By now, most cinemagoers would have considered the question of what makes a superhero. The comic book industry’s seemingly endless provision of source material has allowed for various character types – with unique abilities and backstories – to don their signature suit and prove their worth, not only as a crimefighter but as a cinematic protagonist.
Yet, there still appears to be disagreement as to whether a superhero must abide by a moral code. Namely, whether a superhero can kill, even in situations that call for it. I recall 2013’s Man of Steel attracting such discussion, but I was one of the few unfazed by the film’s controversial culmination.
The idea that fighting fire with fire is sometimes the right thing to do should not be contentious in 21st century cinema. Irrespective of the traditions that mark a superhero’s identity, any character that views all life as sacred is doomed to one-dimensionality, existing only to present (what I deem to be) a pseudo-moral high ground, completely removed from the harsh nature of reality.
DC’s Black Adam is thankfully uninterested in engaging with this conception of superheroism. As opposed to answering the tired question of whether a superhero can kill, Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest film takes a different approach – exploring the extent to which violence is justifiable. What does it mean, “to go too far?”, and does this change depending on who is carrying this out?
Black Adam takes place in the fictional region of Kahndaq. We follow an archaeologist, Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) and her brother, Karim (Mohammed Amer), attempt to uncover an ancient crown that grants the wearer diabolical powers. Apparently aware of the danger this crown possesses when in the wrong hands, Tomaz works to retrieve the crown before Intergang, a technologically advanced military that is mining Kahndaq for its natural resources and oppressing the local people.
When Intergang surrounds Tomaz in an ambush, she resorts to summoning Black Adam (the film’s eponymous protagonist) from his dormancy, leading to a short-lived though visually striking battle in which many Intergang soldiers are fatally maimed, obliterated or reduced to ashes. Jaume Collet-Serra decides to go all in in introducing the character as a force to be reckoned with, and is unafraid to present brutality as spectacle.
Black Adam’s propensity for collateral damage and extreme violence attracts the attention of one Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who directs a close-knit group of superheroes to go to Kahdaq to enforce the peace. The Justice Society, as this group is called, consists of Dr Fate (Pierce Brosnan), Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). This assortment of heroes provides for many entertaining battle sequences that, while often highly stylised, do not run the risk of testing the audience’s patience.
Dr Fate and Hawkman are the group’s standout members. The former is sleek, suave and cool under pressure, masterfully played by Brosnan. Hodge delivers a performance of the same calibre, playing an armoured, winged warrior who is passionately conscientious, but quick to temper.
In addition to being compelling characters, they help flesh out the film’s themes, endorsing a more measured view of justice. When Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson) is about to kill one of the Intergang soldiers, Hawkman steps in and stresses that the soldier deserves a fair trial, irrespective of his ideological allegiance. To this, Black Adam’s supporters imply that keeping him alive only reinforces the legitimacy of the colonisers, who have themselves committed murder. It is this confrontation of viewpoints, carefully and sensitively executed, that is, for me, the heart and soul of the film.
There are other characters that give the story more thematic and narrative weight. Johnson plays Black Adam with pretty much the same facial expression throughout the film, and as the Justice Society come to realise, he is just as uncompromising in his attitude. If it were not for the inclusion of Tomaz’s son, Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), Black Adam’s human side would be much less apparent, particularly his sense of compassion and his willingness to be swayed. The film’s villain, Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari), also merits the story, even though he is nothing more than a cookie-cutter antagonist. It is perhaps the simplicity of his character that makes him valuable – after all, what better way to incite support for a protagonist with anti-hero traits than to pit him against someone who is the epitome of evil?
Black Adam knows what it wants to be, and succeeds as an entertaining superhero romp that is fairly thought-provoking for DCEU standards. The manner in which the film engages with the ethics of violence is also to be commended, for it does not fall into the trap of firmly taking a side; by the end of the film, it is made clear to us that justice is an abstract concept, as it can mean entirely different things to different people.
There are also just enough narrative threads to support the film’s messaging without it tipping over to the side of radicalism. Thankfully, Disney has avoided creating another The Battle of Algiers.
For all that the film does right, Black Adam still feels like an impressive B movie, ticking all the boxes and then some when it comes to expanding the DCEU, but not quite exemplifying the sort of perfection achieved by the likes of Sam Raimi or Christopher Nolan. A tough standard to meet, but then again, all superhero films should be judged harshly, lest the genre will continue be viewed outside the realm of true cinema.
Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan