Cynics might suggest Dwayne Johnson's announcement this week that he is to play the villain/antihero Black Adam in Warner's forthcoming Shazam superhero movie is designed to offset a previous sense of palpable apathy surrounding the venture.
Johnson's tweet, which comes after a week or so of playful social media teasing, has certainly plunged the DC Comics movie into the public eye. The actor and wrestler is one of the two or three top-earning movie stars in the world right now, if the bean-counters at Forbes magazine are to be trusted, so it's no surprise his name conjures up a little extra wow-factor.
Further details about the movie remain mystically obscured, however. We have no idea who is up for the title role on Shazam, and there is no clue as to who will direct. Toby Emmerich, president of Warner offshoot New Line Cinema, hinted this week that the film will stand aside from any other comic book film of the current era. "It feels to me like Shazam will have a tone unto itself," he told Entertainment Weekly. "It's a DC comic, but it's not a Justice League character, and it's not a Marvel comic. The tone and the feeling of the movie will be different from the other range of comic book movies." Emmerich added that Shazam "will have a sense of fun and a sense of humour. But the stakes have to be real."
The stakes are also high, because Warner is vying to revive a character whose highpoint in the public consciousness was in the 1940s, when he was known as Captain Marvel prior to a 1960s and 70s legal dispute with Marvel Comics over its own costumed hero of that name. Back then, the character rivalled Superman for comic book sales and starred in the first ever big-screen superhero adventure. Now it seems he's returning to multiplexes without any connection whatsoever to Warner Bros's much-buzzed-about superhero team, the Justice League.
Let's hope the studio knows what it's doing, though Black Adam is without doubt an excellent choice of antagonist – and Johnson has the right look to play him. In the comics, the villain begins life as an ancient Egyptian prince, Teth-Adam, an earlier recipient of the spectacular powers given to Captain Marvel by a powerful wizard (also called Shazam – it's complicated) who is banished to the farthest corner of the universe by the sorcerer after turning to evil.
There's something potentially highly cinematic about the segue which takes place next in print: the newly monikered Black Adam spends the next 5,000 years using his powers to fly back through space and time, arriving in the 1940s. This would make a fabulous prologue to a Shazam origins story: imagine the final shot of Adam setting out through the desperate vast blackness on his impossibly epic journey as the camera cuts to the present day. The audience would maintain a lingering awareness that the villain's multi-millennial journey could culminate with an arrival on screen at any moment, presumably having had plenty of time to store up a bitter thirst for revenge.
Shazam will need more than a strong villain if it is to prove a hit, however. Producers must learn from the way Hollywood has successfully adapted other older comic books for the big screen - Emmerich's comments about a "sense of fun" make for worrying reading here - if it is to prove successful.
Last year's Man of Steel had its faults, but it did succeed in successfully harnessing a sense of real-life threat to Superman which had been lacking in a number of previous big-screen incarnations. Shazam, arriving in multiplexes for the first time in three-quarters of a century, will need to present a version which maintains the comic book hero's thrilling canonical connections to folk tales and classical myths, but jettisons some of the character's hokier eccentricities.
For a start, Billy Batson needs to go. The concept of the human alter-ego is starting to look almost as outdated as superhero pets like Ace the Bat-Hound and Krypto the Superdog. Marvel Studios wisely dispensed with Dr Donald Blake, Thor's medical student human counterpart in the comics, for the hugely successful movie adaptation. Warner Bros should follow suit.
Batson is originally a 12-year-old boy who transforms into Captain Marvel after being given magical powers equivalent to those once boasted by six ancient heroes (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) by the wizard Shazam. Later comics showed an older version, but in the grand pantheon of superhero origins stories this one still languishes among the lowest plinths, right next to Green Lantern and his magic emerald space ring. And look how that one turned out on the big screen.
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