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Black Adam's Justice Society Explained

It took nearly two decades for Dwayne Johnson to take his superhuman physique into the world of superhero cinema. You'd think that having biceps the size of Mack trucks would land the Rock a role as a costumed vigilante out of the gate, but fans have instead had to settle for superhero movies in other guises as his paychecks — and muscles — grew bigger. While few would doubt that characters like the hulking Luke Hobbs of the Fast & Furious films or the jungle survivalist Dr. Smolder Bravestone in the new Jumanji movies are superheroic, it doesn't pack the same biff-pow punch as seeing The Rock go full on superhuman.

Fans who have wanted to see Johnson in spandex since his days as a Hollywood heel are finally seeing their dream come true: The megastar has been cast as Black Adam in the DC movie of the same name, and he's bringing along a whole host of other villains and heroes in the Justice Society that might not be familiar names for viewers outside the circles of comic book fandom. Whether you're a diehard fan of Captain Marvel from way back, someone who liked Zachary Levi's playful turn as Shazam and would like to see more, or a fan of the Rock jumping into the DC Universe with both feet, we're here with a bit of a refresher on the world Black Adam inhabits.

Who is Black Adam?

Let's start at the obvious jumping-off point. Who exactly is the character that finally convinced the Rock to get fitted for a cape?

Black Adam is the arch-nemesis of Captain Marvel. He lives in the same universe as Billy Batson, the 12-year-old who has the ability to morph into the adult superhero Marvel with a laundry list of superpowers. But he is much, much older than the young hero. Black Adam was originally conceived as a villain out of time, a seemingly ageless supervillain from ancient Egypt who fought his way through the ages to confront and destroy his counterpart.

The original Adam was a former holder of Captain Marvel's mantle, gifted by the wizard Shazam with the same powers in the hopes that he would use them for good. Then known as Mighty Adam, he quickly lost control of his ambitions. He allowed his great strength to corrupt him and he overthrew the Pharaoh and set his sights on world domination. The wizard Shazam knew he couldn't revoke the powers he'd given Adam, so he renamed him Black Adam and banished him to the farthest point from Earth in the entire universe.

It took the ancient, undying Egyptian 5,000 years of traveling to return to Earth, by which time Shazam had created a small family of champions. Black Adam was intent on destroying them and many early plots of Captain Marvel focused on this endless battle.

In more recent iterations of Black Adam, he's gone from an out-and-out villain to a misunderstood antihero. He makes a dogged effort to change his ways and is eventually accepted into the crimefighting team known as the Justice Society of America. Shazam remains wary, for obvious reasons.

Multiple reveals

It seemed clear from the beginning that the Black Adam movie would focus more on this "struggling to walk the righteous path" version of the character than his outright evil original storyline. For one thing, the Rock says he's been sitting with the character for quite a while, something that wouldn't be necessary for a one-dimensional bad guy.

"Black Adam has been with me for over ten years now. That gives you an idea of how passionate I am about this project," he said in a 2020 interview. "And I'm a much different man and actor than I was ten years ago. Even then, ten years ago, I just wanted to wait for the timing to feel right. And it feels like now, the man that I've become, I'm able to bring a little bit of my own life lessons and philosophies and engrain them in the DNA of this character."

If that wasn't enough to confirm that Black Adam would be drawn in shades of grey, Johnson recently shared concept art and news that guarantee a more complex version of Adam's story. At DC FanDome, the Rock gave diehards their first glimpse at the direction his movie would take. It seems his Black Adam will be a long-imprisoned antihero who went too far in quashing the ruling order of his ancient society. As a title card during the presentation ominously explained:

"5000 years ago Kahndaq was a melting pot of wealth, magic, and power

Most of us had nothing except the chains around our necks

Kahndaq needed a hero

Instead they got me

Now, 5000 years later I'm free and I give you my word no one will ever stop me again."

He also pointed toward the characters that would fill out Black Adam's standalone big-screen debut. With the Justice Society of America along for the ride, it seems we'll be dealing with reformed Adam.

What is the JSA?

Black Adam's menacing intro at the DC FanDome made him seem like a bit of an iconoclast, the type to go his own way and go hard. And the character is those things. But he'll also have a few other new-to-the-screen DC characters tagging along in the JSA.

If you're unfamiliar with the Justice Society (or wondering why it sounds so close to the Justice League), there's a good reason for both. The JSA was the League of Nations to the Justice League's UN, with some extra parallel universe chaos thrown in because comic books. It predated that famous team by about 20 years, an exemplar of Golden Age comics that brought together beloved and long-lasting characters like Green Lantern and Flash, with assists from characters like Doctor Fate and Sandman.

The Justice Society fell on hard times at the tail end of the 1940s, with declining interest from readers. Eventually the comic book team of heroes came to a halt because stories about them simply weren't moving as many sales units. The concept was revitalized under a new team in the mid-'50s, called the Justice League. In universe, they explained that the Justice Society existed in one version of Earth and the Justice League on another.

When DC decided that the timelines and alternate universes had become too complicated, hitting the reset button for the first time with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Justice Society became the pre-World War incarnation while the Justice League followed later.

In the DC movie universe, Black Adam's Justice Society will feature four main characters: Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Cyclone, and Atom Smasher.

Who is Hawkman?

