I’ve been thinking a lot about the new Black Superman project reportedly being developed for HBO Max, as well as the rumors of a Black Superman movie in the works. As a 35-year-old Black nerd, you’d think I’d be all for both of them. The most widely-known superhero of all time, and now he’s Black? It sounds like a dream. Or at least it should.
I think the problem is that it is a dream — a dream from when I was a child in the projects of Chicago. These days, we should be aiming for something different; something better.
Hollywood is great at giving us something we never wanted, all while telling us it was our idea the whole time (example: the Fast and Furious franchise). But I’m not here for another adaptation of a white superhero who just happens to be Black because, I don’t know, the money looks greener that way. I think I deserve something a little more imaginative than that,
For Black folks, our film-adapted heroes in the 90s were almost joke characters, until Blade. We had Blankman and Meteorman, then that poor rendition of Spawn. Can somebody give Wesley Snipes a round of applause, please? Enter the Spiderverse was a great representation of a version of Spider-Man. But again, I think we can do better. No more knockoffs. No more variants. Let’s go full Black. We need film characters that are independent of white agency, who aren’t merely “Black versions” of something dreamed up by a white creator.
Superman’s origin story is done so often, you might think it’s more overdone than Peter Parker being bitten by a spider. But a little examination of where that story came from is illuminating. Superman’s then-18-year-old creator, Jerry Siegel, first self-published “Reign of the Superman” about a man named Bill Dunn who, in exchange for a raw meal and a new suit, gets experimented on by a scientist. The short story was drafted in order for both Siegel and his illustrator, Joe Shuster, to escape the harshness of poverty during the Great Depression. In the story, Dunn becomes drunk with power, killing the chemist who “created” him. It ends with Dunn’s realization that his powers are wearing off and he will have to soon return to the breadline. All of this came before the Clark Kent we know today.
Siegel’s Superman takes heavy inspiration from the concept of the Übermensch, originated by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Personally, I prefer Bill Dunn’s storyline to Clark Kent’s. I would have preferred an adaptation of that original narrative, where Dunn’s powers never fade away and he realizes he must atone for that murder by saving members of humankind for the rest of his life.
There’s one thing for sure: Superman is not a Black story. Color it up to look like the original by creating a Calvin Ellis version of the titular character, based on the life of Barack Obama, all you like. Turn Kal-El into Val-Zod, too, if you must (Val-Zod is reportedly the inspiration behind Jordan’s upcoming series). But the fact remains that this is the same dude, except Black. And Black audiences deserve a little more than “except Black” in 2021.
How does one make a white character Black? The mechanism of doing so can be problematic in itself: either the character becomes a barely believable white guy with a slightly different skin tone, or the studio risks leaning in to racial stereotyping to make the new character sufficiently different to his or her white predecessor. It’s a tricky balancing act to get that right, and the fact that studios prefer to walk that line rather than make use of the existing Black characters they have makes the whole thing, frankly, infuriating.
Because, yes, there is a wealth of Black heroes on the books just waiting to be elevated. Personally, I’d love to see Oya, Vixen, and Storm in a theater near you. How about Icon (real name Augustus Freeman)? Icon is a superhero I connected with deeply in childhood, a character who had the powers of Superman and who worked himself up from slavery to become a lawyer, only to clash more often with his own community than Luke Cage. If Hollywood really wanted to be progressive, they’d make that movie: a complicated, nuanced exploration of Black life. Icon’s sidekick, Rocket (Raquel Ervin) keeps him grounded by informing him of the desires of today’s Black community after he leaves his childhood behind. That dichotomy onscreen would be a great representation of the sometimes conflicted thoughts of people in the community that are rarely spoken of, such as the best way to approach inner-city struggles when one has access to power, prestige, and opportunity. Icon is owned by DC, so it would be fairly easy for Warner Brothers to transfer the comic directly to the big screen. In doing so, they could create a valuable dialogue, the way that Black Panther did with the conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa, rather than merely recycling old stories for little social benefit.
Wonder Woman’s twin sister Nubia, Miles Morales’ version of Spider-Man, and Sam Wilson’s version of Captain America are all great and fit perfectly into their respective universes. Now it’s time to move on. Making a Black Superman film serves the community no more than the 1930’s version of Lothar, who wore a fez and leopard-skin and spoke with a first-grader’s command of English; if anything, Black Superman makes it seem like our own superheroes aren’t good enough to shape movies around.
After the success of Black Panther, I say: isn’t it clear we can do better than Black Superman?
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