Fans of DC’s Captain Marvel have undergone what can only amount to a badly-paced emotional rollercoaster since the future of the DC Movie Universe began to take shape. Even before some Justice League members had their solo films (or stars) in place, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson had let the cat out of the bag concerning his own upcoming superhero role. His star power would do plenty to anchor the DCEU’s Shazam movie, but he would be doing so as the superhero’s arch-enemy: Black Adam.
At the time, audiences were still used to the one-and-done supervillain formula, and wondered if a non-hero role would be a missed opportunity. But Johnson’s enthusiasm for the role grew, and before long it became clear that whoever landed the title role, Shazam would only be the first appearance of Johnson’s ‘Black Adam’ in the DC Movie Universe – not the last. Apparently, no Shazam actor is needed at all, with the latest news that Johnson will star in his very own solo film: Black Adam.
The news caused concern among some general superhero fans, since a movie focusing on a comic book supervillain – playing the hero of the story – was unconventional, at best. At worst, another sign that DC’s unexpected direction with talent and characters was doomed to fail. But for the well-versed DC fans, the concerns were just as present before the announcement, wondering how a Shazam film could truly do justice to a villain as complex and justified as Black Adam. A solo film… that might make a lot more sense.
Not just to breathe some fresh air into a formulaic genre, and not just to give Dwayne Johnson the time needed to show why Adam is more intriguing than most villains (OR heroes). Given where WB and the DCEU have placed their time and energy in fleshing out the heroes and villains of their movie universe, a Black Adam introduction doesn’t just make sense – it could make the inevitable Shazam movie even better.
Introduce Magic To The DCEU
Some may read that heading and think that Suicide Squad kicked the door to magic in the DCEU wide open, and with less than stellar results. While it’s true that Squad focused on an antagonist tied to otherworldly and mystical forces, the film itself made it clear that the Enchantress was a being from another dimension, once worshipped as a god by humanity in its distant, ancient past. If Squad proves anything, it’s that the task of establishing the more mystical, cosmic, demonic, or magical facets of the DCEU is far from over – and can be done better.
Instead of having to worry about matching a modern tone with the ancient gods of mythic history, Black Adam can begin at the beginning. Follow Adam as a member of an ancient Egyptian (or ‘Khandaqian’) civilization as he is ushered into the mysterious Circle of Eternity, where a council of mystical figureheads select a champion of Earth to be blessed with “the living lightning” and become a demigod overnight. We already know Justice League will anchor modern films to pre-history, so a similar level of spectacle and wonder is to be hoped for. Not to mention room to shape a Shazam mythology without having to force it into a larger DCEU continuity.
It’s a rich and inclusive mythology spanning a number of world cultures, regions, and traditions, but also runs the risk of leaping too quickly into lighthearted stories like Percy Jackson or Harry Potter. If it’s first seen from a child’s point of view, that risk increases. But with a strong, stoic, adult slave being chosen the tone and style of the magic matures. It also allows a stronger contrast when Adam reaches the present day: his confusion at mankind surviving without magic hits even stronger if the audience has seen it…. and seen the tragic story that convinced the wizard Shazam to deny the world another champion for millennia.
Tell an Origin Story That’s (Actually) Tragic
By now, everyone knows that superhero origin story: some tragic event leads our hero to achieve the goodness and greatness in the outside world that they hold within, acquire a special ability, struggle with a conflict, falter, regain faith, and win the day. It’s the story of Superman, Captain America, even Ant-Man and Hulk. Let us say it plainly: that is not the story of Black Adam. No his is a story of a slave forced to watch as his loved ones are killed, powerless to stop it. And when he gains access to powers well beyond mere humans, and far greater than the pharaoh responsible for his loss, he metes out righteous vengeance on all responsible.
Dwayne Johnson has often mentioned this slave origin story as part of what makes Adam such a compelling superhero – there is no ‘happy ending’ for him, and he carries his pain and anger for eternity. Now, exactly how he gets those powers, and how he puts them to use varies a bit depending on the version of the story. Black Adam was first introduced as a formulaic ‘bad guy,’ turning his powers to evil. But there are two modern looks at Black Adam’s origin that will likely act as source material… considering that Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer wrote them.
