An Explainer Guide to ‘Black Adam’

Despite struggling to get made for a full decade, the Dwayne Johnson blockbuster Black Adam has officially topped the box office for three weekends in a row. The films brings new life to the DC Comics universe (aka DCEU), but as superhero worlds become ever more sprawling and overlapping, it can be hard for viewers to keep up with all the backstories and characters across the comics, films, series, and sequels.

So we’ve created this Watercooler explainer to shed light on the backdrop and world building around Black Adam.

The 101:  Who is Black Adam?  Born Teth Adam, Black Adam was a slave to the evil emperor of the city of Kahndaq, a fictional city located in the Middle East.  In the comics, Black Adam’s family is killed by the emperor’s men, and after he’s bestowed with godlike powers by the Council of Wizards, sets off a vengeful rampage.

After seeing Black Adam as a threat to humanity, the Wizards decide to seal him away in the mystic temple of the Rock of Eternity for 5,000 years. He later escapes his prison to once again roam the earth destroying ancient civilizations and take on his arch nemesis Shazam — aka Billy Batson, aka Captain Marvel.

Black Adam’s god-like powers are mighty and vast:  super strength, speed, magic, lighting projection, and flight. But it’s his confidence-bordering-on-arrogance, brute force, and self-serving alliances that have left him with the anti-hero label. At this year’s Comic-Con, director Jaume Collet-Serra described Black Adam as a “Dirty Harry type of character” who has “his own sense of justice and mortality.”

“When the system is corrupt, sometimes you need somebody that breaks the system down,” Collet-Serra said.

Where does Shazam fit in to the move?

When we first catch wind of Black Adam in the DC Universe, it is during the Shazam movie (2019).  Before he imbues young Billy Batson with the combined powers of the six legendary elders to become Shazam (Zachary Levi in the Shazam movie), the Wizard Shazam references “the chosen champion” who uses his powers for revenge and releases the seven deadly sins.

These are the same sins Billy faces later in that film when they become embodied in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. Originally, Shazam and Black Adam were to meet in the first Shazam film, but it was later decided the two characters should have their own separate films before clashing.

Where do Black Adam and Shazam’s powers come from?   Although the Wizard Shazam bestowed both with their powers, they stem from different deities. Black Adam has six powers: the stamina of Shu, the speed of Horus, the strength of Amon, the wisdom of Zehuti, the power of Aten, and the courage of Mehen. As for Shazam, his powers come from S, the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.

Justice League vs Justice Society?  The Justice Society of America (JSA) is of a group of heroes who come together to save the world against threats to the planet. The JSA existed before the Justice League and made its first appearance in All-Star Comics #3. There have been many iterations of the group, and the Black Adam film will feature only four members: the two veterans, Hawkman/ Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate/Kent Nelson (Pearce Bronson), and two new recruits, Atom Smasher/Albert Rothstein (Noah Centineo), and Cyclone/ Maxine Hunkel (Quintessa Swindell).

The Key Characters of JSA

  • Hawkman in the comics is an archeologist named Carter Hall who discovers he was reincarnated. In his previous life, he was an Egyptian Prince Khufu, but he was killed by an evil priest named Hath Seth. Carter discovers this by finding the ancient knife that killed him. His most popular weapon is his mace, which can change into other weapons, including an axe.
  • Dr. Fate is Kent Nelson, who has a long friendship with Hawkman.  He’s the son of an archeologist and has been given the helmet of Nabu, which was created from alien technology and allows him to use sorcerer-like powers. In the comics, many have worn the helmet to take on the Dr. Fate persona, from Linda Strauss to one of the most powerful DC sorcerers, John Constantine. Each host of the helmet risks having their body and soul overtaken over by Nabu — to the point where they end up dead.
  • Atom Smasher — Albert Rothstein is a meta-human that has the ability to alter his size by manipulating his molecular structure. Albert’s powers were passed down genetically from his grandfather Al Pratt, who is the original Atom Smasher. In Black Adam, he is young and still learning to manage his powers with a little guidance from his uncle Al, a retired hero who’s father had the same powers, but was considered a villain.
  • Cyclone — Maxine Hunkel, aka Cyclone, is another meta-human — and one of the biggest assets to the Justice Society. After scientists subjected her to nanotechnology experiments, she has the ability to manipulate wind and sound to take on her foes. She shares these powers, as well a high-level intellect, with her grandmother, the Red Tornado/ Ma Hunkel.

