Black Adam (2022) by Jaume Collet-Serra
Black Adam (2022) Director: Jaume Collet-Serra, Writers: Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani (written by), Bill Parker and C.C. Beck (based on the characters created by), Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Pierce Brosnan, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Quintessa Swindell, Marwan Kenzari, Bodhi Sabongui, Djimon Hounsou, Viola Davis, Henry Winkler, Henry Cavill Runtime: 124 min, Rated: PG (Canada) G (Quebec CA) PG-13 (MPAA) for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language.
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers)
Black Adam from DC Entertainment/Comics is a film connected to some other recent DC Extended Universe films like SHAZAM! (2019) and The Suicide Squad (2021) and Justice League (2017). The story hinges on the modern-day return of a virtually indestructible heroic champion Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) who had been entombed for five thousand years following an ancient conflict with a tyrannical king Anh-Kot (Marwan Kenzari) over the control of a crown with the power to open the gates of hell. When the crown is discovered by archeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), the last descendant of Anh-Kot, a man named Ishmael (also played by Marwan Kenzari) seeks to have it for himself and Teth-Adam—dubbed Black Adam by the end of the film—returns to save the Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq from becoming an open gate to hell. This garners the attention of a ruthless covert American government official and handler of The Suicide Squad, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who sends in members of The Justice Society of America to kill or capture Black Adam and neutralize the threat she believes he presents to the world. For their part the people of Kahndaq, currently oppressed by an organized crime syndicate called Intergang, simply want their champion to save them so they can live in peace.
So who is this comic book super hero Black Adam? General audiences might not have any idea where this character comes from and may be drawn to see the film based on the charismatic strength and likeability of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In this new film Black Adam received his powers from the same council of wizards that granted mystical super powers to the teenaged foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) in SHAZAM! (2019) transforming him into the super hero Captain Marvel/Shazam! (Zachary Levi). However, Black Adam originally appeared as an ancient Egyptian super-villain in the first issue of The Marvel Family in 1945 and over the last twenty years has been rehabilitated into a kind of anti-hero. So anyone who stopped reading comic books more than twenty years ago might be surprised to find Black Adam presented as a hero. Careful viewers will notice that the film also includes a misdirect in Black Adam’s origin story intended to garner additional sympathies from the audience when it’s revealed in the third act of the film that his powers were intended to go to his more virtuous son who tragically dies by order of king Anh-Kot. This revelation about Back Adam’s true identity hopes to make him more relatable while explaining why he’s a short-tempered juggernaut filled with grief and rage.
In this film the ancient Black Adam is certainly a “fish out of water” character with different views of how the world should work and how vengeance and justice should be acted out. As might be imagined with Johnson filling the role Black Adam exudes masculinity and gravitas something less common in many current superhero films where male characters are routinely upended by women and titular male characters aren’t even the main character of the projects bearing their names. This is not the case in Black Adam. While a character like archeologist Adrianna Tomaz who finds the mystical MacGuffin —the Crown of Sabbac— is not exactly a damsel in distress she is also not overtly played as masculine and is allowed to display feminine attributes, she is even a mother of a boy, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), with all the concerns of motherhood. At first she is unsure of the influence the brute masculine nature of Black Adam might have on her son eventually embracing the pragmatic necessity of his raw power in the face of destruction. While presented as a hero Black Adam retains some of his anti-hero nature which can be seen when Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), a member of The Justice Society, confronts him saying, “In this world, there are heroes and there are villains. Heroes don't kill people!” to which Black Adam replies, “Well, I do.” Black Adam doesn’t hesitate to kill his opponents and where other super hero films might have hordes of aliens, robots or demons for the heroes to dispatch, many adversaries in Black Adam, especially in the first two acts, are men with military equipment: soldiers, mercenaries, and gang members. The violence in many of these sorts of films seems all the more excusable when the enemies are less than human. So, while on the one hand the film presents Black Adam as a violent super hero fighting violent men, on the other hand that violent nature is presented as ancient and generally unacceptable in the modern world, a force that needs to be tempered with justice that values life. The audience is left with the impression that Black Adam would philosophically get along better with Batman rather than Superman.
