Chaotic, unwatchable ‘Black Adam’ finally launches onto screen, already burned out behind it

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

1/10 I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to leave a theater more than I wanted to leave my screening of Black Adam. Within 20 minutes, I was fighting the urge to shout “Stop! Please, just stop!” at the screen. Producer/star Dwayne Johnson said he made this film for fans, not critics, but that’s not true – this movie wasn’t made for human beings.

Kahndaq- Teth-Adam (Johnson), the ancient champion of Kahndaq, has been unearthed after 4,600 years. Met with gunfire, Adam strikes back at the criminal organizations that rule his Middle Eastern kingdom, taking over the joint in a matter of days. The Justice Society – whoever Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) could get on the phone this time – arrives to try to adjust his might-makes-right attitude, but discover the hierarchy of power in the DC universe has changed forever.

Black Adam is a non-stop assault of cartoon nonsense. It’s two rock-solid hours of incomprehensible cartoon action. It’s like the projectionist sat on the fast-forward button and didn’t notice before leaving. Imagine the break-neck panic-attack of Uncut Gems crossed with Suicide Squad, horribly inappropriate needle-drops and all, and that’s Black Adam.

What makes it feel less like a fast-paced movie and more like one that’s being zoomed through is the rushing extends to everything. The action isn’t just a confusing whirl, that’s in plenty of movies – the dialogue is rushed. The narration to backfill everything is rushed. When there’s a pause for a comedy beat, it’s a half-pause, you register the joke after it’s already whizzed by. Even the opening logos feel rushed.

It’s also clearly disorganized and thrown together in post-production, not only because 90% of the movie is animated, but also because what feels like 90% of the dialogue comes from off-screen. Black Adam is the new exhibit A) for why major motion pictures need to move away from this type of expensive green-screen based production that’s intended to give producers and animators a finer degree of control in post – because this is the nightmare that control leads to, $70 million reshoots on a movie that was greenlit at $190 million in service of an absurd, unwatchable barrage of every idea anyone ever had for it where you still have to ADR almost every line of dialogue to keep the plot moving forward.

All right, let’s just draw in Pierce Brosnan’s background for this shot real quick. The interior of the ship was built on-set, so we only have to draw the landscape here. They’re out on the Sinai Penninsula right now, so the ground is going to be sand-colored, so we’ll start with a little sand coloration, and then the sky is going to be above that and that’s blue, so we’ll put a little blue in there, and we’re done!

Continuity of action, or the technique of shooting action such that the focus stays in the same part of the screen across cuts so viewers can more easily follow the action, feels like a distant memory, and this is another problem that extends to every part of the movie, even when the constant blur of cartoon action takes a breath. In an early scene as Amon Tomaz (Bodhi Sabongui) skateboards through the city, he seems to teleport from street to street because the scene is so poorly edited. The character we’re following will be hiding in a different part of the frame in every shot, and each cut has him on an entirely new block with nothing from the prior shot to ground you as a viewer, and the cuts are coming quickly enough that it’d be hard to follow even if the shots were set up in a way that made sense. Even this simple, filler scene of a kid skating home is just as visually confusing as the crazy action scenes.

Black Adam distinctly reminds me of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, another torrent of cartoon cacophony that was deliberately trying to be more than one movie at once – in  fact, it almost seems inspired by it. I said this about Morbius, and it applies to Black Adam too – this is where things go when Disney takes shortcuts and makes bad movies. Other studios are watching and thinking, “what can we get away with?”

As the beating of Black Adam wears on, it starts to remind me of the counterprogramming from that horrible weekend in December 2019, the Tom Hooper Cats adaptation, because I’m asking myself the same question – who thought this movie was ready to go? Most scenes in Black Adam seem like they don’t have enough footage, as if someone had gone in without a shotlist and came out of production with less than half of what they needed or accidentally deleted key footage after the fact. The way the movie blows through itself, always anxious to get to the next scene as quickly as possible, I come up with another version of that question – what am I supposed to remember from this as a viewer? The movie hates itself, each scene can’t wait to be over. What am I supposed to love about it? What part of this was someone proud of? Where is the vision that someone was so excited to show me they spent $260 million to put it on the big screen?

