Our story so far: after years of unconnected film franchises including both Burton and Nolan’s Batman series and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, launched in full with Snyder’s Man of Steel. While the film’s dreary, joyless first half and action-packed second half received mixed reviews, and its star Henry Cavill was criticized for being stiff and lacking charm or charisma, Man of Steel was nonetheless the highest grossing Superman film and thus paved the way for a sequel.
The release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016 saw an even greater division, perhaps in keeping with its even greater dreariness and lack of joy. The intense enthusiasm for Snyder’s second DCEU movie, and the official start of the so-called “Snyderverse,” appeared in its stellar opening weekend box office, topping all but one film from either titular hero (that exception being Nolan’s The Dark Knight). Meanwhile, the mass disapproval of those outside the Snyder faithful was clear in not only a dismal critical response but a then-record drop-off for the film’s second weekend. Ultimately the combined might of two of the most iconic superheroes of all time couldn’t push Dawn of Justice to either fan or Warner Bros expectations, dooming Snyder’s planned two-part Justice League. By the time Snyder stepped down for a personal tragedy, it was already clear that DC was not interested in continuing his work, leaving Joss Whedon’s conclusive film as a perfunctory relic of a failed universe.
The reason we need to remember this is that prior to fans, both real and fake, tweeting “restore the Synderverse” and review bombing films that didn’t adhere to their demands, or Warner Bros breaking up the DCEU into separate franchises then acquiescing to the Snyderphiles and then again gutting the DC film slate, there was the rejection of Zack Snyder’s vision of DC superheroes. The Snyderverse wouldn’t have needed to be restored if it didn’t collapse.
This history is also important when realizing that Black Adam, the second DCEU movie following the end of the Snyderverse but the first to link directly to characters featured in it, is essentially a Zack Snyder film without Zack Snyder. The question we then have to ask is: why?
Advanced hype for the film has focused around the idea of Black Adam as a character powerful enough to rival Superman. The character is definitely powerful, even beyond what comes through in Dwayne Johnson’s cartoonishly developed physique (he was actually less beefy in the WWE), and the film offers several opportunities to witness this power in impressive effects-driven setpieces using the same speed-up/slow-down techniques that Snyder has employed for the last sixteen years. Toss in heavy shadows, a muted color palette, constant film filters and, as fellow wrestler Big E would put it, big meaty men slapping meat, and the film looks exactly like something Snyder would have produced. Which is to say, the film looks great. Synder has always excelled at crafting striking imagery so any film that looks like a carbon copy would obviously also bring its own stunning visual moments. Of course, as with its stylistic progenitor, Black Adam‘s monochromatic scenery eventually devolves into a murky sequence of brownish-orange scenes occasionally broken by those using blue, black, or gray. As with all Snyderesque films, strong individual images eventually fall to monotony of their surroundings.
Similarly, action sequences in Black Adam have a general feeling of sameness. Sure, Adam kills people in a few different ways, but other than eventually moving from electricity to plain ol’ meat slaps when fighting more powerful foes, his abilities and how they’re shown never progress beyond his very first battle against the imperialists (more on them later). Conflicts with the Justice Society (more on them too) grant our anti-hero different challenges but beyond location and what weapon Hawkman uses there is nothing differentiating these fights. After a while fights feel less motivated by character or story than by being an action movie, like if there isn’t at least one punch every ten minutes the movie will be kicked out of Snyder Academy. Then there’s the indifference characters have to the destruction around them. Superheroes, mainly in the DCEU and also in the MCU, are often uncaring about the environmental damage they cause yet you’d think the people watching would react when two of their allies are destroying the walls of their own home. But then, that kind of human emotion doesn’t adhere with God-like heroes towering far above the concerns of mere mortals. You know, like in Man of Steel.
One place in which Black Adam doesn’t adhere to the Snyder model is in presenting certain characters. Johnson’s Teth Adam and Aldis Hodge’s Hawkman of course fill the Superman/Batman quota of tough-talking “alpha males” who inevitably and frequently collide (i.e.: big meaty men who slap meat) with Hawkman presented as much more powerful than suggested by either the comics or the name “Hawkman.” Pierce Brosnan’s Dr. Fate takes the role of most interesting supporting character played by weighty British actor while Sarah Shahi (Adrianna) and Quintessa Swindell (Cyclone) are the women who are also there. The trouble comes with the film’s poor attempts at humor as Adrianna’s brother Karim (Mohammad Amer), Adiranna’s son Amon (Bodhi Sadongui), and the insufferable Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) all vie for and fail at different styles of comic relief.
