So after writing something of a travel blog post a month or so back, I’ve thought of another typical journalistic style post I could write. A movie review. The first thing I did after checking in to my hostel in Lisbon was, of course, to go out and see the new superhero movie: Black Adam. I’d actually been anticipating this movie for quite a while, and have been following the critics’ reviews for the last few days, as they tend to see advanced screenings and put their reviews out the week before release.
The critics scores haven’t been that great. They weren’t terrible, but definitely not something to brag about, having fallen from 50% positive reviews to 46% positive from yesterday to today. I just read an article this morning that the Rotten Tomatoes audience score was 88% positive, though. This seems to echo phenomena from the David Ayer/Zack Snyder era of DC superhero movies, although for those guys critics scores were atrocious, while audience scores were quite high. Now only remains to see how much money the film makes. Post Ayer/Snyder DC movies (think Shazam!, The Suicide Squad) generally get excellent critic scores, better than average audience scores, but nobody goes to see them. They just don’t make that much money. An exception was The Batman, but that movie was just incredible from any angle.
So of course I go to see the movie on release day in Portugal, which happened also to be the day I arrive in the country. Now this review is going to contain some spoilers. I’ll go light on spoiling the plot, but I will make mention of a few details that actually cut deeply into a full understanding of the character. In other words, I won’t spoil details of the film, but I am going to spoil aspects of its overall meaning, essentially what most moviegoers would consider the most important part not to spoil. However, I don’t think most moviegoers would even notice this meaning. The movie is actually a godsend for intimate fans of the character and the comics, and its gems and pearls will be completely lost on audiences and critics alike. It is my hope that this will be the kind of review that will talk to a discriminating viewer of quality of cinema who would never go see a superhero movie that might pique their interest so that they might go see the movie and notice things in it that they wouldn’t otherwise notice. That said, though, if you are intending to go see this movie and don’t want to know anything about it, stop reading now. Go see the movie, and pick up this blog post later.
So the critics are saying that the movie is a colorful and cinematically beautiful action fest with too much CGI and nothing substantial between the fights to make the story interesting. They are saying this because they are stupid, and they don’t even care about the movies they review. They just need to bang out columns to put food on the table. And they don’t know nearly enough about the characters this movie depicts.
There are a few things to critique about the movie. The only white male in the movie is Pierce Brosnan, but I really didn’t care much about that. There is a lot of CGI, and some of it isn’t that well-done, but a lot of it is. The rendering of Hawkman was gorgeous, but like many aspects of the movie, he wasn’t explained enough to the audience. They won’t know why he has a mace in his hand one second and an axe the next, or why his wings pop in and out of his back. I’m pretty sure in a Marvel movie you’d get some quick thirty-second explanation that would “clear him up.” He’s kind of the Wolverine of the DC comics, as his body has been infused with an “Nth Metal” which is somehow a kind of manifestation of the spirit of Horus (a hawk god) from Egyptian mythology as well as from Thanagar, the “hawkworld” of the DC universe. So like Wolverine has adamantium fused to his bones from which his claws appear, so does Hawkman have this Nth Metal bound to his soul from which he sprouts wings and weapons. Now while they made his appearance beautiful in the film, they overpowered him. His Nth Metal makes him strong and tough; he is of a level of maybe being able to lift a Volkswagon with great effort and get slammed into a wall without being hurt. One punch from Black Adam would evaporate him into a cloud of yellow paste, however. His fighting in the movie takes some cinematic license to make the battling fun, but actually isn’t the way Hawkman would fight Black Adam if he had to. So there was some adaptation taken, but overall I’d say Hawkman was one of the gems of the film. Depite my complaint about the dearth of white males above, Aldis Hodge was an exciting casting choice, and I think he nailed the role.
The film does speak a lot through action, but this is actually an interesting and effective way to develop a superbeing ultra-powerful type of character. I also noticed that Henry Cavill’s Superman was critiqued for not evincing enough clever dialogue, but at that time I was more impressed with how much the actor was able to convey through physicality and expression as well as good scene development without dialogue. In my view, Black Adam’s director Jaume Collet-Serra took a similar approach, and rendering this character (who has no Clark Kent type of identity to normalize him) was one of the bigger challenges of Dwayne Johnson’s career, and he did it beautifully. I was very impressed with the looks of sensitivity, moments of doubt, and expressions of compassion that would creep into the Rock’s expressions alongside his stony stoicism. It’s really hard to underplay a character properly, and following Cavill’s footsteps, Johnson did it very, very well, supported as he was by proper scene development.
