Dwayne Johnson is finally joining the DCEU with Black Adam. The movie’s trailers (not to mention the movie itself) showcase a brutally action-packed epic, the character isn’t one of DC’s most well known, despite having been around for over 75 years. Black Adam is truly the most complex (and violent) character to spring from the Shazam mythos and has been the center of some of DC’s best tales of the past 20 years. He has become one of DC’s greatest anti-heroes, a godlike being of profound honor and with an immense capacity for violence.
But what makes Black Adam so tough, and why is one of the biggest action stars of a generation so eager to play him? That’s because he shares that magic word of Shazam and it makes him a formidable character with a cool set of powers and abilities.
Black Adam Powers and Abilities: The Shazam Connection
The traditional Shazam acronym stands for a group of gods and heroes (mostly) stemming from the Greco-Roman tradition. On the more traditionally heroic end of things, Billy Batson is imbued with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury when he speaks the famed magic word. Those are pretty self-explanatory, but Black Adam gets his powers from a different pantheon when he says the magic word.
For Black Adam, the magic word of Shazam stands for the Stamina of Shu, the swiftness of Heru, the strength of Amon, the wisdom of Zehuti, the power of Aton, and the courage of Mehen. For the purposes of superhero storytelling, we’ll just consider “stamina” to be manifested as nigh-invulnerability, meaning that Adam (or other Shazam family members) can take about as much punishment as Superman.
Now, to be clear, the gods of Ancient Egyptian mythology aren’t as tied to specific roles as their Greek or Roman counterparts. But Shu has been known to be equated with Atlas (perhaps because he’s associated with the space between the ground and the sky), hence the “stamina” he grants Black Adam.
The swiftness of Heru, well…you might know Heru better as Horus, the Ancient Egyptian sky god. Maybe not as traditionally associated with speed as Mercury is, but that’s what Adam’s creators put here, so that’s what we’ve got. In any case, it’s Heru’s name which grants Black Adam traditional superhero super speed. Neither he nor Shazam are as fast as the Flash, though, and perhaps roughly as fast as Superman. This “swiftness” is often what is said to allow him to fly as well.
Amun, who grants Adam his great strength, was one of the most important gods of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. How strong is Black Adam? Well, according to the comics, he can go toe to toe with Superman, and that’s certainly something that Dwayne Johnson keeps hinting at.
The wisdom of Zehuti makes more sense if you think of Zehuti by his more well known name, Thoth, who was the god of wisdom, science, writing, and more. Anyway like Billy’s “wisdom of Solomon” trait, it’s a little hard to quantify what this all means in terms of Black Adam, but he’s certainly been “wise” enough to rule the nation of Kahndaq (he is, as you might expect, a bit of a strongman), so there’s something to this.
Aton is essentially the sun god, something akin to the Greco-Roman Apollo, albeit more conceptual. The equivalent of this with Shazam is “the power of Zeus” which is usually represented as the lightning powers that have been added to the character in recent years, as well as resistance to magical attacks. And yes, as we see in the movie, Black Adam isn’t shy about using those lightning abilities to fry the crap out of his opponents.
The “courage of Mehen” is the equivalent of Shazam’s “courage of Achilles.” Of course, the demigod Achilles is more readily associated with courage (particularly on the battlefield) then Mehen, a snake god. Still, don’t expect Black Adam to back down from a fight, and while not exactly a good guy, he does have a code of ethics that he adheres to…even if it’s unlikely to align perfectly with what other heroes expect.
Black Adam Weaknesses
From afar, it may appear that Black Adam is a ridiculously overpowered character. The guy is about as strong, tough, and fast as Superman for cryin’ out loud! But he absolutely CAN be beaten. For one thing, he can be overpowered by someone stronger. There aren’t many of ’em out there, but it can be done.
For one thing, he’s also vulnerable to magic. It makes sense, since his powers are magically based. As you’ll see from the history section below, he’s repeatedly had his powers taken away by cunning wizards, heroes, and sorcerers throughout DC history. Sometimes, all it’s taken is tricking him into saying his magic word, causing him to revert to human form, thereby making him vulnerable to attack.
And as we see in the Black Adam movie, he’s also vulnerable to Eternium, magical pieces that make up the Rock of Eternity, the source of Shazam powers. It doesn’t affect him like Kryptonite affects Superman, but it is able to pierce his skin.
In the recent (and really awesome) Black Adam comics series by Christopher Priest and Rafa Sandoval, Adam found himself on the wrong end of none other than Darkseid himself, whose cosmic power left the antihero with a kind of cosmic necrosis that’s eating his physical form and killing him. So yeah, it’s tough, but Black Adam can be defeated!
So what about the character’s history? We’re glad you asked!
The Early Days
Black Adam first appeared in 1945 in a story by Otto Binder and the creator of all things Shazam C. C. Beck. In his first story, Adam was established as an ancient pharaoh and the first mortal to be granted the powers of Shazam. Teth-Adam (dubbed Mighty Adam by the Wizard) is corrupted by the Shazam powers, and after cutting a swath of destruction across Ancient Egypt, the Wizard rechristens him “Black Adam” and exiles him into space.
