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For well over a decade, we’ve heard talk of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson being set to play DC’s Black Adam in a live-action film. It’s been so long that the news had started to feel like the stuff of myth itself. But now that we’re finally here and Black Adam has hit the big screen, many people might be wondering who this guy is exactly. Is he a hero, a villain or something else entirely? That’s what we’re going to find out, as we take a look at the long history of this morally ambivalent character.
Black Adam was originally introduced in 1945, back when Captain Marvel (Shazam’s original name before a legal nightmare arose with Marvel Comics) was published by the now-defunct Fawcett Comics. This debut established a backstory that has essentially remained intact ever since. Originally named Teth-Adam (which means ‘mighty human’), he was the son of an Egyptian pharaoh (some later versions made him a slave instead) who was chosen to become the champion of the wizard Shazam, due to his benevolent nature. However, after his kingdom was attacked and his family killed, he wrought vengeance upon those responsible, which led to Shazam banishing him to the furthest star in the universe and branding him with the name ‘Black Adam’.
This wasn’t enough to deter Adam though, and after 5,000 years of flying through space, he actually made his way back to Earth and confronted the new champions of Shazam – the Marvel Family. Surprisingly though, he was killed in this first appearance when he was tricked into saying ‘Shazam’ and returning to his mortal form and aging 5,000 years instantly. This, believe it or not, was his only appearance during the Fawcett era.
He would come back on occasion after DC bought the rights to the Marvel/Shazam family of characters, but he wasn’t really that big of a deal until the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, when he was fleshed out into a much more complete character. It was then that he was positioned as Captain Marvel/Shazam’s arch-enemy, before slowly transitioning into anti-hero territory.
His backstory was also tweaked a few times in this period, most notably retconning his country of origin from Egypt to the fictional nation of Kahndaq. For a time, he was also split between two different beings – the spirit of the original Black Adam, and his modern-day descendent, Theo Adam. This version of events depicted Theo as a member of an archaeological dig of Teth-Adam’s tomb, headed by the parents of Shazam’s new champion, Billy Batson. After murdering the Batsons, he used a scarab amulet to take on the power of his ancestor, turning into Black Adam. This set him up as not just a villain, but one with a classically personal connection to his nemesis, Captain Marvel.
Fast forward a few years though and it was revealed that Theo and Black Adam were two different entities, with the latter being cleared of the Batsons’ murder and reforming. Although he was still subject to Theo’s influence from time to time, he eventually found himself joining the Justice Society of America, despite scepticism from many of his teammates. Things got especially tense when Captain Marvel joined the team, but the two managed to settle into an amicable relationship, while Adam also became good friends with teammate, Atom Smasher.
Both Adam and Atom Smasher eventually defected from the JSA however, due to that team’s unwillingness to kill. Adam then set about enacting his own brand of brutal justice on the world, leading up to his hostile takeover of his old home of Kahndaq, wresting power away from the country’s brutal dictator. This marked an important turning point for the character, with his dedication to his people becoming his overriding characteristic going forward.
Not long after that he met a slave woman named Adrianna Tomaz, who was offered to him as a “gift” by the criminal organisation, Intergang. However, Adam granted Adrianna her freedom and allowed her to remain in Kahndaq as a refugee. She became a positive influence on Adam, persuading him to soften his views on justice. They struck up a romance and soon married, with Adam even bestowing her with a portion of his power, turning her into the hero, Isis. However, after Isis was killed some time later, an enraged Adam returned to his old ways, going on a global rampage, with the entire superhero community rallying to stop him. This resulted in Adam being depowered by Captain Marvel with the assistance of some other magical heroes.
However, after a universal reboot or two, Adam came out as a hero once again, trying to honour his late wife’s memory. This actually drew the attention of Superman, who invited Adam to join the Justice League, believing that they could do with some fresh perspectives on the team. As with the JSA, not everyone on the team supported this decision, but nonetheless Adam proved to be a loyal, if abrasive, member of the team. In fact he was the only one to survive the ‘Death of the Justice League’ story, relaying the news of the League’s demise to the rest of the world.
And that’s where things stand as Dwayne Jonson finally brings the character to the big screen. The character has evolved a great deal over the decades, becoming one of the most morally complicated characters in comic book history. When he’s a villain, he goes hard, as a mass-murderer on a global scale. However, despite never being a hero in its truest sense, he has had his moments of redemption, especially in recent years. One thing that’s remained constant though, is that he always fights for what he believes to be right, and he’ll destroy anyone who gets in his way.
‘Black Adam’ is in cinemas now