But to really talk about the full presentation of this character in the film and to the movie-going superhero public, you have to talk about Shazam, and to talk about Shazam, you have to talk about Superman. So let’s provide some background. Superman started as the feature character in Action Comics, which was created for him. Prior to him, comics were for humor, and another genre had already entered the arena: detective stories. Think Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys type stories. Dick Tracy. The Shadow. That kind of thing. But after Superman appeared, a company called Detective Comics wanted to compete with Action Comics and so they created a detective with tights and a cape who they called Batman. Eventually Detective Comics bought Action Comics, and DC now owned the two heroes. Another company called Fawcett Comics also wanted to clone Superman’s success, so they created a superhero called Captain Marvel who was a young boy named Billy Batson who had been given the power by a council of wizards to transform into a kind of Superman with red tights and white cape every time he says the word “shazam.”
Captain Marvel was extremely popular, and DC also bought him up along with Superman. Now also at this time, Timely Comics, the company that gave us Captain America and Namor from the WWII era, had been bought up by a new company called Marvel Comics. Marvel did not like the very popular Captain Marvel being bought up by their rival DC, so they created their own Captain Marvel as a part of a legal ploy to defend their copyright of the name Captain Marvel. That character ultimately became the female Captain Marvel of the movie of the same name played by Brie Larson. So Captain Marvel couldn’t use his own name, and over time began to be defined by by magic word shazam. Fans may remember in the movie Shazam! that there were jokes about how he couldn’t figure out what to name himself. This is a reference to that whole drama.
Shazam (originally Captain Marvel) made a very important contribution to superheroes during his day. The reader surely knows that in addition to Superman, there is also a Supergirl. And Batman has a Batwoman and a Batgirl. Marvel also does this. You probably didn’t know there a Spider-Woman too. And if you remember the movie Logan, you’ll be familiar with Laura, X-23, a little girl Wolverine. So there is this idea of the “family member” superhero. Well, the very first family member superhero was Mary Marvel, Billy Batson’s older foster sister. She functioned a little bit like Peter Pan’s Wendy. And in fact, Supergirl, Superman’s teenaged cousin, was created to compete with Mary Marvel’s popularity. So Shazam was the origin of that whole phenomenon of having little boy and little girl versions of superheroes.
The way they worked it, the original Captain Marvel had the ability to share his power with his family. This is actually a quite touching thing, since Billy Batson is an orphan and has no biological family, but was able to share his power with his foster siblings. This is reminiscent of the Star Wars mythos, where Rey may have been born to the evil Emperor Palpatine, but her spiritual essence is that of her teacher, Luke Skywalker.
Now the formal name of Billy Batson’s hero Captain Marvel (later just called Shazam) was “the Immortal Champion.” The Council of Wizards would from time to time appoint an Immortal Champion to protect the universe, and Billy Batson wasn’t the first one. An Immortal Champion would have to have an unusually pure heart, so the Wizards usually chose from children. In the comics, Black Adam was an adult who had been chosen to be the Immortal Champion, but ultimately failed and became evil. So moviegoers might want to equate Black Adam to being a bad Superman, but he is really a bad Shazam, and the movie offers a profound twist on this concept.
So let’s compare Shazam’s power to Superman’s for the sake of thoroughness. Basically, DC wanted to establish Superman as stronger, tougher, and faster than Shazam, but only by an infintessimal amount. So Shazam can bench press the planet earth, let’s say, but Superman can bench press the planet earth plus a sack of potatoes. That sort of thing. So that in any direct contest between the two such as arm wrestling or tug of war, Superman should theoretically win, but just barely, and only with using all effort. But practically, in just about every other situation, the two are equivalent. Superman will throw a battleship at you, Shazam will throw a battleship at you. Shazam can only be hurt by a 100 megaton nuke. Superman can only be hurt by a 100.1 megaton nuke. That sort of thing. And while Superman shoots lazers from his eyes, Shazam shoots lightning from his hands. But Shazam has fewer powers. Superman has telescopic and microscopic vision as well as super hearing, while Shazam has none. There was actually a joke about that in the Shazam! movie, where the bad guy is taunting Shazam from up in the air and far away, and Shazam says, “what? I can’t hear you!” However, Superman has a list of weaknesses. He can be hurt by kryptonite, he needs the earth’s sun for his power and he loses his power when he leaves the earth, and he is vulnerable to attacks by magic. Shazam has none of these weaknesses, actually being immune to magical attacks because he was created by the Council of Wizards. Only the magic of the Wizards’ rock of eternity can hurt him. Then Shazam’s only other weaknesses is that he is not always Shazam. Billy Batson has to go to school and do his homework like any other kid, and he can be hurt while he is Billy, so if you can cover his mouth and prevent him from saying “shazam,” you can kill him.
