How Warner Bros. has sold a change in the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe
Black Adam, in theaters this weekend, is ostensibly the 11th film in the DC Extended Universe of movies that began with 2013’s Man of Steel, though you’d need a protractor and slide rule to actually make all those movies fit together into a cohesive narrative. And that’s without trying to figure in one-off projects and TV/streaming series.
The movie stars Dwayne Johnson as Teth-Adam / Black Adam, a slave boy from the city of Kahndaq five thousand years ago who, after his father is killed for angering the king, is given the power of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, who played the character in 2019’s Shazam!) before being imprisoned. When he’s woken in the present day by those searching for the same mystical artifact the ancient king was after he goes on a rampage that draws the attention of the Justice Society of America, who go after Adam. Alliances shift but Adam resists the call to become a hero, even if he is not quite a villain.
As the above implies, Black Adam is connected to the hero Shazam, though Zachary Levi (who played the hero in his own 2019 movie) doesn’t appear here. Viola Davis, though, is back as Amanda Waller, who calls in the JSA composed of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). Sarah Shahi plays Adrianna Tomaz, the modern day researcher who awakens and eventually befriends Adam.
The movie is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and seems inspired by various elements of Black Adam’s backstory from both DC’s Post-Crisis and New 52 eras. So let’s say the magic word and take a look at how the movie’s been sold to the public.
long road to adam
Johnson has been trying to get this movie made for years, constantly talking it up on his social media profiles and saying the script is amazing and so on. He officially announced he was playing Black Adam in 2014 after speculation he may play either that character or Shazam.
His bravado was muted somewhat by the 2019 release of Shazam!, in which he wasn’t featured, but later that year it was announced director Jaume Collett-Serra had come aboard, perhaps breathing new life into things.
In October of 2019 Johnson Tweeted an announcement that production would finally begin in July of 2020 and then shared the news of an official release date. An interview from that time also had him hinting that the movie would include the Justice Society of America. Johnson confirmed in April his belief that production would begin at the end of summer, despite most things being shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Centino was added to the cast as Atom Smasher in July, 2020.
dc fandome 2020 makes things instagram official
The lineup of DC’s “Fandome” virtual event in August 2020 included Johnson, fueling speculation he might offer a first glimpse at this movie. That speculation proved accurate when Johnson started sharing first looks at the design of Black Adam on social media, leading up to the Fandome panel where he and others shared more information – including that he would be butting heads with members of the Justice Society – and debuted a sizzle reel of animated concept art with Johnson narration added.
More JSA-related news came a month or so later when Hodge was cast as Hawkman. Brosnan and Mirren were added to the cast in March, 2021.
Pandemic-related production and other delays prompted WB to take the movie off its schedule in October, 2020, leaving it off the calendar at that point.
It was added back to the release calendar in March, 2021. At that time Johnson shared a video of a big outdoor display in New York City that revealed the film’s planned July, 2022 date. That announcement was also aired on TBS during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
A number of interviews like this with Collett-Serra had him teasing what he was taking away from his experience filming Jungle Cruise and applying to this film, including working with Johnson and developing cutting edge special effects. During the Jungle Cruise press cycle Johnson was also frequently asked about this movie, saying it was the hardest production he’s been a part of to date and offering other vague teases.
continuing adventures in pre-marketing
Warner Bros. gave CineEurope attendees a look at the movie in October 2021.
A year after those first official looks, fans were promised another tease of the movie during DC’s 2021 installment of Fandome. That came in the form of a video showing Adam’s first appearance in the film, though his full look still isn’t seen clearly. Garcia later commented on how the movie wouldn’t pull any punches with the character or story. An interview with Johnson had him sharing how the initial costume had too much padding for his liking.
In March 2022 the movie’s release date was moved back three months to late October, reportedly because of a VFX backlog plaguing the entire industry that meant the effect just wouldn’t be ready for the July release date.
Despite that delay, that same month DC announced a new Black Adam comics series from writer Christopher Priest and artist Rafa Sandoval scheduled to debut in June. A trailer for the series was released a bit later.
At CinemaCon in April both Centineo and Swindell were in attendance to give executives and journalists a look at the first trailer.
Some new looks at character designs were offered a little while later when the movie’s Funko POP! Figures were revealed.
marketing finally says the magic word
Things more officially got underway in early June with the release of the first poster, which shows Adam in profile with the copy “The world needed a hero. It got Black Adam.” helping to set the tone of the story.
That was followed by the first full trailer. We get a little bit of Adam’s history going back centuries. In the present, Adam has embraced the powers he has, which brings him into conflict with the heroes we then see, including Atom Smasher, Hawkman and Dr. Fate. Whether or not Adam is a hero is up to him, Dr. Fate intones.
