Follow TV Tropes


Comic Book / Captain Atom

Go To

"My name is Captain Atom. As in A-bomb. As in nuclear fission. As in... the End of the World."
Captain Atom, Captain Atom: Armageddon

A Charlton Comics superhero who got incorporated into the DCU following Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The original Charlton Captain Atom was Allen Adam, created by writer Joe Gill and artist Steve Ditko. He first appeared in Space Adventures #33 (March, 1960). Allen was a scientist in the United States Air Force who was working on an experimental rocket when it was accidentally launched. The rocket exploded in midair, taking Allen with it - but he reformed again on the ground, having somehow acquired superpowers in the explosion. Naturally, he put those powers to use as a superhero. The character regularly appeared in "Space Adventures" until its issue #42 (October, 1961). Then held his own magazine from December, 1965 to December, 1967. A small number of new Captain Atom stories appeared in anthology titles of 1970s and the early 1980s.

When DC Comics bought the Charlton characters, and brought them into the DCU, they gave Captain Atom his own ongoing, written by pre-Gargoyles Cary Bates and Greg Weisman. Starting on March, 1987. This series rebooted Captain Atom from the ground up — a new character with a new origin and new powers. The Post-Crisis Captain Atom was Nathaniel Adam, a captain in the USAF, court-martialled for a crime he didn't commit. He was given a choice: a death sentence, or participation in a potentially fatal experiment — sitting at ground zero of a nuclear explosion encased in an alien metal, in the hope of testing the metal's properties. Survival would mean freedom. Nathaniel chose the experiment. The explosion didn't kill him; what it did do was bond the alien metal to his flesh, giving him superpowers, and throwing him twenty-odd years forward into the present day. He found himself able to access the 'quantum field' that underpins reality to produce a variety of effects.

So far, so expected. Where Captain Atom diverged was that Nathaniel had been a member of military intelligence, and was pressed once more into service for them as a deep-cover agent, as the new government refused to fulfill the promise of the previous government. His cover identity was that of a superhero, the Charlton adventures presented as his fake backstory, but in reality, he was working for the government. The course of the ongoing saw Nathaniel try to discover the truth behind his original frame-up, attempt to establish his freedom from his superiors, and slowly become the hero he pretended to be. He also joined up with Justice League International, initially as an agent, but going on to serve as a hero.

Then Executive Meddling intervened. Captain Atom was intended to become Monarch, villain of Crisis Crossover Armageddon 2001; as a result the ongoing was canceled in September, 1991, after a five year run. News of Monarch's secret identity leaked out, and in order to ensure that it remained a secret, C-list hero Hawk was chosen to become the villain instead. Atom was seemingly killed in the battle (since he was also set to be written out of JLI) but actually both he and Monarch were sent back in time in a miniseries called Armageddon: The Alien Agenda. Upon returning to the present, he led the Justice League spin-off Extreme Justice and later joined an all-Charlton team called L.A.W. None of his post-Monarch appearances really caught on, however.

It was some while before Captain Atom returned to the spotlight in Captain Atom: Armageddon (2005-2006), a nine-issue miniseries that saw Nathaniel trapped in the WildStorm universe, trying to find his way back to the DCU. He finally made it... but unfortunately, he was just in time for a Face–Heel Turn, becoming Monarch for real in the run-up to Countdown to Final Crisis. Monarch was eventually defeated in the course of Countdown, disappearing from sight.

Captain Atom resurfaced in a backup feature in Action Comics, making a Heel–Face Turn back to heroism, and slowly regaining his true identity and memories. He then went on to appear alongside his former JLI colleagues in Justice League: Generation Lost, as they attempted to track down a resurrected Max Lord. He also showed up in Young Justice (2010) as a background member of the Justice League in the first season, becoming its leader in the second season while most of the team is in space.

A new Captain Atom ongoing was one of the titles in DC's New 52 relaunch. However, it didn't last too long before being cancelled. As part of DC Rebirth, Captain Atom has received his own mini-series called The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom. It reintroduces the character for Rebirth while explaining his absence between that and New 52. It also reunites Cary Bates and Greg Weisman with the character.

