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Who is Black Adam and what are his powers?

Black Adam
(Image credit: DC)

One of DC's most complicated and interesting anti-heroes is going to strike the big screen like lightning, with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's long-awaited Black Adam film arriving on July 29, 2022.

Though Black Adam has become a mainstay for DC comic book readers in recent years, he's remained much less well known outside of comics. But the character has a history stretching all the way back to 1945, to a time before DC was even DC (they were still going by National Publications) when Black Adam was actually owned by Fawcett Comics, one of National's biggest rivals.

Johnson's Black Adam film will apparently focus more on the character's more recent history since his revamp and revitalization in the late '90s when he was first an enemy and then a member of the Justice Society, many members of whom will also appear in the film.

With so many decades under his belt across multiple publishers and through numerous revamps, Black Adam's history and lore can be somewhat difficult to piece together, like the ancient myths from which his story takes its inspiration. 

Fortunately, we here at Newsarama are experts in comic book archaeology, so click on your headlamps, grab a torch, and join us as we venture into the halls of Black Adam's comic book history and unpack everything you need to know before his big movie debut.

Black Adam's first comic-book appearance

(Image credit: DC)

Black Adam originally debuted in the Golden Age of comics, in 1945's Marvel Family #1 from Fawcett Comics (the owners of Black Adam and his rival, the hero SHAZAM!, called Captain Marvel at the time). 

Like Batman's iconic arch-enemy the Joker, Black Adam was originally intended as a one-off villain, meant to die at the end of his first appearance. But as with the Joker, who resurfaced years after his first appearance and went on to become Batman's arch-enemy, Black Adam's initial story wound up laying the groundwork for a return that elevated him to the status of his superhero foe's primary nemesis.

When DC bought many of Fawcett's characters, Black Adam was revived as one of SHAZAM!'s arch-enemies, though both the hero and villain only showed up sporadically for decades. Despite some appearances in the '70s and '80s, including on the 1981 SHAZAM! animated TV series, Black Adam didn't get a big comic book revival until the early '90s, when writer/artist Jerry Ordway revamped him as an arch-enemy to SHAZAM!, who was then still going by Captain Marvel.

[Learn the whole story of how Captain Marvel came to DC and became SHAZAM! right here.]

Black Adam's first origin has remained largely the same since his original '40s appearance, at least in broad strokes, though some of the specifics have evolved over time. 

In fact, fans of 2019's SHAZAM! movie saw a portion of Black Adam's core story in the film's intro.

Black Adam's origins

(Image credit: DC)

Black Adam's story starts eons ago when the Wizard Shazam was seeking a successor to his power and his role as the protector of ancient Egypt. In the fictional nation of Kahndaq, he finds the wise and just prince Teth Adam, who he imbued with his powers, similar to those wielded by SHAZAM!. 

Unlike SHAZAM!, though, Black Adam doesn't call upon the Greek gods – he calls upon the gods of Egyptian myth (the reasons for this change in different eras of DC continuity – more on that in a bit).

Taking up the mantle of Egypt's protector, Teth Adam forges relationships with the wizard Nabu – the magical entity that lives inside the Helm of Fate, possessed by magical DC superhero Dr. Fate, who will appear as part of the JSA in the Black Adam movie – and even Prince Khufu, who would later be reincarnated as Hawkman, who also appears as part of the film's JSA.

When his homeland of Kahndaq is destroyed by the immortal menace Vandal Savage and a villain named Akh-Ton using the Orb of Ra (the same alchemical artifact that, in comic book continuity, empowers the shapeshifting elemental hero Metamorpho), Teth Adam loses control and goes on a rampage, forcing the Wizard to trap him in a magical scarab buried in a tomb. 

Centuries later, the scarab is uncovered by Theo Adam, the treacherous assistant of archaeologists C.C. and Mary Batson – Billy Batson's parents. Activating the magic of the scarab, Theo becomes Black Adam's mortal counterpart the same way Billy is SHAZAM!'s alter ego. 

This story will likely be altered in the Black Adam movie, given the SHAZAM! movie removed the Batsons' archaeology background from Billy's backstory.

Black Adam's powers

(Image credit: DC)

Like Billy Batson, Theo Adam (who is later taken out of the picture completely, when Black Adam reforms to the JSA) speaks the word "SHAZAM!" to transform into Black Adam, invoking the power of six Egyptian gods that grant him similar abilities to those possessed by Billy Batson and his family. 

In some versions, this is simply due to the nature of Teth Adam's religion at the time he was empowered, and in others outside forces change the nature of the Wizard's gift. The Egyptian Gods that empower Black Adam are:

  • Shu, who grants him incredible stamina and invulnerability.
  • Heru, who grants him unmatchable super speed.
  • Amon, who grants him tremendous physical strength.
  • Zehuti, who grants him great wisdom and knowledge.
  • Aton, whose gift is often nebulously called "power," though this sometimes relates to his lightning powers.
  • And finally, Menthu, who grants Black Adam unshakeable courage.

Black Adam's power levels have often been depicted as much stronger even than SHAZAM!'s, especially since he has rarely shared his power with others the way Billy Batson does with Mary Batson and Freddie Freeman, let alone with five other heroes as in the big-screen iteration of the SHAZAM! family. He's been shown as strong enough to take on the entire Justice League, Justice Society, and most of the other heroes of the DC Universe when enraged.

