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“Black Adam” Is The Latest Proof That Superhero Movies Need A Change

There’s plenty of enjoyable stuff in Black Adam, if you’re into this sort of thing. In particular, Brosnan has a blast playing Doctor Fate, a weary sorcerer who fully understands the cosmic nature of the battle between good and evil, and Adam’s place in it. Mohammed Amer is very funny as Karim, Adrianna’s hapless brother. Buildings get destroyed like they’re made out of Legos in a way that feels genuinely kinetic. Henry Winkler shows up! But Black Adam‘s insistence on coloring inside the lines is disappointing, particularly given the state of its creative parent, DC.

DC’s movies have been alternately defined by two qualities: not being Marvel movies, and a series of elaborate plans that never seem to go anywhere. For a while, Zack Snyder held the reins. And while he eventually released his own four-hour cut of Justice League in 2021 after years of partly astroturfed, partly legitimate fan outrage, it doesn’t seem like we’re getting the full Snyderverse anytime soon.

The Flash, set to come out next summer, is supposed to be the centerpiece of a new era for DC, featuring several different versions of Batman, the Superman villain General Zod from Snyder’s Man of Steel, and time travel shenanigans that will probably connect years’ worth of disparate threads. But The Flash star Ezra Miller has been accused of abuse and assault and has been arrested multiple times. Meanwhile, Batgirl has been shelved entirely, seemingly as a tax write-off. Warner Bros. recently expressed interest in making another Superman movie with Man of Steel star Henry Cavill, seemingly scrapping the plan to tell a Black Superman story with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Things are up in the air.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing. The most successful DC movies of the past few years – and, really, the most successful superhero movies overall – have tended to be off in their own little worlds, uninterested in being part of a larger architecture.

Matt Reeves’s The Batman, which came out this year, largely works, even after so many Batman movies, because it has a fun world and distinct version of each character. (What if Batman were Robert Smith?) James Gunn’s Peacemaker series, which also came out this year, fully draws out the psychosexual goofiness of its characters, largely by leaning into the odder qualities of Johnson’s fellow wrestler-turned-actor John Cena. Todd Phillips’s 2019 film Joker was polarizing but also enormously successful, earning an Academy Award for Joaquin Phoenix and warranting an impending sequel costarring Lady Gaga – in part because it wanted to be something specific, even if that was a Scorsese homage about how we live in a society. And James Wan’s 2018 film Aquaman allowed itself to be gloriously campy, absurd, and deadly serious all at once, like a movie made to be played on a screen at a prog-rock show.

These successes might be relatively rare, but they’re also more memorable than your standard Marvel movies, if only because of specific images like outer-borough Penguin, the Peacemaker opening credits dance, and yes, the Joker stairs. Marvel has perfected its assembly line production process. Unfortunately it’s often at the expense of the underpaid, overworked visual effects professionals who are expected to actually make the whole thing come together – to the point where the boundaries of the genre are largely coterminous with that which the studio will allow. In the last couple of years, it’s become harder and harder to avoid seeing the walls of the box as every subsequent movie and TV show gives a sense of diminishing returns.

In this respect, the issue with Black Adam might not be that the movie is too interested in being a darker take on superheroes – it’s that it’s not willing to go further. Adam’s comfort with killing people is a little unsettling; Hawkman’s goody-two-shoes insistence on doing things by the book makes him come across as a bit of a drip. It’s unfortunate that this conflict isn’t the core of the movie, which instead pivots to another well-worn superhero movie trope: the final battle with the fate of the world at stake. With an all-powerful demon on the loose, who has time to talk about silly things like morality or power?

It’s too bad that Black Adam ultimately punts on most of the big questions it attempts to raise, because the movie does have something sorely lacking in much of its peers: a willingness, however slight, to engage with the world around it. It’s hard to miss the similarities between Kahndaq, a Middle Eastern country occupied by white military personnel, and a variety of real-world analogs, ranging from the American occupation of Iraq to the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

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