Cap's most famous Expy is Doctor Manhattan of Watchmen. Not surprising then that when the good captain tends to show up in modern media, he frequently borrows a few aspects from the Doc.

Allen Adam tropes:
  • Meaningful Name: The true civilian names of Captain Atom and Nightshade - Allen Adam and Eve Eden. Could it have been any more obvious that they were meant to be a couple? There's even the fact that as time went by Eve was shown to be more than just human, much as Allen became more than human.
  • Ret-Gone: This version of Allen Adam (Earth-Four), including all history and corresponding appearances, was erased from existence following the collapse of the original Multiverse in the first Crisis.note 
  • Sudden Name Change: His last name is often spelled "Adams" (which is true in some DC adaptations), even in the same story where it's spelled "Adam". Strangely, his first name is John in one comic, while in others his name is Nathaniel (which ends up being his first name Post-Crisis).
  • Super-Senses: He can sense the presence of living beings by the heat of their bodies. He can also sense the presence of radiation.

Nathaniel Adam tropes:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: The X-Ionizer device featured in a number of comics can turn anything into one of these blades. The Cambodian uses one to great effect in v1 issue #7.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: In Batman: The Brave and the Bold he is rewritten as a pompous and egocentric Smug Super who lords his powers over Batman, only to be predictably hit with a Break the Haughty scenario.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the Flashpoint universe Nathaniel Adam never became a metahuman. Instead, he becomes a General Ripper who uses Doomsday as his weapon (via Grand Theft Me).
  • Always Someone Better: Depending on the Writer. Captain Atom sometimes plays this role (most recently in Captain Atom: Armageddon to The Authority, and, indeed, the entire WildStorm Universe), but at other times he falls prey to The Worf Effect, as pointed out below.
  • Arch-Enemy: Wade Eiling and, in Justice League Europe, the Queen Bee. Also, the Ghost.
  • Badass Boast:While usually depicted as a more humble hero, Cap does get a few
    • In the middle of beating down Mister Majestic:
      Captain Atom: My name is Captain Atom. As in A-bomb... as in nuclear fission... as in... the end of the world.
    • After being tossed into an endless series of futures:
      Captain Atom: Fate has sought to chuck me around time. Pummel me with these visions of what may come. Splitting me between the world I live in the world that might be. That's fine. You can keep hitting me with whatever the hell you've got. Just don't think I won't hit back!
    • Facing off against his Expy Dr. Manhattan:
      Captain Atom: Forget Superman! Captain Atom is the last thing you'll ever see!
  • Badass Normal: Cap was this before he got superpowers, since he was, after all, a special operations officer who had served multiple tours of duty in Vietnam. When he temporarily lost his powers, he was still a match for Batman in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Battle in the Center of the Mind: The "Quantum Quest" arc.
  • Becoming the Mask: Pretty much the point of his first DC ongoing. He was a government agent pretending to be a superhero, but became a hero for real.
    • This happens to Doctor Spectro too. At first he was just an ordinary scientist who posed as a villain from Captain Atom's fictional backstory in order to get an interview with the press. Soon, however, he becomes a real supervillain.
  • Captain Superhero: Notable for having been an actual captain in the United States Air Force prior to his transformation into Captain Atom.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Being in charge during the Justice League International period was extremely stressful for him, so much so that he was ecstatic when Catherine was promoted and made his boss. He even claimed that his ulcer spontaneously went into remission the moment he heard the news; he may or may not have been exaggerating.
  • Chest Insignia: Again, variants on an atomic diagram.
  • Chrome Champion: Of both the 'flying brick' and 'cosmic' varieties.
  • The Comically Serious: In team ups he is usually played as the straight man to his more comical teammates.
  • Create Your Own Hero: Nathaniel Adam was manipulated into volunteering for the experiment that transformed him into Captain Atom by Wade Eiling, who also led the experiment. Eiling was also the Big Bad of the series.
  • Dating Catwoman: Unusually, he actually married (reformed) terrorist Bette Sans Souci, a.k.a. Plastique. They divorced in unrevealed circumstances prior to L.A.W.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the animated adaptation Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox he is captured and used by Emperor Aquaman as a Living Battery for the Doomsday Device that is used to sink Western Europe, taking the role from Geo-Force who was used for this in the comic.
