‘Black Adam’ has been heralded as a new direction for DC’s film franchise, but the Rock-fronted movie looks a lot like its predecessors—and the DCEU’s direction still isn’t clear
“The new era of the DC Universe awakens.”
“Black Adam will serve as our phase 1 of storytelling in our DC Universe.”
“The hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change.”
These are all statements promoting the latest installment of the DCEU, Black Adam, which premiered in theaters on Friday. They’re also all statements coming from the man portraying Black Adam, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—and the blockbuster king seems to be pushing a pretty clear agenda about his film shaking up the entire fabric of the DCEU as we know it. As Johnson sees it, Black Adam is positioned to be something of a rebirth for the interconnected superhero franchise at large.
“It’s a unique time in the superhero genre, where there’s the introduction of fresh blood and new characters on both sides of the aisle—at Marvel and certainly at DC,” Johnson recently told The New York Times. “And the launching of Black Adam is converging with a time where they are also bringing in new leadership at Warner Bros. and new leadership on the DC side is soon to be coming in. I feel very confident about the direction of the DC universe. It is going to require real strategy and real leadership. And that requires us not to look at Marvel’s success and say, let’s follow that blueprint. That’s Marvel. I’m very happy for them. We don’t want to be Marvel, in my opinion. We want to be DC and we want to do it our way.”
As Johnson describes, there’s an ongoing shake-up happening behind the scenes at Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment. Thus, Black Adam is one of the first opportunities to see what the future of Marvel’s top competitor looks like now that Zack Snyder’s hold over the DCEU seemingly concluded upon the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. (The only DCEU theatrical release between March 2021’s “Snyder Cut” and Black Adam was James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, which came out last August. The Batman, which was released this March, exists in a cinematic universe of its own.) But as much as Johnson and the film’s marketing have teased a new beginning, Black Adam feels both stuck in the Snyderverse era and unsure of where the DCEU is heading next.
Although Black Adam was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously teamed up with the Rock for a ride on the Jungle Cruise, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought the new movie was Snyder’s work. The film carries many of the former DCEU visionary’s trademarks: abundant use of dark, cloudy-looking CGI that makes it look like it’s going to rain at any moment; a brooding, self-serious protagonist; and a lot—like a lot—of slow-motion action sequences. The first extended fight featuring Black Adam finds the antihero, fresh off of a 5,000-year nap, moving so quickly that everyone around him is operating at a glacial pace in comparison; with all the bolts of lightning added into the mix, it sure looks like the visual language Snyder used to display the Flash’s movements.
But even more puzzling than the recycled visual style are the film’s attempts to be a world-building platform for the DCEU and its future projects. Along with its titular antihero, Black Adam introduces the Justice Society of America—a team of superheroes with a comics history that dates further back than the Justice League’s. There’s also the outsize presence of Task Force X, the government-issued name for the so-called Suicide Squad, with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) continuing her prolific role as something of a more ruthless version of Nick Fury. Then there are the expected ties to the Shazam! franchise, with Black Adam alter ego Teth-Adam’s origins—and the source of his powers—aligning with those of Shazam alter ego Billy Batson. And lastly, there’s Superman. We’ll get to talking about Superman, don’t you worry.
Those are a lot of moving parts to fit into an origin story about a little-known title character, and as charismatic (and superhuman, even before the CGI) as the Rock is, even he can’t carry all the additional weight they bring into a narrative that spans thousands of years. By no real fault of Johnson’s, the JSA is the most interesting aspect of Black Adam—and yet the team also has something of an odd debut. It’s positioned as a new group in the DCEU, but given its ties to Waller and the presumed experience of veteran members Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the JSA also appears to have been active for quite some time. The JSA effectively fills the vacuum left by the Justice League—but the film never really addresses that, either. Given how much effort Black Adam devotes to introducing the JSA, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn Black Adam v The Justice Society: Dusk of Justice was a potential title at some point in the creative process.
Meanwhile, Task Force X appears multiple times in the film, though only as an extension of the U.S. government; there aren’t any surprise Harley Quinn or Weasel sightings here. Waller sends the JSA to Black Adam’s native land of Kahndaq once she learns that the legendary figure has reawakened, and her subordinate Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) returns for a brief cameo after last appearing on Gunn’s Peacemaker series. However, the film all but ignores the events of Peacemaker, which ended with Waller’s daughter Adebayo revealing her mother’s international crimes and the unethical nature of Task Force X for the entire world to see. Waller seems to have more power than ever in Black Adam, and it appears that Harcourt’s transgressions in The Suicide Squad—which relegated her to working with a vigilante like Peacemaker—are either forgiven or forgotten.
It remains to be seen whether the upcoming Shazam! Fury of the Gods can replicate the success of its predecessor, but the foundations are laid for Black Adam and Shazam to meet down the road given their shared origins. However, the bigger crossover setup in Black Adam is centered on a different superhero: Superman. The Last Son of Krypton returns for the first time since the Justice League films, not counting the character’s (but not Cavill’s) cameo as a non-speaking silhouette at the end of Peacemaker. (Although Snyder’s slightly improved, extremely lengthy version came out last year, the messy Joss Whedon Cut was released in 2017.)
