New Line and DC’s Shazam! spin-off Black Adam has added another superhero alongside Dwayne Johnson’s titular protagonist — but, for the majority of people, it’s hard to deny that Noah Centineo’s Atom Smasher is as far from a known quantity as it’s possible to get. Who is that masked man? Glad you asked.
Atom Smasher — real name Al Rothstein — first appeared, under the name Nuklon, in 1983’s All-Star Squadron No. 25 as a member of Infinity Inc., a group made up of the super-powered children of WWII superheroes the Justice Society of America. As Nuklon, he also served as a member of the Justice League for a brief period in the mid-1990s, but for most comic book fans, it’s his tenure as a member of a reformed Justice Society — and his relationship with Black Adam — that defines the character as he’s known today.
Black Adam, who had spent the majority of his career as a supervillain, attempted to reform by joining the Justice Society in the 1999 comic book revival of the property; this brought him into contact with Rothstein, who had by this point adopted the Atom Smasher identity in tribute to his recently deceased father, who went by the superhero identity “the Atom.”
To say the two were a poor fit for each other is an understatement; after Atom Smasher was responsible for the death of the supervillain Extant — the man who had killed his father — he and Black Adam increasingly chafed against what they saw as unnecessary moral boundaries that prevented them from preventing civilian casualties.
The two eventually left the team and, along with other anti-heroes, overthrew the government of Black Adam’s home country of Khandaq, installing Black Adam as the country’s leader. After a period of estrangement from the Justice Society, he’s drafted into a mission with the team and attempts to reclaim his position as a superhero, only to sacrifice his life saving Khandaq from the near-omnipotent threat of the Spectre — although he was immediately revived by Black Adam, using his magic lightning. (Some things make more sense in the comics themselves, freed of such explanation.)
In the aftermath of his rebirth, Atom Smasher serves as an uneasy go-between in communications between the U.S. and Khandaq, due to his relationships with the Justice Society and Black Adam; he’s more willing to forgive Black Adam’s particularly violent and isolationist actions than most U.S. heroes, and also more likely to be heard when arguing the point of view of the U.S. to Adam as a result of their shared history. It’s a role that he accepts warily, in the hopes of doing the right thing for everyone… usually at his own expense.
For Atom Smasher to show up in the Black Adam movie, it’s likely a sign that he’ll serve as Adam’s conscience — a role he took on from the Khandaq overthrow onwards — and, potentially, an antagonist with the best intentions for Adam’s anti-hero to rail against when the movie needs an action scene or two. Plus, given that Atom Smasher is hardly a big name even in the world of comics, it’s possible that he could serve as a sacrificial lamb for dramatic impact, should Dwayne Johnson’s cinematic Adam decide not to use magical lightning as an emergency defibrillation device at the last minute.
More information about Black Adam is expected at DC’s virtual FanDome event in August.