One of the challenges both the DC Extended Universe and the competing MARVEL Cinematic Universe have is the fact that many of their characters are alike. Since DC has been slower in rolling out its array of secondary characters many of them in this and other DC films feel like derivative knock-offs of MARVEL characters. The aforementioned Hawkman/Carter Hall who heads up this film’s iteration of The Justice Society is basically MARVEL’s Falcon (Anthony Mackie) with fancy hawk-themed armour and Black Adam’s mystical caped sorcerer who sees the future, Kent Nelson/Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), bears a great similarity to MARVEL’s Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) but with an alien helmet; Maxine Hunkel/Cyclone is like X-Men's Storm (Halle Berry/Alexandra Shipp) but more likeable and colourful; and Albert "Al" Rothstein/Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) has some of the same powers as MARVEL’s Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the same self-effacing gentle humour; even the hard-boiled Amanda Waller could be compared to no-nonsense S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the MARVEL Avengers films. This results in all the characters swirling around Black Adam coming off as less exciting than they deserve because for years the market has been oversaturated with similar characters and there isn’t enough time to do much character building to help audiences invest in their fate. This of course is not a fatal flaw because these are secondary characters; the character the audience needs to care about most is Black Adam.
A bigger flaw is likely the worn out plot where yet again a group of characters fight a supposed threatening adversary, Black Adam, only to band together in the third act to defeat a much worse threat the demonic Sabbac (again also played by Marwan Kenzari). DC Extended Universe has already trodden this ground with Superman (Henry Cavill), who makes a brief end-credit cameo, in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017)/Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021) where Batman and the Justice League end up banding together with Superman to fight the villains Doomsday and later Steppenwolf and his master Darkseid. To a lesser extent this was also part of the plot of MARVEL’s Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012) where Thor was seen first as a potential danger but ultimately became part of the Avengers’ fight against the villain Thanos. MARVEL’s The Incredible Hulk also follows this similar story pattern. Committed fans of the Black Adam character will likely be able to look past this but your average viewer may feel a bit bored with the predictability of the set-up and pay-offs in this film. That said there is also comfort in predictability. With the release of more and more of these kinds of film this tension needs to be addressed and creative, compelling storytelling becomes increasingly important to stand out in the crowd. In the past many sci-fi/fantasy/comic book genre fans may have looked past poor writing and storytelling because they were just happy to see their favourite thing or character up on the big screen. In some cases the promise of inventive special effects alone could draw a crowd, however now that the special effects—when the digital graphic artists have enough time to do a good job—have largely plateaued in terms of consistency what will keep an audience is the story. The effects and even the characters and IP (intellectual property) might bring fans in, but what the modern director or studio does with the story determines success, profitability and longevity. Be original but don’t lose track of what the audience came to see. Build respectfully on the past in a way that grows towards an even better experience and the fans will be there. Deconstruct the thing or the character they love and they will begin walking away. As more of these films are released the more challenging it becomes to make good ones. In some ways Black Adam suffers from feeling too familiar and as the ancient adage goes “familiarity breeds contempt.”
It’s not only the plot that feels familiar, there’s the rare metal Eternium from which the Crown of Sabbac is made which also is part of Black Adam’s strength. Eternium may as well be Mithril from The Lord of the Rings or Adamantium or Vibranium from MARVEL or Unobtainium from Avatar or Beskar from Star Wars. Within their respected stories these are cool elements but piled on top of each other in an ever-crowded sci-fi/fantasy/comic book marketplace they start to come across as mediocre and lazy contrivances. In the case of MARVEL and DC the modern director is often putting to the screen what had originally been published with ink and paper so this is not a new challenge but it is a challenge none the less. Black Adam doesn’t do anything new with this and that’s the problem with Eternium in this film.