The crossover appearance doesn’t come as much of a shock after how much Johnson has teased it, but it is something of a surprise to see Henry Cavill back in the red-and-blue tights once again. (While we’re here, remember the mustache debacle?) The film’s post-credits scene lays the groundwork for a forthcoming battle between Black Adam and Superman, as Waller warns Kahndaq’s protector that she can phone in a favor from an otherworldly figure who stands as a worthy opponent to him. With Superman and Black Adam meeting face to face as the stinger comes to a close, the showdown has already been set; at this point, it’s pretty much just a matter of when and where it will happen.
All of this is to say that Black Adam is a busy movie. There’s a lot crammed into a running time that barely eclipses the two-hour mark, and when you combine all the world-building elements with an origin story that isn’t as novel as it makes itself out to be, the result is pretty messy—another trait this film shares with the majority of those in the Snyderverse era that it’s supposed to be moving on from. But when you consider that the Justice League appeared during a cameo at the end of Peacemaker earlier this year; Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and the untitled Wonder Man sequel are both still in the works; The Flash is still somehow not canceled despite the ever-growing controversies surrounding Ezra Miller; and a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel was recently announced; the question is: Has the Snyderverse era ended at all?
It doesn’t seem like even those working at Warner Bros. Discovery know the answer, and the real explanation lies somewhere amid the chaos behind the scenes of the volatile DCEU. As Warner Bros. Discovery CEO and president David Zaslav explained during a company earnings call in August, a long-term strategy is already in motion.
“We have done a reset. We’ve structured the business,” Zaslav announced. “There will be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC. It’s very similar to the structure that Alan Horn and Bob Iger put together very effectively with Kevin Feige at Disney. We think we could build a long-term, much more sustainable growth business out of DC, and as part of that, we’re going to focus on quality. We’re not going to release any film before it’s ready.”
Despite Johnson’s aforementioned comments suggesting the contrary, Black Adam signals DC’s attempt at creating the kind of long-term plan that Marvel executed so effectively during its decade-long Infinity Saga. The problem is, this isn’t a hard reset, as Zaslav and Johnson are promoting. You can call it Phase 1 if you like, but DC’s previous Snyderverse era is as alive as ever—even if Snyder is out of the picture. And while the MCU has grown more inconsistent during Phase 4, the Multiverse Saga at least has three phases of films and a number of wildly successful crossover events to build on. DC Entertainment is starting its “reset” with a multiverse approach of parallel cinematic universes despite a shaky foundation, and the future of the DCEU has never been less clear.
With The Suicide Squad, its spinoffs, and a secret project in the works, James Gunn has carved out his own corner of the DCEU, and the prominence of Task Force X in Black Adam seems to suggest that Gunn’s role could expand. Following the success of The Batman earlier this year, director Matt Reeves is creating a Bat-Verse that exists on its own, with a planned project centered on Colin Farrell’s Penguin the first of several spinoffs to come. And three years into Bad Robot’s contract with Warner Bros., without a film or series to show for it, J.J. Abrams’s ambitious Justice League Dark plans may or may not ever come to fruition. (Relatedly: R.I.P., Batman: Caped Crusader, we hardly knew ye.)
The real issue looming behind Zaslav’s supposed 10-year plan, of course, is the fact that there isn’t a Feige-like figure to lead the DCEU into a new era in the first place. With Walter Hamada quietly ending his tenure as head of DC Films this past week, there’s a leadership vacuum that has yet to be filled despite Warner Bros. Discovery’s best efforts. Producer Dan Lin was reportedly close to signing a deal to take over the position at DC Films in August, but the deal fell through and the search continues, with Warner Bros. Pictures head Michael De Luca serving in the interim.
Despite all the internal chaos, including canceled projects like the Batgirl movie, the DCEU is still pushing ahead, and creators are seizing their chance to scoop up valuable IP in the process. “Right now it’s the Wild West,” an insider at Warner Bros. Discovery told The Hollywood Reporter. “Everyone is trying to grab as much as they can. And this is exactly what happens in a leadership vacuum.”
It’s only fitting that Black Adam is as messy as it is, considering it’s caught between the old DCEU and whatever we could call this new era. Perhaps even more appropriate is the fact that in spite of a 39 percent critic score on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of publication, the film just enjoyed the best domestic debut for any Johnson-led blockbuster, after previous critically panned entries like the original Suicide Squad defied reviews to fare well in theaters. How Black Adam, which has yet to receive a release date in China, continues to perform after its opening weekend may be telling, but Johnson’s star power alone seems to be enough to keep the franchise going as the Rock becomes entrenched in the DCEU.
There’s a scene midway through Black Adam that serves as an apt, almost on-the-nose representation of the limbo the DCEU finds itself in and what this film is attempting to do. In a classic superhero trope, two “good guys” are fighting each other before inevitably finding peace through an alliance against a common enemy, as Hawkman and Black Adam bring their storied rivalry from the comics to the big screen for the first time. This fight occurs in a child’s bedroom, covered wall to wall with Justice League memorabilia. As they duke it out—in slow motion, of course—the camera lingers on posters and figurines of Aquaman, Wonder Man, Superman, and Batman, with two new DC heroes literally tearing down the old guard. Black Adam wins, solidifying his case to sit atop the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe. Before we can care about Black Adam taking on Superman, though, Warner Bros. Discovery needs to figure out what it wants that universe to be.