  • Death by Origin Story: The experiment that turned Nathaniel Adam in Captain Atom also hurled him eighteen years into the future, where he discovered that his wife, Angela had, in the intervening years, died of cancer. Coming to terms with her loss was a big part of Cap's character arc.
    • Cap himself was also an example, of course, since the experiment that made him Captain Atom also atomized his body (he got better, obviously). This was true in the Charlton version as well.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: The Bates/Weisman ongoing deconstructed or subverted a host of classic superhero tropes, including secret identities, origin stories, and retconning.
  • Depending on the Artist: His color scheme goes back and forth between whitish-blue, grayish blue, light blue, silvery-gray, silver-blue, etc.
  • Depending on the Writer: Hoo boy, Nate goes back and forth between "government stooge" and "troubled rebel" a lot. A lot of this comes from how in the Bates/Weisman run, he was a flag-saluter in public but wasn't too happy about this in private (being framed by your government, effectively killed by their experiments, and strongarmed into working with them by a corrupt general doesn't tend to make people too patriotic)... and therefore acted like an unironic flag-saluter in books like Justice League International, which a lot more people read than the Bates/Weisman book.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Bombshell of the Teen Titans.
  • Don't Split Us Up: The reason Nate's sister didn't want anyone finding out that their mother was an abusive, neglectful drunk.
  • Energy Absorption: Able to absorb most any form of energy, redirecting it into the quantum field. Absorbing too much at once throws him through time.
  • Evil Counterpart: Alec Rois, a.k.a. the Ghost, a.k.a. the Faceless One. Both men died and returned with quantum-powers, but whereas Captain Atom returned as a living being, Rois came back as, well, a ghost. Their powers cancel each other out, and Cap is a hero while the Faceless One is a villain. Both are manipulated by Wade Eiling, despite being excellent strategists and intriguers themselves.
    • Unfortunately for the Ghost, the psychotic Major Force more or less took his place as this, thanks to his being a Shadow Archetype of what the Captain Atom experiment would have produced had Cap been a Sociopathic Soldier. Adaptations including one usually tend to include the other, and when they do a fight between the two is inevitable.
  • Fan of the Past: Nathaniel explains his occasional lapses into the slang of The '60s by claiming he loves that decade. Sally is a legitimate one of these.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Nathaniel handled the initial culture shock of finding himself in the present day reasonably well; it was finding out what had happened to his wife and kids that really got to him.
  • Fish out of Water: This seems to be Cap's thing, whether getting thrown through time or into Alternate Universes.
  • Flight: Via redirection of gravitational force.
  • Flying Brick: Has all the prerequisite powers to qualify for this trope, and a host of others to boot.
  • Flying Firepower: Ki Manipulation/Energy Blasts: Pure Energy variant, drawn from the quantum field.
  • The Good Captain: Played with, since, although he kept the moniker "Captain Atom," he was actually promoted to major in the USAF after Invasion!. Also unusual in that he is one of the few superhero captains to actually have received that rank in the military. Finally, he's sometimes a little more morally ambiguous than most "Captain" characters.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: In Generation Lost, thanks to a series of Memory Gambits on the part of Maxwell Lord. He later snares Atom in a Frame-Up, casting him as a murderer who killed the superhero Magog in cold blood.
  • Hero's First Rescue: The critical moment when Cap decided truly to be a Super Hero for real.
  • Herr Doktor: Heinrich Megala
  • Incest Subtext: The experiment that transformed Nathaniel Adam into Captain Atom also catapulted him eighteen years forward in time, by which time his infant daughter had grown to young adulthood, whereas he was still physically and emotionally twenty-six. Of course, she did not remember him or recognize him and thought of her stepfather as her father, and did not know Nathaniel had returned. So when he went to meet her and try to get to know her, without revealing who he really was, she thought he was trying to pick her up, and clearly was attracted to him, even though she turned him down. Later, after she found out the whole story, she started to have dreams in which he was a knight in shining armor rescuing her. Sometime after that, she got romantically involved with his best friend, who was also her godfather. It's even outright stated by her therapist that she was having an Electra Complex towards her absent father based on her dreams. All things considered, there was pretty clear subtext that her feelings for him were not altogether daughterly.
