In Review: 'Black Adam,' 'Ticket to Paradise'
This week's new releases feature Dwayne Johnson as a murderous superhero and George Clooney and Julia Roberts as squabbling exes. Fun stuff? Read on to find out.
Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
Let’s start by emphasizing the positive: Yes, Black Adam is yet another superhero origin story, but it at least tries to play around a bit with what that means. Scripted by Adam Sztykiel (Rampage), Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, it opens 5000 years ago in the ancient Middle Eastern land of Kahndaq and tells the story of how a boy named Teth-Adam dared to stand up to Kahndaq’s oppressive rulers and, as a reward, received tremendous powers from a council of wizards, enacted by saying the word “Shazam.”* One heroic fight scene later, however, he found himself buried in the mountains outside Kahndaq’s capital until awakened thousands of years later. Except that’s not quite the whole story. Over the course of the film, Black Adam peels back the legend to reveal the full, more complicated circumstances that led to the creation of the superpowered, cape-clad, bad-tempered super-being played by Dwayne Johnson.
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Clever? Sort of. The real story isn’t all that different, or more interesting, than the original version. Also clever, but only up to a point, is the decision to make the reawakened Teth-Adam play a central role in a story dusted with sprinkles of modern Middle Eastern politics. (The team of Haines and Noshirvani also wrote the political drama The Mauritanian.) Sure, the forces of oppression here aren’t European colonialists or a religious dictatorship but a criminal consortium known as Intergang, but the percentage of The Battle of Algiers in Black Adam’s DNA is not zero.
Yet if Black Adam is a little more innovative conceptually than might be expected of the latest entry in the DC Extended Universe film catalog, the execution is pretty much business as usual. Awakened by a group of resistance fighters led by Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), an academic in search of a powerful ancient artifact she fears will fall into the wrong hands, Teth-Adam grumpily kills a bunch of bad guys, the first of many scenes in which Black Adam raises the question of whether or not extrajudicial killings can be morally justified. (Its troubling ultimate conclusion: Hell yeah!)
All this attracts the attention of the Justice Society of America, a previously unseen superteam the film treats like old, familiar friends moviegoers have seen many times before. But the team is composed largely of characters known only to hardcore comics readers and nonagenarians who read the World War II-era adventures of Doctor Fate and Atom Smasher the first time around. Pierce Brosnan plays Fate with a wry deftness to match the gravity of his friend and foil Hawkman (Aldis Hodge). The modern Atom Smasher (Noah Ceintineo) and Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) round out the team while bringing down its median age. Everyone’s pretty good, even if Ceintineo is essentially playing a carbon copy of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. If only the film had given us any reason to care about these characters.
With little to suggest his past as a master of mid-budget, often Liam Neeson-starring action films like Non-Stop, The Shallows, and The Commuter, Jaume Collet-Serra provides steady-handed but anonymous direction. In some ways it’s the best, and maybe the only, approach to the material, which delivers the expected, endless volleys of CGI-heavy, slo-mo action scenes and trusts Johnson’s charisma to do a lot of heavy lifting. But even that’s merely serviceable. His natural charm doesn’t really match Teth-Adam’s murderous rage particularly well, but he gets the job done. So does the movie, which feels like a labor of love but with all the love removed, less a story that needed to be told than a checklist on a studio agenda. “How long are we going to keep doing this?,” Hawkman says to Teth-Adam as they prepare for a late-film confrontation. It’s hard not to share his sense of exhaustion. —Keith Phipps
* Yes, his powers come from the same source as those of Shazam, the hero previously known as Captain Marvel who received his own origin story in the 2019 film Shazam! No, that character is never referenced here even though Teth-Adam was originally created as a villain for
Captain Marvel Shazam. Yes, superhero continuity and the decisions behind superhero movies are confusing.)
Black Adam opens widely tonight.
Ticket to Paradise
Dir. Ol Parker
In 1984, the film scholar Stanley Cavell published Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, an essential book about classic screwball romantic comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, like Adam’s Rib, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, and The Lady Eve. While not all of these films are about literal remarriage, Cavell makes important connections between stories in which a couple reunites after a period of separation or a serious dispute. In order to get back together, there has to be a kind of renegotiation of terms, so they can begin again on equal footing, with a deeper respect for one another’s liberty and personal needs. What gives these films their unique electricity—aside from sparkling dialogue and immense star power—is that the stakes feel real, reflecting a battle of the sexes that was taking place in society at large.
In principle, Ticket to Paradise is a throwback to the remarriage comedy, with two of Hollywood’s most enduring stars, George Clooney and Julia Roberts, squaring off as a long-divorced couple who fly to Bali in an effort to prevent their daughter from getting married. The basic idea is that their attempts at sabotage—to keep their only child from making the same mistake they did—would bring them back together in this gorgeous tropical backdrop. But there’s a fundamental problem here: Why are they fighting? What do they have to argue about? The film never bothers to clarify any philosophical issue that puts them at odds. They just squabble on instinct whenever they come into contact, over silly things like who gets the armrest when they’re sitting together or custody arrangements that elapsed many years earlier.
At least they have a decent reason for concern. Their daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) was supposed to be in Bali to decompress after law school before starting her career at a respected firm in Chicago. But she isn’t on the island for long before falling in love with Gede (Maxime Bouttier), a handsome local who lives modestly—though not that modestly—as a seaweed farmer alongside a close and extensive family. Georgia (Roberts) and David (Clooney) are unhappy about Lily tossing her professional ambitions aside for the simple life in paradise, and they agree on a “Trojan horse” operation to support Lily’s sudden wedding plans outwardly while undermining them at every turn.
The dreadful first half of Ticket to Paradise is misjudged on two fronts simultaneously: Georgia and David bicker constantly for few good reasons, other than maybe David’s jealousy over the dimwit commercial pilot Georgia is currently seeing. (This is the traditional Ralph Bellamy role, though Lucas Bravo isn’t nearly as fun as a wet noodle.) And the more time they spend with Lily and Gede together, the more contrived and cruel their scheming gets, given the plain fact that they’re looking at two young adults in love who might enjoy a worry-free life in the most beautiful place on Earth. So the “Why are they arguing?” question joins hands with the “Why are they ruining this?”
The answers to both questions are the same: Because the movie could not exist otherwise. The gnawing arbitrariness of Ticket to Paradise cuts to the heart of why the Hollywood rom-com has been so deficient for so long, often turning to outrageously silly premises just to throw some obstacles in the way. The film improves in the second half when Georgia and David’s objections to the marriage—and to each other—start to ease off, and Roberts and Clooney can shift more into the flirty banter and old-school glamor of the Ocean’s movies. Director Ol Parker, who made the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies and the superior sequel Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, clearly enjoys staging romantic fantasies in beautiful, far-flung locales and he eventually gets to a place where he can make another one. But to quote a line that’s often shared between the leads: Why wait for the good stuff? — Scott Tobias
Ticket to Paradise opens widely tonight.