The early years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — particularly during the first two phases — were a conflict between two very different types of studio executives.
On one side was Kevin Feige, who quickly established himself as the face of the MCU. Here was a man who personally went to speak at fan conventions and press junkets. He made savvy and ambitious decisions with regards to the business side and the creative side. And even as he did all this, he was most assuredly smart enough to know that if this huge MCU experiment fell flat on its face, Feige would take the fall as the scapegoat for anything that went wrong. Indeed, Feige did eventually prove himself humble enough to publicly accept fault for grievous mistakes and thoughtful enough to detail means of addressing them.
On the other side was Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel chairman who was CEO of the entire company until relatively recently. Here we have a billionaire whose every decision was either predicated on A) what would make the most money, and/or B) what would be the biggest insult to his competition (most especially 20th Century Fox). Here we have a man so reclusive that precious few pictures of him are known to exist and barely anyone outside the most dedicated comic book historians have heard of him. A man so far out of touch with the moviegoing public that he thinks cis-hetero white men are the only profitable demographic. He’s not interested in praise for Marvel’s successes, he’ll do anything to avoid liability for Marvel’s failures, and he sure as hell isn’t interested in rubbing shoulders with the fans. In fact, he doesn’t care about much of anything so long as he can be left to his lunch meetings and enjoying his billions.
For over a decade now, we’ve been asking the question of why the MCU still reigns supreme while its many aspiring imitators have fallen short. I’d argue that the main difference is that when Feige went to his new bosses at Disney and complained that Perlmutter was causing undue interference, the Disney C-suite said “Fuck you, Perlmutter,” took all the filmmaking decisions out of his hands, and gave everything to Feige.
No other studio in Hollywood would ever have made that same choice. Because in the highest echelons of Hollywood corporate executives, there are lot more Perlmutters than there are Feiges. No other megafranchise has succeeded like the MCU has because no potential competitor has demonstrated an ounce of the accountability, audience insight, or consistent leadership we’ve seen from Marvel and Disney.
The most obvious example is the DC Cinematic Universe. This whole thing was doomed to fall apart the minute the WB C-suite bet their entire damned studio on the notion that a grimdark Frank Miller-esque take on Batman and Superman — directed by the guy who gave us cinematic adaptations of “300” and “Watchmen” — would be the multibillion-dollar hit to rival the MCU. Oh, and the whole thing was overseen by producers Walter Hamada and Geoff Johns, who apparently made such an abusive clusterfuck behind the scenes that Justice League was allegedly going off the rails even before Zack Snyder had to bow out unexpectedly.
Then AT&T bought out WB under the delusion that they could somehow build an empire to rival Comcast. By the time that failed, the conglomerate had taken on so much debt that no other company would dare to buy it. Thus WB was unloaded onto Discovery with the task of somehow trimming the deficit and lowering the market value until someone was willing to buy it. Thus Batgirl got trashed, Walter Hamada got canned along with so many other execs, Dan Lin turned down a job as DC Films’ answer to Kevin Feige, and so on and so forth.
At every level, in every conceivable way, the execs at WBD have repeatedly shown so many catastrophic leadership breakdowns that they are no longer capable of running a functional studio, never mind a viable megafranchise. There’s no conceivable way anyone could maintain the MCU’s level of coordination and continuity over 14 years and counting when nobody knows who will be running the company in another month, never mind ten years from now. Regardless of who drops in to cameo from any of the previous Snyder-era films, none of it matters because nobody even knows who’s supposed to be in charge anymore, what’s supposedly going on, or how any of that might change by this time next quarter.
(Side note: The fans deserve no small measure of blame for this. When so much of the fandom is toxic and running rampant with contradictory and often impossible requests, it’s tough to fault the filmmakers and executives for being uncertain as to what the fans really want. The most recent entries of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” have proven this well.)
So here we are with Black Adam, a film that’s been in development since Dwayne Johnson was first approached to play the character all the way back in goddamn 2006. It goes without saying that Johnson isn’t the actor he was fifteen years ago, superhero cinema isn’t what it was a decade ago, and WBD isn’t what it was even a month ago. When a film has been in development for such a long and turbulent period, there’s definitely a question as to whether it can keep up with the times. For that matter, there’s a question as to whether the film should’ve been completed in the first place.
