Black Adam Is The Pro- Murder Anti-Hero Kids Don’t Need Or Deserve
Parents should think twice before hitting up the latest DC comic book spectacle.
With the premiere of Black Adam, there have been 10 theatrically released movies based on DC Comics that have come out in the last half-decade. Four of those movies — Joker, Birds of Prey, The Suicide Squad, and now Black Adam — have starred supervillains, not superheroes. (Look back one year further and you can add another supervillain movie to the tally, the first Suicide Squad movie in 2016.) It’s certainly curious that almost half of DC’s film output has focused on the bad guys, even if some of them, like Harley Quinn, are increasingly closer to anti-heroes than villains.
It’s also strange that a chunk of these movies, like Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad, are rated-R, and specifically designed not for children. Black Adam is rated PG-13 and is technically positioned as a spin-off of the family-friendly-ish movie Shazam! Still, you can’t help but wonder — as Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson proclaims that, unlike superheroes, Black Adam does kill — who is this movie for? Is Black Adam for kids?
Black Adam, in theaters now, stars Johnson as the titular villain/anti-hero. First appearing in the ‘40s DC comic books as an enemy of Shazam (who was confusingly called “Captain Marvel “in the comics until about a decade ago), Black Adam hails from the ancient fictional middle-eastern nation of Kahndaq. Millenia ago, he was given magical powers by the same wizards who gave Shazam his abilities, but Black Adam, who as a mortal goes by the name Teth-Adam, is not pure of heart and he abuses the abilities. In the 2022 film, he is woken up in the present day and spends the rest of the movie either fighting the mercenaries who are occupying Kahandaq or fighting off the Justice Society, a foursome of B-list superheroes who want to stop Black Adam because he’s too strong and too dangerous.
Eventually, (predictable spoiler alert), Black Adam ends up saving the day, but he is still not going to play by the nice rules of the Justice Society or anybody else.
Is Black Adam appropriate for a 10-year-old? It’s a little more mature and graphic than Shazam!, which is a delightful kids' movie except for the inexplicable scene where it swerves into surprisingly intense horror as the Seven Deadly Sins disembowel and eat people. Black Adam doesn’t have anything that scary — though if squeamish kids are scarred by the sight, early in the film, of Black Adam basically liquifying a guy with electricity in shocking detail, I wouldn’t be surprised. Even so, Black Adam’s content doesn’t feel too far afield of most PG-13 superhero movies these days, if a tad darker and edgier than the average MCU flick.
Not to get on a soapbox, but the bigger question than “Is Black Adam appropriate for a 10-year-old?” is “Should Black Adam be appropriate for a 10-year-old?” It’s a movie that is explicitly about violence — more specifically, it’s about how violence is good. The Justice Society heroes like Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) go on and on about how “heroes don’t kill,” never mind that they do things in the movie that clearly could be fatal to their enemies. (They are also invading a sovereign nation and causing collateral damage with the intent of putting Black Adam in an extra-judicial prison forever. Something to consider.)
The violence inherent in superheroes is a consistent, lingering issue at the core of the genre. Superheroes are great, but time and time again the takeaway is that problems can be solved with punches. Superheroes that kill, intentionally or incidentally, are always present in big comic book movies, but Black Adam is the rare example that makes this subtext into text and comes away with the conclusion that, actually, the superheroes who don’t kill are wrong here, and only Black Adam’s special brand of deadly violence can save the day.
None of this is helped by the fact that Johnson, despite playing a supervillain/anti-hero, can’t seem to help himself from framing himself as a hero to be admired. A badass hero who is not like other heroes, sure, but still a good guy. If Black Adam had the courage to make its central character less likable, and make this an overt film for adults (like Logan) things might be different, but the film is clearly endorsing and condoning his actions.
The action figures, marketed to kids are on the shelves now, which was also true of the ultra-dark new caped-crusader film The Batman, another movie that is arguably not for kids, even though it’s marketed to families. Still, The Batman has something Black Adam lacks, a denouement in which Batman (Robert Pattison) has an epiphany that communicates a message to the audience that Batman’s motivations were toxic. Black Adam does give us a moment where its anti-hero does contemplate his methods but settles on the idea that everything is fine as long as he kills the right people.
This is what happens when you make movies about supervillains who are also heroes. In fairness to the comic book source material, this is a vaguely accurate portrait of the character of Black Adam, at least relative to his moody violence. However, the comics give the character more nuance and complexity, something the film certainly doesn’t do. It’s not that Black Adam is just marketed to the wrong demographic, it’s also a bad movie, regardless of its intended audience. The one-note aspect of the character makes for a film that isn’t about much. It’s probably not a great movie to take your kids to, but you could also avoid it for quality reasons. Watching Black Adam probably isn’t going to embolden kids to not listen to what anybody else thinks and punch out their enemies on the playground, just like The Rock, but it also doesn’t seem like a great message overall.
Black Adam is mostly receiving negative reviews from critics, and for good reason. If you’re looking for a great superhero flick, and you don’t care about any of the problematic aspects of the movie’s demographics, spoiler alert, you will still not like the movie. Oddly enough, Black Adam isn’t promoting itself incorrectly. In fact, its tagline is accurate: “The world needed a hero. It got Black Adam.” Bummer.
Black Adam is now playing in theaters.