Following two wildly different twenty-first century cinematic takes on the character, what might Ta-Nehisi Coates Superman film look like? A few thoughts.
This article contains spoilers for Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice
Forget being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and having the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the greatest power in Superman’s arsenal has always been the ability to inspire and unify. The character, a cosmic refugee and sole survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, was of course created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, themselves sons of Jewish immigrants who sought refuge in the United States in the 1930s.
Since 1938, this core element of the Superman mythos, to inspire and unite, has always been fundamental to the most successful interpretations of the character. As an outsider to the (global) society in which he lives, the Superman character is able to perceive the world in a way that humanity, culturally hardwired into our prejudices and ideologies, cannot.
Knowledge though, means little without action and Kal-El’s determination and commitment to improve the world that has granted him refuge remains the defining hallmark of the character. It’s this element that has made the most recent cinematic iteration of the character so divisive.
Say what you want about Christopher Reeves’ man of steel in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and indeed many have: yes, it may possess the wonkiest visual effects in any Superman film and yes, it may use Milton Keynes bus station as a stand-in for New York’s United Nations’ headquarters, but at least the cut-price sequel tried to proclaim a message of hope and unity regarding the nuclear arms race. Arguably the greatest threat of the era in which it was made.
Zack Snyder’s distanced, mythic take on the character, whilst boasting a large fanbase of its own, seemed to care little for this aspect of the character however, first having him raze Metropolis and execute General Zod in 2013’s Man Of Steel before forcing audiences to view him as an alien terrorist messiah through the narrative lens of an unhinged Batman in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Whilst appreciating that this iteration of the character has legions of admirers and can lay claim to roots within several iconic and beloved comic book sagas, it continues to leave fans divided frankly, in an era where division is rife enough as it is.
News then that Superman is set to return in a different guise will be welcomed by those looking to warm to a take more in line with the character’s core traits. The announcement has been made that Warner Bros is is ‘renewing’ Superman (with multiverses being so in vogue right now, we’d hesitate to call it a reboot as who knows if Henry Cavill’s time in the cape is up yet?) with Ta-Nehisi Coates penning the script for the Man of Steel’s next solo adventure and JJ Abrams set to produce.
Naturally, with Coates’ widely-respected writing pedigree both as a journalist and fiction writer – leading some critics to name him as the ‘laureate of black lives’ in America – the internet is ablaze with the notion, emanating from reliable sources such as The Hollywood Reporter‘s Borys Kit, that we could soon be seeing the silver screen’s first black Superman. (Nope, we don’t count 1997’s Steel, starring Shaquille O’ Neal, before you ask.)
Will audiences be introduced to a Black Superman? That is the intent and something that the studio has been trying to find a way in for months if not a year or two, according to sources. https://t.co/X8RTtSJ7EK
— Borys Kit (@Borys_Kit) February 26, 2021
Of course, couple this with the recent critically-acclaimed rise of reframing white-centric fantasy storytelling through a black lens, with HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country (the latter produced by Abrams) being excellent examples, add the rumours that Creed’s Michael B. Jordan pitched Warner Bros a take on a black Superman as far back as 2019 and this idea certainly seems to have some momentum behind it.
I’d argue that despite 2018’s Black Panther earning most of the plaudits that year, it was actually the surprising success of Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a non-MCU, non-live action superhero adventure starring a non-white, non-Peter Parker version of Spider-Man that caused executives to really sit up and smell the zeitgeist. Realising in turn that audiences would respond positively to culturally-diverse versions of superheroes they already recognised.
As of yet, we don’t know whether Coates’ take on the character will be black, and if so, whether that character will be Kal-El/Clark Kent or another character who has donned the cape throughout the character’s rich history.
Whilst you’d certainly find us queueing up to see Jordan’s take on Kal-El, there are other incarnations of the character which would allow Warner Bros to have its multiverse cake and eat it. Warner Bros piloted successfully its grown-up alternative take on the Clown Prince of Crime in 2019’s acclaimed Joker, and as it is soon to do again with its non-DCEU Matt Reeves-helmed The Batman.
