There are so many logic-insulting choices in Black Adam that a full discussion would be the length of a novel. So I’m only going to focus on two of these “What in the world were they thinking?” moments. The first is Black Adam’s imprisonments. The second is Amon Tomaz’s rallying of the Kahndaqs to go fight undead skeletons.
Black Adam’s imprisonments
Imprisonment one: the floor
Let’s get the stupid out of the way before I go all writer-nerd.
Initially, the legend is that Kahndaq’s champion slumbers but will eventually awaken to once again save Kahndaq from oppression. When Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) reads the words on the floor and says Shazam, she thinks she’s awakened Black Adam from that heroic nap. It turns out the “nap” was actually a prison the Shazam wizards banished Adam (Dwayne Johnson) to after he lost control of his power and blew up Kahndaq.
That begs the question. If you’re going to the lengths of imprisoning someone because you think they’re too powerful to be allowed freedom, why would you put the password to their prison on the front door? That’s exactly what happened. All anyone had to do in those 5,000 years was read the words on the floor. Granted, it seems very few people knew whatever the language was. But Adrianna is just some random professor. If the information was available to her, it’s available to others. Why would these all-powerful Shazam wizards make such a stupid prison? There’s legitimately zero reason for them to put the password on the door like that.
Having that be the mechanism by which Black Adam is released is just bad writing. Remember, writers can make up anything. It’s not like this was based on a true story and they’re locked into certain facts. Unfortunately, being able to make up anything also means that most of the available choices are ridiculous, silly, dumb, insulting, absurd, etc. Very few will be interesting and good and logical.
How would I have handled it? Just off the top of my head. Say that in order to keep Black Adam imprisoned, The Wizards needed some magical item to serve as a lock. Even though they wanted to destroy the Crown of Sabbaq, it was the only thing powerful enough to seal Black Adam away. So they hid both it and Adam in this mountain. Problem solved. Except 5000 years later, Adrianna shows up and takes the crown. That unlocks Adam’s prison. The whole scene with the Intergang soldiers arriving could still happen. But it’s crosscut with darkness and muffled sounds of gunfire. When we cut back to the darkness, crackles of lightning appear. Until finally the lightning-infused eyes open. Then Adam emerges from the ground and everything follows as it did.
If you do it that way, you further link the destinies of Adam and Sabbac, and show they’ve been passively struggling against one another for the entire 5,000 years. Which neatly infuses the final showdown between the two.
Imprisonment two: under the sea
Adam feels so bad about losing control of his power, and almost hurting Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), that he says Shazam and acquiesces to re-imprisonment. So The Justice Association fly him from Kahndaq to some underwater super prison. Then fly back to Kahndaq, start the final battle, only for Adam to wake up, break free, and return to Kahndaq. It’s a logistical nightmare. It’s not just a logistical nightmare, it’s nonsense. You go through all this trouble for what? 5 minutes of the character being away from the action?
Do you know why they did this? I’ll tell you.
Blockbuster movies like Black Adam often fall back on the typical heroic journey narrative structure. Meaning a character starts out in a normal or reduced state of being, is offered a call to action, grows, eventually returns to a reduced state, only to break barriers and transcend. It’s storytelling 101 and anyone who watches movies enough to be reading this article has probably seen this structure used dozens of times (if not hundreds of times). If you’ve ever watched a Disney movie, you’ve seen this formula in action. Ever watch an Adam Sandler movie? You’ve seen it. What about Star Wars?
The thing with the hero’s journey is that it makes plot choices for you. It’s the narrative equivalent of getting in a self-driving car. For example, after you establish the protagonist, there’s usually a call to action. In this case, it’s Amon and Adrianna asking Adam to be the champion of Kahndaq, to be their hero. And the protagonist always initially refuses the call to action. Which is what Adam does. But you know he’s going to, eventually, accept.
One of the other important moments in the hero’s journey is the nadir. The lowest point. This usually happens 3/4ths through the story and involves the protagonist going to the underworld or returning to their original state of being and losing all progress. The underworld can be quite literal, as in they die (see The Matrix). Or it can be spiritual or even symbolic. For example, in the film 1917, a WWI soldier has to cross a great distance to deliver an important message that will save over 1,600 lives. Late into the journey, the character fights a random enemy, wins, but is knocked out in the process. When he wakes up, it’s night time. The village he’s in is bombed out and fires rage all over the place. Enemy soldiers roam the streets. It’s terrifying. It’s Hell on Earth.
The nadir is always followed by rebirth. The character frees themself of their biggest limitation, usually some emotional baggage, then returns to the journey, re-energized. Rebirth is often associated with water and purification. So it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that in 1917 the character escapes that hellish village by jumping into a river.
What happens in the nadir of Aladdin? Aladdin’s stripped of his genie powers and princely “Ali Baba” persona and returns to just being a “street rat”. He’s devastated but collects himself and finds a way to defeat the evil Jafar and save Princess Jasmine. In Star Wars, the nadir happens near the end of the second movie of the trilogy, when Luke, fresh off his Jedi training with Yoda, tries to fight Darth Vader. Vader physically dominates Luke and punctuates it by cutting off Luke’s hand. Then emotionally destroys Luke by revealing that he, Vader, is Luke’s real father. It’s a huge blow to Luke’s sense of self and causes him to re-examine everything he’s ever known about himself.
Now look at Black Adam. Adam starts off imprisoned in the floor of whatever mountain the Crown of Sabbac is in. That’s his “normal”. When Adrianna frees him, she’s interrupting his normal and kicks off the call to adventure. He’s challenged to grow as a person by multiple people. When he saves Amon, he does something heroic, but in a problematic way that almost hurt everyone. The hero’s journey now insists that Adam should either go to a version of the underworld or return to his initial state. So he de-powers and is re-imprisoned. Why is he imprisoned underwater? Because on the descent it’s symbolic of the underworld. And on ascent, it’s rebirth and purification.
It’s not that the underwater prison was the best decision for the story. It’s that the hero’s journey demanded a nadir that involves an underworld/return to initial state. Because Adam had started the movie in a prison, the filmmakers went with another prison as it was the most obvious thing to do. Why not return him to the original prison he was in? I can only imagine it’s because they wanted to shoe horn in some Waller stuff and have that mini-fight with the soldiers and go with the low-hanging fruit of the water/rebirth symbolism. The original prison was literally just a hole in the ground that’s like 10 miles away. Much less exciting.
My quick fix for this would start with the rescuing of Amon. Instead of letting loose an explosion that hurts a bunch of people, I’d have Adam have to go through an Eternium shield to save Amon. They already established Eternium as something that hurts Adam. Have it weaken him the same way Kryptonite does Superman. I mean, they’ve already established a parallel between Superman and Adam. Just embrace it. By rescuing Amon this way, Adam temporarily loses his power. Meaning he’s vulnerable to the JSA capturing him. Knowing he’d be vulnerable, he saved Amon anyway. And obliterated Ishmael. As Adam’s leaving with the JSA, Ishmael wakes up as Sabbac. Summons up the undead. And goes to the throne. The JSA chase after Sabbac but Adam can’t because he’s still weakened. He’s like the rest of the people in Kahndaq. And in that state, he decides to fight for the people, alongside Adrianna and Amon and Karim. Even though he’s not strong. Not invincible. He’s getting wounded. Adam’s still brave and leading them. And rallies them. His powers eventually kick back in. Then he goes to the palace to fight Sabbac.
This gives more of a purpose to the undead enemies who are otherwise an incredibly stupid thing to have in the movie. And it also solves the issue of why Adam isn’t fighting with the JSA right away, and still necessitates Doctor Fate’s sacrifice. It could even be Doctor Fate still inspiring Adam in a way that reignites the powers.
Just to be clear, I don’t think this is an A+ idea either. It’s just something I came up with in five minutes. If I was writing the story from scratch, it would be so different that we wouldn’t be in this pickle in the first place. But since I’m merely trying to suggest better solutions to what’s already there, this is what you get.
Amon, hand gestures, and battling the undead
This is one of the stupidest things I’ve seen in a movie. Which might be hyperbole. But it upset me. After Ishmael is reborn by the six demons into Sabbac, he, for unexplained reasons, summons forth like 50 undead skeleton warrior monsters. Of course these things are right where Adrianna, Amon, and Karim are.
