There are a lot of different expectations for the Black Adam movie, which comes out in the United States on October 21, 2022. One of the things that has comic book geeks like me excited is that it’s the first time the Justice Society of America will be in live action in theatrical release. With this exposing the JSA to a much larger audience than they’ve potentially ever had, it seems like a good time to go over the history of the team.
The Justice Society of America is, to put it simply, the first superhero team. DC Comics took several of their popular characters and put them together to sell more comics, which was, of course, the name of the game. They first appeared in 1940, with a remarkably uneven membership, ranging from the non-powered Atom, a street level scrapper, to the Spectre, who is literally the Wrath of God. Their history and membership has changed in many reboots over the years, but they have remained the world’s first heroes.
Arguably like no other group, the JSA has had their stories affected by the real world. They were created as the world was engulfed in World War II, and the heroes at various points worked alongside the armed forces or even joined up in their civilian identities. An elaborate story was eventually created to explain why they didn’t simply just fly to Berlin and deal with Hitler themselves, maintaining some balance with the real world. After the second world war, comic sales began to fall, and eventually most hero books were cancelled. Once again, a story drawing on the real world was crafted, paralleling historic events. In the chaos and fear of McCarthyism, the JSA came under suspicion from the increasingly paranoid US government. Ordered to unmask, the heroes instead disappeared and retired en masse. The only exceptions were the Golden Age versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who had various official ties making them able to keep operating, and also coincidentally were the best selling books at the time.
How long the JSA remained inactive shifted over the years, with various stories written and rewritten. In at least some versions, after assorted reboots, some of the heroes continued to fight crime without official sanction, and others served as mentors or teachers. Wildcat, a skilled fighter and long-time JSA member, is credited with helping train many non-powered characters, including Batman, Black Canary, Catwoman, and Green Arrow.
The team has waxed and waned in powers and membership over time, been killed, brought back, and rewritten possibly more than any other team. In recent years, they have been a combination of elder statesman (the earlier, founding members that survive) and trainers of new heroes, many with legacies to various Golden Age characters. Many of the team have had their lives extended through all sorts of different means to keep the original heroes a going force in the world, although they’ve lost many members as well. Unlike with many characters, not all of the JSA-ers who have died have returned.
After the elimination of the Golden Age Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, the founding membership of the JSA was said to be: Dr. Fate, Hourman, the Specctre, Sandman, Atom, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman. Over the years, they lost and gained various members. Among the ones set to be featured in the movie are:
Hawkman- Prince Khufu of ancient Egypt, reincarnated in the modern age as Carter Hall. Hawkman is in the running for most confusing history of any comic book character, with the various reboots and rewrites of everything about him. The basics of the character- artificial wings that let him fly and a powerful mace, seem to be unchanged.
Atom Smasher- in the comics, Al Rothstein was originally Nuklon, and godson to Al Pratt, the Golden Age Atom and founding JSA member. At first he was just large and strong with a lot of training from his godfather. Later, he gained powers that shifted from turning intangible to growing to great size depending on who was writing him. The power seems to be the same, but it seems a safe bet that the background of the character is different.
Cyclone- Abigail “Ma” Hunkel was an early costumed hero with no powers and, really, not the greatest costume, a modified kitchen pot serving as the helmet for the first “Red Tornado.” In the comics, her granddaughter Maxine was kidnapped and experimented on by the villainous scientist T. O. Morrow, eventually causing her to manifest wind powers. A shy, gawky redhead obsessed with the Wizard of Oz, Maxine eventually joined the JSA as Cyclone. From what I’ve seen of the trailers from the movie so far, this is going to be a very different character.
Dr. Fate- Kent Nelson was the son of an archeologist who eventually became the mortal host for the Lord of Order Nabu the Wise. Nabu was bound in a powerful helmet, which was a signature piece of Fate’s costume. Many different people have hosted Nabu over the years, but somehow, Kent keeps coming back and taking up the mantle. It seems like some version of this history will be what we see in the movie.
The Justice Society has been in many comics books, and various cartoons and video games over the years. In live action, they have been on a few different tv shows. Smallville, which arguably helped launch the modern era of superhero tv, had a special two-part movie event called Absolute Justice which featured many of the JSA characters. Later, a few different versions of the team appeared in various timelines on Legends of Tomorrow. In the series Stargirl, the JSA’s history and legacy are a major part of the show, and various characters have appeared in flashback scenes.