“The world needed a hero. It got Black Adam.”
That’s the tagline for Black Adam and it’s one that tells you exactly what to expect from Dwayne Johnson’s “Man in Black.” Black Adam is not your savior; this is not a redemption story. Since he first appeared in 1945, Black Adam has been a cautionary tale of what happens when you place your trust in the wrong man. When the hero you thought you’ve found was just a tyrant waiting to happen. Basically, Black Adam is everything Lex Luthor has been warning us Superman could be. For a man like Teth-Adam, there’s no returning to the light. If you have any doubt, just follow the comics. They’ll show you why it’s far too late for Black Adam’s redemption.
Public perception of the Shazam mythology today is that Black Adam has always been Billy Batson’s opposite. But from Billy’s first appearance until DC acquired the rights to Shazam in the 1970s, Black Adam only made one appearance, as a foe worthy of bringing the entire invincible Marvel Family together to defeat. In Marvel Family #1, published in 1945, the Wizard Shazam tells the then-named Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. the story of his first champion. Millennia ago, he had first chosen an Egyptian man named Teth-Adam to wield the power of the gods against the enemies of man, but he quickly succumbed to his power in the name of global conquest. Shazam sent Teth-Adam away to the farthest reaches of space, naming him “Black Adam” for his grave mistake in judgment.
It takes Black Adam 5,000 years to find his way back to Earth, at which point it’s Billy’s Uncle Dudley who kills the invincible foe by tricking him into saying “Shazam,” instantly aging him five millennia upon reverting to his mortal form.
That was the last anyone saw of Black Adam for over thirty years. In DC’s Shazam #28, mad scientist Dr. Sivana uses his resurrection machine to restore Black Adam to life and exact vengeance on Shazam and the Shazam Family. As in his first appearance, this incarnation of Black Adam showed no signs of heroism, fully committed to exercising his power against those who have bested him in the past. This original Black Adam was thoroughly evil to the last, battling against Earth’s heroes all the way up through Crisis on Infinite Earths. Clearly, for Black Adam as he was envisioned by creators Otto Binder and C.C. Beck, there was never a thought of redemption at all.
Corruption of the Innocent
One of the worst aspects of Black Adam is that it’s not simply enough for him to be a corrupt power—he is also driven to bring the heroes around him down to his level. In 2007’s Countdown, Black Adam loaned his power to Mary Bromfield when she found she had been stripped of her connection to Shazam. But with that new source of power also came Black Adam’s corrupting influence, driving Mary down a path that would eventually reshape her into a pawn of Darkseid.
Before that, in the JSA: Black Reign crossover, Black Adam drove a wedge in the Justice Society by presenting them with his more authoritarian approach to enforcing justice. One of those most convinced by Adam’s influence, nearly to the point of no return, was Al Rothstein, the Atom Smasher. Could we see Adam tempt Atom Smasher more in the Black Adam film? Perhaps not, but we certainly wouldn’t put it past him to try it.
Death of a Teen Titan
Not every fallen hero is beyond redemption. In the years following Terra’s betrayal of the Teen Titans in “The Judas Contract,” a new time-displaced Terra genetically based on the original found her way into the present. Determined to make up for her counterpart’s mistakes, this new Terra did her best to fight along the Teen Titans, but along with newer Titans member Young Frankenstein, her time would be cut short during the “World War III” event when the Titans attempted to take down a rampant Black Adam. Adam tore through the Teen Titans like tissue paper and Terra was lost. It’s one thing to attempt to kill a young hero month after month as Black Adam once did in his battles with Billy Batson, and another to find success. Is redemption even possible after the murder of a child?
The Razing of Bialya
If there was ever a path to redemption for Black Adam, it would have been in the 2006 series 52—the chronicle of a year in the DC Universe without Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. In 52, the love of Egyptian freedom fighter Adrianna Tomaz brings Adam to the brink of the light, her influence inspiring him to use his power and influence to make the world a better place. But when Adrianna is killed by super-powered assassins, Black Adam’s rage grows to bounds never seen before.
It’s from there that the aforementioned “World War III” ensues. On one side, Black Adam. On the other, everyone else. And it’s actually a close fight. Black Adam’s defeat would come at a heavy price: in his fury, Adam destroyed the entire nation of Bialya, which he held primarily responsible for Adrianna’s death. The final death toll: two million. At this point, Black Adam is no longer a lost soul. He’s a war criminal.
Stolen, Not Chosen
In Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Shazam back-ups to the 2011 Justice League series, we get an unprecedented look at the earliest days of Teth-Adam’s reign. It’s here that we learn his darkest secret: it was not the Wizard Shazam’s error in choosing Black Adam as his champion, as Teth Adam was never actually chosen. It was Adam’s purehearted nephew, Aman, who was to be the champion of Shazam against the deadly enemies of man. But Aman trusted his uncle too much, sharing his power with him—until Adam deemed his nephew too weak to effectively use the gift he had been given and took it all.
Did Teth-Adam murder his nephew to gain his power? We can’t say for sure. It certainly looks like he did. But that’s all being explored right now in the currently ongoing Black Adam comic series by Priest and Rafa Sandoval. As for Black Adam’s cinematic counterpart, it’s fair to see it as something of a fresh start for Teth-Adam. A chance to prove that on screen, he can do a better job resisting the dark urges and motivations that his comic book iteration has struggled with. After all, as one of the most powerful heroes on Earth, Black Adam’s biggest struggle has always been with himself. For the planet’s sake, let’s hope he fares a bit better this time.
Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is now playing in a theater near you. To buy tickets and catch up on 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 DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.