Black Adam, which debuts today, follows a formula that DC has recently found success in its media adaptations. Yes, it’s big and loud and a bit ironic. It draws on a real movie star performance, in this case by Dwayne Johnson, to tie together a ramshackle storyline and random cast of supporting characters. It taps into DC’s long history and deep bank of obscure characters (Atom Smasher? Cyclone? even Black Adam himself?), hinting at the continuity of the “cinematic universe” without obsessing over it.
But the most noticeable how Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, suicide squad and joker on the big screen and peacemaker and the animated series Harley Quinn on HBO Max, Black Adam puts the spotlight on a protagonist who is canonically one of the villains.
That’s kinda weird. Marvel has released dozens of movies and TV shows, and just one, the Disney+ streamer Loki, lists a supervillain on the marquee (yes, some others focus on morally ambiguous protagonists like the Punisher and Scarlet Witch, but they’re based on characters portrayed as heroes in the comics). DC, on the other hand, seems to be making a habit of it.
There are a number of reasons for this. Everyone knows the bad guys are more fun. They’re not stuffy or bound by any moral code, so there’s a lot more you can do with them in terms of storyline, sex appeal, and random, crazy energy. Even movies that focus on the nominal heroes fall apart without a charismatic antagonist.
But this approach also meets the current zeitgeist. If superheroes are a power fantasy, supervillains are a power and freedom fantasy. Antiheroes don’t play by the rules, they’re not accountable to anyone, and they don’t have to pay hypocritical lip service to outdated moral imperatives that no one in official power seems to follow anyway. If you believe that powerful people should, to a certain extent, do whatever they want – and many people in the US and around the world seem to agree with that – then DC’s message is that it takes a villain to be real doing good things resonates.
Black Adam it’s definitely because of that. Comprised of updated versions of some of DC’s oldest characters, the Justice Society represents the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed busybodies trying to tell everyone else what to do without taking a minute to look in the mirror. Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), usually characterized as a pushy jerk in the comics, comes across as particularly arrogant and unlikable in the film alongside his boss, the bossy Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Can you blame Adam and his Kandaq peers like Adriana (Sarah Shahi) for being a bit skeptical about doing things “by the book” when “the book” is being written by out-of-touch elites? As much as DC tries to balance the ideological scales with inclusive casting and a strong anti-neocolonial message, Black Adam seethes with the passion that fuels our political extremes, accompanied by non-stop action, mayhem and plenty of faceless minions who are creatively slaughtered by the down-to-earth Black Adam.
This completes a brand reversal that DC has been attempting on screen for more than a decade. DC Comics was defined by its iconic heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc. – who emerged at a time when comics weren’t doing shades of gray. Too jaded 21stSt To readers of the century, they seem quaint and old-fashioned. It was left to Marvel to bring us superheroes with personal issues like Spider-Man or morally ambiguous antiheroes.
But when it comes to the big screen, companies have flipped the script. Marvel’s characters may be nuanced, but the Disneyfide MCU has a pretty clear moral compass. DC, on the other hand, has ridden its villains to the bank.