Which system is more likely to collapse in 2017: DC’s cinematic universe, or the American democracy? Jokes aside, comic book fans are nervous wrecks over the fate of DC’s superhero films. Though BvS and Suicide Squad made bank, DC quietly shuffled director Zack Snyder into a closet, handing the reigns to Geoff Johns and his line-up of directors, including Patty Jenkins, James Wan, and Ben Affleck. This week, DC announced that Ben Affleck would step down from his Batman solo film, and a replacement hasn’t been named yet. While updates on DC’s future films continue to appear, many are still wondering what DC plans to do with Black Adam. Can the company pull off a surprise hit with a D-list villain?
Marvel famously created its superhero cinematic universe without the X-Men, reaching back into its records for WWII era characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. It’s hard to imagine how risky the first Iron Man film must have felt while it was being written in 2007; star Robert Downey Jr. needed a comeback after years of bad press, and Marvel didn’t have a guaranteed audience for a story about an unrelatable tech billionaire in a shiny suit. Watching the first Iron Man, it’s clear that the movie was built around the belief that RDJ was both hilarious, could turn in a compelling performance, and not much else. Long scenes of the hero talking only to his robots is not a sexy sell, but RDJ improving lines is.
A decade later, DC is facing the same scaffolding issues with its failing cinematic universe. Though the company arguably has much more recognizable heroes to work with — everyone around the world knows Batman and Superman, and they were recognizable ten years ago, too — DC’s movies have been critically panned one by one. The only option left for superhero success is reverse engineering a franchise, as Marvel once did, and it appears DC is banking on Black Adam and Shazam. Starting with an undeniably charismatic actor and working backward to find roles and movies that make both the actor and DC shine seems to be one of the only options for revitalizing a severely lagging franchise.
When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was cast as villain Black Adam in an unnamed Shazam movie, even the most dedicated DC fans were skeptical. Shazam, whom you might already be confusing with the 1996 movie Kazaam, starring Shaq, actually refers to a weird, D-list DC superhero who, ironically, goes by Captain Marvel. Now, that’s not the female Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) who will appear in a Marvel film in 2019. DC’s Shazam / Captain Marvel is a totally different man, and he’s actually more of a boy in a man’s body. Confused yet?
Who the hell are these guys?
Back in the 1940s, Shazam (then called exclusively Captain Marvel) consistently outsold even Superman’s comics. The deal was, a young boy named Billy Batson gained the magical ability to change into a buff guy by yelling the acronym “SHAZAM!”, which stands for Solomon Hercules Atlas Zeus Achilles Mercury. Batson gains powers from each of these Greek heroes and changes into a costumed adult until he yells “SHAZAM!” again, morphing back into a boy. DC has not cast a kid as Billy Batson, nor an actor as Captain Marvel / Shazam. But the cinematic plot thickens.
Black Adam, Shazam’s primary villain, who will be played by Dwayne Johnson, has similar powers, though he is far older than Shazam and derives his abilities from Egyptian gods rather than Greek gods. When normal human Teth Adam, aka Theo Adam, says the word SHAZAM, he changes just like Billy Batson, though in his case, the letters stand for Shu Heru Amon Zehuti Aton Mehen. Though Black Adam began his comics tenure as a straightforward villain, creators like Geoff Johns changed his motivations slightly in contemporary comics. As he appears in DC work now, Black Adam is more of an anti-hero than a villain, though he does clash with Captain Marvel often.
So what’s the deal with DC’s Shazam films?
After meeting with the creative heads at DC, Johnson announced that he’d be leading a Black Adam solo movie, which suggests a few new ideas. First, DC has not given up on the idea that villains can drive entire storylines. The commercial success of Suicide Squad and Harley Quinn’s pop cultural takeover likely convinced the heads at DC that more villain stories are marketable.
Will DC’s strategy pay off as it attempts to make a household name out of an unrecognizable supervillain? The company is certainly on the right track to success by casting the indomitable Dwayne Johnson, whose film career has seen him jump from property to property, propelled by his charisma and undamaged by any lack of acting ability. The man joined the Furious franchise, stars in HBO’s Ballers, and was subsequently cast in a comical number of big budget films, including Jumanji, Baywatch, pulpy Doc Savage, and the Big Trouble in Little China remake. He was the most famous voice cast member in Disney’s Moana, in which he played the goofy advisor to the protagonist role once occupied in Disney films by actors like Robin Williams and Danny Devito. There is no shortage of film studios willing to bank on Johnson’s likability, and DC Entertainment is no different.