No matter its other pluses and minuses, and they're mostly minuses, director Jaume Collet-Sera's Black Adam is certainly one of the oddest comic-book blockbusters I've yet seen, in that it somehow feels like both a superhero/villain origin story, which it is, and the final installment in a three-part series, which it isn't. Then again, maybe I was just hoping it was a trilogy-ender, because after only two hours in the film's company, I think I've already had enough.
I understand that star Dwayne Johnson has been planning this character's cinematic coming-out party for years, and opted against a cameo in 2019's Shazam! (Black Adam being one of Captain Marvel's chief nemeses) in favor of headlining his own DC Studios franchise. Yet for those of us who don't live and breathe comic books, the introduction of this god-like figure with limitless physical strength, the power of flight, and lightning bolts shooting from every conceivable orifice is confounding at best and dully regressive at worst. He's also been shoehorned into a narrative involving an apparent Justice Society of America (as opposed to the better-known League) that few moviegoers had likely heard of prior to Black Adam. On more than a few occasions in Collet-Sera's film, the Society members played by Pierce Brosnan and Aldis Hodge refer to each other as “my dear friend,” and eventually – meaningless Spoiler Alert – a tragedy befalls one of them. There's consequently much slow-motion wailing and gnashing of perfectly sculpted teeth. But by this point, we've barely been introduced to Black Adam himself. Who are these other two superhero knock-offs, one of whom is like Doctor Strange without the wit? And why are we expected to care about either of them?
The DC-devout would likely answer, “Because they debuted in the 1940s! Way before the Justice League! Way before the Avengers!” Fine. Noted. That didn't prevent me from cringing every time any teammate in this four-person superhero brigade – one no doubt more gender- and ethnicity-blended than the one from the '40s – announced “We're the Justice Society!” All I heard in that were the groans of millions of moviegoers recognizing that this was clearly the DC B-team, with Brosnan's Doctor Fate, Aldis' Hawkman, Quintessa Swindell's Cyclone, and Noah Centineo's Atom Smasher clearly inferior to the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al. I guess I can credit screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirivani for giving these folks some attributes to help up remember who they are: Cyclone emits rainbow-colored waves of motion while her hair extensions billow in the wind; Atom Smasher is constantly snacking on a sandwich or bucket of fried chicken; Hawkman, perhaps hypnotized by his gold helmet, looks cross-eyed. Yet astoundingly, as a fighting force, they're even less intriguing than the genetically mutated cabal at the heart of Marvel's Eternals, and that is saying something.
And what of Black Adam himself? He's a rock. Scratch that: He's The Rock. Through torturous exposition and preamble, we learn that the initially named Teth-Adam was awarded the powers of the gods some 5,000 years ago before being imprisoned in a tomb, and is consequently resurrected by the magic words of resistance operative Adrianna Tamaz from the oppressed, fictitious Middle Eastern country of Khandaq. (Sarah Shahi portrays the fierce freedom fighter who lets the god out of the box, and the appealing performer provides the only sustained portrayal in the film.) After Adam is released, he essentially becomes Schwarzenneger in T2, right down to having a skateboard-riding, comic-book-loving teen sidekick (Bodhi Sabongui) teach the behemoth the importance of mercy, as well as the necessity of delivering pithy catchphrases before dispatching assailants. A few of these moments, I'll admit, are legitimately amusing. But while no one will ever accuse Dwayne Johnson, as an actor, of range, Black Adam is still an insult to his range. Watching the star in uncomprehending-cyborg mode does absolutely nothing for an audience, and by the time Adam learns the fine art of sarcasm, Johnson's signature eyebrow-raise comes as way too little way too late. Collet-Sera also directed last summer's Disney cash-grab Jungle Cruise, and as much as comic-book lovers (and sentient humans) may roll their eyes at that movie, Johnson was a lot more varied and funny there than he ever is in Black Adam.
What makes the film even more frustrating than its tiresome been-there/demolished-that formula would suggest is that it keeps threatening to be a more thoughtful, more political entertainment than works of its type generally are. When Hawkman tells Adrianna that the JSA is devoted to world peace and she counters by asking why the people of Khandaq have never seen them fighting for good in their country, the indictment stings: Is the Society, knowingly or not, only dedicated to preserving world peace in Western nations? There are also occasional clashes regarding Black Adam's tendency to actually kill bad guys, which the JSA argues that superheroes never do. (Unless, they neglect to mention, it's Superman dispatching General Zod.) A serious debate on this moral conundrum coming from those with unimaginable powers might be fascinating. But of course, like the question of the JSA's absence from the Middle East, the movie isn't interested in that – not when it can instead get fans cheering the sight of villains being ripped in half or tossed hundreds of miles into the ocean.
Unlike this year's continuations of Marvel's Doctor Strange and Thor franchises, I didn't find Collet-Sera's DC outing disappointing. I expected too little from it to be disappointed. But from the exhausting, world-building voice-over at the start to the portentous, Snyder-ian slow-motion throughout to the wholly anticipated climactic bit in which someone asks our costumed antihero “What should we call you?” and the film's title finally blasts on-screen, Black Adam is a prototypical big-budget bummer. Predictably, a mid-credits kicker promises forthcoming mano a mano slugfests for the ages. Someone wake me when they're over.
TICKET TO PARADISE
If you saw the trailer for director/co-writer Ol Parker's Ticket to Paradise – and if you've been to the cineplex lately, I can't fathom how you didn't see it – you may recall the preview ending with Kaitlin Dever staring at screen parents George Clooney's and Julia Roberts' enthusiastic, embarrassing dancing to House of Pain's “Jump Around” and moaning, “I'm praying for an asteroid!” Anticipating the film's release, that's roughly how I've felt over the past three months.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not blind or immune to the stars' appeal, and am certainly on-board with the decision to showcase intensely charismatic, Oscar-winning talents in an increasingly rare Hollywood release that doesn't require anyone to wear a mask or cape. (With apologies to Clooney, who, in Batman & Robin, was required to do both.) Still, the noxious prospect of watching huffy ex-spouses David and Georgia Cotton team up to prevent their only child Lily's hasty wedding in Bali seemed to ensure an experience I would hate. Little did I know I would wind up hating the movie for different reasons entirely.
To be fair – and in deference to my mom, who loved the film – Parker's lightweight travelogue isn't abjectly worthless, even if it does get worse and worse the longer you dwell on it. As photographed by Ole Bratt Birkeland, the Eden-ic island of Bali looks expectedly ravishing, and Roberts gets to smile a lot, which is an unquestionable delight even if a significant percentage of those grins are offered while she's bitchily one-upping her screen partner. Clooney's sharp timing rescues a few of his dopier routines, Dever has her warm naturalism to protect her (playing Lily's screen fiancé Gede, Maxime Bouttier isn't so lucky), and while it's faint praise, Billie Lourd completely owns the film as the bride-to-be's supportive, grossly ignored maid of honor Wren. Lourd is treated abysmally by Parker's and Daniel Pipski's stupid script, which doesn't give her anything to play but mildly slutty and seriously boozy. Yet the performer is so alert, focused, and sneakily funny (even with nothing funny to play) that I couldn't take my eyes off her. Lourd even manages to steal a one-on-one scene with Clooney, and all she's doing in it is listening to him. But make no mistake: Ticket to Paradise is entirely The George and Julia Show. And as such, and despite their inarguable gifts and obvious mutual affection, it's a largely unbearable one.
The problems begin with the movie's basic premise, because in order to buy that these divorced professionals who loathe each other are willing to do anything to prevent their kid from marrying, you have to accept that David and Georgia are fundamentally awful people – so grossly self-involved and self-serving that they're blind to the pain they causing others, their daughter most specifically. Yet because it's George and Julia in the roles, Ticket to Paradise demands that we adore them nonetheless – and the only way to do that is to wholly ignore the repercussions of their selfish, odious behavior. I, for one, just couldn't.
When Georgia steals the wedding rings from the pouch of Lily's Balinese flower girl and the tyke cries thinking she's ruined the whole wedding, shouldn't David and Georgia realize they're monsters for traumatizing an eight-year-old in this manner? When David, in his man-to-man chat with Gede, not-so-casually hints that his child will dump him at first opportunity, shouldn't at least one of them acknowledge that David is acting like a Mafia don? When Georgia tells her daughter that she's trying to prevent her from making the biggest mistake of her life “just like I did” and Lily understandably assumes that “biggest mistake” was her being born, why doesn't Georgia clarify her statement – especially when she does clarify it later, but to David and not Lily? Scene after scene finds our star couple behaving detestably but not getting called out for just how detestable their words and actions are, so the formulaic forgiveness they're ultimately awarded doesn't seem merely convenient; it seems stunningly unearned.
But this is a work that, when you really stop to consider its particulars, is offensive in myriad ways. The leads' mockery of Gede's career as a seaweed farmer reeks of entitled Western privilege, as does their utter disinterest in the lives and culture of the Balinese people. At no point do David or Georgia consider engaging with Gede's parents about how they feel about their kids' super-speedy union – not even Gede is allowed to voice his frustration to his folks – and when the nuptials inevitably take place (that's not a spoiler; it's in the trailer), the ceremony is interrupted by Gede stating that the wedding won't happen without the official consent of Lily's parents. Even the wedding itself, with dozens of Balinese relatives in attendance, has to be all about David and Georgia. Everyone involved with Ticket to Paradise probably thought they were making bright, charming, turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy escapism … and considering the film follows almost the exact narrative blueprint of Parker's Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (but without the ABBA songs), why wouldn't they? Dig just a millimeter below Ticket to Paradise's surface, though, and you'll see how insulting, grim, and insidious what it's accomplishing actually is.
