Movie review: Black Adam

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Getting something down to a fine art is one of those glitteringly positive phrases that suggests with effortless ease that you have mastered something to such a degree that you will only ever do it well now and well into the future.

Inlaid with this supposition is that if you’re experience is such that you can make something beautifully and perfectly over and over again, that what you produce will always be of flawless quality too.

But therein lies the problem; sometimes all you produce over and over again is something that looks lovely but which long ago gave up its soul and heart to looking the part and nothing else.

That seems to be very much the case with superhero films of late, all of them rolling off a production line, a Marvel-shaped one for the greater part, with nary a blemish or a narrative blip, resplendently and epically shiny and designed to entertain up a far-from-the-everyday storm.

And they do entertain, masterfully and in a way that lets your mind take a comfy, popcorn-covered backseat and go into power-filled neutral; what they often don’t do is knock at the door of your heart and ask if it’d like to join the fun.

It’s superhero action to the max but with the life stripped out of it, or life inserted in such a way that it comes across like a mass phoning it in or obligatory ticking off the emotional boxes, and that’s why Black Adam is such a blessed, hugely enjoyable relief.

It dares, in a way that subverts any and all expectations of what a superhero film should be and look like, to inject massive amounts of emotion into a genre that long ago forgot where the vein even is to do that.

It’s also warm, dark, intense, fun, silly, excoriating human and all too aware that even the most heroic among us can feel so flawed and lost that they wonder why the hell they’re doing it at all.

(courtesy IMP Awards)

If you pay attention, much of what drives Black Adam is raw, unfiltered emotion, the kind that exposes the broken humanity at the heart of us all, and which you might think has no business being in a superhero movie at all.

Thank the gods, or the wizards of Shazam in this case, that it is and so abundantly allowed to strut its soul-baring stuff in a film that, while it has all the action you could ask for, knows that life is often lived in the greys, far from the black and whites that makes us most comfortable, and lives that out in every scene.

That willingness to not go for the easy good versus evil dynamic that powers many a superhero film is what sets Black Adam well and truly apart from a genre pack where every member looks so much alike that you couldn’t pick them apart in a superhero movie line up.

It’s clear from the very beginning that the titular character, played with necessary gravitas by Dwayne Johnson, is not your typical squeaky-clean justice-seeking superhero with might, right and shiny white teeth; Black Adam is an ancient man, 5000 years old, who is who he is and where he is because of a tragic unexpected moment that ripped apart his old life and replaced with a new, rage-filled one.

He is angry, he is vengeful, and for good reason, and Black Adam thankfully doesn’t attempt to give a redemption arc that renders all of that null and void.

Black Adam is an antihero but not one without any kind of moral compass, something that emerges early in the film when he saves the university professor who awakens him from his resting place of five millennia, Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) from a fire-filled bloodbath of a battle which sees the enemy that has enslaved their homeland of Kahndaq under gangland rule.

It very quickly becomes clear that Black Adam, in contrast to the Justice Society – made of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan who is suitably grave and yet warmly human in his role), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) – who come to save Kahndaq from what they saw as the clear and present threat of Black Adam.

In their universe, everything is clean-cut and black-and-white, a comfortingly simplistic view of the world that allows for quick and easy definitions but which doesn’t allow for the fact that life is a great deal more nuanced and complex than cookie cutter delineations would like to admit.

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Fortunately Black Adam embraces the ambiguity of the world at large, exploring with far more emotional resonance than you’d expect of any superhero film that we live in a brutally broken world and that one man’s hero is another man’s oppressor.

Yes, there are clear villains such as the demonically monstrous Sabbac (Maewan Kenzari) who is as close to obvious evil as Black Adam gets, but for the most part the film makes it clear that however you view the world, marking it as cleanly good and evil is to do a great injustice to how things really are.

The Justice Society arrive for instance in Kahndaq on a shiny futuristic plane, as superheroes are wont to do, obviously expecting the beleaguered inhabitants, worn down by corrupt and brutally authoritarian regime, will welcome them with open arms.

That doesn’t happen however, and we are treated to the wholly unexpected spectacle of the antihero who has his issues sure but is flawed, not evil and more than capable of compassion and raw, feeling humanity when required, being revered in preference to the shiny pretty Justice Society who take a while to adjust to the fact that they aren’t being hailed as liberating heroes.

It’s a joyously clever and thoughtful approach to superhero storytelling that feels so refreshingly different, and such a radically welcome breaking of the mould that you spend much of the film marvelling that an entry in this well-worn genre could ever been so insightfully rich and aware of the way the world really is.

Coupled with stunningly inventive and breathtakingly good cinematography that is every bit as imaginatively a break from the usual as the narrative it visually enhances and supports, Black Adam is that rare and wonderfully good superhero film that reflects the world in all its fallen glory, that knows good and evil works somewhat as a delineator of humanity but is woefully inadequate at explaining its full complexity and diversity, and which appreciates that while we love our superhero stories, they only really strike home and make an emotional impact when as much humanity is allowed to show as the otherworldly powers we always clamour to see.


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