What is a Christian to think of Black Adam? On the surface there is the role of violence in working out justice which relates to the Fourth and Fifth Commandments dealing with authority and murder verses killing for a just cause. This is one of the film’s themes. Black Adam could be seen as a sort of Old Testament judge like Samson, flawed but powerful. He could even be thought of in the vein of Master Hans the executioner from Luther’s Large Catechism— a man with a vocational responsibility to carry out justice on the wicked. The disposition of such a man, whether he is kind or harsh, wise or foolish, makes little difference provided he sticks to carrying out his vocational responsibilities and doesn’t go astray. For his part Black Adam is a man who needs to control his rage and deal with his underlying grief. Christians will recognize that he needs self-control which is a gift of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:7). The more challenging aspect of Black Adam for Christians is how he is presented as a kind of demigod. At one point Dr. Fate says to him, “We know who you are and what you are capable of. There's no place for you in the world of man. You have two choices: kneel or die,” to which he replies, “I was a slave until I died. Then I was reborn a god. I kneel before no one.” Add to this is the notion that he is a long-awaited messiah who returns to work justice against the wicked and Black Adam becomes a kind of millenarian figure. But unlike the Jesus Christ confessed by Christians as the only begotten Son of God the Father incarnate, crucified unto death, resurrected and ascended to His throne in heaven whence He had ne'er departed, His Father's and His own, Black Adam fits into the category of apotheosis where an individual is raised up to godlike stature not by a god but by wizards. When compared to Scripture this makes him into a kind of anti-Christ.
The film is also filled with talismans, magical objects, esoteric symbolism, and hand gestures. The villainous ancient king Anh-Kot and the horned demon Sabbac are depicted with an inverted pentagram on their chest and the people of Kahndaq both in the ancient past and in the present use a hand gesture forming a pop-culture “Illuminati” style pyramid sometimes associated with the “eye of providence,” made by pressing the tips of the thumbs together and the inside edge of the tips of the index fingers forming a triangle. Black Adam has a lightning bolt on his chest which could represent speed, power, and danger but has been connected to Satan falling like lightning (Luke 10:18). While the lightning bolt has long been associated with Black Adam the use of some of these other symbols is puzzling. On the surface putting an inverted pentagram on the villain is a rather obvious hint that he’s the bad guy but the triangle hand gesture is strange. The cynical view is that putting these kinds of symbols into films, music videos, and photo shoots with celebrities is simply a clever way to get free advertising since there seems to be an endless host of bloggers, critics, podcasters and YouTubers lined up to point these things out and in so doing draw attention to the media the studios are offering. Or perhaps including these symbols could be some kind of inside signal to like-minded individuals or a taunt intended to intimidate outsiders or a combination of all of these things. It’s difficult to know. What is obvious is that viewers are increasingly bombarded with this imagery to the point that these symbols are becoming common place without much explanation or apparent reason. Christian viewers need to be careful they don’t sleepwalk through the inclusion of these details. Understanding them begins with being able to notice them and feeling free to ask why they’re there.
Another esoteric element in the film is the inscription on the inside of the Crown of Sabbac that reads, "Life is the only way to death." This may seem rather obvious but by the end of the film the phrase is inverted to “death is the only way to life.” The crown itself is a circle with no beginning or end. Does it mean anything? Is it just nonsense dialogue intended to sound deep? At best that’s exactly what it is, at worst it is meant to tempt viewers into seeking knowledge outside Scripture within the occult as the character with the answers is basically a demon. Much of these symbolic details and esoteric oddities are lost between explosions, bolts of lightening, and punches. When it comes to the occult and magic Christians should avoid involvement in these things (Exodus 7:11; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; 2 Kings 21:1-9; Micah 5:12-15; Isaiah 47:12-15; Ezekiel 13:18, 20; Acts 8:11-24; Revelation 9:21; 22:15); when it comes to solving problems with violence the average Christian without the vocational responsibility to do so is to put vengeance in the hands of God (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19); when it comes to questions of life and death The Rock (Psalm 18:1-3) a Christian is to put their faith and hope in is Christ Jesus who heroically defeated death and is the Life of the Christian (Revelation 1:18); and the returning heroic champion Christians are waiting for is not a Black-Adam-like figure but Christ Jesus (Acts 1:11).
While the film has strong masculine and feminine characters and some positive depictions of traditional family relationships and traditional relationships between men and women and an absence of culturally divisive progressive gender ideology its overall narrative still struggles to rise above mediocrity. If it weren’t for the skill and charismatic appeal of Johnson as Black Adam the film would dissolve into forgettable nothingness. Not the worst of this kind of film but also not the best more average than anything else.Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!