The first story, told in the pages of JSA (1999) saw members of the Justice Society travel back to ancient Egypt and encounter Teth-Adam blessed with his powers, but serving the noble Prince Khufu as part of his inner circle. Having been chosen as the wizard Shazam’s rightful champion, Adam was busy serving the Prince when his home nation was invaded, and his family killed. And it isn’t long afterwards that he finds the villain responsible, beginning down his path of darkness.
The other, New 52 instalment of Black Adam might be a bit harder to swing for a “fun, optimistic superhero movie.” In this version, it’s Adam’s nephew who’s chosen to be the wizard’s champion, and chooses to share the lightning with his uncle. But when Adam sees only compassion, mercy, and optimism in the boy, he kills him to claim all the power for himself. From there, he begins a terrible campaign to kill those who enslave the people of Khandaq in all forms.
Show Black Adam is More Than ‘Shazam’s Villain’
The simple fact that Black Adam is a killer, a conqueror, and a ruthless warrior, but only in service of his country so that those who enslave and torment will not live to continue, and its people may be free makes him a more complicated character than most. The comics had traditionally categorized Black Adam as “a villain, but with his own motivations and code,” but modern storylines haven’t been so quick to define him. In the modern era, Adam has become a hero of wish fulfillment for many: ignoring diplomacy, killing terrorists and tyrants, and refusing to put anything ahead of his people’s best interest. He’s an extremist, but when the people he’s effortlessly killing would have killed innocents, things become all manner of shades of grey.
If his interests are aligned, or his people protected, Adam has had successful careers working alongside the Justice Society, the Suicide Squad, and even the Justice League in efforts to save all of Earth’s inhabitants. And, in his defense, he comes from a time in which the punishment for a serious crime was death – and not as quick as he usually delivers. Timelines and sentences aside, it is very hard to see Adam as a villain when foreign criminals bring him a kidnapped woman as a peace offering… only to have their heads crushed.
Not for harming the woman, but for assuming his favor could be so easily bought. You want Adam to do what he does, but only to a limit, and only when it’s fitting. The problem is: he’s a god, and can do what he likes.
The point is, Adam is all of those things centuries before Shazam becomes a superhero. His identity is not actually defined by Billy Batson’s own story, it’s the other way around. The DCEU has already made efforts to give their supervillains actual motivations, based in personal trauma (Zod’s entire purpose was to see Krypton survive, Lex Luthor wanted to expose the fallacy of an “all-powerful, all good God”). And if Batman got a crash course in the dangers of extremism, Black Adam can take things to a whole new level.
If Adam must kill a thousand guilty souls to save ten innocent ones, he will do it. And that is the kind of character that an satisfying, action-packed, unorthodox, and problematic superhero origin story can be built around. When all is said and done, people might want Black Adam to break free of the wizard’s prison. They might see problems in the modern world that only he is strong enough to solve, the hard way.
Make Shazam The Newcomer To Adam & The Audience
Keep in mind that, if a Black Adam movie tells the kind of story mentioned above, the introduction of Billy Batson is a completely different kind of story. For starters, not everybody will be on the side of the wizard Shazam, since not all will agree that Black Adam should have been locked up for eternity. Regardless, watching Adam lose everything, and still find the strength to remove tyrants, and safeguard his people through any means defines him as a leader – whether or not he’s one you would want to follow.
Enter Billy Batson: a kid who is chosen to be the next champion of Shazam, transforms into every bit the superhero, and puts it to use entertaining his friends, getting revenge on bullies, and generally wasting his powers the way any child would, if made Superman for a day. When the story begins with Billy, that wish fulfillment and light tone is intended, and Black Adam seems a power-hungry, stereotypical villain. But if the DCEU establishes Adam as a whole, understood (if extreme) character first, then the audience can find compelling threads on either side of the conflict.
Sure, who wouldn’t want to be Superman? And honestly, Black Adam doesn’t have a patent on the powers, or they wouldn’t have been given to the kid in the first place. But is the power best used by someone who has no personal temptations? Should such power be entrusted to a child, or someone be willing to kill the world’s most terrible and merciless leaders, carrying the moral and legal burden for the greater good?
Certainly, the idea that Black Adam and Shazam would treat the material with a “mature” mindset will have detractors convinced that no story, no matter how whimsical, is too lighthearted to survive DC’s darkness. But the content remains as fantastic as ever where Billy Batson and Shazam are concerned. So is it really a bad thing to make his antagonist a more complicated, persuasive figure? At this point, we’ll take a “villain” defined as such for doing what heroes won’t over one bent on world domination any day of the week.