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What You Need to Know Before Seeing ‘Black Adam’

Before the Rock’s first true superhero movie hits theaters on Friday, get a crash course on the history of one of DC’s oldest heroes

DC/Ringer illustration

It’s finally happened: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is starring in a superhero movie. When Black Adam opens in theaters on Friday, the blockbuster king will enter the cinematic world of tights and capes at last. The only surprise is that it’s taken this long. (That is, if you’re not counting his voice work as Krypto in DC League of Super-Pets, or his pseudo-superhero movies in cars … or that movie in which he climbs up a flaming skyscraper with his bare hands. That’s what that one was about, right?) As the upcoming film’s trailers have teased, though, Black Adam isn’t your typical superhero.

More antihero than hero, Black Adam shows no reservations about killing his enemies, a line that some caped crusaders refuse to cross. Born with the same magic as Shazam (more on that later), he’s a living god, awakened for the first time in 5,000 years. He rejoins a world where the modern-day gods known as superheroes are commonplace, as the film is set to introduce the Justice Society of America to the big screen, while also forging ties to Task Force X’s Amanda Waller and the rest of the DCEU.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Black Adam marks the DCEU’s first major theatrical release since James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad premiered simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in August 2021. (It’s all a little confusing, but The Batman exists in a universe of its own.) Compared to Marvel Studios’ frenetic release schedule, 14 months between DCEU releases seems like a long time. Not only will Black Adam end that drought, but it will also be one of the first opportunities to peek into a supposed new era of the DCEU as Warner Bros. ostensibly steps away from the Snyderverse. Considering how heavily the Black Adam trailers have leaned into that Snyder-centric past, though, it remains to be seen just how “new” and different this era will be.

Ahead of the release of Black Adam, here’s everything you need to know about the character from the comics and where he fits into the DCEU.

In the Comics

As unsurprising as it is to find the Rock crossing off “superhero movie” from his blockbuster bingo card, the former WWE star also knows a thing or two about playing the bad guy. It’s fitting, then, that Black Adam got his start in the comics as a full-fledged villain.

Although Black Adam will mark the first time that the title character has appeared on the big screen, he made his debut in the comics in 1945, within the pages of The Marvel Family, a Fawcett Comics publication that was later licensed and acquired by DC. Created by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck, Black Adam might not be one of the better-known DC figures today, but he has a long history; just take a look at the art style and some of the dialogue from his first appearance:

Fawcett Comics

Originally imagined as an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Teth-Adam (Black Adam’s original alter ego) was the first mortal being to be granted the powers of Shazam, long before the teenaged Billy Batson was chosen as the ancient wizard’s champion. (OK, to be as clear as possible here: Shazam is the name of the wizard who empowered Batson as he transformed him into the superhero Captain Marvel. But thanks to a complicated, long-lasting legal battle involving Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and the now-defunct Fawcett, Marvel secured the rights to the title. Eventually, the Captain Marvel name needed to be changed, so Shazam’s champion took the name of Shazam as well. Ironically, Marvel’s Captain Marvel and DC’s Shazam! were released in theaters less than a month apart in 2019.)

Like Batson, Teth-Adam has only to utter the magic word, “Shazam,” in order to transform into the superhero known as Mighty Adam. But the resulting powers become too overwhelming for Adam, corrupting him and inspiring the ancient wizard to rename him “Black Adam” as a result. (As Johnson explained to Vanity Fair: “The ‘Black’ in Black Adam refers to his soul.”

Black Adam is one of the DC Universe’s more powerful beings, having gone toe-to-toe against the likes of Shazam and Superman many times. But given all the years that have passed since his comics debut, Black Adam’s origin story has been retconned several times over. Under the direction of writers Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer—along with artist Marcos Martin—during their iconic run on JSA (the Justice Society of America) in the early 2000s, Black Adam became something of a reformed villain, joining forces with the Justice Society (for a little while, at least) as he evolved into the antihero archetype that he remains today. That transformation came with a revised history, as his ancient Egyptian roots were tweaked so that his home became the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq. It’s this version of the character, including his ties to the JSA, that will serve as the basis for Black Adam.

Introducing: The Justice Society of America

Before the Justice League of America, there was the Justice Society of America. The Justice League has become the more famous of the two superteams, but the Justice Society was created two decades earlier, in 1940. Several iterations of the team have appeared in DC’s CW shows over the years, from Smallville to Stargirl, but Black Adam marks the first time that the JSA will appear on the big screen as a part of the DCEU.

