By Brandon Melendez
Last week Warner Brothers dropped some news that there is a new Superman movie coming from producer JJ Abrams and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates which aims to ditch the increasingly divisive-if-not-toxic Zack Snyder from the franchise. This new movie, dubbed a “reboot”, has no details confirmed other than what has been said but, the internet being the wretched hive of scum and villainy it is has already begun freaking out about…I don’t even know how to encapsulate all of it.
The largest “concern” from many of these enraged keyboard warriors is that Superman actor Henry Cavill will be fired and the role will be recast by a Black man. While I am wholeheartedly #TeamHenry, actors get changed all the time and there is currently an entirely different white man playing Superman on television who is doing a fine job. The Superman and Lois version of the character will be far more saturated than any movie Superman could be in storytelling so that the whole outrage becomes especially silly.
Furthermore, this concern comes from the same corner of people who on the one hand complain that comics don’t do anything original anymore and on the other hand consistently get upset about shaking up the status quo or engaging in character development. When a Dan Slott, or a Jonathan Hickman, or a Brian Michael Bendis, or a Tom King come around and shake things up in even a minor way the banner of “go woke, go broke” gets immediately raised by folks who couldn’t boycott the comic books industry if their lives depended on it. In fairness, while casting Superman as a Black man isn’t character development on its own, it also doesn’t significantly change anything essential about the character. This is a point that many seem to miss at any moment when a change like this is considered with any character.
Chief among the arguments of changing any traditionally white character to another racial or ethnic identity is “why don’t we make Black Panther a white guy now?”, a question that reminds me of the reason I don’t play chess with pigeons. While both Superman and Black Panther have characterizations that can easily endure a racial representation change, Black Panther specifically has some that cannot. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find an argument that supports an exclusively white Superman beyond “he’s always been white before” that doesn’t overtly lean into White Supremacist ideas.
The “White Black Panther” argument either explicitly or implicitly suggests that Superman represents the Aryan Ubermensch and that “diversity casting” nullifies his virtuous character somehow. On its face, this is ridiculous because there are black versions of Superman already. Michael B. Jordan has been openly courting either a Val-Zod or Calvin Ellis multiverse version of Superman for years. Neither of these has been confirmed to be the Superman in this new movie, so the assumption is that since Coates is the scriptwriter that he will be compelled to write a Black Superman. He may or he may not, we actually don’t know what his ideas are. Regardless of that, the argument of a core characterization of whiteness to the standard version of Superman is wholly without merit or evidence.
What are the character traits of Superman? He’s morally upright. Even the rightest right-wing conservative will offer you the “I Have A Dream Speech” as an effective argument for equality as a morally constant measure of character. He is a midwestern farm boy. Not a compelling case for whiteness there either. He’s a newspaper reporter. Ida B. Wells managed to do that and be a Black woman…and she died years before Superman was ever published. He’s from another planet…which is as likely for a Black man as a white one or any other. He stands for Truth and Justice. There’s no litmus test of whiteness there. There doesn’t seem to be much to work with on the matter of explicit, unyielding, exclusive whiteness for The Man of Steel here.
As far as metaphors go, there is a lot more evidence of Superman representing otherized ethnic whites and non-whites than the mainstream WASPy whiteness that is being asserted. He’s an outsider constantly trying to fit in. In American culture this plays into the Superman as a Mosaic figure designed by the children of Jewish Immigrants. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon and Jewish Whiteness as a construct is debatable at best, especially in the 1930s when the character was first published.
There’s a good argument that the respectability politics of Superman’s flag waving to be rooted in his otherized origins from the 1950s forward as a sign of assimilation and ingratiation with the majority group, which is a political paradigm espoused by minority groups all too often. This becomes more compelling when inspecting the defunct addendum of “The American Way” to Truth and Justice to assuage Red Scare fears of Superman’s social justice progressivist origins. “The American Way” is a meaningless term that casts a shadow of whiteness and capitalism, but doesn’t really have any concrete application. One could argue that Superman’s defining characteristics are racial passing, or more specifically species passing, and cultural assimilation.
Black Panther, on the other hand has his character genesis in Blackness, and more specifically Black greatness (not to be confused with superiority or supremacy). While the regal pride, intelligence, and compassion of the character are not exclusively Black characteristics it is the context of these traits that cannot be migrated to a white character. As the king of an unconquered, socially progressive, scientifically advanced, unfathomably wealthy African nation, Black Panther represents an early example of 20th Century Afrofuturism, coming 14 years after Ellison’s’s Invisible Man (did you know the invisible man was Black? can you white wash somebody transparent?) but a little over 20 years before the term was coined. Certainly, Coates’s current run on Black Panther fits this too bill, but that doesn’t mean that his Superman necessarily will.
At any rate, the King of Wakanda is without a doubt the fantasy image of the King of a continuously prosperous Mali in specific and Africa in general. He is to Pan-Africanism what Arthur Pendragon is to a Unified Britain. There is no meaningful or reasonable way to divorce Black Panther from being the king of an uncolonized black nation at the peak of Earthly societal achievement. You cannot relocate the Black Panther to a white nation anymore than you could move Arthur to Pakistan; though Superman can successfully be moved from Metropolis, USA to Moscow, USSR and still have a successful narrative that maintains the character even in a different context. Nor could you swap T’Challa for King Arthur and call it an even trade in the way that you might swap Clark Kent for Calvin Ellis and maintain any of the essential elements of the character’s history or purpose. Making the Black Panther of Wakanda a white man would, in effect, represent the White-if-not-European conquest of Wakanda and would very effectively undercut the purpose of the character.
Ultimately, I can appreciate a visceral reaction to the term “reboot”. Not only is the word criminally misused–it should mean start over instead of resume–it is also overdone in practice with both definitions. In this case, we don’t yet know which kind of reboot this new Superman movie will be. I hope the creative team is changing while the casting stays the same. It would probably be better if there is an introduction of a Black Superman that the character is given the opportunity to flourish next to the Henry Cavill version (who really deserves a good movie). However, if that isn’t the case, I have to wait and see. Sometimes creative decisions don’t make sense on the outside but bear out to deliver a really good story, vision, or product. This was a lesson I learned from the Heath Ledger Joker casting and the Tom Holland Spider-Man casting. They are good lessons from good casting and strong, creative stories.
There are very well be good reasons to be wary of any DC Movie announcement. Warner Brothers has a spotty record, at best, over the last decade with these properties. There is cause for concern that they’ll botch up any story idea. JJ Abrams and Ta-Nehisi Coates have debatable success in the medium as well. However, resorting to poorly managed, bigoted, and under-educated arguments is just a good way to show your inner racist troll on the internet. And that’s not what you meant to do, right?