Black Adam in the DC Universe

Black Adam

(Image credit: DC)

Despite having initially fought the JSA as part of the Injustice Society when the JSA was relaunched in the late '90s, Black Adam actually switched sides, betraying the Injustice Society and joining the JSA himself.

Black Adam revealed to the team that he had been suffering from the effects of a brain tumor in his human form, Theo Adam, which had been removed by the interdimensional villain Johnny Sorrow as enticement into his new Justice Society.

However, seeing that Johnny Sorrow's plans, which included destroying the Rock of Eternity, would harm not only himself but many more innocent people across reality, Black Adam turned on Sorrow and re-dedicated himself to heroism.

In the course of his time with the JSA, Black Adam forged a special relationship with Atom Smasher, the team's size-changing powerhouse, who was dealing with the grief of losing his sister in an attack by the villainous group Kobra. Black Adam keyed into Atom Smasher's anger, pushing him toward a more brutal, violent form of so-called justice, which Atom Smasher began indulging more and more.

When Black Adam later decided to leave the Justice Society and become the new leader of his ancestral home of Kahndaq in the story 'Black Reign, he enlists Atom Smasher and several other heroes and villains as his enforcers. Atom Smasher crosses a line, and murders the Kahndaqi dictator himself, making way for Adam's rulership. 

Adam's team goes about murdering villains around the world, including the leaders of Kobra, drawing the attention of the JSA and turning them into global villains. The JSA come to Kahndaq, inciting a conflict between the dictator's forces and the people of Kahndaq, with the JSA on the side of the dictator, and the people on the side of Black Adam.

In the end, the JSA departs, realizing the position they have put themselves in, but before they leave they first convince Black Adam not to try and impose his rules on the rest of the world, remaining solely in Kahndaq. Atom Smasher begins his rehabilitation back toward more out-and-out heroism.

The Black Adam Family

(Image credit: DC)

There are exceptions to Black Adam's rule about sharing his power - particularly when it comes to his rulership of Kahndaq, during which he decides to create his own super-powered royal family.

In the limited, yearlong weekly limited series 52, Black Adam rescues an enslaved woman named Arianna Tomez from InterGang (a fictional organized crime ring with a sci-fi twist, who debuted in Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga), leading him to also rescue her brother Amon.

Imbuing Arianna and Amon with a portion of his power, Black Adam dubs them Isis and Osiris, taking them to Kahndaq as his new royal family. (Isis's name, a holdover from the '70s TV show spin-off of the live-action SHAZAM! TV show, holds a much different connotation now).

The so-called Black Marvel family (a play on the Marvel Family, the moniker used by Billy Batson and his allies before DC started using the name SHAZAM! full-time) also recruit a sentient anthropomorphic crocodile named Sobek, a counterpart to Billy's super stuffed tiger/anthropomorphic ally Talky Tawny.

Though Adam, Isis, and Osiris at first manage to rule Kahndaq successfully, toward the end of 52, Amanda Waller sends the Suicide Squad to kill Black Adam and his family, leading Osiris to murder Persuader of the Squad in the heat of battle – and that's when everything goes wrong.

World War III

(Image credit: DC)

Overcome with subsequent guilt, Osiris attempts to relinquish Black Adam's power. But when he returns to his human form, Sobek betrays Osiris, devouring him and revealing he's actually Famine, one of the Horsemen of Apokolips – as in the planet ruled by Darkseid – all of whom have been recruited by Darkseid's earthbound allies InterGang in revenge for Black Adam's rescue of Arianna.

The other three Horsemen – Pestilence, War, and Death – attack, with Pestilence killing Arianna in the ensuing fight. Distraught at the loss of his family, Black Adam goes on another rampage, challenging the entire DC Universe (remember we mentioned he took on the Justice League, JSA, and more?).

In his defeat, Black Adam is depowered and returns to his human form as Teth Adam. But, before he can face justice for his crimes – including destroying the entire fictional nation of Biyalia – Atom Smasher of the JSA helps him escape, drawing on their old friendship.

Whew!

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The Eye of the Storm

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Black Adam has since undergone multiple changes in his status quo - first going back to straight-up villainy in the 'New 52' era, and then returning to a more complicated place in the 'Rebirth' era as part of the so-called Council of Immortals, immortal beings who have influenced the history of the DC Universe.

Most recently, Black Adam has swung even further back toward being a full-on hero, having been recruited into the current Justice League line-up by Superman himself - though the rest of the League has been skeptical, to say the least.

Given all that comic book history, Black Adam makes perfect sense as the villain/anti-hero to unite the DCEU into a more concise and cohesive picture – and to potentially challenge the entire Justice League in a sequel down the road.

Black Adam's tragic history has connections to just about the entire DC slate – from the JSA who will debut in his movie, to SHAZAM!, to the New Gods, the Suicide Squad, and even characters who haven't been introduced in the DCEU like Metamorpho.

Who better to form the spine of a new era of the DCEU than a tragic hero who fell from grace, with enough power to rival everyone who even might challenge him, played by none other than the unrivaled king of the current box office blockbuster, The Rock?

Moreover, who better to then become a hero, perhaps even joining the Justice League himself and bringing one of the biggest blockbuster actors in the world to a franchise Warner Bros. will undoubtedly soon be looking to redefine?

That sounds like lightning striking.

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)