TRIANGLE OF SADNESS
Just because satirical targets are obvious doesn't mean they're not worth satirizing. Consider Triangle of Sadness – and please do consider a trip to Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey to catch this messy, overlong, frequently thrilling class comedy, which won the 2022 Cannes Film Festival's top prize the Palme d'Or, and is the first English-language release by Ruben Östlund, writer/director of 2017's fellow Cannes champ The Square (which I didn't care for) and 2014's Force Majeure (which I loved). The figures of mockery here include supermodels, social-media influencers, capitalists, drunkards, Marxists, Leninists, British arms dealers, Russian louts, heavily Botoxed socialites, and institutions that cater to the whims of the super-rich at the expense of the economically depressed who toil for pennies on the dollar. Easy marks all, and Östlund's movie doesn't deserve any points for bravery or outside-the-box thinking. Yet we're at least treated to a hearty, two-and-a-half-hour entertainment boasting a number of riveting set pieces, narrative turnarounds, and instances of poetic justice, plus an incandescent breakout performance by former unknown Dolly De Leon. Without having viewed its competition, I find it unlikely that Triangle of Sadness truly deserved the Palme d'Or. I still think it absolutely deserves to be seen, as well as talked – and more significantly argued – about.
Employing a three-act structure in which the first act serves more as a prelude, Östlund's schadenfreude-laden saga opens with an introduction to Carl (Harris Dickinson), a handsome cover model about two years past his prime, and his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who tragically died from a viral infection two months ago), a beautiful, selfie-obsessed model and influencer. Their amusingly passive-aggressive argument over why Carl, the less financially stable of the pair, is always the one who picks up the dinner tab leads to a longer, more trenchant discussion about the transactional nature of their relationship – and makes them ideal passengers for Triangle of Sadness' Act II, which takes place on perhaps the world's most ineptly run luxury liner.
Barring the German stroke victim Therese (Iris Berben) who can only say “Nein!” and “In den wolken!” (“In the clouds!”), the ship's manifest is a collection of the oblivious and repellant ultra-rich: English seniors Winston and Clementine (Oliver Ford Davies and Amanda Walker) who earned their fortune manufacturing land mines and grenades; Russian oligarch Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) whose wealth comes from the literal production of shit; timid millionaire Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin) who has devised a foolproof, possibly accidental come-on technique. The yacht's staffers, however, are no great shakes, either: the militant head of staffing Paula (Vicki Berlin) leads her crew into a frenzied chant of “Money! Money! Money!” to remind them what their labor is for; deck hands routinely smoke and remove their shirts while working; and ship captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson) is too drunk to leave his cabin, and when he does, he stands at an inebriated 30-degree angle disconnected from his vessel's position on the water. One can only wonder how this ship of fools would react to treacherous storm conditions, an attack by pirates, or a marooning on a remote island. Soon enough, we get our answers.
Although much has been made in the press about the midsection's scene of explosive, contagious vomiting – an extended routine that suggests the famed “waffer-thin mint” bit from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life refashioned as an art film – this was actually my least-favorite sequence in the movie … not because it was disgusting, but because the effects it achieved were too transparent. It doesn't take much effort to giddily nauseate an audience with the sight of über-wealthy d-bags puking on their Dior, and Act II is rife with additional moments in which Östlund appears to be laying it on a bit thick, such as Dimitry's and Thomas' unwisely prolonged recitation of quotes from famed thinkers, and the repeated shots of the captain's deck void of a captain. (We get it, you want to reply: In this capitalist world we've created, there's no one manning the ship.) Yet even when the luxury-liner passage is pushy about its themes and too naked in its “Eat the rich!” design, there are still plenty of great jokes, as well as incisive examples of character exposition and expression. And it all leads to Triangle of Sadness' sensational Act III, which is plenty Lost-like, and no doubt as close to Gilligan's Island as a Palme d'Or winner will ever get.
I won't reveal who does and doesn't wind up on Östlund's uncharted desert isle – with one exception. Because after being a nearly (and deliberately) invisible presence in the film's second act, Dolly de Leon's Abigail, a yacht cleaner branded by Paula as “the head of toilets,” shows up, immediately catches a fish, discovers she's the only one around who can catch, clean, and cook a fish, and instantly takes command of the passengers who have all the money in the world yet zero in the way of survival skills. It's Östlund's savviest narrative conceit, and the most crowd-pleasing one, to boot, given the subdued power and unanticipated comic authority that Filipina performer de Leon lends to the role. As Lost and Gilligan's Island give way to Lord of the Flies, the us-versus-them hierarchies shift and wobble and bend, and you find yourself, at long last, not knowing whom to root for in Östlund's deliriously deranged satire. Its title may make the film sound bleak – amusingly, “triangle of sadness” refers to forehead wrinkles that can be eradicated via Botox – but this Cannes winner is at its best when at its goofiest and delectably nastiest, and it's worth catching for the movie's show-stealing, third-act stealth bomber alone. Hello, Dolly!