Batman is currently on the brain.
Of course, one of pop culture's most enduring characters can often be said to be on the collective mind of millions of people — but with Justice League currently in theaters and Ben Affleck looking for a graceful exit to his apparently exhausting two-film run under the cowl, people are once again talking about who could play the Dark Knight.
The only other character who gets this much actorly discussion is James Bond because, well, few characters have been interpreted by quite so many people. But we'll get back to Bond later.
And because he is a man made of molten charisma, Idris Elba gets bandied about quite a bit for the next Bruce Wayne. Which I get. He was also at the top of former Sony boss Amy Pascal's list for the next 007. (Who we'll really get to later, I promise.)
I love Idris Elba. I refuse to be in the same room as him, as what's left of my self-image would shatter, but I think he's a fantastic actor who can do almost anything — action, comedy, drama, romance. Almost.
Because I don't think he could play Batman — at least, not the Batman that's existed for 75 years — and it has everything to do with cultural specificity.
The reason why Bruce Wayne becomes Batman is because of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Not just what happened to them in Crime Alley, but who they were. Thomas Wayne came from money. He wasn't just rich, he was wealthy; the kind of wealthy that only manifests through generations of industry. The Wayne Family is like DC Comics' Rockefellers or Gettys; the seeds of Wayne Industries were planted in the loose soil of Gotham City in the 17th century. The fate and fortunes of both the Wayne Family and Gotham itself are inextricable.
As one can imagine, looking at the world today with so many choices being made to benefit the ultra-rich, decisions were made by previous generations of Wayne men that were contrary to the public's well being. Sure, there were foundations and charities, but how many were more than mere tax dodges and PR campaigns?
Thomas Wayne grew up with that legacy and chose to become a surgeon — his own rebellion against what was expected of him. Thomas chose to contribute to the world rather than take from it. That was the man who raised Bruce Wayne for those short 11 years. Someone who felt that the way to push back against centuries of legacy and billions of dollars was to give back to the less fortunate. Rebellious responsibility.
Bruce Wayne has to come from that kind of old money because his father has to have struggled under that moral yolk and broken free — and shown young Bruce that kind of example. Imagining what an 11-year-old kid might remember about the father snatched from him by violence, that kind of social heroism isn't hard to fathom. Neither is the steady drumbeat of "as go the Waynes, so goes Gotham, and vice versa." Responsibility.
For Bruce Wayne to be the Bruce Wayne we know and love, he needs to come from that kind of money. And there is no black 'old money.' Not like that. Hell, today, there are only a handful of African American billionaires and most of them are entertainers who earned those billions themselves. Something tells me that, should Oprah ever have kids, and then fall prey to a horrible attack, they won't stalk the Santa Barbara nights fighting crime in a costume.
It's not just that Bruce Wayne needs to be rich and white; he needs to have a legacy of hereditary privilege. Because that's who the character is. To change that changes something fundamental about Batman. Then it's not Batman. It might be something cool and interesting and worthy in-and-of-itself, but it's not Batman.
Take Don Diego de la Vega, better known as Zorro — himself a foundational influence on Batman. He has to be a Spaniard, because the story requires him to be a California nobleman who rejects the aristocratic conventions of the other landed gentry and works tirelessly for the downtrodden. The paradigm simply doesn't work if you cast, say, an Indian actor as Zorro, no matter how amazing he might be: it is about culture and class as much as it's about swords and whips.
(But you could, however, refashion Zorro as a woman: Dona de la Vega would keep all of those cultural specifiers in place while also getting to play with gender politics.)
What makes the character special, what makes him different from everyone else, what defines him? And if those elements are culturally specific, they should remain intact.
That is not the same as tradition. I once, years ago, suggested that maybe Spider-Man didn't have to be a white kid because nothing in what makes Peter Parker special required him to be white. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gave us a science nerd whose parents were killed, is raised by his aunt and uncle in Queens, and who gets bitten by a radioactive spider. None of that requires him to be white. In fact, given those criteria, he probably shouldn't be — but that's for another swarm of hate mail.
James Bond — see, I told you we'd get back here — is an orphan who goes to a decent college (likely on a scholarship), joins the military and is recruited into the 00 section. Could Idris Elba play that? For sure. Does having a black actor in that role contradict anything about that role? No.
That was also Stephen King's reasoning for granting Elba his blessing when he slid into The Dark Tower as Roland Deschain, a character originally written as white. The Madeline L'Engle Estate similarly embraced Ava Duvernay's desire to recast Meg Murry's family as biracial, because all A Wrinkle in Time's young heroine needed to be was brave.
Should Elba play a superhero? Hell, yeah. Because look at him.
But the key to diversifying the culture we put out into the world isn't to simply cast actors of color as characters previously played by white actors — it's to create new heroes and villains. To hire writers and directors and artists of color who can bring new perspectives to bear, rather than just iron new wrinkles into old cloth.
Would Elba kill it as Bruce Wayne? Oh, for sure. But let's put our collective big brains to work and create a new character for him to play — something for which he isn't merely the seventh and best, but the first and only.