This isn’t a review of Black Adam. For my money it was a decent enough superhero yarn. There were plenty of colorful characters beating the crap out of each other to hold my interest. I’ll note that it’s been on HBO Max for about a month and I still haven’t taken the time to give it a second viewing, so take from that what you will.
No, what I want to write about today is a question the film asks in the first act but then proceeds to forget altogether.
The setup is simple. The once-great nation of Kahndaq has fallen into penury under a steady stream of invaders and conquerors. The latest occupier is Intergang, an army of high-tech mercenaries. As they plunder what’s left of the country’s resources, they release Black Adam from his five thousand year long imprisonment. He is the legendary Champion of Kahndaq ™, with the powers of Shazam, and an old testament mindset. Demonstrating the lack of restraint that led the Council of Wizards to incarcerate him in the first place, he proceeds to murder the ever-loving crap out of the goons. This upsets the status quo and prompts Amanda Waller to send in the Justice Society to kill or capture Black Adam because, well, if anyone’s going to commit atrocities it’s her.
After the Justice Society arrives they make contact with some locals who ask the question that has fascinated me for the past few weeks. To paraphrase: “Who the hell are you guys to come in here and take away the first hope we’ve had in, like, forever? Where were you guys when Intergang took over our country? For that matter, where the hell was the Justice League?”
I mean, they’re not wrong. They’re the victims of a great injustice, and the Society literally has “Justice” in its name. Shouldn’t they have done something? The problem is there’s no simple answer. Or rather, there is one, but it’s not satisfying in the context of a superhero story.
To answer the question, we need to examine whether a team of superheroes would even have the juice to send Intergang packing. Of course, this depends on which team we’re talking about. The Justice Society in the movie—Hawkman, Atom Smasher, Cyclone and Dr. Fate—is pretty small. In fact, the team seems designed for the sole purpose of taking down Black Adam. We need to invade and pacify a nation, so let’s drop them from consideration. The Justice League packs more of a punch anyway. For sake of argument, let’s use the original line-up from The Brave and the Bold #28. That gives us Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. This team has a solid mix of heavy hitters, hard targets and special operations types that we’ll need to pull this off.
Now, let’s consider the target. I couldn’t find any data specifying Kahndaq’s geographical size or population in the DC wiki, but we know it’s loosely based on Egypt. With a population of almost one hundred million, it has 685,000 troops defending almost four hundred thousand square miles. Right off, we can see that this seems a bit much for seven people, even people such as the JLA. Even if the army collapses after taking 20% losses, that’s 120,000+ corpses to bury. Black Adam might have the belly for that sort of slaughter, but he’s not a hero. The members of the JLA are. It’s inconceivable that they would do this.
Well, I’m still having fun writing this piece, so let’s see if we can find a model that makes for a plausible scenario. Across the Mediterranean from our fictional North African nation, we have Monaco. It’s about two square kilometers in size, has under forty thousand people and only one city to speak of. For defense it has five hundred cops and a whopping 116 military personnel. (If you’re curious, it’s army is so small because it’s a protectorate of France. Let’s hand-wave that little fact away and say Kahndaq stands alone.) That sounds like the sort of numbers Intergang could field, and I don’t find it too hard of a stretch to say Black Adam could take them down. So, yeah, it wouldn’t be pretty, but the JLA could clear Intergang out if they put their minds to it.
Let’s fast-forward past several cinematic set-piece battles, some clever banter, a tense scene where Batman has to disarm a doomsday weapon and cut to the end. As the smoke clears, our worn and battered heroes emerge triumphant from the rubble. The dramatic soundtrack reaches its crescendo. Kahndaq is finally free from the iron grip of Intergang.
Looking around, we see that the place is a mess. There are a lot of wounded. Besides the Intergang thugs, plenty of civilians have gotten caught in the crossfire. Several, heck, most, of the city’s buildings got wrecked in the battle, leaving a lot of people homeless. Those who still have homes don’t have power or water, and the city’s sewage facilities may not be working. The infrastructure wasn’t well maintained by Intergang to begin with, and it took a beating during the fight. The JLA would help with the relief efforts, of course, but none of them know how to rebuild a city. As much as it pains my libertarian heart to say it, Kahndaq needs a government.
Intergang doesn’t seem like they’d have an interest in civil administration. There are a few administrative agencies staffed by locals, but that’s it. These organizations are overseen by quislings of Intergang and corrupt as hell. Even those few officials that are on the level don’t have the trust of the people. After several thousand years of foreign control, we find Kahndaq is incapable of self-governance. We have a power vacuum here and it will be filled. If the JLA’s actions were under the sanction of a government, this problem would belong to the authorizing body. But, the JLA took this upon themselves. They broke this country. Now they own it.
Are they up to the task? Let’s see what they bring to the table. The only person in the JLA with experience as a head of State is Aquaman. Seeing as how Atlantis tends to erupt into civil war every couple of months, he may not be the man for the job. Even if he tried, he’d just be one more foreign invader. If they leave, another band of terrorist mercenaries will waltz in and take over. If they try to prop up a new government, well, we know how well nation building has worked in the real world. I don’t like their odds.
To conclude my little rant, I’ll rephrase my original question. If you have the power, do you have the responsibility, or even the right, to use it? As we see in the case of Kahndaq, the answer is, “Maybe, but you have a higher responsibility to not make things worse.”
And that doesn’t make for a satisfying superhero story, at least not the type Hollywood will tell you. At their core, superhero stories are sweeping tales of good versus evil, action and unbridled power. As escapist fantasy goes, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with tucking in with a big bucket of popcorn and watching a pantheon of modern gods go on a fantastic adventure filled with big budget CGI battles and goofy quips. This is the reason Black Adam works as a passable film.
But, it’s also why it fails. Good stories are also about consequences. At the end of the flick, Kahndaq is free, but in the same state as in my JLA scenario. The country is in shambles and there is no resolution to that problem. The film has forgotten an essential truth: defeating the bad guys isn’t the end of the story.