The release of Iron Man in 2008 saw the cracking of the secret to a great comic book movie: a great script, effects that serve the story and most importantly: a star that both embraces and embodies their role. Since then comic fans have been treated to a host of films from all sources that have exceeded both fan and box office expectations.
Now one of the oldest superheroes and the oldest superhuman rivalries in comics, Captain Mar- er… Shazam versus Black Adam, is rumored to soon play out on the big screen in a Warner Bros. production of the classic Fawcett/DC Comic: Shazam! (previously known as Captain Marvel). At the heart of this production is a proven box office draw: the charismatic former WWF/WWE Champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a so far unknown role.
Johnson, who has been enthusiastic about appearing in a comic book movie based on the Shazam! property since 2009, has over the past few months engaged in a clearly Warner Bros.-coordinated hype-generating activity. The teasing has been centered around what part in the film he is going to play: the quintessential heroic figure of Shazam, who even Superman still looks sketchy against, or Black Adam, the broadly drawn tyrant/borderline fascist anti-hero, depending on who’s writing for him and when.
If the stories that it will be Johnson’s choice to make as to which role he plays are true, the axis of the entire film will tilt in that direction. When the choice is revealed it will say a lot as to Johnson’s and Warner Bros.’ goals for the film.
As Shazam, Dwayne Johnson will cement his legacy as a cinematic “good guy.” With his physical stature and gleaming smile he could embody the multiple-god-powered-via-wizard-magic hero almost entirely without special effects. Furthermore, the heroic Dwayne Johnson version of the film would be an instant franchise for Warner Bros. drawing on Johnson’s family-friendly image, particularly when the film becomes a wish-fulfillment fantasy story thanks to Shazam ‘s young orphan alter ego, Billy Batson.
In the most likely iteration of a Shazam! film, Johnson will be cast alongside a young actor to create a comic book movie version of the popular imperiled youth/Young Adult film franchises. With plenty of the dark/mature superhero films on its docket, Warner Bros. will hopefully skew this most earnest of superheroes towards the younger audiences, pit Johnson against another of Shazam’s villains like Doctor Sivana and eschew Black Adam altogether to avoid having a third act play out just like Superman vs. Zod in Man of Steel.
To play the hero, though, Johnson will have to sacrifice what is clearly a more compelling role in Black Adam, whose dramatic rival is in fact the good hearted orphan Billy Batson. Batson, despite a life of hardship resists the temptation to use his power for personal benefit, where Black Adam has always used his power for the odd combination of personal gain and a drive to protect his people and country. Shazam, on the other hand is little more than a proverb-spouting Deus ex Machina who shows up on the last few pages to punch the bad guy on the chin. For Johnson and Warner Bros. both, The Rock as Shazam is three big paydays at least. If it is successful, this paint-by-numbers approach could cycle on forever like the Spider-Man films.
As Black Adam, Johnson can take the road less traveled, and if written correctly, star in the first superhero film that features a villain in the lead (or at least an anti-hero), Sony’s proposed Sinister Six project notwithstanding.
Akin to the famous story about the casting switch that made Arnold Schwarzenegger the villain instead of the hero in The Terminator but with more emoting, the Johnson Black Adam would find his return from thousands of years of exile to an Earth that is at the same time more and less likely to accept his “might makes right” worldview. As a semi-benevolent multiple-god-powered-via-wizard-magic would-be dictator, the film’s drama would ride not on a climatic superpowered dust up, but on the more personal story of how Black Adam, born circa 3000 BC, adjusts to the modern world. Themes of power, exertion of that power, and what makes its use “too much” are incredibly relevant to today’s society and political landscape. From foreign wars to police brutality in small town USA, there is a lot (sadly) to be said and played with on the topic.
Playing a villain at this stage in his life could reset Johnson’s whole career. Too many shots of him punching brightly clad heroes in the face or terrorizing a populous could put people off from buying tickets to the kind of family-friendly action fare he’s been trading in for years. Alternately, playing a villain is almost always more complex and challenging than playing a hero, especially if that villain in the star of the film. If a man who once went by the professional name of “The Rock” can pull off a memorable, nuanced performance it could open the doors to prestige-level work for him.
All of this is a huge potential sacrifice for not only him, but the studio. Villains can be memorable but they are rarely franchises. Say what you want about the greed of the big studios, but these films cost real money and thousands of livelihoods depend on their success.
Playing armchair studio honcho is fun, but the real story is that an over seventy-year-old comic book property that has on multiple occasions been on the verge of obscurity has a chance to be reborn in a major film franchise. That is good news for genre fans of all stripes. As for what should Dwayne Johnson choose? Maybe he doubles down and just plays both!