Amon runs off and finds a group of people. He says, “Hey! What are you all standing around for? This is our chance! With these hands, we built Kahndaq. And with these hands, we will set it free!” He’s thrown up the Roc-a-Fella diamond hand gesture and stands there. This, of course, calls back to Adam’s son, Hurut, and the opening of the movie when Hurut held up the first Eternium stone to inspire the Kahndaqs to rebel against the tyrannical king. A full-circle moment. Past and present collide.
Of course, the Kahndaqs know what the gesture means. The lore of 5,000 years ago remains strong. But the random people who see Amon don’t know how to react. It’s just a kid with his hands in the air with absolutely zero context as to what’s happening, what he wants them to do, where they should go, anything. Until one of them yells out, “WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?!” And then they all buy-in, get hyped, and follow Amon back to fight the skeletons.
Except, what? How do they know about the skeletons? Amon certainly didn’t say anything. And, honestly, what are we talking about here? Like a group of 30-50 people followed Amon? That’s supposed to be emblematic of the entire nation? This is meant to represent a national identity uniting against oppression but it’s playing out with such low stakes that it just feels completely silly. Nevermind that random skeletons with zero backstory or characterization weren’t the enemy of the Khandaqs. It was Intergang. And Intergang COMPLETELY VANISHES. None of the gang is around. They aren’t backing up Saddac. They aren’t helping the Khandaqs. We don’t see them abandon the city. They were meant to be oppressors. They had seized an entire country. But now they’re absolutely nowhere to be found?
I just can’t get over how badly all of this went. Everyone is freaked out but a random kid using a hand gesture without context somehow galvanizes them into battle. Then the battle is worthless to the actual plot. The skeletons don’t matter. Whether the people fight them or run doesn’t matter. Adam doesn’t know the people are fighting. He isn’t inspired by their fight. It has no impact on him. It doesn’t affect Saddac. All it does is give Amon something heroic to do. But we don’t even get the consequences of it. Is Amon famous now? Are people talking about the child leader who helped save the city? Is he going to run for mayor? What was the point of any of it?
Ultimately, the issue is Amon has no character arc aside from coaching Black Adam on some things and slightly mirroring Hurut. He’s a MacGuffin for Black Adam rather than a meaningful character in and of himself. What’s different about him from the beginning of the story and the end? He wanted to help his mom, was told it’s too dangerous, then finally gets to take part in events. That’s just not being able to do something then getting to do something. Is there any meaning there? Does it affect the core of the character? What’s the journey?
This is another dumb, quick example. But imagine if Amon didn’t just skateboard but did graffiti that was political and rebellious. Maybe spray painted the hand gesture. People liked it, recognized it, but never took any rebellious actions. So when Amon goes to recruit everyone, the hand gesture has even more meaning and present day relevance. And then at the end of the movie, instead of having to graffiti dangerously in the night, he’s able to do a mural on the wall of a ruined building, something acknowledging the hope of this new chapter for Kahndaq. Something that the city comes out to see painted and unite around.
Literally my first idea, written without even pausing. Not amazing. But a lot more interesting than what Black Adam did. Also, you just can’t have it be like 30 people versus a bunch of random skeletons. It has to be on a bigger scale than that or it has to not happen at all. Or you need to have an Intergang headquarters and the people seize the headquarters. Or have all the Intergang members become the skeletons. So by defeating the skeletons you’re actually ridding Khandaq of Intergang. Except defeating Sabbac just deleted the skeletons from existence anyway. The people didn’t have to fight at all.
It’s such a weak conclusion to the Khandaq plot that I was mad while writing this whole section. Then mad all over again when I came back the next day to edit the section. And I’m still mad as I write this last paragraph.
The bright spots
I will say, I loved Aldis Hodge. I thought his Hawkman was one of the most magnetic characters in all of superhero cinema, both DCEU and MCU. There was just something about his gravitas and conviction that I found completely compelling. Was also a big fan of Doctor Fate. Their dynamic was a lot of fun and something I wish we got a full film about. Pierce Brosnan gave a great performance. Also, Cyclone and Atom Smasher were fun. I wanted to see more of what they could do. But, man, don’t get me started on the horrendous use of slow mo during every Cyclone fight scene. Those moments were trying so hard to be like Zack Snyder but lacked the understanding Snyder has of spectacle.