A truckload of superhero origin movies have come and gone, but Black Adam starring Dwayne Johnson will be one of the first supervillain origin stories from a major studio. (Few going into M. Night Shyamalan’s surprise, low-budget hit Split knew what they were in for.) Black Adam is most famously the archnemesis of Shazam, formerly Captain Marvel and one of the oldest superheroes in comics. But as the genre plateaus, Black Adam — which won’t release for years — begs a question every superhero movie has been challenged with before: Can it be done? Is our obsession with superheroes tolerant enough for a movie starring a villain and how he came to be?
Of all the antagonists in the DC universe, maybe it could be Black Adam to prove the formula right. But first, who the fuck is Black Adam?
Black Adam was created by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck in 1945 as a single-issue villain for Shazam, while a continuity reboot in 1987 from Jerry Ordway has since provided the definitive origin used today. An ancient Egyptian warrior named Toth-Adam was rewarded for his good deeds with superpowers by the wizard Shazam. By uttering the phrase “Shazam” — the ‘87 reboot made the Greek acronym more region appropriate, representing Egyptian gods Shu, Horus, Amon, Zehuti, Aton, and Mehen — Toth-Adam became the first to wield the mighty powers of Shazam, at least before Billy Batson would thousands of years later in the 20th century.
Eventually, Toth-Adam’s new power went to his head and he killed the Pharaoh, proclaiming himself ruler of Egypt. The real Shazam got sick of his shit and took back the gifted powers, rapidly aging his body. Shazam buries Toth-Adam and his powers — now kept in a scarab necklace — in the tomb of Ramesses II.
In the modern day, an expedition led by C.C. Batson and his wife Marilyn uncovers Toth-Adam’s body and his scarab. Their aide, Theo Adam, grows obsessed with the scarab and kills the Batsons, orphaning their son Billy back home. When Theo returns to America, Billy’s pure heart had earned him the right to become the new Shazam. When Theo sees Shazam, whose insignia resembled Toth-Adam’s tomb, Theo utters the word “Shazam!” and becomes the new Black Adam. Fueled by the murder of Billy’s parents, the two become enemies for life, birthing a classic comic book rivalry.
Black Adam’s origin was revised several more times in the ‘90s and in the new millennium by JSA writers Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer. His origins in Egypt was altered into the fictional North African country Kahndaq, and the original cause of his downfall — being a dick — was rewritten into becoming an even bigger dick, as a fascist ruler who went to extremes to protect Kahndaq following the murder of his wife and children.
But what makes Black Adam more unique than your average supervillain is that he has, at times, shown some capacity to do good and save people, earning him an anti-hero reputation. It started in Johns and Goyer’s run of JSA, where it was established Black Adam and Theo Adam were, in fact, separate personalities, allowing Black Adam to form his own identity and become a member of the Justice Society of America. But old habits die hard, and Black Adam has since gone back to more sinister ways.
The prospect of a solo Black Adam movie isn’t bizarre; it’s just confident in the power of the DC Comics universe (and Dwayne Johnson). But it’s also not unwarranted; unlike the Joker, Black Adam has a history of doing what’s right for the wrong reasons and vice versa. That’s not a bad premise for a superhero movie.
Last year saw a packed schedule of blockbuster movies with ambiguous anti-heroes, but hardly any of them truly committed to the idea. Even popular awards candidate Deadpool made light of Wade Wilson’s murderous ways. With Superman and Batman even being less than stellar role models, there’s room for anyone in the DC Universe to become a star. Harley Quinn proved it. Maybe even Black Adam could have a real shot in the spotlight.