Like any long-standing team of superheroes, the Justice Society has featured a vast number of characters over the years, with just about every notable figure either joining the roster or teaming up with it at some point. Black Adam will introduce four of them: Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Cyclone, and Atom Smasher.

Hawkman (played by Aldis Hodge) wields a spiked mace made of one of the most powerful metals in the DC universe and serves as the leader of the team. Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) was one of the original members of the JSA, along with Hawkman. He’s a sorcerer with a wide range of abilities granted by the Helmet of Fate—an ancient, magical object that has changed hands several times in the comics among sorcerers who’ve shared the Doctor Fate moniker. The film will depict the original and most famous iteration of the character, Kent Nelson.

The remaining JSA members—Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo)—are newcomers to the team, but both have ties to JSA alums: Cyclone is the granddaughter of the hero known as Red Tornado, and Atom Smasher is the godson of Al “Atom” Pratt. If the names “Cyclone” and “Red Tornado” weren’t dead giveaways, Maxine Hunkel possesses the power of wind manipulation, while Atom Smasher can alter his molecular structure, allowing him to increase his strength and size to gigantic, King Kong–like levels.

If some of these names or powers sound reminiscent of some of the heroes we’ve seen in the MCU, well, it’s because they do share a lot of similarities. I mean, Doctor Fate might as well be DC’s version of Doctor Strange, while Atom Smasher—a moniker that never ceases to amaze me—is just Ant-Man in his giant form at all times. As evidenced by the headache of a story behind Captain Marvel’s eventual name change to Shazam, there’s a long history of stolen concepts in the cutthroat world of superhero comics—especially in the earlier days of the eternal rivalry between DC and Marvel Comics. All of these characters have roots in the comics that date back to at least the mid-’90s, and Hawkman and Doctor Fate both debuted in 1940. Hawkman is the most famous of the bunch, thanks in part to his ties to Hawkgirl (shout-out to the legendary Bruce Timm’s animated Justice League series), but the MCU has simply beaten the DCEU to the big-screen introductions of these similar characters over the past decade.

For DC diehards, the JSA’s big-screen debut has been a long time coming, though the wait makes sense given the team’s obvious likeness to the JLA, which would’ve made the JSA confusing or redundant if introduced on a similar timeline. (Though in light of the failure that was Justice League and the volatile state of the DCEU at large, I’m not so sure the JSA will be any less confusing to newcomers now—but I digress.)

Ties to Shazam! and the DCEU

Although Black Adam is arriving three years after the release of Shazam!, a surprise 2019 hit starring Zachary Levi, Warner Bros. originally had plans for the new movie character to star opposite his longtime comics rival, with Johnson remaining in the role. “When the first draft of the movie came to us, it was a combination of Black Adam and Shazam: Two origin stories in one movie,” Johnson told Vanity Fair. “Now that was the goal—so it wasn’t a complete surprise. But when I read that, I just knew in my gut, ‘We can’t make this movie like this. We would be doing Black Adam an incredible disservice.’ It would’ve been fine for Shazam having two origin stories converge in one movie, but not good for Black Adam.”

Johnson fought for his character to get his own starring vehicle, even if it meant delaying his DCEU debut by a few years—and his wish was granted. (But honestly, how hard do you think the freakin’ Rock had to fight Warner Bros. to let him star in his own superhero movie?) Although the debuts were sold separately, the connections between Black Adam and Shazam are still strong. The lighter tone of Shazam! and the more brutal, brooding stylings of Black Adam may have been at odds with each other had they been packaged together, but as Johnson has already teased, a crossover is imminent. Instead of mashing several major heroes in one movie—you know, like in Justice League—these characters will have the chance to shine on their own before facing off with each other further down the line.

The sequel to Shazam!, Fury of the Gods, is slated for release next year, so by then the two characters may share the screen, a scenario that seems destined for a post-credits scene. There was once a considerable distance between Shazam! and the rest of the DCEU, but between the possible link between Black Adam and that character, along with Black Adam’s connections to the The Suicide Squad and the Justice Society of America, we’re beginning to see the foundations of a bigger DC crossover event at some point in the not-so-distant future. But as volatile as the situations at DC and at Warner Bros. Discovery at large have been, including the recent cancellations of DC projects, no one knows what that future will look like. The level of success Black Adam has at the box office in the weeks to come will no doubt help determine that.