Why an Afro-American Superman could actually be great
There is a hand full of very iconic characters throughout film history that have been portrayed by a number of different actors over time. Sherlock Holmes is one of them. James Bond is another. And then of course there are comic book characters like Batman or Superman. Both of them have lived through countless iterations in both film and comic book form.
Whenever Hollywood feels like it’s time for a new actor to take on an iconic role like that, there’s a certain amount of outcry from the fans who feel like the character they’ve formed a connection with should be treated with great care and respect and – most importantly – exactly the way they’ve always pictured him.
So when a new rumor appears that maybe Idris Elba could be cast as James Bond, a part of the fanbase doesn’t take it lightly. A black James Bond? That’s unheard of! His whiteness is an important piece of the character design and there is no way that could ever be changed! Of course they also said that about Bond’s hair color before blond Daniel Craig came along and gave us arguably the best version of the super spy yet.
I understand the concerns as I know that people have strong feelings about things they get attached to … but it got me thinking: Would a black Superman work? Wouldn’t that be the weirdest of casting choices ever? And what would the creators of a new show or movie surrounding that character have to do to make it work? The more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me: An Afro-American Superman might not only work … It could actually be awesome!
The problems with Superman
I grew up watching “Lois & Clark – The new adventures of Superman” on TV. When I was a teenager, I bought all 10 seasons of “Smallville” on DVD. Yes, even the mediocre ones. I loved both shows as well as other version of the man of steel, but I have to point out the obvious: From a writing perspective, the character of Superman creates a number of substantial problems.
First of all, Superman is completely overpowered. He is basically indestructible, and on top of that he also has superhuman speed and strength, the ability to fly, shoot lasers out of his eyes and look through walls (or anything not covered in lead). He also has super hearing and sight, doesn’t need to breathe or maintain a certain body temperature – and of course he can freeze things with his breath. He has all of the powers and virtually none of the weaknesses. Yes, there is Kryptonite and the occasional supersonic sound wave, but you can’t put that stuff into every single storyline. It’s just getting repetitive really soon.
Then there’s Superman’s character: He’s just boring. Clark is a perfect boy scout who almost always does the morally right thing. He’s trying to save everything and everyone, is rather successful in doing so and there’s just never any real conflict. Yes, he may be on the search for answers regarding his home planet and biological parents. Yes, there is the dilemma of his secret identity and whether or not to tell Lois (or Lana) about it. Sure. But that all seems a bit surface level. Again, I liked the shows. And I must admit that I haven’t read a lot of comics. Maybe they did something really cool there, but from what I’ve seen on TV over the years, Clark is just a very bland character.
And then there is of course the obvious matter of his outfit and the century old question of how the hell people almost never immediately figure out who this guy is, just because of a stupid pair of glasses! I can suspend my disbelief a long way when it comes to Superhero stories – but this disguise is just ridiculous!
So with all those problems in mind, I want to tell you what my version of a TV show about a dark-skinned Clark Kent would look like. Because, oddly enough, this change of color seems to solve every problem on the list.
The show I would make if I were making shows
Introducing an all new version of a beloved character within the boundaries of a movie is tough. So I would go for a TV show instead. It could be a Netflix show with maybe 12 episodes (each about 50 to 60 minutes) per season. Something a little bit grittier than previous Superman shows, but nowhere as dark or depressing as, say, Daredevil (a show I absolutely adore). At the core, Superman always has to be about hope. That’s what he stands for. So it should be a theme of the show.
I would call the whole thing something like “From Smallville, Kansas”. A title that highlights that this is an origin story about someone from a small town moving to the big city. It also reminds people of that other Smallville show. I wouldn’t want the word “Superman” in the title because this is supposed to primarily be a show about Clark. Other than his skin color, I will have to tweak a couple of other things about the character. His backstory will stay exactly the same though: After his planet explodes, baby Kal-El’s spaceship crash-lands on a field in Smallville, where Jonathan and Martha Kent find him. They raise him to be a righteous person, love and accept him as their son and do their best to keep his superhuman powers a secret. So far, so good. No need to explore that part too much in the show, except maybe through an informative flashback every now and then.
Now when Clark is lifted out of his spaceship and met by the Earth’s atmosphere, his skin immediately turns dark. I’m not talking Destiny’s child ebony skin but a really dark shade of brown, or essentially black. And while I know pretty much nothing about Kansas and stereotypes are all I have to base this on, I would imagine that growing up in a rural area like Smallville might not have been a lot of fun for a dark-skinned person a couple of decades ago.
So this is where his skin color turns into a very helpful plot device: It creates tension. A boy like Clark (who is obviously told to never fight back because he might hurt someone) would probably get bullied at school. There might be some racist shop owners or bus drivers in town. Nothing too on the nose, but, you know, common everyday racism. And while his blackness becomes a new facet of Clark’s personality, the motives behind it have actually always been there: Superman, at least for me, has always been a character caught between worlds. He wants to belong, to be human like everyone else, but also to use his uniqueness for creating a better tomorrow. This is a struggle that’s always been a part of his character, but it’s never really been explored too well. Making his now black skin color a metaphor for it, we have an opportunity to dive deeper into Clark’s psyche. He grew up not only a farmer’s boy but also a regional minority. Learning the right lessons from that experience and remaining humble is a challenge teenage Clark had to face.