Hawkman is a perfect example of what could make a superhero in the early days of spandex-clad adventures: He's a man who dresses as a hawk and uses a gravity-defying machine in his belt to fly around.

Of course, even the simplest heroes eventually need a bit more than that. The original run of Hawkman revealed that the character was originally the ancient Egyptian prince Khufu, who had an ultimately fatal feud with a mysterious priest named Hath-Set. The priest killed Khufu as well as his consort Chay-Ara, and all three of them reincarnated in the 1940s, with Khufu taking on the much less conspicuous persona of Carter Hall, archaeologist.

The storyline was rebooted later down the line, tying Hawkman in with Black Adam from way back. Rather than uncovering the gravity-defying material after reincarnating, the new Khufu/Hawkman found it in Egypt while still living as Khufu. A spacecraft powered by the material crashed near Khufu and was carried back to the palace by Black Adam. While he was still killed by the rival priest, he was murdered by a knife made out of the gravity-defying metal, which had the side effect of tying his soul to Earth. As Carter Hall, he went on to join the Justice Society and become a chair.

Who is Dr. Fate?

The Golden Age of comics kicked off less than 20 years after the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered, so the shine had yet to wear off stories about ancient Egypt. Clearly influenced by the era, Dr. Fate was yet another person who found his powers via a connection to the Nile River Kingdoms.

Dr. Fate began his life as Kent Nelson, the son of an archaeologist named Sven Nelson. He went along with his father on an expedition to a newly discovered tomb, one that went disastrously wrong. When Sven and Kent entered the tomb, they discovered the mummy of Nabu the Wise, who promptly came back to life. In the process of leaving his grave, a poisonous gas was unleashed that killed Kent's father. Rather than leave him a defenseless orphan, Nabu decided to train Kent in the mystical arts, teaching him the ways of the sorcerer for two decades before returning to the United States as Dr. Fate. He set up shop in an abandoned tower in Salem, Massachusetts and started solving crimes using his otherworldly powers.

Who is Cyclone?

Cyclone is part of the new wave of Justice Society recruits, both in their universe and our own. The character of Maxine Hunkel was created in Mark Waid's 1996 epic Kingdom Come. Though he originally intended her to be a new incarnation of the old-school character Red Tornado, she was later changed to the separate character of Cyclone.

Cyclone grew up in the orbit of the Justice Society. Her grandmother was Red Tornado, an honorary member of the society who took care of their lair while the team was away. Unlike the other early JSA members, she developed her powers a la the X-Men, suddenly discovering she had the power of wind control as a teenager. Because of her incredible abilities and proximity to the JSA, when the organization decided to grow their ranks with new recruits, she was one of the first people they called.

Shown to be a bit of a fangirl of the JSA before being invited to join, Cyclone took a while to adjust to being among the ranks of her heroes, although she's canonically an incredibly gifted student and fast learner.

Who is Atom Smasher?

Atom Smasher is another of the new generation of JSA members. Born Albert Rothstein, the Atom Smasher is the godson of founding JSA member Atom. He has the ability to control his molecular structure, changing his size, shape and density at will, abilities he inherited from his grandfather, the villain Cyclotron.

He joined the crimefighting team Infinity Inc. as well as the Justice League before being invited to join the team he'd idolized from childhood. He struggled to live up to the versions of heroes he'd built up in his head and was a little bit disillusioned by the reality of working on the team, but he was eventually able to carry on in the JSA because he realized that even younger recruits to the team looked up to him in the same way he did to the Golden Age heroes.

Casting news

Little is known about who will play most of the members of Black Adam's Justice Society. While Dwayne Johnson has been locked in for years, the subsequently announced characters don't have famous faces attached to their big-screen counterparts just yet.

There is one notable exception, however: Noah Centineo of To All The Boys I've Loved Before fame has been tagged to play the Atom Smasher. While it might be hard to picture a teen rom-com star as a hero with "Smash" in his name, the heartthrob has already been busy bulking up for the role of He-Man in the long-gestating new Masters of the Universe movie.

Centineo said at the DC FanDome event that he was drawn to the role of Atom Smasher because he liked the chip on the character's shoulder. Being both connected to the Golden Age of the JSA and the blood relative of a famed supervillain, Atom Smasher comes into the story with quite a bit to prove, and Centineo hoped to play with that in the upcoming film.

What does this mean for the story?

Given Atom Smasher's involvement, and the mention of Kandahq in the Rock's teaser, we can suss out some idea of where the Black Adam movie is heading. Atom Smasher is a critical piece of Black Adam's reformation story in the comic books, becoming one of the former villain's closest friends while they both serve on the JSA. Given Atom Smasher's connection to villainy, it's easy to see how he would be willing to give Black Adam a shot at redemption.

It will be impressive if the movie manages to fit in Black Adam and Atom Smasher's Kandahq storyline. In the comics, the pair split from the JSA over the limiting effect of the superheroes' moral codes. They stage a coup with the help of other ethically ambiguous superhumans in Black Adam's homeland, and the former villain sets about running his country. Atom Smasher eventually chafes under Black Adam's rule, but dies before he can return home. After being revived via magic, he stands trial for war crimes. Following a stint in prison, Atom Smasher helps the Justice Society take on Black Adam, though he refuses to sit in judgement of his former friend.

That's a lot of story to fit into one movie, so we might just get the very first inklings of the JSA schism. We're sure the picture will become clearer as the release date approaches.