Adam returns in the modern age to find that the Shazam powers had been gifted to Billy Batson, Freddy Freeman, and Mary Batson, and a true epic follows as Black Adam is finally tricked into saying the Shazam magic word and reverts back to Teth-Adam. Sadly for ol’ Teth, he is now five thousand years old and instantly turns to dust. Yikes!
Oddly, for such an important villain, this was Black Adam’s only appearance for decades. When DC Comics revived Shazam in the 1970s, Black Adam returned thanks to Dr. Sivana’s Reincarnation Machine (why not) and became part of the DC Universe proper, making occasional guest appearances to battle Shazam and Superman in the pages of books like DC Comics Presents. But it wasn’t until 1994 that Black Adam would realize his true poential.
The modern Black Adam made his debut in Jerry Ordway’s The Power of Shazam which establishes that Teth-Adam was one of the greatest warriors serving Pharaoh Rameses II, catching the eye of the Wizard who grants him powers. Adam serves as Egypt’s guardian for centuries until he is corrupted by a demonic entity known as Blaze. The Wizard strips Adam of his power after the whole “seduced by a demonic succubus” thing and places the Black Adam power in a scarab (as one does).
The big takeaway here, other than the fact Ordway’s Shazam was beyond awesome, is that the writer/artist was the first to establish Black Adam as a once noble soul. Black Adam was Egypt’s greatest champion, and until he was corrupted by Blaze, he was the model of heroism in the early days of the DCU. The tale of Black Adam is almost biblical in scope as he rises a champion and falls a corrupted soul that murders the family of a boy destined to be a hero. It’s a different take than the one we see in the movie, but it’s nonetheless an important milestone for the character.
A True Anti-Hero
The time of Black Adam as dark protector, homicidal king, and complex anti-hero would truly begin under writers Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer and artist Marcos Martin in the pages of JSA. Adam joins with the JSA villain Johnny Sorrow (if Sorrow looks at you, you die, it’s intense) and almost defeats the JSA until Black Adam’s original, Teth-Adam nature reasserts itself. He helps the JSA defeat Sorrow and a repentant Adam asks to join the world’s first super team.
You can see why the movie wanted to include characters from the JSA, because at this point in the character’s history, this is where things get truly awesome. As leader of his own nation, Black Adam shows that he is all about the harsh biblical justice of old. This story retcons a few elements from The Power of Shazam, moving the place of Adam’s origin from Egypt to the fictional North African nation of Kahndaq. In addition, the writers tie the character to Hawkman as Adam served side by side with Prince Khufu, one of the hero’s past lives.
They also tweak Adam’s origin, losing the “corrupted by Blaze” elements and replacing it with conquering of Kahndaq by Ahk-ton and the immortal Vandal Savage. During the sacking of Kahndaq, Adam’s family is murdered. Driven by vengeance and the good of his people, Black Adam returns to Kahndaq and takes his vengeance on the invaders. This level of violence shocks the Wizard, who strips Black Adam of his powers and murders him. That’s some dark stuff. This change of origin stripped Black Adam of his true villainous roots and made him more akin to Marvel characters like Magneto or Namor: a leader who will go to any lengths to protect his people.
Eventually, things get tense between Adam and the JSA due to Adam’s great weakness: his ego (you can see this even in the trailers for the new movie). Adam and the Justice Society also come into conflict because Adam believes the heroes should simply kill the villains they face and be done with it to prevent future threats. Adam does eventually forge enduring friendships within the JSA particularly with JSA member Atom Smasher.
The Black Adam Family
While Billy Batson has long had his own Shazam family, in the series 52 (2006) by Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Keith Giffen, Black Adam gains a family of his own. But like many parts of the Black Adam story, boy, does it end tragically.
52 introduced Adrianna Tomaz, an enslaved woman who is offered to Black Adam, the ruler of Kahndaq, by a group of criminals known as Intergang. Black Adam doesn’t take kindly to slavery and violently murders the gang. He falls in love with Tomaz and even shares his powers, transforming her into the hero known as Isis (a nod to Saturday mornings of yore as the character Isis used to share a live action programming block with Shazam back in the 1970s).
Eventually, the lovers find Tomaz’s brother Amon dying from injuries suffered from a horrific beating. Black Adam shares his powers with the young boy who becomes Kid Osiris. This all sounds great until Kid Osiris is eaten by a talking, bipedal crocodile (comics are amazing). Later, Isis is also killed, telling Adam in her dying breath that she was wrong for trying to soften him and that he should avenge her. And he does just that, going on a rampage around the world, killing a number of international heroes, until the mystic heroes of the DCU drain Adam of his powers as Billy changes the magic word that grants Black Adam his mystic might.
Of course, that has all changed since then, with Adam back in charge in Kahndaq in recent comics, including the absolutely brilliant current Black Adam series by Christopher Priest and Rafa Sandoval. Here, he spends much of his time in human form, and his Teth-Adam is a worldly, shadowy figure, with an almost Dracula-esque vibe. He’s also once again passing on his powers, but that’s a story for another time…