Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Lightning didn’t strike: Black Adam (2022)

Black Adam (2022) is yet another failed attempt to make the DC Extended Universe a living thing. The box office was unsatisfying and DCEU co-chief James Gunn has ruled out any immediate follow-up to the film (Dwayne Johnson says the character might return further down the road).

The film is, however, a great example of something I blogged about last year, the way obscure minor characters can eventually become big names.Back when Fawcett Comics was running the Shazam show, Black Adam appeared exactly once, in 1945’s Marvel Family #1.  The Otto Binder/C.C. Beck story reveals that long before Shazam appeared to Billy Batson, he gave the Captain Marvel powers to Teth-Adam, a man of ancient Egypt. Killing ruthlessly and seizing the Egyptian throne, “Mighty Adam” proved a textbook example of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Shazam couldn’t take back the man’s powers but he banished him to a distant star and renamed him Black Adam for his evil deeds.

That was 5,000 years ago, however, and Black Adam has spent all that time flying back to Earth. In battle against the Marvels he proves invincible, but Uncle Marvel — an affable old man who fakes having powers (the Marvel Family know this but humor him) — tricks him into saying the wizard’s name. Black Adam becomes Teth-Adam and crumbles to dust before he can cry “Shazam!” and regain his other identity.

That was the last the Golden Age saw of Black Adam. It seems inconceivable today, when any worthy foe gets used and reused over and over, but he was little more than a footnote in the Marvel Family’s history. He didn’t even make the issue’s cover.

That may have been a smart move, though. Superman has ways to deal with Kryptonian adversaries, such as kryptonite or a ticket to the Phantom Zone. The Marvel Family didn’t have that option: they could fight Black Adam to a standstill but they had no way to put him down for long other than getting him to say “Shazam!” again. Use that on a regular basis and he’d become as silly as Mxyzptlk.

It took 32 years before E. Nelson Bridwell and Kurt Schaffenberger revived the World’s Mightiest Villain in Shazam! #28. Sivana uses a resurrection machine to bring Black Adam back to life. The villain proves as unstoppable as before until Uncle Marvel tricks him into saying That Word once again, after which Cap hits Teth-Adam with an “amnesia punch” to make him permanently harmless (my brother and I both rolled our eyes at that gimmick). Bridwell also revamped his backstory to explain his name (Black Adam as hero for Egypt, the “black land”) and to show his power sources are Egyptian deities rather than Billy’s patrons.

An evil Martian sorcerer restores Black Adam’s memory in the Superman vs. Shazam tabloid-sized one-shot by Gerry Conway and Rich Butler, part of the sorcerer’s plan to smash Earth-S into Earth-One. After that Black Adam made a few more appearances in the Shazam strip while it was a World’s Finest back-up feature.

Post-Crisis, Black Adam appeared in Roy Thomas’s god-awful Shazam: The New Beginning miniseries, a grim-and-gritty take on the Big Red Cheese. He later figured in Jerry Ordway’s superior Power of Shazam graphic novel and the follow-up series, from which he vaulted into Geoff Johns’ Justice Society stories.

Rereading them a few years ago, I realized Johns’ treated him as the Shazam equivalent to Sinestro in Johns’ Green Lantern stories: a renegade member of a particular heroic lineage but not as much evil as badass. Captain Marvel/Hal Jordan despises him but only because Cap/Hal can’t grasp that playing by the rules is for losers: you have to fight dirty and ruthless to protect the innocent and that’s what Black Adam/Sinestro does.

Regardless of how much I hate this trope (it’s nowhere near as gritty/realistic as writers think), Johns’ take established Black Adam as a flawed antihero rather than a villain. The one-shot villain of 1945 became a player in comics for a number of years (I don’t follow current comics enough to know if that’s still true), to the point of getting his own solo film rather than starting out fighting Cap — er, Shazam. It’s a shame Black Adam is a mess because it does have some good moments. For example, it conveys Black Adam is terrifyingly powerful, more so than Shazam came off in Shazam.

The film starts out in Kahndaq — the fictitious country Johns created as Black Adam’s birthplace — which is under the corrupt control of Intergang mercenaries. An archeologist, Isis (Sarah Shahi), reawakens the nation’s ancestral hero, Black Adam, but “hero” is hardly the word for him. He’s arrogant, needlessly destructive, unpleasant, and reluctant to accept the hero’s mantle. There might have been a good movie in watching him figure out the right path while battling Intergang and, later, the demonic Sabbac. Instead, however, we get a recycled version of one of Johns’ Justice Society plotlines: the presence of such a powerful new metahuman alarms Amanda Waller so she has the Justice Society head to Kahndaq to take him down.

This is an odd idea. In the comics arc, Black Adam overthrew the government of Kahndaq; the Intergang mercenaries he’s killing in the film certainly aren’t that. I can understand the U.S. government wanting to find out Black Adam’s agenda, but immediately treating him like a threat to be neutralized makes no sense. Making this into the JSA’s debut in the DCEU makes even less sense: it’s as if the first Hulk movie had him fighting the Avengers without any explanation who they are or where they came from. The movie changes from being Black Adam’s personal arc and his struggle against Intergang to a hero vs. antihero clash that detracts from the movie.

