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After months of teasing, Dwayne Johnson has confirmed that he’ll play Black Adam in an upcoming DC Entertainment project for Warner Bros. — but if you’re wondering “Who is Black Adam?” you’re probably not alone.
First appearing in 1945’s The Marvel Family No. 1, Black Adam was originally a predecessor of Captain Marvel’s, having been given identical powers by the wizard Shazam during Ancient Egyptian times only to become corrupted by them. Having been banished to outer space by Shazam as punishment, he returned to Earth only to be tricked into saying his magic word and transforming into a regular human again, which meant that in an instant 5,000 years’ worth of aging caught up with him.
(Oddly enough, Johnson’s Black Adam role means that Shazam will be the second superhero movie to feature an Ancient Egyptian villain following 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which uses the villain En Sabah Nur, as glimpsed in the post-credits sequence to X-Men: Days of Future Past. All we need now is for Marvel Studios to use Rama Tut and we have ourselves a trend.)
Following his debut appearance, the character remained unused for more than three decades before being resurrected in 1977’s Shazam! No. 28 (The story was helpfully titled “The Return of Black Adam”). From that point on, he moved up in the ranks of Captain Marvel’s rogues gallery, replacing the admittedly goofy Mr. Mind (a super-intelligent talking space worm) and Dr. Sivana (a fairly generic mad scientist) as the hero’s primary nemesis, appearing in the 1987 reboot series Shazam! The New Beginning and 1994 The Power of Shazam! graphic novel and subsequent series of the same name.
And then, a strange thing happened when writer — and current DC Entertainment chief creative officer — Geoff Johns came on the scene: Black Adam became more familiar than Captain Marvel himself. While the good Captain’s appearances started to wane (in part due to an ongoing problem with the character’s name; these days, he’s simply known as “Shazam” to avoid confusion with Marvel Entertainment’s many Captain Marvels, with the latter publisher having owned the trademark to that name since the 1960s), Black Adam became a member of the Justice Society of America and was one of the lead characters in the high-profile 52 mini-series, both of which were either written or co-written by Johns, before receiving his own series, Black Adam: The Dark Age, in 2007 based on the popularity of those earlier appearances.
During this time, Adam shifted from a relatively straightforward villain to an anti-hero role, with the qualities that earned him his powers in the first place — a sense of honor, a desire to defend those under his care — pushed to the forefront and contrasted with tendencies toward anger and extreme violence to create something that might not have been exactly nuanced, but was definitely more complex than before. Black Adam went from an out-and-out bad guy to a character whose presence in any given story created a sense of uncertainty about what would happen next: Would he save the day or kill the good guys because they accidentally insulted his family? No one could predict.
Since DC’s 2011 line-wide reboot, Black Adam’s appearances have been relatively few; he appeared in Johns’ Shazam! series with artist Gary Frank only to apparently die at the end in an echo of his original 1945 storyline. That death lasted only a few months, with Johns then resurrecting the character for the Forever Evil event series, placing him firmly in the anti-hero camp as he teamed up with other super villains Lex Luthor, Sinestro and Captain Cold to save the world in the absence of the Justice League, even if it meant killing some guys to make sure it stuck.
With Johnson having said in the past that he has “always been a fan of anti-heroes,” it’s no surprise that Black Adam is a character that appeals to him, especially in the current incarnation. The question now is, with Johnson playing the somewhat cracked mirror version of the title character, who’s going to end up playing Shazam himself?
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