• December 9, 2022

‘Black Adam’ wants to be a Marvel movie, but can’t leave the Snyder era behind — and it highlights the mess that DC Studios’ new bosses will have to sort out

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“Black Adam,” the new DC superhero movie starring Dwayne Johnson, opens 5,000 years ago with an origin story for the title character.

During this early prologue, a prisoner is kicked into a pit in slow motion in a moment reminiscent of a scene straight out of Zack Snyder’s 2006 movie “300.” 

Snyder kickstarted an era of DC movies with “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” that culminated with “Justice League” (and then the HBO Max-exclusive director’s cut, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”).

“Black Adam” shows that the shadow of those movies still looms large, no matter how much the studio Warner Bros. wants to escape it.

There are a lot of Snyder-esque moments in “Black Adam,” particularly when it comes to slo-mo action sequences and an overall somber tone. Johnson’s Black Adam is a serious-faced anti-hero who isn’t afraid to kill a lot of people.

But early in the movie, the “Justice Society” is introduced, a group of four superheroes — Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Atom Smasher, and Cyclone — who only get backstory through throwaway lines of dialogue. They infuse the movie with some sense of humor, particularly Atom Smasher, played by Noah Centineo, who is doing his best Tom Holland Spider-Man impression.

There are also random music drops, such as “Paint It, Black” by The Rolling Stones, an apparent effort to add some fun personality to Black Adam’s destruction. The combating tones are confounding.

“Black Adam” is the perfect encapsulation of both the last nearly decade of DC movies and what the franchise wants to be in the future. It’s a balancing act; striving to better compete with Marvel, but can’t fully leave the Snyder era behind. This dynamic highlights the mess that the new DC Studios bosses, James Gunn and Peter Safran, are inheriting.

‘Black Adam’ is a worrying start for the Warner Bros. Discovery era of the DC movie universe

Warner Bros. Discovery announced on Tuesday that Gunn, who directed DC’s “The Suicide Squad” and created its Max spinoff series “Peacemaker,” and Safran, a producer of multiple DC and “Conjuring” movies, would be the co-CEOs and co-chairs of the newly created DC Studios, overseeing DC’s movies, TV, and animation.

It ended Warner Bros. Discovery CEO’s search for an executive to steer DC content in a new direction, similar to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.

I recently wrote about the roadblocks that 10-year plan is already facing, which Gunn and Safran will have to sort out. There are a lot of different cooks in the kitchen, Johnson being one of them; the actor reportedly went around former DC films president Walter Hamada to get a big-name cameo into “Black Adam.” Johnson has also publicly expressed how he doesn’t think DC should “want to be Marvel.”

The drama might be worth it if “Black Adam” was a good movie. With a nearly incomprehensible story, dizzying action sequences, and an atrocious script, it’s not a good start for the Warner Bros. Discovery era of the DC film universe. Don’t just take it from me: it has a 39% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.

But there does seem to be a chasm between critics and general audiences. The movie has a 90% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and received an adequate B+ grade from CinemaScore, which surveys audiences on a movie’s opening night.

It’s also done decent business at the box office, with nearly $150 million worldwide so far, including $67 million in the US over its opening weekend.

Those are middling numbers for most big-budget superhero movies. The fourth “Thor” movie earned $144 million in its debut in the US. DC’s “The Batman” made $134 million in its first weekend.

But Black Adam is also a lesser-known character. The coming weeks will better determine whether the movie is an actual hit. If the movie maintains its momentum at the box office, though, is this what Warner Bros. Discovery will think moviegoers want from their DC movies? 

The prospect is daunting. For all of its troubles, the DC movie universe had at least seemed to be course correcting. Since Snyder’s departure, it produced critical favorites like “The Suicide Squad” and “Shazam!” as well as box-office hits like “Joker” and “Aquaman.”

It adopted a standalone-movie approach, giving filmmakers the opportunity to put their personal touches on their movies rather than focusing on an interconnected universe.

“Black Adam” leans towards the latter. Viola Davis appears as her “Suicide Squad” character Amanda Waller and another big-name DC superhero returns for a cameo. The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, doesn’t so much as put his personal touch on it as borrow familiar touches from past Snyder-directed DC movies.

Johnson says he doesn’t think DC should do things like Marvel, but his movie sets the stage for DC to take another crack at the whole “cinematic universe” thing.

I just hope “Black Adam” isn’t its blueprint.

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