Sep 2, 2019

By All Means, Give Me a Black Superman. But...

Earlier this year, one of my favorite actors, Michael B. Jordan, likely best known to readers of this website as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, expressed interest in playing Superman. Some months later, Dwayne Johnson, better known to most comic book fans (due to the medium's logical but largely unexplored overlap with professional wrestling) as The Rock, said, "Hollywood is ready for a black Superman," and followed it up with, "You're looking at him."

And by all means, yes. Give it to me.

Let's get the practical, economic, job-related reasons out first. Before anyone cries out about "racebending," I will remind everyone that bending has been going on in fiction at least since the days of Shakespeare, when boys regularly played the parts of women, and continued to all the times in recent history when a white actor played a character of color (e.g., Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins, Scarlett Johannson as Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell). The difference with it going from colored character to white actor and the other way around, is the simple fact that the former benefits the privileged. The system naturally benefits white actors simply because, consciously or subconsciously, that's the default we work under. And since most big movies these days are adaptations of things that predominantly feature straight white males, some racebending in the latter direction is needed to even out job opportunities. Virtually all multinational companies have this policy of at the very least considering a diverse pool of talent before hiring; why wouldn't Hollywood movie studios?

Okay, now that we can all agree that everyone deserves equal opportunities regardless of the color of their skin, let's focus on Superman the character. Here's the thing. Superman on the screen has been, since Christopher Reeve, for better or worse, been held up to the standard of Christopher Reeve.

I don't know if that's really fair or not, because as loved as Reeve's portrayal is, I don't really find the movies that great. He is incredibly charismatic in the role though, and carried around him a natural presence and an earnestness that would not be matched until Chris Evans showed up as Captain America, four decades later.

Ever since then, Superman has been played by Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, Tom Welling, and Henry Cavill, and if you combined all their faces, it would look like this:

And I'm not saying they keep casting people just because they look like Christopher Reeve, but at the very least, they're casting people that have a resemblance to Christopher Reeve because they're casting people who look like Superman and they get Christopher Reeve conflated with Superman. And yes, Christopher Reeve absolutely, totally looks like a classic, tried-and-true version of Superman...

...but still just a version of Superman.  Here's the thing, I don't think Zack Snyder was entirely wrong in wanting to make his version of Superman as distinct from Reeve as possible (he was just entirely wrong in the whole "let's make a good movie" thing). Creativity, Alan Moore once said, is basically taking an already existing situation and changing the parameters, giving the example of him going to a restaurant and saying, "I'd hate to be a waitress here tonight," switching, in that case, the parameters of his gender and occupation.

The DCEU Superman tried doing that, but unfortunately, one of the parameters they moved was "Have him be raised to want to help people", and that's so core to his actual character that to change it is to remove his power as a symbol. For all that they tried in his appearances to jam it down our throats that he was a symbol of hope, and an almost religious one at that, it never really landed because of the sheer overkill on the destruction and a lack of actually showing why he was a symbol for hope. (There was a lot of telling though.) And maybe, just maybe, one of the solutions to restarting Superman is to get someone who doesn't look like Christopher Reeve as much as possible.

However, Superman is such a powerful symbol that within two years of being introduced as a warrior for social justice, fighting the establishment when he had two, he was posing with classic American iconography:

And in 1986, in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, he was fully reimagined as a government agent, following the rules of a senile President Ronald Reagan, and even though it wasn't Miller's intention for that portrayal of Superman to be so widespread in the public consciousness, that ended up happening anyway, because the association is so easy to make.

Over the decades, we've seen many interpretations and inversions of the Superman concept, both in-house in DC and among other publishers. Among them are:

What if Superman landed in Communist Russia? (Superman: Red Son)

What if Superman retired because the public found him outdated and came back to set the kids straight, becoming a de facto world leader in the process? (Kingdom Come)

What if Superman was an evil world conqueror? (Injustice)

What if Superman was Batman? (Speeding Bullets)

What if Superman landed in Arthurian times? (Kal)

What if Superman was a mouse? (Supermouse)

What if Superman was a mouse, except we don't want any copyright infringement? (Mighty Mouse)

What if Superman was constantly being revised, open to many different interpretations, because the entire story was actually a metafictional story? (Supreme)

And more relevant to our conversation today are four very specific, three of them recent versions of Superman. One is Calvin Ellis, who hails from an Earth where Africans are the privileged race.

The second one is Val-Zod, who basically has his own story on a parallel Earth called Earth-2.

And the third one is an original work by Boom! Studios called Strange Fruit, in which a dark-skinned alien lands rural America in 1927 to help with the Great Flood.

The fourth one  is Icon, the Superman of the Milestone Universe, a publishing line for showcasing minority characters, which might be notable to most of you as the line that created Static of Static Shock.

So in case Michael B. Jordan, The Rock, or any black actor worth his salt wants to give any of these — or any new — interpretations a shot, I'm there. I'm watching. Except...

...I'd kinda want them to play Clark Kent.

I don't want them playing Calvin Ellis, or Val-Zod, or a new type of character. I want to see them play Clark Kent. I want to see what happens when an alien baby who looks like a normal African-American baby lands in predominantly white (84% according to the 2010 United States Census) Kansas, in a little town called Smallville, gets found by a good-natured couple (Whether they're white or black or another racial mix altogether is a different discussion), and see what happens when they start to develop powers. How does growing up black change the experience of Superman?

The entire history of everything would dictate that the world would not accept him the same way Superman has traditionally been depicted as. As Clark Kent, he might even have a harder time getting a job at The Daily Planet, and of course he'd be faced with a lot of racism, casual and otherwise, growing up.

But what I really want is for him to see what all that adds into his provenance as that earnest symbol of hope. How does Superman deal with bigotry when it's something he grew up with? Would he still be the earnest beacon of hope despite the lack of privilege we're accustomed to seeing him have?

I think that that would be an interesting story to tell, and a set of interesting dynamics to explore. And just potentially, it would have something real and of value to say to the world.

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