After falling short of the vision the Egyptian gods had for him, the comic book character Black Adam is banished for 5,000 years. His DC Universe cinematic counterpart had his own prison sentence: fifteen years in development hell. By Hollywood standards, that might as well be a few thousand years. Since his name first came up as a potential Black Adam, Dwayne Johnson grew from “that actor who used to be a wrestler” into the biggest movie star in the world. It would have been perfectly understandable for him to move on from this project, a comic character most have never heard of. DC’s cinematic universe has had multiple high-profile misses, with heroes that are household names. Even the long-awaited Batman vs. Superman didn’t live up to expectations, becoming fodder for a mountain of “MARTHA!” memes. But Johnson was adamant this was the hero he wanted to play.
His superhero bet has paid big dividends for DC, Black Adam taking in $142.9 million in its opening weekend. It is not just the biggest opening of Johnson’s career, but the biggest hit with DC Comics fans in years. While critics were cool on it, audiences have given it a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. That’s the best DC rating since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. A sequel is coming, and it won’t take quite as long to get filming.
Nearly two decades ago, rumors had Johnson portraying Shazam, the adult avatar of a young child granted godlike power. The superstar said it was comic book fans who explained to him he’d be a better fit as the sometimes villainous Black Adam.
The character initially battled Shazam in Fawcett Comics of the 1940s. He had the same powers as the hero of those books but allowed them to corrupt him. Shazam learned that 5,000 years before, Teth Adam received godlike powers from the same wizard that empowered young Billy Batson. Believing he’d be a better ruler than the current pharaoh, Adam killed him and took the throne. The wizard banished him to a star so distant it took him 5,000 years to fly back to Earth. Meanwhile, the wizard had found another champion. This time he chose a young child, hoping the boy wouldn’t be corrupted as easily. With Adam and the magically empowered Marvel Family being near indestructible, the battle was a stalemate. The heroes finally tricked Adam into saying the magic word Shazam, thus being transformed into a skeleton since he was centuries old. Teth Adam was banished again, this time to the land of largely forgotten comic book villains.
Decades later, the Fawcett heroes were part of DC Comics’ vast stable of characters. Writers Geoff Johns and David Goyer revived and redeemed Adam, still having an ancient Egyptian sense of justice, but could acting heroically sometimes. They probably never imagined what a profitable move resurrecting Black Adam would prove to be. His willingness to, even preference for, killing criminals often puts him at odds with modern heroes who keep sending their enemies to laughably escapable supervillain prisons.
After Johnson learned the character’s history, he decided the fans were right about him portraying the anti-hero. Unlike Shazam or Superman, there’s a darkness in Adam. He doesn’t always make the right move, strategically or morally. The character failed so badly that his gods locked him away for an eternity. But they did leave him a second chance.
Johnson has been open about his struggles with depression. In an interview with the Express, the actor talked about hitting a breaking point after his dream of making it in pro football didn’t happen. He was broke, living with his parents who were also struggling, and his girlfriend left him.
“Struggle and pain is real,” Johnson said. “I was devastated and depressed. I reached a point where I didn’t want to do a thing or go anywhere. I was crying constantly.”
It makes sense that Johnson would get Black Adam in a way other actors might not. The more his star power grew, the more of it he put behind this project. He never stopped talking it up at press events, comic book conventions, anytime he was asked about it, and a few times when he probably wasn’t. It’s a stark contrast to how many actors treat projects based on comic books or video games. For example, Max Payne star Mark Wahlberg gave a now infamous series of interviews admitting he had never heard of the popular game before signing on to adapt it. He also mentioned that he had barely played it.
Johnson gave input on just about every aspect of his passion project. Since Black Adam is a member of Shazam’s rogue’s gallery, initial plans had him appear in Shazam. Warner Bros. had a script it loved, a dual origin story for both the hero and the villain. Johnson thought the script did both characters a disservice. With the long-gestating project finally coming close to fruition, Warner didn’t argue with its star.
As for the gap in critic score and audience approval? The superstar often referred to as “The People’s Champ” in WWE said in a series of tweets that he cares most about what the average moviegoer thinks.
“As always, the fans matter most and we’re always committed to deliver for them… In the end, the only thing that matters to me is sending the people home happy. And that’s what I’ll always fight for.”