Nerd Rant

DC's Black Superman movie is repeating a classic J.J. Abrams mistake

Before we can talk about J.J. Abrams' Black Superman movie, we need to know who actually is the Black Superman.

DC Comics

In 2013, J.J. Abrams admitted to a mistake. Eight years ago, the eventual Star Wars director tried to pull a fast one on fans of a different universe, Star Trek, by concealing the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous “John Harrison” in the film Star Trek Into Darkness.

It’s a mistake Abrams is making again with his role as producer of a Black Superman movie. Before we can have a proper conversation about race, superheroes, and what a Black Superman movie may mean, we need to know first: Who is the Black Superman?

Leading up to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams and the cast insisted that John Harrison wasn’t “Khan,” an iconic villain from the 1982 epic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But Cumberbatch was Khan, rebooted in boring, minimalist design. Yet Abrams went to extreme lengths to keep Khan a secret for the film’s second act reveal, going as far as to lie to the press. Multiple times. Cumberbatch himself told ShortList in 2012: “I’m bored of denying that [I am] Khan now because people keep saying it.”

The biggest effort to hide the truth was when Abrams screened a completed scene to journalists who visited the set. They watched characters refer to Cumberbatch outright as “Harrison.” There is an alternate cut of the movie that Slashfilm termed the “Harrison Cut.”

Eventually, Star Trek Into Darkness was released in May 2013, and yup, Cumberbatch was Khan. Its “twist” was either the most predictable of the summer season, or the most puzzling as most audiences hadn’t seen The Wrath of Khan. In November that year, Abrams fessed up.

“It probably would have been smarter just to say upfront, 'This is who it is,’” he told MTV. “It was only trying to preserve the fun of it, and it might have given more time to acclimate and accept that's what the thing was.” Abrams lamented that it “would have seemed a little bit less like an attempt at deception if we had just come out with it.”

J.J. Abrams, on the set of Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). The filmmaker is currently producing a Black Superman movie for Warner Bros.Paramount Pictures

Now, years later, a different fandom is at the mercy of Abrams’ same mystery box habits, and it may doom a project yet again. On February 26, Shadow and Act reported that J.J. Abrams is producing an untitled Superman film starring a Black male lead. The movie does not yet have a director, according to a May 5 story by The Hollywood Reporter, but penning the script is celebrated journalist and Marvel writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. “I look forward to meaningfully adding to the legacy of America’s most iconic mythic hero,” Coates said in a statement.

The movie also does not have a lead actor. In the aftermath of the “Snyder Cut” release of Justice League, Warner Bros. seems disinterested to continue with Henry Cavill, whose stint as Superman was chiefly associated with Zack Snyder. So who is the Black actor wearing the cape? You can rule out Michael B. Jordan, a strong candidate who shot down his involvement in an interview with THR. “I’m just watching on this one,” he said.

There are critical differences between Superman and Star Trek Into Darkness. But there is a similar resistance from Abrams and the studio to just tell us one thing: Who is Superman?

Why Superman’s identity matters

Nowhere in any piece from THR or elsewhere has confirmed the new Superman’s identity. The vague wording of “Black Superman” in articles only suggests it will be a Black Clark Kent — in a race-bent reimagining of a character foundational to the superhero genre — but we don’t know for sure. It could very well be the screen debut of an existing Black Superman from DC Comics lore, like Calvin Ellis or Val-Zod, who have been “Superman” on parallel Earths.

From the outside, this is only the nerdiest of speculation belonging to Reddit: What difference does it make if it’s a Black Clark Kent? But the long history of superhero comics defaulting to white male characters and marginalizing others, and the more recent history of inclusion efforts being met with criticisms from readers who mask bigotry behind preserving canon, make a “Black Superman” movie a difficult thing to talk about.

The insistence from folks, including Abrams, to keep secret whose story this “Black Superman” movie will tell is not making things easier. With each passing moment, it grows prohibitive for fans and audiences to engage with the movie’s revolutionary premise in any meaningful way.

Calvin Ellis, the Superman of Earth-23, in Action Comics #9. The character was created in 2009 by Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke, who took inspiration from then-sitting U.S. President Barack Obama.DC Comics

A Black Superman movie doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is only the result of a wider effort by mass culture that is trying — and failing — to understand what diversity means and what diversity takes.

This failing includes Hollywood as a multi-billion dollar business historically fickle and cowardly with regards to politics and optics. A push for a Black Superman film doesn’t quite leap in a single bound when you consider how recently Warner Bros. was the subject of serious allegations of racism by actor Ray Fisher during reshoots of 2017’s Justice League.

“It is a distraction,” writes Princess Weekes for The Mary Sue, “one that makes it hard for those of us Black fans who love DC and want to see them make progressive casting decisions, but also stand with Ray Fisher in asking them to be held accountable for the toxic environment they allowed to fester.”

He should be Clark Kent, but he doesn’t have to be

Currently airing on The CW is the live-action series Superman & Lois, which stars actor Tyler Hoechlin as the Man of Steel. A new Superman played by a Black actor is being prepped for the big screen.The CW

I would love to see a Black Clark Kent. By changing the skin of Clark, who for so long has been an avatar for humility, kindness, and truth-seeking as an idealistic reporter, our baked-in notions about what those attributes look like would be challenged. We might reconsider what it means to let the best of us represent the rest of us.

At the same time, I like it when obscure characters ascend to greater cultural relevance. The very history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that the studio was prohibited from utilizing marquee characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man from its inception, thus relying on “unknowns” like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor; imagine an MCU now without them. It is this reliance on the perceived benchwarmers of superhero comics that we got movies like Black Panther and are getting movies like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

A similar opportunity lies in Calvin Ellis and/or Val-Zod, two Black Supermen from different Earths. While both were created by white men (Grant Morrison and Tom Taylor, respectively), both have a place in the DC Universe ripe for a mainstream audience to discover. Either could have the same meteoric rise in the culture like Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino Spider-Man whose award-winning movies and best-selling video games have resonated with audiences beyond comic books.

Val-Zod, in Earth-2 #25. Created by Tom Taylor, Nicola Scott, and Robson Rocha, Val-Zod is a Black Kryptonian who takes on the role of Superman in the parallel Earth-2.DC Comics

But all we can do right now about this Black Superman movie is guess. We don’t know who the Black Superman will be. By keeping his “identity” unknown, as Abrams coyly did with Khan, we cannot yet have a healthy conversation about race and the still-dominant superhero media.

Instead, there’s fighting and bad faith bickering. What if Black Panther was white? is the kind of bullshit you’ll find in the comments section. But there are folks who do have a point: Clark Kent is an icon who doesn’t have to be white, but don’t POC characters count for something, too?

As of now, the utterance of “J.J. Abrams’ Black Superman movie” doesn’t inspire curiosity at its progressive ambitions. It instead lights a fuse for circular, tiresome arguing no one wants to engage. It generates cynicism against a film whose character wears a literal symbol for hope on his chest. Superman means a lot of things to a lot of people, and a Black Superman can mean even more whether he’s Clark Kent or not — but until we know who he is, it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation at all.

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