So Shazam is a kind of Superman analog, but they are not exactly the same. But when you see these movies, you’ll notice a similar effect. And now while they say that Superman is just a touch tougher, I think Shazam would have to be the winner in any contest because he can turn his family into Shazams. I think Superman would have a pretty tough time handling Shazam because he can make six more Shazams to help him out.
This, however, brings up an interesting point that this Black Adam movie touches on. So what would happen to Mary Marvel, a Shazam hero because she got her power from the Immortal Champion, if the Immortal Champion died? If Billy Batson died, Mary would be left by herself to defend the universe with the powers of an Immortal Champion, but without being herself an Immortal Champion.
So I mentioned above that in the comics, Black Adam was the Immortal Champion before Billy Batson was. However, in the movie, Black Adam is a family member of the previous Immortal Champion. So Black Adam is isn’t really a bad Captain Marvel. He is actually a bad Mary Marvel. And that is what he has to live with. He may have all this infinite power from the Council of Wizards, but nobody really named him a Champion. There was never anything particularly worthy about him other than at one time an Immortal Champion loved him before he died.
If you ask me, Black Adam is sort of the DC version of Walter White from Breaking Bad. Deeply flawed and sunken into a world of darkness that he got himself into, but ultimately working out the destiny of a hero. Yet not a hero by design. A dude just like you and me, full of anger and weakness, who is learning to live up to a life that he was never really made for.
That’s what this movie is saying. You do not have to be ordained to be the king by the Prophet Samuel in order to wield royal power and perform royal duty. Think of the last scene of Black Adam when you see it. Look at where he is sitting. He is the Bastard King. The Walter White. The Ugly Hero. The Villain Prince.
Basically, he is you and me. And he has to learn who he is really going to be when the rubber meets the road, and where the buck stops. Just like you and I do.
The Shazam! movie started us out with the idea of a little boy learning to be a hero. Black Adam is about the heroic path of a guy who was never meant to be a hero. It’s about the heroism of the bystander. The guy who was just there.
The critics are complaining that Black Adam is an action-packed special effects eztravaganza with no appreciable story. But they say this because they are too stupid to see the story in a comic book movie that is just a little too deep for them. Yeah, it’s a profound story about profound character that is told by scene development, action sequences, and Dwayne’s Johnson’s subtly quivering lip or instant of slight confusion that only the attentive will notice. It’s like the kibuki of comic book movies, an opera of pantomime. The movie is stunningly beautiful, even in the ugliness of its carnage against the backdrop of a ruined and terrorized African nation in which it is set. The character is properly introduced by epic battle, shown to be the Superman level of power type of hero that the first Shazam! movie didn’t actually get across to audiences (though it looks like the Shazam! sequel will rectify this problem with some epic action of its own).
So other than a detail or two about Hawkman and the thing about being the family member of the previous Immortal Champion, I didn’t really spoil this movie in the traditional way. I gave you the background behind the hero and the history of the Shazam mythos that you won’t have gotten unless you’re a comic book geek. But I did kind of spoil the movie by telling you what I think it meant. With that, though, I’d like to challenge you to go see the movie and find out if you see the same thing I did, and think for yourself if that meaning was conveyed well or not, or if you see a different meaning in the film, and if the meaning you see was conveyed well. As far as I am concerned, the story was fully developed, true to the essence of the character, and very impressive since it was all delivered via enormous action sequences and a few words in between.
Superhero movie critics these days seem basically programmed to hate anything that is NOT Marvel and anything that DOES deliver a powerful story. I lament this because the post Endgame marvel movies, Black Widow, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder have all basically sucked, if you ask me. Only Shang-Chi impressed me, and that was only on account of the incredible depth of Tony Leung’s portrayal of the Mandarin. I’ve been arguing for the genius of the Snyderverse for years now, saying that DC’s movies deliver deeper stories in the comic genre. Now you can add Matt Reeves’ The Batman to Snyder’s and Ayer’s amazing storytelling. But it seems the audiences have gotten it right. They are loving it. This is a testimony to the resilience of humanity against media programming. Now then, the only thing that remains is for people to go out and see this film and show us how much of a box office haul it will bring in.