The latest Black Adam trailer has hyped us all up for the film’s upcoming release, but it’s also raised some question. For example, why is James Bond wearing a cape and helmet? (What can I say, sometimes you go from a Goldeneye to a golden dome.)
For those who don’t know, Pierce Brosnan will be playing the spellcasting superhero Doctor Fate. He might not have the name recognition that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have, but Doctor Fate is easily one of the most powerful heroes in the DC Universe. To get us ready for his big screen debut in Black Adam, let’s get to know the Justice Society’s resident sorcerer.
There have been a few different incarnations of Doctor Fate over the years, but let’s focus on Kent Nelson, since he’s the original and the version we’ll be seeing in Black Adam. Some of Kent’s magic abilities stem from his time studying under the cosmic being Nabu, while some have been augmented by his magic artifacts. For example, the Amulet of Anubis holds a lot of power—it can trap souls and it harbors its own pocket dimension. The Helmet of Fate can grant its wearer cosmic awareness and enhance their magical abilities, but donning it comes with a price—you have to share your body with Nabu (more on that arrangement later).
Now, before we go any further, I know what some of you are thinking. A sorcerer superhero with a cloak, an amulet and a doctor moniker? Well, before you rush to judgement, you should know that Doctor Fate predates that marvelous yet strange superhero by over twenty years. In fact, Doctor Fate first appeared in 1940, predating many of DC’s most iconic heroes and villains. Consider him an elder statesman within the DC Universe.
Doctor Fate first appeared in More Fun Comics #55, in a story which also introduced his love interest, Inza Cramer. Doctor Fate’s debut adventure was written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Howard Sherman. Chances are you’re familiar with Fox, but if not, he was the co-creator of the Flash, Hawkman, Batgirl, the Justice Society, the Justice League and many other DC pillars.
Fate’s introductory story doesn’t reveal his real name and he is never pictured without his helmet. In it, he takes on the evil sorcerer Wotan in a battle that ends with Doctor Fate tossing Wotan out of a high-rise widow. Golden Age heroes didn’t mess around. Fate also transforms himself and Inza into wind so they could travel between locations faster. That’s right, Superman flies through the air—Doctor Fate becomes the air itself.
Shortly after his first appearance, Doctor Fate would become a founding member of the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3. During the group’s first meeting, Johnny Thunder would ask about Fate’s background and get an unusual answer. “As you know, I am not human,” Fate explains. “I never was a child. I had no youth. The elder gods created me just as I am now and placed me here on Earth to fight evil sorcery.” However, as was common at the time, this would be contradicted and forgotten quickly. Maybe Fate was just hazing his new teammate?
After a year of pulp-style adventures, Doctor Fate’s origin and real name were revealed in More Fun Comics #67 (reprinted in 1971’s Justice League of America #95). As a child, Kent Nelson traveled to Egypt with his father, hoping to discover evidence that aliens built the pyramids. While searching through an ancient temple, Kent awakens a powerful being known as Nabu. Kent and Nabu soon discover that the elder Nelson has been killed by the temple’s poisonous gas. In response, Nabu offers to take the orphan under his wing, teaching him everything he knows about magic. After Kent reaches adulthood, he’s given the Helmet of Fate and other special garments. He then sets out into the world as the superhero Doctor Fate.
After reading this, you might think that Nabu sounds like a swell guy, but it turns out More Fun Comics #67 wasn’t telling the whole story. Later retellings would reveal that Nabu used the Helmet of Fate to possess Kent’s body. 1st Issue Special #9 revealed that Nabu had emotionally manipulated Kent as a child, magically erasing the grief from his father’s death so he could devote his full concentration to his sorcery studies.
Even worse, DC Special Series #10 revealed that Nabu hadn’t been forthcoming about his first meeting with Kent. It turns out that Nabu had engineered the events that lured father and son to the temple and had Kent’s father killed so that his son could become Nabu’s next host.
As a result of Nabu’s influence, now shown to be more malevolent than Kent realized, Doctor Fate would sometimes become a different person when he wore the Helmet of Fate. This complicated his relationship with Inza Cramer, who later became his wife.
Kent Nelson largely operates out of the Tower of Fate, a sprawling structure in Salem, Massachusetts. Thanks to a magic enchantment, nobody can enter or leave the tower except Kent and Inza Cramer. Like many long-existing superheroes, Kent Nelson has been killed and resurrected a few times. His most recent death occurred in 2020’s Justice League Dark #27 after a confrontation with the Upside-Down Man. Others have taken on the Doctor Fate mantle over the years, including Kent’s wife Inza and his great-nephew Khalid Nassour.
While Black Adam will be Doctor Fate’s big screen debut, it won’t be the first time he has appeared in live action. Brent Stait portrayed Doctor Fate in the 2010 Smallville episode “Absolute Justice.” The episode also featured other members of the Justice Society, who teamed up with a young Clark Kent. Doctor Fate was killed by Icicle, but the Helmet of Fate would continue to be used by other characters throughout the series.
Speaking of the JSA, while Doctor Fate doesn’t directly appear in the Stargirl television series, he is seen a few times in photographs that depict the original Justice Society. Like his JSA teammates, Doctor Fate was killed during the events of the pilot episode’s opening flashback. Animated versions of Doctor Fate have also appeared in various series, including Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice.
As you can see, Doctor Fate is a great person to have on your side. The question is, does he have what it takes to overcome Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam? Even if the Rock’s version of the character is more of an antihero than an outright villain, it’s clear that he’ll very much be butting heads with the Justice Society. What happens when sorcery clashes with strength, stamina and stubbornness? We’ll find out when Black Adam hits theaters, but let’s hope that helmet does its job!
Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson and featuring Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate, hits theaters Friday, October 21. For all the latest news, features and trailers from the film, visit our official Black Adam hub.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DC.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.