Even in this meme still image, everything chaotic about Black Adam shines through, as Adam’s head seems to try and stretch away from his body.

In fine DCEU tradition, Black Adam is smothered and drowning in backstory like grandma’s pancakes in syrup. This movie force-feeds five new super-powered characters into the shared universe, and they all get the full, exhausting backstory treatment. They try to avoid another Suicide Squad by pulling over and rushing through the Justice Society’s statlines when they’re introduced to combat Adam half an hour in, but that only makes it stick out more.

It’s absolutely infuriating to see from the department that released Suicide Squad in 2016 and then made all the exact same mistakes in The Suicide Squad in 2021, and it’s ironic in Black Adam in particular because this movie would work much better with no backstory. You could easily cut off the first 10 minutes of pipe-laying and open cold on Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) and company raiding Adam’s tomb, just raise the lights, they’re in a spooky tomb and nobody’s squawking backstory at me. You may recognize this opening formula from several of the best movies ever made – it works!

Adam and the various members of the Justice Society all develop sharp relationships even in their brief time together, with old friendships, serious hatred and sexual tension among the group, and the best parts of the movie are their interactions. We’ve seen it highlighted by other DC movies just how much further interactions and showing emotion in the present moment pushes character connection than knowing how their parents died, and Black Adam’s softer points where two people are talking and it seems like a normal movie for a second really illustrate just how basic the task this studio routinely fails at really is.

Black Adam seems insecure about its lack of establishment, like it’s measuring itself against other 2022 superhero movie releases with mountains of history and trying to pile on plot points to bring itself up to speed. Legacy isn’t what makes a movie good, and even if Black Adam is specifically trying to pull viewers who keep coming back to other movies because they’re “invested,” you can’t trick people into thinking they’ve already seen two or three movies in this debuting series – though that might be an explanation for what Black Adam is trying to do.

Like many recent superhero movies introducing a bevy of new characters at once, Black Adam gives off the strong sense that it’s showing off action figures that you’re urged to buy so you can bash them together yourself. Hawkman becomes a special offender here, with this image of his action-figure perfect feathers and his Nth metal Thanagarian Mace, which can transform into an ax when he’s in danger! Get yours today!

Johnson, who delivers a fine performance, simmering with a cold fire that makes you believe in Teth-Adam’s confidence and resentment, has been trying to play the character since the mid-00s, before his first turn in The Fast and the Furious franchise and his apparent meteoric rise to stardom, a rise that has never actually bourn out at the box office. Black Adam’s $67 million opening is the biggest ever for a movie starring Johnson on his own. He’s never really been the superstar that he seems like, and that’s OK – the movie star died in the ‘90s. Experts are emphatic that the movie’s $392.9 wordwide take is enough to turn a profit, but is it enough of a profit to justify sequels? Does the ballooning budget come into consideration as something the studio wouldn’t want to risk again? Even if it’s technically in the black, can anyone look at Black Adam’s place on the 2022 charts under two Chinese-only releases and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and say it’s what they were hoping for?

Ugly news has been spilling out about the terrible communication going on at Warner Bros. all year, and even more has come since James Gunn and Peter Safran were hired to reboot the DC film franchise in November, putting Black Adam’s future in doubt even if the film had been a real hit. Even after months in which they each appeared to both resign and be fired, Johnson and Superman actor Henry Cavill seem unwilling to publicly burn their bridges at Warner Bros.

Black Adam would have gone nowhere even if it were a real success, and DC is so disorganized right now that we’ve gotten to see both the denial of its failure and the ego-stripping admission of its failure play out at the same time.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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