For Karim it’s the ever-popular funny fat guy who stays in the car singing incongruous pop songs while violence happens. For Atom Smasher, it’s the never-tired naïve superhero who gets nervous and apologizes for accidentally smashing things, channeling the worst of Peter Parker and Ezra Miller’s Flash at the same time. And for Amon, it’s the audience stand-in who’s aware of superhero tropes, complete with a catchphrase gag that never actually pays off, as though the filmmakers lost interest in the joke before delivering the punchline yet long after the audience ceased to care. It’s no surprise that out of all of these new faces only Adam, Hawkman, and Dr. Fate come off as interesting, as they are also the only ones essential to the story being told. Even Adrianna and Amon, our channels into the narrative, succumb to irrelevance. Yet, unlike most Synder-like productions, there is a comic relief character. Three in fact. One for each dreary, joyless movie in the Snyderverse.
Yet the best and worst of Black Adam are found in the movie’s thematic and narrative development. From the very opening we’re told that Teth Adam, as he’s called until an anti-climatic name reveal, is the hero who will free Khandaq from imperialist forces. The People’s Champion, if you will. A first act time-skip shows a country and people under severe oppression by a force of unspecified origin that possesses technology wholly unlike anything shown in previous DCEU films. It’s easy to see the filmmakers asking, “What if Wakanada but colonized?” Adam is then set up as a righteous vigilante freeing an oppressed state with the Justice Society of America sent as agents of the status quo. Then… nothing. There’s no examination whatsoever of oppression, imperialism, or America’s role as keeper of international order. Worse still, a second-hour revelation wipes the Intergang forces clean of being imperialists.
After setting up a conflict between a regional hero doing what is necessary to free his home and an international force keeping a local populace subservient to maintain global order, the film just unites them all into a single fight against a big bad guy that absolves either side of any responsibility. The Justice Society’s mission is forgotten except for one “twist” that’s about as convincing as Dwayne Johnson’s Scorpion King wig, meaning no one ever has to consider America’s role as oppressor. The dismissal is so thorough that a later revelation which should impact the story holds as much power as Hawkman deciding to run up a set of stairs when he could fly. He’s literally a hawk, man. Similar baffling character choices would appear necessary to get the characters where story needs them to be, except that those choices weren’t even needed for that. It seems Black Adam was meant to be a completely different movie in the first half than in the second. In other words, the imperialism theme is the opposite of the catchphrase gag: the filmmakers lost interest long before the audience.
With its lofty and undeveloped themes, striking yet monotonous imagery, constant speed-up/slow-down effects, nonsensical character choices, big meaty men slapping meat so hard it makes buildings blow up, action so relentless it causes headaches, filters filters filters, and spoken platitudes that sound epic and badass but mean nothing, Black Adam has every trademark of a Zack Snyder film. It even includes a soundtrack that is so on-the-nose it blares “no one man should have all that power” right when Black Adam decides to defy his allies and decimate an enemy base. This is of course not the fault of the filmmaker but has there ever been a worse time to include a Kanye West song? On the plus side, the song might get a cheer a from MAGA fans in the theater. On the down side, those people are anti-Semites, and no one should want them to cheer. Given Black Adam‘s absolute fidelity to Zack Snyder’s aesthetic and ethos, the question we then have to ask is: why end the Synderverse and then make a Snyderverse film?
Perhaps Warner Bros Discovery is banking on Snyder fans flocking to this film like they would one made by their preferred filmmaker. Perhaps they want to make a Snyderverse movie without the baggage Snyder brings. Or perhaps the newly merged studio has no idea what it’s doing. It wants to make a series of unconnected film franchises but also a cohesive universe. It wants to cancel one troubled film it spent 90 million dollars on but also throw millions more at a different film with a troubled star. It wants to reboot characters but have the same actors along with that same characters played by other actors. It wants to have a singular vision developing all DC properties but also wants a variety of filmmakers developing DC properties. WBD, and Black Adam‘s spoiled post-credits scene, wants the Synderverse without the Snyderverse. This could change tomorrow but, at least, that’s our story so far.
The question we then have to ask is: does anyone else want that?