Jordan himself has seemed to endorse this approach telling Oprah Winfrey that he’d rather avoid portraying another version of Kal-El, arguing “it’s tough. I hate being a businessman and understanding both sides of the situation. There is a huge upside to it, but being under that microscope, being picked apart and compared to so many different versions of Superman… I would rather do something original. I’ll be Calvin Ellis.” (Calvin Ellis is the Superman of the alternative Earth-23, a Man of Steel inspired by Barack Obama who not only defends his home-world as a mighty superhero, but also as the sitting President of the United States of America.)
Speaking of the mighty Oprah, let’s focus on something else here for a second that has maybe gotten slightly lost in the groundswell of noise regarding the prospect of a black Superman. As well as being a hugely-respected journalist for The Atlantic, having penned pieces such as The Case for Reparations, Coates is also an acclaimed writer of fiction.
We reported back in November that Coates’ novel The Water Dancer was being adapted by Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Films, in league with Brad Pitt’s own production company, Plan B. It’s noteworthy that the only occasion that those two progressive production companies have joined together previously was to produce 2015’s Selma, Ava DuVernay’s landmark film in detailing the battles fought by Martin Luther King and his contemporaries to achieve voting rights in the Deep South.
That then, gives you an inkling as the reverence with which Coates’ storytelling is held. In short, in the rush to start fantasy casting a new Superman saga, let’s just take a moment to appreciate the calibre of writer that Warner Bros has recruited here. For those left who were left cold by Snyder’s take on Superman, an interpretation deemed to by some as somewhat juvenile, Coates’ take on the character promises to be far more inquisitorial of Superman’s relationship with the world, something that every Superman film has failed to explore as well as the early Reeves instalments. The comic books over the last decade on the other hand have featured the character doing precisely this, such as the storyline in 2o11 where Superman famously renounced his American citizenship.
Coates has excellent form with comic book stories too. His Black Panther and Captain America series for Marvel are both acclaimed, and the appointment of a leading black writer doesn’t necessarily mean a black Superman, as Coates pointed out when taking over the reins at Captain America. Sometimes, it’s the opportunity to understand the perspectives of others connect with his own ideology is what is truly interesting to him.
As he said, “I have my share of strong opinions about the world. But one reason that I chose the practice of opinion journalism – which is to say a mix of reporting and opinion – is because understanding how those opinions fit in with the perspectives of others has always been more interesting to me than repeatedly restating my own. Writing, for me, is about questions – not answers. And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in The Dream? What is exciting here is not some didactic act of putting my words in Captain America’s head, but attempting to put Captain America’s words in my head. What is exciting is the possibility of exploration, of avoiding the repetition of a voice I’ve tired of”.
It’s an enticing prospect. Creators of both the comics and the films have seemed keen to distance Superman from his role as a solely American hero over the last decade or two, but it’ll be interesting to see if Coates, with his celebrated views on American culture and history, reverses this and if so, how he chooses to interrogate this idea. After all, it certainly says something when the most culturally interesting take on Superman and his role as an American right now is a satirical parody of the character (The Boys’ Homelander) rather than ol’ Big Blue himself.
Of course, even Snyder’s Superman was able to foster unity eventually, although the character paid with his life to bring together the formation of the Justice League at the climax of Batman V Superman.
Right now though, we need a Superman for the world we live in, a character who surrounds himself with the problems we all face and inspires us to find answers rather than gazing upon us remotely or redeeming us through death. Above all else, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes literature and journalism that is eminently human.
If like me, you still miss that twinkle in Christopher Reeves’ eye as he soars around the Earth, protectively circling the single, unified home to us all, you’ll maybe agree too that a little more humanity in our next Superman wouldn’t go amiss…
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