I don’t know if Johns pushed them to use his old storyline or if the writers couldn’t think of anything else to fill the running time. Either way, it didn’t work.

#SFWApro. Covers by Beck, Schaffenberger, Buckler and Ordway.

13 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    frashersherman: I saw Black Adam recently and thought it wasn’t THAT bad.

    Thought Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Fate was kind of the best part of the movie.

  2. Reading the online reaction there’s quite a spread from “meh” to “wow!”
    Pierce Brosnan is always a plus. Though I’m surprised they dropped the concept of the helmet being in charge as that’s been such a staple in the comics the past 50 years. Then again, I wouldn’t have though Wonder Woman would drop the carved-from-clay aspect of her origin …

  3. The movie was very Geoff Johns-y, and yet I liked it anyway. This was the closest The Rock has come to a Schwarzenegger performance in a while. The story had the energy of a kid smashing toys together. I had fun.

  4. Le Messor

    Maybe the movie writers wanted to do that particular storyline? I dunno.

    I haven’t seen the movie; it caught my interest, but not quite enough to go to a theatre on my own, and nobody I knew wanted to see it. Also, I got really sick of movies / comics from the POV of villains when they became a trend over the last couple of decades. (I saw the first Venom once on a plane, never the second. Technically I saw Venom 1.5 times, since I fell asleep the first. Never saw Morbius, either, though I don’t think of him as a total villain. I only saw Man Of Steel the once.)

    revived the World’s Mightiest Villain in Shazam! #28. Sivana
    The way this line was broken up, I thought it was a joke, calling Sivana ‘the World’s Mightiest Villain’! 😀

    To be fair, Sivana was basically Black Adam in the first Shazam! movie.

    Roy Thomas’s god-awful Shazam: The New Beginning miniseries, a grim-and-gritty take

    That’s disappointing. I think better of Roy Thomas than ‘god-awful’ (slightly dull sometimes, but never ‘god-awful’), and I wouldn’t have expected him to fall for that ‘grimngritty’ garbage. 🙁

  5. That surprised me too, as he’s a fan of the Golden Age takes in most respects.
    Morbius definitely isn’t a villain in the movie version but it’s not very good either. Part of the trouble, I think, is that vampires are so much more common than when MU Morbius debuted and the film doesn’t stay ahead of the curve: being Living Vampires doesn’t make Jared Leto and Evil Vampire BFF Matt Smith any different from Nick Knight and Lacroix.

    1. Le Messor

      I always associate Roy Thomas with historical pieces – WWII, mostly. (And Arak.) But I do know he’s also a done few contemporary pieces.

      Morbius as a movie did an incredible job of not capturing my interest. But I’m not sure who Nick at Knight is, or LaCroix? (Is the latter an Anne Rice character?)

      1. Sorry. No, Nick Knight was the Crusader-turned-vampire protagonist of the 1990s series Forever Knight (tried previously as the pilot film Nick Knight, with Rick Springfield as the lead), atoning for his crimes by working as a homicide cop while hoping the local forensic pathologist can find a vampire cure. Lacroix was his vampiric sire, constantly trying to lure Nick back to the dark side. Which is the relationship Smith had to Jared Leto’s Morbius in the film.
        I’m inclined to agree with the view it would have been more fun if Leto and Smith had traded places, as Leto takes the whole thing too seriously.

        1. Le Messor

          I kind of wondered if Nick Knight was a Forever Knight reference; but I know the series so little, I’m not sure I would’ve remembered the name (had I given it more thought than I actually did). I (obviously) didn’t know LaCroix was even from the same series.

  6. John King

    In addition to doing period pieces Roy Thomas does do legacy series such as Infinity Inc – so not surprising to see him involved in a Shazam revival.
    Though, nothing I’ve read by Roy Thomas has been “grim and gritty” (TM) so it isn’t surprising that an attempt from him to do so turned out bad

    1. Le Messor

      In my head, Infinity, Inc is basically WWII anyway, because of its strong ties with the JSA, even if it was set in contemporary LA.

      To me, basically all “grim ‘n’ gritty”™ turns out bad. 🙂

  7. jccalhoun

    Reportedly Black Adam had a ton of reshoots and it shows. There is goofy humor shoehorned in that clashes with the tone of the scenes before and after it.
    It is a shame it was so uneven because there were some good performances and interesting foundation to build on.

    My thought is that James Gunn should do Justice League International. It has a Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad to it. If it succeeds they can get 3 or so films out of it which will have Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman out of the spotlight long enough for recasting them to seem less jarring.

    1. Yes, there were moments like the jokes about how he keeps walking through walls when there’s a door handy that I enjoyed.
      I have no opinion on where Gunn should go next, but that’s as good a suggestion as any.

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