But the film was already well into production when the ongoing WBD clusterfuck got underway. Moreover, the C-suite couldn’t burn Black Adam without pissing off Dwayne Johnson, who is not only one of the few remaining Movie Stars in the industry but also an exec producer with a financial stake in the movie through his Seven Bucks shingle. So what did we eventually end up with?
We open 5,000 years ago in the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq. An evil tyrant has enslaved everyone there to mine for Eternium, some special metal with magical powers. One day, a young boy decides to rise up and risk martyrdom, for which a group of wizards (including Djimon Hounsou, reprising his role from Shazam!) grants him superpowers. Long story short, this new champion faces off against the tyrant and… something happens. There’s a massive explosion and neither of them are ever heard from again.
To recap, we’ve got two hours’ worth of story crammed into five minutes. Thus huge plot details are glossed over on the way to an incomprehensible climax. Right off the bat, we’ve got the whole movie in a nutshell.
Cut to the present day. In the intervening millennia, Kahndaq has apparently been passed from one oppressor to the next as everybody wants a taste of that precious Eternium. The current oppressors are Intergang, apparently a stand-in for Blackwater or some comparable wealthy military contractor. Except that later on, we learn that Intergang is working for a Kahndaq native looking to restore the nation to its former glory. So Intergang is both an external colonizer AND an internal nationalist. That makes no sense and the film makes no effort in resolving this contradiction, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, to make another long story short, the champion from 5,000 years ago (Teth-Adam, later known as Black Adam, played by Johnson) is woken up in a last-ditch effort to try and repel Intergang. He then proceeds to blow up an entire Intergang army just because they had the bad fortune to be in his way. The bad news is, Adam has no real interest in protecting a nation or leading people he no longer recognizes as his own. But of course that doesn’t stop the international community (by way of Amanda Waller, played once again by Viola Davis) from recognizing Black Adam as a world-level threat.
Enter the Justice Society, here presented as a Justice League knockoff with bottomless funding.
- Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) is the de facto leader of the crew, the kind of self-righteous hypocritical blowhard who only deals in moral absolutes.
- Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) is a hundred-year-old occultist whose actions are wildly inconsistent because his magical powers and future prognostications are frustratingly vague.
- Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) is the sassy young tech expert with wind powers.
- Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) is the big clumsy idiot who only recently inherited his size-changing suit from his uncle (played in a cameo by Henry Winkler, of all people).
To be entirely fair, there are moments in the second act when the movie comes close to justifying its own existence. Based on his own former experiences as a slave, Adam has come to accept a deeply cynical view of what it means to be a hero. He’s seen firsthand that a hero is typically someone who gets other people killed or someone who gets himself killed for no reason. Potentially worse, if a hero’s purpose is to save others, that might be spun around to say that a hero is an excuse for people not to save themselves.
Then there’s the Justice Society. Here we have a bunch of superpowered goofballs coming without any warning or invitation into a country they have no stake or authority in, come to cause even more collateral damage to modern buildings and ancient cultural artifacts, all to maintain the status quo. The people of Kahndaq are suffering and persecuted under a ruthless paramilitary organization come to strip-mine someone else’s land for their own profit and the JSA doesn’t lift a finger. Black Adam comes in (however unwittingly) to rescue these same people from this same oppressive paramilitary organization and now the superpowered cavalry gets sent in. You’d forgive the good people of Kahndaq for refusing to recognize or respect the Justice Society as heroes.
Another sticking point is that per the Justice Society (most especially Hawkman), heroes don’t kill people. Let’s set aside the minor detail that Superman, Batman, and probably a few other superheroes in this continuity have already killed people onscreen with impunity. The more important detail is that where Black Adam is concerned, letting any of these Intergang minions walk alive and free means more innocent people getting hurt later on. To which the Justice Society counters that enemy combatants can’t provide usable intel if they’re dead.
Ultimately, there are two kinds of idiots in the world: Those who think that violence is always the answer, and those who think that violence is never the answer. It’s all about the wisdom to know which one is the best solution for the task immediately at hand, and the courage to apply that solution. What’s more, Adam eventually comes to realize that Kahndaq doesn’t really need a hero, it needs freedom. A hero is simply a means to that end, by inspiring people to seek freedom for themselves and by protecting them from those who would take their freedom.
But there’s a problem. Quite a few problems, in fact.
The big problem is that the film is going for a nuanced and moderate view about so many ethically intricate details of morality with regard to violence and heroics. And we’re principally exploring them by way of an antihero who breaks into every room like the goddamn Kool-Aid Man, a cartoonishly evil ripoff of Cobra from “G.I. Joe”, and a Dollar Store Avengers team led by a brash self-righteous loudmouth. It’s a film that wants to make all these thoughtful and nuanced artistic statements, but it’s also a film populated with broad-minded characters whose every muscle twitch is a CGI set piece.
This is a job for a scalpel, and the filmmakers are taking it on with sledgehammers and baseball bats.
And of course we can’t get around the fact that these filmmakers are trying to cram at least two movies’ worth of plot into two hours. As numerous plot points are glossed over, as the characters act in contrived ways, as so many plot-central actions take place offscreen, the implausibilities keep piling up until that pathetically incoherent climax. Hell, the climax isn’t even any fun to look at — each action scene is worse than the one before, as the filmmakers load up on worthless CGI and preposterous editing with every outing.
Then we have Dwayne Johnson himself. I’ll give him credit for at least trying to play an actual character and not just another variation of The Rock. He’s not a good enough actor to pull it off, but at least he tries. It certainly doesn’t help that while Black Adam clearly doesn’t believe in the concept of heroes, it’s frustratingly vague as to what (if anything) he does believe in. Through so much of the film, the character doesn’t really have an ethos or a goal, and he doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do now that he’s stuck in a time and place he wants nothing to do with. All he really does is mope around for reasons that he insists on being vague about even though his backstory was clearly and completely revealed in the goddamn trailers.
Still, Johnson is nothing if not charismatic. Even when the character is brooding over nothing, Johnson has the star power to hold the screen. Nobody else in the cast (no, not even Pierce Brosnan) is worth discussing, as they’re all only in the film to make Johnson look good.
Even by the dismal standards of the Snyder era and its aftermath, Black Adam sucks. In every regard, this feels like a movie rushed into production with an incomplete script while Dwayne Johnson still had some patience and DC/WB still had some credibility. It’s a film that genuinely wants to be nuanced, and only comes off as contradictory. A film that wants to be novel and intelligent, but only succeeds at being contrived and aggressively blunt. It’s one of those annoying movies that at once feels like too much and yet not enough is being shown, a clear sign of some futile effort at saving a half-baked script in the editing room.
But even for all of that, I can’t bring myself to hate Black Adam. Sure, a lot of that is because it would mean hating on Dwayne Johnson, and it would take a lot more than a bad movie to make anyone hate Dwayne Johnson (as his filmography has already proven). More importantly, I can’t hate on the movie all that much because I’m not picking up any sign of malice. There’s a genuine sense of effort here, like somebody wanted to make a really great movie and might have succeeded if anyone involved had any idea what they were doing. But most of all, I don’t hate the movie because I’m not convinced that anything of consequence will come of it. I mean, say what you will about the bloated and overblown The Batman, but at least that movie carried enough weight that it felt huge and consequential, like it was laying the foundation for something huge.
Snyder’s not coming back in any capacity, Ben Affleck’s not coming back to play Batman, the so-called DCEU is stone-cold dead and Black Adam will not be the film to revive it. If a sequel to this ever comes within the next fifteen years, it’ll only be on condition that Dwayne Johnson can find the time between juggling umpteen other tentpole franchises. I’m of course open to the possibility that I’ll be proven wrong, but I can only be so angry in a film that (by all current measures) seems destined to be a mere footnote in the history of DC comics on film. Hell, I expect that in the long run, this whole period of WBD turmoil will be a period of time that DC fans will be all too happy to forget.