When Dwayne Johnson, d/b/a The Rock, at long last revealed that yes, indeed, inevitably, he will be assuming the role of Black Adam in an upcoming DC comics film, it’s possible that I was the only person on the planet who was surprised.
The casting of Johnson as Black Adam has been on the collective fanboy wish-list for as long as anyone can remember, and for months he’s been teasing that he’ll be appearing in an upcoming Shazam! movie in some heretofore-unidentified role. But the sheer obviousness, and misguidedness I think, of the casting led me to hope/believe that something more nuanced was afoot.
But apparently not.
There are plenty of reasons to be less-than-pumped about casting Johnson as Black Adam. For one thing, there’s the massive pop-cultural baggage associated with Dwayne Johnson, which already threatens to overwhelm the identity of one of comics’ best and most complex modern characters. With all due respect to him and his fans, The Rock is contemporarily a sort of meathead icon primarily known for being brought in at the sequel level of various silly action franchises to beef up the cast and reenergize an existing macho demographic; see, e.g. The Scorpion King (2002), Fast Five (2011), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), etc.
The formula seems to be that if the first entry in your action franchise was bad or if the series is stalling, bring in Dwayne Johnson. It’ll still be the same lowbrow nonsense, but it’ll now at least have The Rock. It’s not my intention to throw shade on any of these films, Johnson himself, or the people who like his work. I respect it all for what it is, and enjoy some of it myself. My concern is just whether this particular type of movie star is what is needed in this particular role.
DC really could have went with a fresh face for Black Adam. I fully understand the need Big Spandex* has for “star power” in its films, and it is of course unrealistic to imagine filling such high-profile roles with actors the public is completely unfamiliar with. But we’re talking about a movie star who, in particular, is always bigger than the role he is playing. He is never just “the character,” but rather “The-Rock-as-the-character.” Quite like Tom Cruise, Dwayne Johnson is not an actor so much as a career meta-brand, whose mere presence in a film constantly undermines the diegetic reality of the fiction he inhabits.
For this role in particular, DC may have been wiser to go with a lower-profile actor. This was by no means a make-or-break casting decision that demanded a high-profile name to sell tickets. Black Adam is a character that practically no one outside of the comic book community has heard of, and the only people worried about the casting are the same ones who will bitch about it on the internet for a while and then see the movie twice opening weekend (like me, for instance.)
So maybe surprised isn’t the right word for how I felt when this newest bit of casting news from the emerging DC Comics cineverse arrived; disappointed, more like.
At this point, if you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering why on Earth I’m so bent out of shape about a character that no one seems to actually care about, except for me and Dwayne Johnson. It’s because for years, Black Adam has been my absolute favorite DC Comics character. He is the best villain, as possibly the best hero, that the DCU has had in the last two decades.
Black Adam may be the best antihero in comic book history. To help illustrate that point, a brief review of Black Adam’s recent continuity follows.
To begin, let’s tackle a preliminary question: who is Black Adam? In 1939, only about a year after publication of Action Comics #1, DC competitor Fawcett Comics appropriated the Superman character and look for its own purposes, the twist being that the hero’s alter-ego was a little boy rather than an adult man. Captain Marvel was so hugely popular, and so clearly a Superman ripoff, that it bred extensive copyright litigation by DC Comics and the eventual acquisition of Fawcett and its characters.
Black Adam was Captain Marvel’s evil doppelgänger, an ancient Egyptian hero turned villain due to his explosive temper and general inner darkness. Because, back in Egypt, Black Adam had gotten his powers from the same wizard as Captain Marvel eventually would, they both have the same exact traits and abilities.
In short, Black Adam is the evil derivative of a Superman derivative.
Now, in the interest of space and relevance, I will skip over nearly sixty years of Black Adam’s publication history and with it the vicissitudes of an endlessly convoluted and oft-retconned origin/backstory (which, lord knows, will be different in the movies anyway).
Things didn’t really get interesting for Black Adam until 2002, in the midst of a mind-bogglingly complex storyline known as “The Return of Hawkman.” Black Adam ends up helping the Justice Society of America in the end, lending Jay Garrick his “speed of Heru” for some ridiculous key purpose. Afterwards, having fully abandoned villainy, Black Adam slowly integrates himself into the group until becoming a full-fledged JSA member.
At the time, Black Adam functioned to inject a fascinating sense of realpolitik into an otherwise sanctimonious team dynamic, frequently challenging the surefooted sense of morality espoused by old-timers like Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. He eventually comes to befriend Atom Smasher, a fellow JSA member with a morally tainted past. Together, the two form a moral understanding that eventually causes a rift in the JSA, leading to “Black Reign,” a character defining story-arc written by Geoff Johns.
In the story, Black Adam becomes fully disillusioned with the American exceptionalism and moral ethnocentrism of the JSA, electing to oust the brutal dictatorship in place in Khandaq, Black Adam’s home country. In place of it, Black Adam installs himself as the Middle Eastern country’s fierce protector and leader. The story was published concomitantly with the United States’ invasion of Iraq, and the truly interesting aspect of the story was in its geopolitically realistic resolution. After much ado, the JSA doesn’t “defeat” Black Adam at all, but rather leaves him in power as the Khandaqi sovereign.
In the 2005 crossover event Infinite Crisis (also penned by Geoff Johns), Black Adam is mind-controlled into re-joining the villains. Upon awakening, he commits a truly memorable act of brutality against his mind’s former captor, and returns to fight for the good guys.
In the weekly comic 52 that depicted the Infinite Crisis aftermath, Black Adam emerged from a cast of dozens to be the most important and interesting character of the year-long series. Here, the writers further develop the character’s political significance in the context of international superheroism, with Black Adam pushing back on what he perceives to be a hegemonic concentration of metahuman power in the West. But more importantly, Black Adam becomes fully realized as an antihero via readers’ entanglement with his emotional life. Over the course of the story, Black Adam finds love and companionship, forming an intimate unit known affectionately as the Black Marvel Family.
By the end, he becomes a truly tragic figure as it is apparent that however much we believe in him, he will always be trapped within the rails of cruel circumstance, never quite escaping his fate as one angry, bad dude.
Following the events of 52, Peter J. Tomasi and Doug Mahnke produced an utterly perfect miniseries that followed Black Adam through his life as an international pariah, both on the run and stripped of his powers by Captain Marvel. Terse, creative, and frequently shocking, Black Adam: The Dark Age (2007-2008) skillfully blends the trinity genres of horror, adventure and fantasy into one thrilling experience. It remains one of the most excellent stories I’ve ever read from DC, representing a high water mark for both the character and for the superhero comic form as a whole.
In recent years, Black Adam has languished largely in irrelevancy, popping up here and there but never playing the kind of role in DCU continuity that he once did. In the recently concluded crossover event Forever Evil, he played the most significant role in years, with many indications that the post-New-52 continuity reboot will retain important elements of his modern character.
In this same vein, the fact that Johnson’s tweet included the hashtag “#antihero” indicates that the direction the film(s) will take with the character will draw at least somewhat on the above chronology. He also recently said, “I am putting my heart and soul and my bones into this role.” If this stuff is true, then maybe The Rock will make a fine Black Adam. As all geek-entitlement rants should conclude, it’s too early to tell if this will actually suck or not.
But one thing is for sure: this new casting news signals an increased relevance for the character within the comics. Because as we’ve seen more and more these days, the movies are now dictating the comics, even though it used to be the other way around.
*”Big Spandex” is my blanket term for the faceless corporate omnipresence that currently seeks to dominate the way superhero fiction is produced, written, and received. Fight the power.