Pop Culture
Mar 02, 2021, 06:29AM

Coates and Capes

Expect the black Superman movie to be snider and cutting.

Ta nehisi coates split with superman logo h 2021 1614360233 compressed.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Every time one expresses worry about an instance of ethnic recasting, one has to expect to be accused of racism, even if it’s the people doing the recasting who seem to be far more focused on skin color than on art. Maybe Ta-Nehisi Coates writing a new Superman movie, and the accompanying rumored recasting of Superman as black, is no reason to worry the resulting Superman movie (or its surrounding press) will be a clumsy work of lefty agitprop—perhaps with snide dialogue about Kryptonian elders or the editors at the Daily Planet being too white to understand the woes of the commoners—but the entertainment industry doesn’t give us many reasons to trust.

I wrote a few Justice League comic books, and I know comics are a flexible medium in which almost anything can be accomplished with ease and zero budget worries, from destroying and reconstituting a planet to introducing an entire cast of blue-skinned characters. But that flexibility—and the power to weave strange and unexpected things into the story in an organic-seeming fashion—comes from art, certainly not from the corporate mindset or from politics, which is even more rigid than corporate thinking.

So, despite decades of black characters finding their way into comics stories in the same haphazard, organic, slightly unpredictable way they find their way into institutions in the real world, when higher-ups in the comics industry—and today that means the movie studio owners, who really pull superheroes’ strings—decide it’s time to make a big, ponderous move in the direction of “ethnic diversity,” a move of the kind that gets them awards from boring organizations and praise from the one political party they all adore, it’s no longer going to be a casual matter of one or two new characters joining the team (the way Black Panther joined the Avengers back in the 1960s or Amazing Man joined the All-Star Squadron in the 1980s, etc.—for all the hoopla over the recent female Capt. Marvel, the 1980s Capt. Marvel was both female and black, and virtually no one, including then-young fans like me, made a big deal about it).

In what many a decent, well-meaning, tolerant, individualistic person like me (many of them black) must regard as an embarrassingly artificial and affirmative-action-like fashion, nowadays it’s more likely than ever (or at least more likely than in the pleasant preceding few decades) that when the latest black character appears, he will be rolled out with an awkward fanfare and shameless press releases announcing a “bold new dawn of Blackness and heightened awareness” or something like that. Then, a hapless intern will be dispatched to see if a prominent rapper is willing to issue a supportive quote. That’s not how artists, who tend to be casual daydreamers, get their best and least self-conscious work done.

If the artists, in the case of the comics industry (and thus to some degree in what we might call the broader “superhero industry” now stretching from Orlando offices to Hollywood studios), are not at heart ideologues but more what we New Yorkers might call “New Jersey Democrats”—that is, reliably and even pugnaciously left-wing but not quite intellectual enough to explain why in fancy New York or DC salons—those artists will still play along with the new political project, partly worried they will piss off the bosses or the audience if they step out of line and partly hopeful, like anyone dragooned into a morally dubious enterprise, that maybe they’ll be philosophically elevated by this strange new endeavor after all, even if it rubs one’s artistic impulses the wrong way. 

And so it is, most likely—though I don’t pretend to have any inside knowledge about the process in this specific case—that Warner Brothers doesn’t just happen to have a casting call for Superman and decide for a change to go with a black actor. Rather, it’s announced with barely-restrained pride, most likely a couple years in advance of anything concrete happening, that Warner Brothers (parent company of DC Comics) will have the most obvious default anti-white political writer that a corporate committee could think of, Ta-Nehisi Coates, write the next Superman movie, tepid revisionist hack J.J. Abrams produce, and, according to far more cautiously-trickled rumors, maybe Michael B. Jordan or some other black star.

A more formal casting announcement will likely await reactions to the Coates trial balloon—and don’t get me wrong, I realize this is Hollywood and the whole plan is as likely to fall apart at some point (it’s a miracle anything as large and complicated as a Hollywood movie ever makes it to completion), making any fretting over it in these early planning stages look paranoid (and some will say white supremacist blah blah blah) in retrospect.

An element that makes one suspect multiple wheels are in motion to bring this plan about, though, is the astonishing coincidence of Henry Cavill getting attacked by a Twitter swarm of leftists one day before the Coates/black Superman news broke, with fans (or bots or what have you) supposedly demanding Cavill exit the Superman role because he used to date Gina Carano—this news breaking right after she was fired from her role on a Star Wars TV show for tweeting things such as a Holocaust analogy that was obviously in no way intended to harm any Jewish people or make light of the Holocaust, though that didn’t stop countless publications (each of which deserves to be sued into oblivion for libel) from summarizing the controversy as one about Carano sending anti-Semitic tweets. 

Abrams’ wife has been rumored in the past to be expert at weaponizing #MeToo controversies for use against Abrams’ rivals, and while she may have no hand in the attacks on Cavill (and while Abrams pal Kathleen Kennedy’s rumored animus against Carano may have played no role), I’m sure I’m not the only one beginning to suspect that the ruthless, heartless drones who coordinate high-level public relations campaigns across our culture now pride themselves on their ability to summon “outraged” Twitter swarms at will.

Where once there were “astro-turf” fake-grassroots political crusades, now there are on-cue tweetstorms that can be used to shame overpaid or undesirable colleagues into stepping aside. Recall how many seemingly-harmless but elderly and high-paid figures with declining ratings were among the #MeToo targets, once the corporate H.R. and legal departments had had a few months to figure out to harness that (noble) movement for corporate purposes.

Despite all that, maybe Coates’ Superman will be fine. He has written the print version of Black Panther, though he’d seem best suited to writing dialogue for the death-dealing villain Thanos: Coates has written (in a non-fiction mode) that thousands of people being reduced to dust on 9/11 leaves him unfazed, since those people were part of the purported white power structure. Perhaps in the script for the new Superman movie, he’ll take a similar view of the destruction of Krypton, and its one shot at moral redemption will be the survival of a Last Native Son of Krypton—who’s black and thus capable of heroism.

I swear to every non-white person reading these words that we white Superman fans never thought, “I like Superman because he’s white and he flies around doing white things, occasionally to non-whites!” That’s probably how they’ll cynically invite black fans to think about the hypothetical black Superman, though, and that will help cement the cynical “anti-racist” fiction that white fans had all along seen older depictions of Superman in a comparably race-emphasizing way.

Again, casually turn him black (as with Marvel’s Nick Fury, at least on the big screen) and most people won’t care (though comics is a visual medium and it’d be nice if the actor somehow resembled the figure on the printed page, not that the political or corporate people really care). But there’s nothing casual about these decisions nowadays. Black Superman will probably come with political baggage and political messaging, and for that you hire Coates—and probably a black director, too, given the shallow, ghetto-filling, race-matching way Hollywood checks its political boxes these days, dehumanizing and dividing us all.

I’m guessing Lex Luthor will still be white, the evil bastard. Maybe that will even be the point of the film, and then the real leftists will rejoice because they sense incipient class-warfare commentary in the whole project, rooted in an ignorant Marxist model of economics. The tribalistic clashes fomented from on high by the cynical left-liberal establishment are so exhausting, even we laissez-faire capitalists almost begin to long for the comparative harmony of class-analysis fantasies. Maybe that’s the whole idea and the long-term plan.

Like most people, though, I prefer stories about moral individuals (not political hordes) who fight back against property violations, assault, and lies. I hope the superhero industry will continue to tell those stories. I’d ditch that industry long before I’d ditch those moral principles. The former is, at times, entertaining. The latter are our indispensable defense against evil.

—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey.


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