When and where does Black Adam take place? 

The movie covers the origin of Black Adam, starting in 5,000 B.C. in the country of the fictitious Kahndaq, where he was enslaved along with others who went in search of the element Eternium.

The country was occupied for centuries until its current invaders, Intergang, took control. Present-day Kahndaq is impoverished and riddled with destroyed buildings.

Who are the villains?

The main villain in Black Adam is Sabbac, aka Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari), who is listed as one of the leaders of the Intergang. Ishmael is given the powers from the demons of hell, and they rival those of Shazam and Black Adam: super speed, strength, fire breath, etc. Just as Black Adam has powers from legendary heroes, Sabbac gets his powers from the demons Satan, Aym, Belial, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, and Crates. Much like we call for Alexa or Siri, he must shout the name Sabbac to gain access to these powers.

What are critics saying about Black Adam?

Early reactions from critics were mixed. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich led with this: “What happens when Hollywood’s most risk-averse movie star tries his hand at Hollywood’s most risk-averse genre? Exactly what you’d expect, only worse.”  New York Times critic Maya Phillips called the film “a dull, listless superhero movie that hits all the expected touchstones of the genre under the guise of a transgressive new antihero story.”

Variety‘s Peter Debruge conceded that “the film’s whole purpose is to give Black Adam a suitably grand introduction on the assumption that he’ll be pitted against a more deserving adversary soon enough.” One can infer that Black Adam could follow in the footsteps of Captain America or a Thor, improving in the eyes of critics and fans and at the box office after each successive film. Another critic Travis Hopson, from Punch Drunk Critics, pointed to the film’s strength as a new story, not yet bogged down by continuity.

After the film was released to critics and audiences across the US, more positive reviews poured in.

How’s it doing at the Box Office?

Despite lingering pandemic problems for theatrical releases, the film became the biggest opening of Dwayne Johnson’s career when it earned $67 million out of the gate, topping The Mummy and Fast and the Furious: Hobbs and Shaw.

What is next for Black Adam?

Well, Black Adam is recognized by Warner Bros as a soft reboot for the DCEU. So what does that mean? The DCEU will not include the Synderverse, which many have campaigned for after the Justice League Snyder Cut was released.

Henry Cavill will return as Superman and be one of the main focuses in the franchise of the DCEU. Cavill officially made his announcement shortly after the release of the Black Adam film. So expect to see two of the strongest DCEU characters take on each other in the future. This will be one of the biggest battles in the DCEU, along with Black Adam’s battle with Shazam.

Brace for a more an even more ambitious run of the DCEU with the combination of Dwayne Johnson and the promotions of director James Gunn and Peter Safran to leads of the DC’s film, TV, and animation.

Dwayne Johnson’s 10-Year Quest

Over a decade ago, rumors surfaced on social media of Johnson pursuing a Black Adam role in the DCEU, to the delight of many DC Comics and Johnson fans. There were hints of Henry Cavill’s Superman facing Black Adam, but years went by with no official announcements.  Meanwhile, Batman V. Superman, Wonder Woman, Aqua Man, and the underwhelming Justice League films all made it to theaters. Still no word about a Black Adam movie.

That all changed in 2020 during DC comics’ annual online fan festival, DC FanDome, when Johnson surprised fans by announcing an actual release date and the concept art of Black Adam. The following year, at the 2021 DC FanDome, Johnson shared a short clip introducing the DC fans to Black Adam in action. It’s final arrival in theaters is just three months later than originally, not bad considering COVID delays.

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