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SYFY WIRE Superman

Why Ta-Nehisi Coates' possible Black Superman is so exciting (and, honestly, expected)

By Justin Carter
Black Superman

A new Superman movie is on the way, though not in the way many expected. As current Black Panther comics scribe Ta-Nehisi Coates recently revealed, he will be writing another Man of Steel film, produced by J.J. Abrams, and that possibly does away with Henry Cavill's version of the character. Whether this is the "main" Superman going forward or he's in his own isolated universe similar to Robert Pattinson in The Batman, the next Superman we see on the silver screen could be someone totally new.

While there hasn't yet been confirmation from DC or its parent company Warner Bros. of the existence of the project or its details, per a story from The Hollywood Reporter, "this new Superman project is aiming to star a Black Superman." 

So while we await an official response from the production companies or anyone involved with the film, it's worthwhile to think of the possibilities. Because it really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention that DC could be thinking of bringing a Black Superman to the big screen. This wouldn't even be the first conversation about him. There were rumors that Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther, Creed) was in talks to play the character back in late 2019, though nothing materialized (so far, at least).

You can see why Warner Bros., which owns DC, could be interested in a Black Superman — not just for what it could represent but from a business perspective. Black Panther and Aquaman have proven that diverse superheroes sell. In the past, Warner Bros. has happily done colorblind casting with several of its DC characters, including Ryan Potter as Beast Boy in Titans, Will Smith's Deadshot in Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey's Jurnee Smollett as Black Canary. Much as some fans would like to say otherwise, a non-white actor becoming Superman was always going to happen. It was just a matter of time.

There are plenty of ways to introduce a Black Superman to filmgoers, too. The movie could be a standalone, though it could also tie into the oft-delayed multiversal Flash movie because the DC film's messy continuity has some precedent in the comics. As it is with many superheroes, Clark Kent is just one of many men who've been Superman, and several individuals who took up the mantle have been Black.

Engineer John Henry Irons borrowed the name and donned a self-made suit of Superman armor following Superman's iconic "death" in the early '90s, before eventually rebranding as Steel. In 2014, DC introduced Val-Zod, the pacifist Superman of Earth-2. (A pacifist Superman sure would be something to see in an action movie, wouldn't it?) Or here's an idea: Pull from Grant Morrison's work and bring in Calvin "Kalel" Ellis, the Superman of Earth-23 who's also the president of his world's United States — it would definitely be something audiences haven't seen before.

Calvin Ellis Black Superman

The concept of a Black Superman — a character who both stands for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" and also represents a population that has not, historically, been included in the country's attempts to live up to those ideals — is inherently interesting.

What makes the announcement especially exciting is the news that Coates is writing the movie. Coates, an acclaimed journalist, is also a non-fiction author behind such seminal works as the National Book Award for Nonfiction winner Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power, for which he won a Dayton Literary Peace Prize. 

While he hasn't written a film before, his comics work at Marvel speaks for itself. Because as if that weren't enough, Coates is also an Eisner Award-winning comics writer who's penned several exciting mainstream superhero comics. In delving into the mystic side of Wakandan religion and a soon-to-conclude space odyssey in which T'Challa has become a resistance fighter, Coates' tenure on Black Panther has shown how easy it is for T'Challa to become out of step with his people and culture because of his duties as a superhero.

A similar arc plays out across his Captain America run, in which Cap's love of what America can be clashes with the country's ugly reality. It's a reality Black people have long been intimately familiar with, but Coates has never presented T'Challa or Steve as cynical in their respective stories. Like Superman, they're always hopeful and striving to do better.

With good direction and a compelling lead performance, Coates' take on a Black Superman has the potential to reinforce the character as a big-screen presence. But all of this is for nothing if Warner Bros. isn't willing to back Coates and this new Superman all the way from start to finish. When it comes to DC movies, the studio tends to get in its own way. It's admitted as such in the past. Sometimes it has announced films and then those films get quietly buried — weren't we supposed to have a Green Lantern movie this past July?

It has also faced allegations of mistreatment of its Black talent. Superman & Lois writer Nadria Tucker has claimed she was fired from Superman & Lois for pushing back on racist and sexist storylines. Warner Bros. has since declined to comment on the record for a recent HuffPost profile on Tucker. And big-screen Cyborg actor Ray Fisher claimed "erasure of people of color" while working on Justice League. A recent investigation found no credibility in Fisher's allegations and WB parent company Warner Media has denied any mistreatment occurred.

All in all, this potential Black Superman already has unfair expectations upon him by sheer virtue of existing. It's been nearly a decade without a live-action Superman film that wasn't a team-up, and this new movie will have plenty to prove. Coates could no doubt get the Man of Steel to take that first step off the ground, but it'll be up to everyone else involved with the film to help him truly fly again.