Black Adam: Both Character and Film Are Morally Compromised

Photo by: Charlie Martin

Rating: 2.5/5

*Spoiler warning: major spoilers for Black Adam

Black Adam is a movie that wants you to think it’s doing something new with its morally grey protagonist, but it ends up doing the same thing that every superhero movie has done since Iron Man

Black Adam follows Teth-Adam (Dwyane Johnson), a mortal-turned-superhero who has just been released from a 5000-year imprisonment. As he familiarises himself with the modern-day Kahndaq, his home nation in the story, he is confronted by British invaders and the Justice Society. 

Teth-Adam plays two roles in the film simultaneously. He is both a violent amoral demi-god who refuses to play by the Justice Society’s rules, as well as a fish out of water who acts as a surrogate father figure to Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), a child and one of the resistance fighters in Kahndaq. This is not a totally new combination; the 1999 film The Iron Giant did something very similar. 

But where the Giant did not remember his past as a killing machine, Teth-Adam does; this is where the movie struggles. At times Teth-Adam is a goofy character, practising his sarcasm and how to deliver his catchphrases to bad guys. At other times, he is a ruthless killing machine who electrocutes an entire platoon in an instant. 

He bounces back and forth between these roles throughout the movie, rather than having the former be his progression from the latter, and it can be hard to tell who exactly Teth-Adam is.

Similarly, the plot is unfocused as well. At first Teth-Adam is a violent liberator for Kahndaq, opposing the Justice Society, who think his methods are immoral but do nothing to help the people of Kahndaq. But then he must join forces with the Society to defeat the invaders (known as Intergang) because they have an artifact that will let them take over the world. 

They dropped their interesting, morally-complex conflict for a Saturday morning cartoon plot, and it was a massive letdown. It’s hard not to feel like the movie is burdened by Hollywood’s continued collaboration with the Department Of Defense, otherwise referred to as the military-entertainment complex

The location of the country of Kahndaq is never specified in the film—in the comics it’s located in North Africa—but it seems to be a developing nation. In the modern day, it is oppressed by Intergang, represented predominantly by British soldiers, who use military weaponry and tactics but are explicitly not military. While the movie does treat them as an evil force, ultimately their leader is a Kahndaqi man, Ishmael (Marwan Kenzari), who wants to avenge his ancestor who Teth-Adam overthrew in the past. 

The movie cannot let these invaders be interpreted as a first-world country invading a third-world one for its resources, as that would reflect poorly on the real-world actions of the United States’ military. So the movie shifts the conflict away from Teth-Adam’s tensions with the Justice Society and towards Ishmael, who is the one person they have to defeat to undo all of the oppression in Kahndaq.

Speaking of the Justice Society, there are only four of them—any group of people that can all fit in one car really isn’t big enough to be a “society”—and only two of them actually do anything. You could remove Cyclone and Atom Smasher and their awkward teenage flirting scenes and nothing of note would change. Additionally, Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) works as a foil to Teth-Adam, but that’s all he does; he only exists to say “killing is wrong” and insist that Teth-Adam is a bad guy.

The one interesting member of the Justice Society was Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). He was far less one-note than Hawkman, often striking a balance between Hawkman’s moral code and Teth-Adam’s need for direct action. He had chemistry with everyone he interacted with and as a mystical character he often added unique action to the fight scenes.

The fight scenes are by far the highlight of the movie, and are generally well done. From Teth-Adam dispatching a horde of Intergang soldiers in an instant to his brutal beatdown of Sabbac, Black Adam makes its superhumans feel larger-than-life in combat, and are frequent enough to distract from the muddled politics of the rest of the movie. 

Ultimately, whether or not you will enjoy Black Adam comes down to how much of the story you are invested in. If you just want to see The Rock as a lightning-zapping, baddie-killing superhuman, you’ll probably like it. If you pay attention to the bits where people aren’t dying, though, you’ll start to notice the inconsistent characters, half-assed approach to real-world issues and unstable narrative. I personally fall into the latter category.

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