Among comic book readers, Hawkman is a hero with a little bit of a reputation. Sometimes, he’s an alien. Sometimes, he’s the reincarnation of an Egyptian prince. Others, he appears to be the physical embodiment of some kind of primordial hawk-god. Writers have spent many years trying to reconcile the many different attempts to “crack” the character of Hawkman. As is inevitably the case, these attempts tend to only further complicate the issue. But for Hawkman’s live action cinematic debut in Black Adam, there are only a few things you need to know. Namely that Hawkman loves three things, in this order: flight, history and justice.

Two Great Tastes

Of course, more than any of those, Hawkman’s greatest love is Hawkwoman. Their love is one that goes back to Hawkman’s very first appearance, in 1939’s Flash Comics #1. Back then, in the Golden Age of superheroes, Hawkman was a standout concept. He had a romantic partner who fought alongside him, for one. But even more remarkable was his ability to fly. Though ubiquitous among the super-set today, Superman hadn’t yet had his initial flight when Hawkman first soared through the skies. Most of Hawkman’s co-founders in the Justice Society of America had no means of flight on their own. Only heroes with magic powers, like the Spectre, Alan Scott and Thunderbolt, could give themselves the power to fly and it was simply a consequence of having every conceivable power. Hawkman alone was a hero who counted flight as his primary power. (Until Starman, that is, but that wouldn’t be for another five issues after the founding of the JSA.)

What was the secret of Hawkman’s flight? A material called Nth metal (or, as called in its earliest appearances, “ninth metal”), with gravity defying properties. That’s an important distinction when it comes to Hawkman: it’s that Nth metal harness he wears around his chest which allows him to fly. The attached wings are simply there for steering.

According to Hawkman’s original Golden Age origin by co-creator Gardner Fox, Hawkman is archaeologist and museum curator Carter Hall, whose discovery of Nth metal on an archaeological dig awakens him to his past life: that of the Egyptian Prince Khufu. His partner, Shiera, was in that past life Prince Khufu’s consort, destined to be with him across time in a cycle of reincarnation. Inspired by Khufu’s strong sense of justice, Carter used the Nth metal to fashion his crimefighting persona of Hawkman, avenger of the skies.

It was pretty simple as superhero origin stories go. The reincarnation angle is new, but not too alien a concept for readers to comprehend. But an alien concept is exactly what would define Hawkman’s future in the Silver Age.

The Than’ Man

In the 1960s, editor Julius Schwartz was looking to reinvent DC’s stable of heroes with more updated, science fiction driven concepts. The mystical Green Lantern was now a corpsman in an intergalactic union of space cops. The Atom was no longer a short-statured wrestler, but a scientist who could actually shrink at will. For Hawkman, Schwartz gave Fox another crack at reinventing his winged hero to fit DC’s new direction. In a new origin told in The Brave and the Bold #34, Fox did away with the reincarnation story. This time, Carter Hall was the human disguise of Katar Hal, an alien police officer from the planet Thanagar, a world where everyone used Nth Metal to grant themselves flight. Katar and his partner, a reimagined Hawkwoman, pursue the Thanagarian criminal Byth to Earth, where they stay and assume human identities as museum curators.

How do you reconcile these two origins? In the Silver Age, you didn’t have to. Like all Golden Age heroes, the reincarnated Prince Khufu was the Hawkman of Earth-Two. The alien Katar Hal was the Hawkman of Earth-One. Two different origins, two different worlds, two different Hawkmen.

Now It Gets Tricky

It’s only after Crisis on Infinite Earths that Hawkman’s story really gets complicated, but it’s a problem we’ve since solved. This section is only here to address the idea of Hawkman being a “confusing” character. If you’d just like to know what Hawkman’s deal really is, go ahead and skip to the next section.

With the consolidation of Earth-One and Earth-Two into one continuity, there could now only be one Hawkman. Tim Truman retold Hawkman’s Thanagarian past for the modern era with his 1989 Hawkworld miniseries, but there was one problem: Hawkman was already a member of the Justice League of America by the time Hawkworld was published. So Hawkman’s previous Justice League adventures were retroactively ascribed to Hawkman impersonator Fel Andar, a Thanagarian double agent infiltrating Earth under the guise of a hero.

Having two Hawkmen around, both from Thanagar but having left at different times, was deemed a difficult concept for readers to get around, so in 1994’s Zero Hour event, they…well, made it worse by consolidating both Hawkmen into a sort of psychopompous totemic hawk deity. This storyline never really went anywhere and is usually only brought up when people are trying to impress you with how complicated Hawkman is. It does eventually get resolved, but when it does, we discover that the entity wasn’t actually Hawkman at all but related to the hero Hawk of Hawk and Dove. Go ahead and disregard it. (Unless you’re a huge Hawk fan, I suppose, in which case, go nuts!)

Solving for Hawkman

Later in the ’90s, James Robinson and Geoff Johns revived the classic Hawkman origin as part of their wider effort to revitalize the Justice Society as a whole. Katar Hal, the Thanagarian Hawkman, and Carter Hall, the Hawkman of the Golden Age Justice Society and reincarnation of Prince Khufu, co-existed now as separate entities. What Johns added to the Hawkman mythology was the idea that the reincarnation cycle didn’t just go straight from Khufu to Carter—there were a bunch of lives that Hawkman lived in between, each with their own unique adventures in every era. The issues of Johns’ 2002 Hawkman series which share these stories remain a highlight of the run.

Johns had half the riddle of Hawkman solved there, with his love of history directly informing his character through every era. But it was only in 2018 that Robert Venditti and Bryan Hitch finally solved the Hawkman riddle—a problem so infamous that even Bat-Mite devoted a full issue of his 2015 series to poke fun at it.

In Venditti and Hitch’s Hawkman #1, we’re given an explanation of Hawkman’s history so miraculously elegant that it’s a wonder no one ever thought of it before. How can Hawkman be both a Thanagarian policeman and an ancient Egyptian prince? It’s simple: Hawkman’s reincarnation cycle doesn’t just occur through time, but through space.

In a past life, Carter Hall has been a Thanagarian. He’s also been a Rannian, a Kryptonian, even a New God. Most importantly, these lives don’t necessarily occur in linear order, meaning that Hawkman’s personal timeline of lives can go backwards, forwards and even simultaneously through time as we perceive it. The ramifications of this are as enormous as the most imaginative of you might expect, and they’re thoroughly explored in the series’ unforgettable twenty-nine issues.

How all of this plays into Black Adam is anybody’s guess, but at least now you can say that you know where Hawkman comes from and what he’s about. In every life Hawkman’s ever lived, he’s been about three things: flight, history and justice. And in this latest incarnation of his in the DC film universe, you’re about to witness them all. Let’s soar.

Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson and featuring Aldis Hodge as Hawkman, hits theaters Friday, October 21. For all the latest news, features and trailers from the film, visit our official Black Adam hub.

Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.