasons Venom did so well was that it wasn’t tied to anything.
No matter what you think of Venom, it was a simple superhero movie with a simple premise and conflict. There is a villian doing villian things, so let’s go beat the shit out of him. Black Adam is the polar opposite, packing itself with characters, lore and extraneous details to the point of bursting. Venom injected strong aesthetics into a simple story and made it really work. Black Adam does not work. Its cool ideas, interesting social commentary and good acting are drowned out by its extraneous characters, a poor script, and utter failure of a villain.
Will Golec is a Freshman Writing for Film, TV and Emerging Media major who has made it their life goal to watch every Dwayne Johnson movie in theaters. They can be reached at [email protected].