Black Adam (2022)
Written by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Certain pieces of film feel like monumental shifts in the culture, or at the very least, that suddenly reflect horrible truths about the current dominant ideologies. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was hailed as a masterpiece in Germany, but it found traction outside the boundaries of that country. The Nazi filmmaker’s propaganda piece was awarded in Paris and Venice and lured many people outside of Germany to see fascism favorably. Movies did not start as overt propaganda, but it’s hard to argue now that the productions released by major American film studios are not produced with some sort of establishment normalizing ideology embedded within them. Be it Nolan’s Patriot Act apologia in The Dark Knight or the military glorification found in Michael Bay’s work and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Americanism as a worldview is ever present in our “entertainment.”
Americanism is a dying ideology, though. You only need to spend some time in rush hour traffic in a major U.S. city or attend a school board meeting to see the domestic plight of the nation. America’s only means of holding onto its unipolarity outside the continent is its military. There’s no sign that the U.S. won’t continue starving and killing its people to keep itself the world’s bully. America isn’t the only beacon of fascism on the planet. The war in Ukraine is an instance of one country ruled by fascists being invaded by another fascist government. The ones who suffer the greatest are the workers & poor of each country, crushed under the tank tread of supremacist thinking.
Before we can talk about Black Adam, we must have a shared understanding of what fascism is. Nazism was a manifestation of it; Americanism is another one. Fascism is not tied to a single set of iconography or aesthetics; you find it in the core tenets of a belief system. The targets of this belief are often communism & parliamentary liberalism/democracy, espousing that an authoritarian right-wing government is a solution to economic & cultural ills. The end result is often an intermingling of corporate & dictatorial power that further widens the gap between those with wealth and those without. While these are the mechanics of the belief, they are often obscured through the use of mysticism & dogmatic beliefs.
At the center of the fascist cult is a leader who is contextualized through shared myths within the group and shared with the external world. While most of the outer group may roll their eyes at outlandish claims of supremacy, the true believers within the cult take it all as truth despite how absurd the claims become. Fascist leaders are often (but not always) male or adopt toxic masculinity aspects. Virility is a trait that the leader always possesses, which means objective claims about the observed health of such a leader are seen as heresy. The leader’s origins are often obscured with mystic thinking, an overly romanticized version of the actual events and one which follows the Christ myths.
While watching Black Adam, Warner Brothers’ recent entry in their attempt to compete with Marvel, I was stunned by what I saw more than I have been by any piece of cinema I’ve watched in recent years. Black Adam is one of the most overtly fascist films I have seen. But wait, you might say, the movie was very overtly anti-imperialist. Well, sort of, but not really. The movie espouses an isolationist point of view which plays more into fascist thinking than not. My takeaway when the end credits rolled was a nauseous sinking feeling in my stomach that if this film does well, which it looks like it will, American mainstream spectacle cinema is headed down a genuinely dark path.
In Black Adam, we are shown the story of Khandaq, a fictional nation in the Middle East ruled by a tyrannical king who brutalized the slave classes. A young boy is given the power of Shazam and attempts a coup by using these powers to kill the king. In the present day, things haven’t gotten too much better. Intergang rules the nation, and archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) is trying to locate the Crown of Sabbac, an important artifact for the country. While tomb raiding, Adrianna reads an incantation inscribed into the stone that unleashes Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson), the hero from the film’s prologue in the present day. Adam goes on a killing spree, taking out Intergang operatives in brutal ways. Amanda Waller of Task Force X reaches out to Carter Hall, aka Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), to help stop Adam. Carter assembles his Justice Society of America, consisting of veteran Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and rookies Atom-Smasher (Noah Centineo) & Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). The rest of the film is a lot of noise & sound; things happen, and then the movie stops.
It’s been well documented that Dwayne Johnson often stipulates what he will and won’t do as an actor in his movies. That seems reasonable enough. However, these usually boil down to a list of things he won’t allow happening to his characters. For example, in the Fast & Furious films, Johnson and co-star Vin Diesel have infamously written in their contracts that they must have an equal amount of connecting punches and that every fight they were ever in had to end in a draw. As adult men, why would you care that much? Also, if you are a serious actor, I would expect you would want to perform the role as honestly as possible and do what is valid for the story. That doesn’t matter to The Rock; he is obsessed with curating the public’s perception of him to the degree that any rational person will think is quite childish.
I’m just being paranoid, you tell me. I would agree if Dwayne Johnson hadn’t previously positioned himself as someone we should imagine in a position as ruler. His NBC sitcom, Young Rock, presents the actor playing a future version of himself running for president in 2032. Johnson has squashed down the idea that he might really do this, but what is the show’s point? It reimagines the man’s childhood and young adulthood, making him appear to be a larger-than-life figure. So too, do his demands on his movies to always present him as an indestructible powerhouse. Why would anyone want to manufacture such an inhuman persona on this grand scale?
Listen closely to the dialogue in the movie. Characters never express themselves but exposit at every turn. Someone is always telling us directly what is happening but even more unsettling to me was how often other characters talking to Black Adam tell him how powerful he is and how great he is and how he’s certainly going to save them all. Johnson’s portrayal of Black Adam is devoid of humor, emotion, charisma, or anything that would create a connection between the audience and the characters. Instead, he is the pure manifestation of violent masculinity. For example, the introduction of Adam to the present day has him incinerating an Intergang agent in brutal detail as the man’s skin and muscles slough off his skeleton. I was stunned at how viscerally violent this scene is, and it continues throughout the rest of the picture. Grisly horrific death after death.
I don’t want to be the old guy, but it made me want to cry watching this movie and thinking back to other superhero portrayals like Christopher Reeve as Superman or Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. What I love about watching those pictures with my niece and nephew is the wonder they had over the heroes, cheering them on and having genuine emotions in reaction to the struggles of these heroes. Of course, you could quickly respond, “oh yeah, you love the white superheroes. This is just because Johnson is a POC.” I would rather watch Black Panther again, a movie I didn’t like due to its support of monarchism, than Black Adam. At least Chadwick Boseman didn’t order that Black Panther be unable to experience any sort of character arc lest he look like a “pussy.”
It is not a stretch in these surreal times to imagine a presidential election year with The Rock and Kanye West on the ticket. Ronald Reagan proved the effectiveness of celebrity figureheads as political leaders; they provide cover for the true fascist architects to implement their destruction of society. I have never been comfortable when people suggest candidates like Oprah or The Rock as potential presidents. The realm of politics should not be where movie stars and tv hosts begin their second careers. Black Adam may not be a stepping stone in Johnson’s path to holding more power; I hope I am wrong. It is a horrible movie, one of the worst I have ever seen, and I say that without hyperbole. This is a shallow, empty spectacle, a numbing soulless experience that is merely a frenzied carousel of violence.