But that’s not even the chapter in Clark’s life I would want to tell. Instead I’d have the show begin a couple of years later. Clark is maybe 18 or 19 when he returns to Smallville after a year or two of travelling around the world. When his father died, Clark just had to leave Smallville and his life there behind. He basically burned all bridges and ran off, somewhere, anywhere, just to clear his mind. But now he’s back, trying to put the pieces of his life back together somehow. This again creates tension for the character. Former friends and spouses would be understandably mad at him for just leaving like that. And the haters would still hate, obviously. His mum might have financial problems. Lana might be engaged or married. The farm in a bad condition. And some sort of crime spree (nothing too fancy, but instead personal to Clark and the people he used to care about) might have erupted in Smallville while he was gone. That’s where I would start the show. Clark is back and all these obstacles could easily fill four or five episodes or maybe even a whole season of the show before Clark eventually decides to move to Metropolis, work at the Daily Planet and become Superman.
We’ve fixed Clark’s bland character. What about the other problems? Now this is where some readers might say, “Nope, I’m out.” – and I absolutely get it. However, I’ll have to tweak my new version of Superman a little further:
There was a new shiny white and blue Superman outfit revealed quite some time ago that never really caught on. It looks very different from Clark’s traditional red and blue clothing and – as far as I know – comes with a completely new set of skills. I find that rather strange and would therefor stick to Superman’s traditional powers. The outfit, however, could really work for this show for more than just one reason.
First of all, it makes Clark completely unrecognizable. His flashy new Superman look would have to be at least partly CGI and while played by the same actor via performance capture, Superman would look considerably different from Clark Kent, even in facial features and body shape. No more glasses needed. The disguise problem is fixed.
There are two more important aspects to the transformed Superman outfit though, one being its colors:
The man of steel is pretty white. Now that could potentially cause even more controversy than Clark being black, because it might be falsely seen as a statement: The boy from Kansas can be dark as coal, but the most powerful man in the world will always be a white guy. It will be one of the show’s greatest challenges to balance the duality of black Clark and white Superman. I think this could be potentially great! Remember, Clark already has an identity crisis. Not only is he an alien without a home planet, but he also grew up a dark-skinned adoptive son to a white couple. And now he suddenly has this second persona that is perceived so very differently from his former self. Superman is treated with more respect and kindness, but also with a certain degree of fear. He is suddenly seen as someone better instead of a lower type of person. I’m trying not to generalize here, but I hope you get what I mean. Because of his background though, Clark has a passion and understanding for those treated less kindly. He can try to use his newly found fame to make a difference, not only as a superhero but also as a person who speaks up for minorities. Now this could all end up being incredibly cheesy if the writing is bad – but it could also fall together just perfectly when done right. “From Smallville, Kansas” could be a show about duality, about nature vs nurture and of course about overcoming prejudice and becoming a beacon of hope for everyone.
Now let’s discuss that aforementioned set of powers and how I would tweak it to make the show more consistent and interesting and Superman less of a broken character:
I’d basically let Superman keep all of his iconic powers but add one crucial element to it: Sunlight.
It has always been stated that Earth’s yellow sun is the source of Superman’s powers. He would probably lose them if he left our solar system. Why not take this thought a step further? Why not say that Superman needs direct sunlight to be at his full speed and strength? He could still be super strong or bulletproof while standing in the shades or inside a building – but he might get considerably weaker (slower, less laser-eyed etc.) when, say, in a basement or bunker with no windows. That could make for some interesting storytelling.
And here’s another thought: Superman can only use his powers when is his Superman state. He’d have to physically change his appearance to become invulnerable, fast or strong. No more hovering, speeding or x-raying Clark Kent. Or maybe he just has to transform the body parts he needs for a certain ability (like an arm or part of his face). Hiding his secret identity from Lois would get a lot more difficult. And more exciting.
So this is basically where my train of thought brought me. The show obviously needs to have a great Lex Luthor as soon as the focus shifts to Metropolis. And a charming, cocky but sweet Lois Lane. Jimmy Olson could be a person of color as well (and be super excited about a black reporter starting his career at the Daily Planet). There could be cameos and Easter eggs for the fans … but I’d honestly keep them to a minimum. The show should speak for itself. And I’d love it to have a unique, mature tone with a healthy amount of cheeky humor sprinkled in there as well. I wouldn’t want it to be a justice warrior manifesto that’s only about white privilege or racism. Those are themes that define and shape the characters, not necessarily the story. I wouldn’t want to be preachy. If done right, the message of equality and kindness comes completely naturally with the setup. A bunch of talented writers could turn this into an amazing show that would take its rightful place among other superhero stories and character pieces alike. I would love to see that. I most probably I won’t though. I’m not a Hollywood executive.
Last but not least I want to make clear that I did absolutely no research before writing this monster of a blog entry. This is just what’s been going through my mind lately. I don’t know if there is already talk about a diversely cast Superman movie or if anybody else has made the same points before me. If that’s the case, I’m sorry. I didn’t steal anything from you. I just wanted to get my thoughts out there.