Dwayne Johnson, former wrestler now actor, has been long rumored for a role in a DC Comics movie. In years past, it has been suggested that he would portray Shazam (then called Captain Marvel), his nemesis Black Adam or Green Lantern John Stewart. Johnson, for his part, always made it clear that he wanted to work as these characters, often taking to Twitter or Instagram showing his affection for these characters and a desire to develop them for the silver screen.
Recently, Johnson revealed that he was given a choice by Warner Bros. regarding the Shazam movie in development. He could play the titular character or he could play Black Adam. Johnson said he had some thinking to do. For those of you not entirely familiar with the characters, we’ll go over them quickly and I’ll give my opinion of which character he should choose.
Shazam was created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker in 1939; the character was meant to be Fawcett Comics’ answer to Superman. Until 2011, when DC’s New 52 reboot dismantled continuity, he was called Captain Marvel. Marvel was even more of a boy scout than Superman was—because he actually was a boy scout. His secret identity was Billy Batson, a twelve year old boy who was given his powers by the wizard Shazam. Batson would transform into Marvel by yelling “SHAZAM,” giving him 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.
Captain Marvel sold well because he was the epitome of the comics-as-wish-fulfillment concept. Little Billy Batson was a homeless newsboy with no hope, yet he was—through luck, kindness and personal strength—able to achieve great things. With World War II raging and many boys losing their fathers, the message was a hopeful one. Comics at the time were full of characters that had that kind of tone—Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America too were all part of this idea that despite things being bad now, you can turn it all around.
In the early years, Captain Marvel did as many superheroes did—he fought the Axis powers, often foiling the plots of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, he had his own villains as well—Dr. Sivana, Mister Mind, Ibac and Captain Nazi. Black Adam was most connected to the Marvel family—he was Marvel’s ancient and corrupted predecessor, yet only appeared in a single issue in 1945. He would not be heard from again until the 1970s.
His popularity lead to spinoffs, supplementary series, radio, TV and animated appearances. Eventually, Captain Marvel was outselling Superman so DC Comics sued Fawcett into bankruptcy as well as several other comic companies for their blatant Superman rip-offs. Dozens of these characters are lost to time, and DC purchased all of their licenses. DC owned Captain Marvel and his entire family.
As a character, Captain Marvel is a goody-two-shoes in a way that makes Superman look like The Punisher. Since he’s a kid in a man’s body, Captain Marvel often came off naïve and idealistic. Over the years he added to his family—Captain Marvel, Jr. (who Elvis Presley was a big fan of; DC Comics in turn made Captain Marvel, Jr. an Elvis fan), Mary Marvel and Tawky Tawny. There were other characters like Fat Marvel, Tall Marvel, Hillbilly Marvel and Uncle Marvel but it’s best we just pretend that never happened.
With two very similar archetypes in play, Superman and Captain Marvel have repeatedly fought. In general, Captain Marvel usually looks up to Superman, but in several mitigating circumstances (sales boosts needed) they fought each other brutally. Each of these encounters (most notably in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come) were incredibly exciting. Their power levels are roughly the same, but Captain Marvel has the advantage—he’s made of magic and Superman is very vulnerable to magic.
More recently, however, Captain Marvel has not exactly maintained his popularity. As time went on, Captain Marvel was seen as corny, and in the modern age of comics—ones that demand a more serious approach—having a little boy turn into an adult and tell everyone to eat their vegetables didn’t wow audiences anymore. Over the last twenty years in particular, many creators including Jerry Ordway, Peter J. Tomasi and Geoff Johns have all tried their hand at modernizing the character, yet none of the takes have really worked. Captain Marvel has had over a half dozen different titles cancelled over the years. What made Captain Marvel fun was its goofy nature—both as a character and as a series, and while Black Adam and Captain Nazi graduated into more adult themed stories, Captain Marvel does not exactly work in the same way. That’s not to say he doesn’t work as a character, it’s just that no one has come along that’s been able to write Captain Marvel with a modern take that’s able to merge what’s popular now with the whimsy that made him popular in the first place.
When DC Comics rebooted their line with the New 52 in 2011, Captain Marvel was rebranded as Shazam. This was done for a variety of reasons:
2-Marvel Comics was suing them despite not really having a case
3-Marvel also had a character called Captain Marvel
4-Supposedly more people recognized him as Shazam anyway (take this was a grain of salt)
Warner Bros.’ desire to place him on film now is a major risk considering the character’s fluctuating popularity and explains why they want Johnson as bad as they do to help build up the profile of Captain Marvel…I mean, Shazam.
Were Johnson to choose to play Captain Marvel/Shazam, it would be a financial decision more than anything. Shazam is the protagonist, and therefore will have a much larger catalog of merchandise attached to him once the movie is released. It’s impossible to say what changes to the character and his personality will be made when adapted to film, though making him more of a brooding anti-hero is not the way to go, as Man of Steel taught us. Dark doesn’t work with everyone, especially when you have a character like Black Adam.
Black Adam (also known as Teth-Adam) is Shazam’s reflection in broken glass. He was the son of pharaoh Ramesses II and imbued with the Wizard’s powers due to his bravery and kindness. He protected his people—in the fictional country of Kahndaq—for generations before being seduced and led astray by the evil priestess Blaze which led to the murder of his wife and children.
Black Adam is different from other archenemies like Joker or Lex Luthor. Joker is merely insane, and Lex Luthor believes that having a savior in Superman makes regular humans weak and lazy, Black Adam in turn seeks order and his own strange definitions of justice and redemption (he once killed two million people in Bialya for those specific reasons) and his status as a former good guy make him more complex. While often made to seem as a dictator similar to Gaddafi by giving Black Adam good intentions makes him begrudgingly likable.
Modern incarnations (specifically in the series 52, The Dark Age and JSA) have focused more on Black Adam’s old school militancy and of Draconian sense of justice. He again took control of Kahndaq and made it prosperous. He rescued a victim of human trafficking named Isis, as well as her brother Amon. He imbues them with his powers, making Amon into Osiris. Adam and Isis eventually wed. He asks Captain Marvel to be his best man—they are technically all family—and for a while things are good until Isis and Osiris are eventually killed, Kahndaq is nearly destroyed, and leads again to Black Adam losing his mind.
This would be the role for Johnson to choose. As a wrestler, he was always more fun as a bad guy, and in truth, playing the bad guy is always more fun. Financially, there is likely less merchandising and arguably less exposure to be had, but from an artistic perspective, it’s impossible not to find the contradictory traits of Black Adam appealing. In one moment, you have Black Adam building reservoirs of water for his people and the next you have him committing a genocide in the name of his wife and nephew. They say that a hero is only as good as his villain, and for a time there were ongoing Black Adam miniseries and appearances while Captain Marvel/Shazam was relegated to sporadic cameos in various Justice League titles. Black Adam is the way to go.