  • Intangible Man: He is only shown using this power once or twice, however.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Played with. In-universe, his daughter dreams about him as this, and genuinely sees him this way. The Captain Atom Project, meanwhile, plays him to the public as this, planting stories in the press describing him as the "Silver Savior." Of course, he eventually becomes the mask.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Whenever things actually get serious, Cap, who often seems kind of bumbling, will all of sudden act in a way that reminds everyone that he was a Badass Normal on par with Batman before he became a Reality Warper Flying Brick. One very satisfying example came when the League was fighting a giant robot alongside the Global Guardians, and the fight was a stalemate until they brought the fight into the sewers, away from all the civilians. At that point, Bushmaster, one of the Guardians, said that now they could really unload on the robot, to which Cap replied, "No, now you get behind me." He then vaporized the robot with one blast.
  • Life Energy: This is, to all intents and purposes, the source of Nathaniel's power; he's plugged into the quantum field, the life energy of the universe, allowing him to manipulate all forms of energy. (This is why Nathaniel ended up fighting Nekron—because he's integrated with the quantum field, Nekron could use him to drag the quantum field into his realm, and every living creature in the universe with it.)
  • Light Is Good: Captain Atom has a body made of silver metal and for a time he turned gold.
  • Military Superhero: Captain Nathaniel Adam of the United States Air Force. Interestingly, he did not start this way: he was a full-time soldier who received his powers as the result of an experiment, and was ordered by the military into infiltrating the superhero community to spy on them a keep them in check. However, as can be expected, Captain Atom eventually did grow to appreciate his role as a superhero, but not without serious conflict between both aspects of him.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: During Public Enemies, Nathaniel is willing to work for Lex Luthor because Luthor is President of the United States. This is explained as Atom being depressed and lost due to his failed second marriage and mostly went back to work for the government because he was trying to start over.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: The metal of his exo-shell is impervious to almost anything. On top of that, he can manipulate energy to create forcefields.
  • Only Sane Man: In the Justice League International he filled this role once the League split and he went to Europe.
  • Outside-Context Problem: In Captain Atom: Armageddon, Cap himself is this for the WildStorm Universe. The WildStorm heroes, especially the more powerful ones like Mr. Majestic and the Authority, thought that they had their world pretty much in hand, and that they could handle just about anything that came their way. When Captain Atom showed up and, through no fault of his own, contracted a condition that was going to cause him to destroy the universe, they figured that they could cure him. When that failed, they figured that they could kill him. Cue a very satisfying series of Curb Stomp Battles.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: When under Mind Control, Nathaniel's able to destroy entire armies singlehandedly. He can also destroy whole universes.
    • Then there's Kingdom Come, where a breach in his containment suit renders the Midwestern US into a radioactive wasteland which eventually triggers a civil war.
    • In Captain Atom: Armageddon, he's a ticking time bomb set to destroy the entire universe.
  • Pet the Dog: Despite being an utter bastard responsible for getting Nate turned into Captain Atom in the first place by framing him for treason and taking his family for his own by marrying Nate's wife after his death, Wade Eiling proved to be a genuinely good and loyal father to Nate's children and husband to Nathan's wife until her death via sickness. Eiling admitted he genuinely loved Nathan's wife and kids, and though he would never have what Nate had with his wife, Eiling had something special with her and loved her as a good man. When Nate temporarily died and traveled to the afterlife, his deceased wife admitted to loving Eiling in return during their marriage despite what Nate saw him as or what he would be. Nate was genuinely thankful for this.
  • Physical God: It is not clear that there are any real limits to Cap's powers. He can create and manipulate matter and energy. He even managed to take on and defeat Nekron in the astral realm. In one story arc, he created and then destroyed his own universe in the quantum field.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Twice: first on the cover of issue #8, with Plastique cradling a wounded Cap, who, for bonus points had a wound on his side, and then, on the cover of issue #44, with Cap cradling an unconscious Plastique.
  • Popularity Power: Being a lesser known hero compared to the likes of Superman and Batman, Atom frequently sees his power levels take a dip via this in order for one or both of them to come out on top in match-ups involving him, despite Atom logically being able to eat both of them for breakfast with his power set.
  • Power Creep, Power Seep: His power level is all over the place Depending on the Writer, going from being so weak that Parasite could split him open in Kingdom Comenote  to being at Dr. Manhattan levels during Generation Lost. Certain stories even give him new, seldom used powers like Captain Atom: Armaggedon, where Mister Miracle taught him how to interface with computer systems and hack them using only his energy powers and proximity to a terminal.
  • Power Incontinence: Despite his high power, Cap is usually written with the limitation that if he absorbs too much energy he experiences a Phlebotinum Overload which may cause (a) significant property damage to everything around him, (b) being sent on a Time Travel trip over which he has no control, or (c) both.
  • The Professor: Dr. Megala.
  • Promotion to Parent: It was revealed late in the series that Nate's father walked out when he was very young, and that his mother was a neglectful drunk, so Nate's nine-year-old sister got the promotion.
  • Radiation Immune Mutant: Or in his case, Radiation Immune Energy Being.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: In the Justice League International. Early, Power Girl was injured fighting the Grey Man. Catherine, who at that point was still Cap's secretary, decided to go over his head and order a very dangerous surgery performed, as that was the only way to save Power Girl's life; Cap had been unable to bring himself to give the order because he was afraid it would kill her. She assumed that Cap would be furious and was prepared to tender her resignation. Instead, he just told her that she had made the right call and thanked her for doing it.
  • Ronald Reagan: Involved in the events of Nate's first ongoing.
  • Secret-Keeper: After Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and Mister Miracle discover that Captain Atom's origin is faked they decide not to reveal that to the public.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: In Kingdom Come the older Captain Atom serving as a member of Magog's Justice Battalion had a new gold-and-red uniform that the mainstream version also started wearing upon being catapulted into the WildStorm universe.
  • Soft Reboot: Captain Atom: Armageddon helped serve as a soft reboot for the WildStorm Comics universe.
  • Steven Ulysses Perhero: Played with, since after he becomes Captain Atom, the government gives Capt. Nathaniel Adam the new secret identity of Capt. Cameron Scott.
  • Super Power Lottery: Cap is at least on the same level as Superman and Martian Manhunter. In addition to Flight, Super-Strength, and Nigh-Invulnerability, he can project any kind of energy (including light on the same wavelength as that of a red sun... or radiation identical to that of kryptonite), he's close to immune to energy-based attacks, and he can become intangible at will.
  • Super-Strength: Boosted by the quantum field. As Captain Atom his strength was such that he was able to go toe to toe with beings such as Superman, Majestic, etc. and hold his own.
  • Superpowered Evil Side: Monarch is a confusing mixture of this and Adaptational Villainy to him, with a dash of Continuity Snarl thrown in for flavor.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: In the Intercontinuity Crossover Captain Atom: Armageddon, he refuses to kill Hitler.
  • Two First Names: In Nathaniel's case, it's actually Three First Names, as his full name is Nathaniel Christopher Adam; also his alias, Cameron Scott.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: He's been used for this more than once. In Kingdom Come he was one half of the catalyst that lead to Kansas being nuked so that Superman and all the other "pure" superheroes would finally come out of retirement. Later during Generation Lost Maxwell Lord deliberately overloaded his powers via a Let's You and Him Fight scenario between him and Magog so that he accidentally destroyed much of a city.
  • The Vietnam War: Cap was the leader of a special ops unit in the Vietnam War before the experiment that gave him his powers.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Cap and Power Girl in Justice League Europe.
  • Was Once a Man: In "Generation Lost", Nate's inner monologue reveals he's becoming increasingly less human, having lost the ability to turn back to flesh and blood, and what disconcerts him most is his increasing detachment from the world around him.
  • The Worf Effect: