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Do Black Adam and other DC antiheroes appeal more to moviegoers?

Dark DC characters do better at the box office than optimistic heroes, based on past evidence
Black Adam
Warner Bros

That Black Adam has, at first blush, found its audience in movie theaters across the land might come as a surprise to some, considering both early reviews and the character’s relatively minor status amongst the many DC icons awaiting their time in the spotlight. For others, however, it’s the continuation of a strange trend that’s been quietly emerging over the past few years: People really, really like DC stories and characters when they get dark, it seems.

The chicken or the egg?

The DC comic book universe features positivity and optimism at the center of so many of its core concepts: of people setting aside their differences to work towards a common goal (the Justice Society, the Justice League, basically every superhero team ever), of a better future (the Teen Titans, the Legion of Super-Heroes), or even simply a belief in the existing power structures, whether it’s American police departments (The Flash) or even intergalactic police departments (Green Lantern)… and yet, that’s not what movie audiences appear to want when it comes to bringing DC characters to the screen. For a publisher that’s often derided for being stuffy or old-fashioned when it comes to its approach to superheroes (with many pointing to Superman as evidence of this), it’s notable that the majority of the hit movies based on DC characters come from a more morally ambiguous place.

With the exceptions of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, all of DC’s biggest hit movies are grim: The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, The Batman, Joker, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, even Man of Steel, all lean away from any sense of optimism that isn’t tortured and born from a place of misery and struggle. (The current top 10 of DC movies in terms of all-time box office closes out with 1989’s Batman, if you’re curious; yes, that does mean that a full 60 percent of DC’s most successful films are Batman-related.)

Black Adam

On the one hand, this is somewhat skewed information, given that so many of DC’s movies have centered on morally ambiguous characters. COVID hasn’t helped the box office of DC’s recent output, but it’s worth noting that, prior to Black Adam, the last four movies featuring characters from the DCU have been The Batman, The Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman 1984, and Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey — three quarters of which feature what could be described as 'dark' or 'morally ambiguous' characters. Is the seeming preference for dark stories from the DCU an actual preference on the part of moviegoers, or are they simply responding to what's being predominantly offered to them? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Finding the formula

This does seem to be a particular problem for DC. Marvel has found a sweet spot where audiences are attuned to accept everything it offers eagerly, whether familiar or unfamiliar. Marvel is also a studio that has made a point of never going too far in any one tonal direction with its releases, preferring to maintain an equilibrium, where any drama or tension can always be defused with a one-liner at the right time. That can lead to some relatively generic product, sure, but it also allows for almost any Marvel character to be plugged into the formula and still work, for the most part.

Maybe we should ask why Wonder Woman and Aquaman hit big, in trying to figure out this conundrum. Wonder Woman feels like a particular outlier, in that it was both a spin-off from the successful BvS: Dawn of Justice and also the first solo female superhero movie ever. (It’s also a good movie, beyond those things, of course.) Aquaman, too, builds on his appearance in Justice League, but it also outpeformed that movie at the box office by no small margin — $335 million for Aquaman, versus $229 million for Justice League — so something else was at play: The appeal of Jason Momoa mostly shirtless? The novelty of underwater world building? An octopus playing the drums?

Black Adam facing off with Hawkman

What the people want (or will accept)

There are surely lessons to be learned from the success of those two movies amongst the more dark DC hits. What makes Aquaman a hit but not Green Lantern? Why was Wonder Woman a success, but not Shazam!? (I’m very curious to see what happens to Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, which boasts more big name actors, a larger scale, and can build off the minor success of the first movie; we’ll have to wait until next year to see, however.)

If new Warner Bros. Discovery head David Zaslav is serious about making DC more of a priority for the company moving forward, these are the questions that need to be answered, especially if the studio wants to transform its purposefully varied, disjointed approach to bringing DC’s characters to the screen — an approach that resulted in both The Batman and Joker, two of the biggest DC movies to date — into a more streamlined, everything-is-connected Marvel Studios scheme.

After all, there are a lot of DC characters out there waiting to be brought to the big screen, but — despite what it can feel like at times in the comic store — not enough of them are related to Batman if you want to build a cinematic empire and that’s all that you can convince audiences to accept.


If you still feel like you need to know more about Black Adam beyond how well it performed this weekend, we’ve got everything you could want to know about the movie right here.

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About the Author
Graeme McMillan avatar

Graeme McMillan

Staff Writer

Popverse staff writer Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. His work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Wired, Polygon, Inverse, Time Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times, and he also co-hosts the Wait What podcast three times a month and writes the Comics, FYI newsletter. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.

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