It’s not a bad trailer, but there are several questions it generates, including whether the heroes we see here exist at the same time as those in the Justice League universe, whether Johnson is capable of playing anything other than a variation on his own persona and more.
WB made this movie a centerpiece of its Hall H presentation at San Diego Comic-Con in July. Johnson appeared there in costume to introduce a new “sneak peak” that doesn’t expand too much on the earlier trailer but does feature a few new shots. The rest of the main cast along with Collet-Serra, who had previously clarified the movie does *not* include either Shazam or Superman.
As part of its SDCC coverage, EW debuted a new image of Johnson in costume along with comments from Collet-Serra about the characters in the story and more. The cast was also interviewed at Comic-Con by AMC Theaters.
Vanity Fair debuted a number of new stills along with an interview with Johnson about the character’s moral philosophy and how that unique take on an anti-hero is what has drawn him to Adam for a long time.
There was a massive tie-in promotion in early September with the Los Angeles Rams that included the players sporting the film’s branding, Johnson appearing in promos and other videos and the second trailer debuting during the game’s broadcast.
That trailer (22.6m YouTube views) begins with the same history lesson from the first one and shows a lot of the same bits about Adam’s journey and how he isn’t a hero. It’s primary focused on the showdown between Adam and the Justice Society, though we continue to hear how Adam isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just one who refuses to yield or bow before anyone, which brings him into conflict with the heroes.
That emphasis on the JSA is reinforced by their appearance on a new poster that came out at the same time as the trailer and by the character posters that include members of the team along with Adam himself.
The next Vanity Fair profile was of Centino, who gushed about the opportunity to work with the veteran actors in the cast.
The next one-sheet features Black Adam sitting on his throne looking somber and serious while the copy declares “The time of heroes is over.”
“There’s no one on this planet that can stop me” Black Adam declares in a TV spot from mid-September that features more of his fight with the JSA as well as dialogue making it clear Adam is willing to cross lines heroes can’t. Another extended spot hits many of the same notes but ties his story into the broader legacy of heroes and villains on Earth.
A global press tour with Johnson and others from the cast and crew kicked off at the beginning of October and took them to screenings and events in New York, London, Mexico City and elsewhere.
Swindell was interviewed in October about making the movie and the process of undergoing so much physical training for the role.
Warner Bros. put street teams around New York Comic-Con giving out tickets to the world premiere screening that ended the above-mentioned press tour.
While the cast was in New York City Centino promoted the movie in an appearance on “The Tonight Show” while Hodge and Brosnan showed up on “GMA.” Brosnan also appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night”. Johnson confirmed a much-anticipated cameo by another DC character when he promoted the film on “The Tonight Show”.
An extended clip of Adam being awakened by Intergang and tearing through the over-matched mercenaries was released just before the premiere.
A partnership with EVgo gave those using the company’s charging stations a $5 Fandango promo code they could use when buying tickets for this movie. Circle K Stores also offered a Fandango code to those who engaged with the company on Twitter.
At the premiere Johnson weighed in on whether he would consider taking an advisory position in the development of future DC projects and talked more along with the rest of the cast about the long road involved in bringing this movie to fruition and more.
HBO Max offered an exclusive featurette about Black Adam’s moral gray area and how that impacts the other characters as well as the world the story is set in. Rotten Tomatoes also had an exclusive featurette focusing on the costumes of the characters.
DC shared an interview between Johnson and Echo Kellum, who has appeared in a few DC TV series.
Projections have the movie bringing in about $75 million in its opening weekend, which would be a good start for a title like this that has more than a few question marks around it.
The campaign is, as such things tend to be, almost completely driven by Johnson’s personality and will. What seems like half the social media updates from the official movie account are reposts or shares from Johnson’s profile and that’s on top of him spending the better part of the last two decades simply forcing this movie into existence through public statements in addition to whatever behind-the-scenes politicking he’s been doing at the studio.
A decent single brand identity has been created around Black Adam’s defining character traits, namely his willingness to go to dark places, his repeated assurances he’s not a hero and his belief he’s the new major power in the world. Those have been repeated time and again across marketing elements.
What sticks out, though, is how most of the trailers, TV spots and other clips seem to draw most of their footage from the same 15 minutes of the movie, especially Adam’s slugfest with the JSA. That’s fine in and of itself but it also indicates there’s a lot of the movie that’s still unseen by the general public. Such things aren’t uncommon with movies like this, but it seems especially prevalent here.