Black Adam: Hollywood returns to a state of cultural blindness
In Black Adam, the eponymous hero is awakened after 5000 years by a professor in need of rescuing from ruthless mercenaries deep in an ancient temple of Kahndaq – a fictional Middle Eastern country.
A slave-turned-magically-imbued champion of the ancient civilisation, this superpowered saviour makes short, violent work of these foreign foes and their modern weapons of destruction.
"Why have the producers gone to great lengths to cast actors with MENA heritage to play the Kahndaqi supporting characters, but not the lead? Why do these Kahndaqi characters have Middle Eastern accents but Black Adam does not?"
It’s a brutal, blackly humorous action sequence that pushes the bloody boundaries of previous 12A superhero movies. And yet, the first words this all-powerful Kahndaqi utters then (and throughout the film) are delivered in an American accent.
Now, I’ve been pretty consistent with my frustration about Dwayne Johnson taking this role. Sure, I could understand why he was cast 15 years ago after playing the Mesopotamian villain-turned-hero Scorpion King in The Mummy franchise. He was big, brown and it was a time before Hollywood really started to listen to the demand for better, more accurate ethnic representation.
So why in 2022 have we accepted the casting of a non-Middle Eastern actor as the first Middle Eastern superhero to get a solo movie? Star power?
Gal Gadot, Simu Liu, Chris Hemsworth and Zachary Levi didn’t have it when they were cast as Wonder Woman, Shang-Chi, Thor and Shazam, respectively.
Why have the producers gone to great lengths to cast actors with MENA heritage to play the Kahndaqi supporting characters, but not the lead? Why do these Kahndaqi characters have Middle Eastern accents but Black Adam does not?
When a relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman was cast as Black Panther he fought to ensure he and his castmates playing Wakandans could speak with sub-Saharan African accents.
"They felt like it was maybe too much for an audience to take," the late actor said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "They felt like, 'Would people be able to understand it through a whole movie?' and 'If we do it now, we're stuck with it.' I felt the exact opposite – like, if I speak with a British accent, what's gonna happen when I go home?"
Given that Boseman shared a similar African heritage to the Marvel hero, hearing him speak was certainly not jarring. Was Johnson concerned that it would be awkward for him to use a Middle Eastern accent because he is not? I wish I had the answers but so far in this press tour, I’ve not read one interview where a journalist has posed these valid questions to the actor.
The American accent isn’t just jarring because of the casting. The thematic throughline of director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film about neo-imperialist oppression in the Middle East and the overreach of Western superpowers is inconsistent and certainly doesn’t hit as hard when the super-saviour sounds like the so-called foreign invaders he’s fighting against. This, however, is the tip of the iceberg for the ineffectiveness of a film that once promised to change the game for superhero stories.
So, let’s get into it.
In typical origin story fashion, we begin in 2600 BCE and are told the story of how Teth-Adam gets his powers (It’s changed to “Black” later). The tyrannical king of Kahndaq has enslaved the people and forced them to mine for a special mineral called Eternium. He needs it to fashion a demonic crown that would allow him to wield dark powers and rain hell on Earth.
When a slave boy rebels and faces execution, the wizard Shazam (who also gave the DC hero Shazam his powers) picks him as Earth’s magical champion and the fight begins.
"The thematic throughline of director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film about neo-imperialist oppression in the Middle East and the overreach of Western superpowers is inconsistent and certainly doesn’t hit as hard when the super-saviour sounds like the so-called foreign invaders he’s fighting against"
This ancient world takes its cues from Zack Synder’s predilection for highly-stylised Orientalism but as we fast forward to present-day Kahndaq, it is drenched in the yellow filter Hollywood loves to other Middle Eastern places with.
The streets are dusty, buildings are dirty and God forbid there’s a car on the street designed later than 1990.
Kahndaq is being occupied by a mercenary crime syndicate called Intergang and they are brutally oppressing the Kahndaqi people while robbing the land of its natural resources to fuel its arsenal. Resistance comes in the form of Professor Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), her electrician brother Karim (Mohammed Amer) and her superhero-obsessed son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui). They bring heart to these side characters but they are mostly just there to humanise Teth-Adam.
A sort of T2: Judgement Day relationship develops between Amon and Teth-Adam which has its funny moments as the kid teaches the ancient dude about modern life and catchphrases but Johnson is too robotic.
Honestly, this was surprising to see from the normally hilarious and magnetic actor. Here Johnson's line delivery is flat, his brooding lacks charisma and his comedic beats are hit-and-miss.
Comedian Mo Amer manages to earn a few chuckles with his quips and sight gags but the script penned by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, is bland. It’s simultaneously too exposition-heavy and yet doesn’t tell us enough thanks to a glut of new DC characters it has to introduce.
A central conflict occurs between Teth-Adam and the seemingly-long established Justice Society, not to be confused with the Justice League – where have they been all this time?
Led by a no-nonsense Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) it features heroes Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centino), who are cute but feel inessential to the plot apart from a couple of action scenes.
Interestingly, the writers chose to go with a younger version of Atom Smasher but not the younger version of Fate, Khalid Nassour, an Egyptian-American medical student who inherits the title from Kent Nelson, here played by the always charming Pierce Brosnan.
Between this casting choice, and the complete lack of backstory for either this magical hero or Hawkman, the MENA elements are stripped away in favour of an over-Americanised narrative.
It both wants to admonish these patronising heroes whilst also relying on them to save the day yet never having them do any significant self-interrogation.
The Justice Society preach “no killing,” but they are under the jurisdiction of Task Force X’s Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) who famously pushes the kill-to-win strategy. Adrianna defends Teth-Adam by saying he’s willing to do the dark things white knights like the Justice Society can’t do but two Suicide Squad movies and a Peacemaker series have already played this song. Did we also forget that Wonder Woman killed terrorists in Justice League? That Superman killed Zod in Man of Steel? Make it make sense.
Then we have Marwan Kenzari’s Ishmael whose tightly-coiled mullet, 80s look lets us know that he’s bad news. I once tweeted Johnson that I’d be unimpressed if they made Kenzari a villain. He said I would be and I can confirm that I am. He’s barely in it, only to pop up in the latter half with a rushed generic plot twist to lead us into the big final battle. Once again I am asking Hollywood to give this dreamboat a leading role worthy of his talent.
"I once tweeted Johnson that I’d be unimpressed if they made Kenzari a villain. He said I would be and I can confirm that I am"
The action sequences might be the film’s strongest element but there’s a decreasing return on investment as the film tumbles along.
For a superteam that cares about human life, there’s a surprising lack of regard for the buildings, ancient architecture and busy markets they help destroy in some rather repetitive slow-motion fight scenes against this vengeful champion.
If anything this movie has made me have more respect for filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Destin Daniel Cretton and Mohammed Diab who enriched their superhero stories with cultural specificity. Here we have Karim listening to old American hits, Amon's room covered in Batman and Superman posters and a KFC (Kahndaqi Fried Chicken) gag – would it have killed them to use a needle drop from a Middle Eastern artist? Moon Knight is full of them.
Ultimately Black Adam is culturally deficient, narratively inconsistent and a frustratingly superficial instalment in DC’s cinematic universe. The hierarchy of power remains intact.
Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint