Despite mixed reviews, Man of Steel has successfully rebooted the series that was dead even before the “meh” Superman Returns. The movie’s admirers have praised its innovations: the depictions of Krypton and the events leading to its destruction; the portrayal of Clark Kent/Kal-El has an isolated loner, mistrusted and unsure of his place in society; the more reimagining of a more “realistic” Superman. But in returning the hero to the screen, the moviemakers missed an opportunity to do something even more innovative.
In Man of Steel, Lois Lane’s boss Perry White is played by Laurence Fishburne, an African-American actor, not by a white man, as Perry’s always been characterized in the comics and on screen. Different from canon, certainly, but not that groundbreaking: Perry White is a minor character, and fans have seen this done before with Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Nick Fury, another minor character originally white in the comic books, in various Marvel movies, including The Avengers.
But what if the film makers, to do something never done before (and to give their movie even more buzz), had cast an African-American in a more significant role? Like Lois Lane? Or General Zod? Or even Superman himself?
“Wait—what?” you might ask. “Superman is white—everyone knows that.”
Yes, in the comics and the movies, Superman has always been depicted as white. But Superman doesn’t “have” to be white. In fact, very few comic book characters “have” to be the race they were originally portrayed as: off the top of my head, I can think of only The Mandarin, by virtue of no more than his name—who “has” (or at least “ought”) to be a certain race (more about him later).
Casting a non-white as Superman could have introduced some new wrinkles into the story we’re all familiar with. Such as, are all Kryptonians the same race, or are there different ones, like here on Earth? Are Jonathan and Martha Kent white or not, and if the former, how does that affect Clark? Would a non-white Clark Kent feel even more out of place in heartland Kansas (84% white, as of the 2010 census)? Would this Superman experience racism? And how would he respond to it?
What would be innovative for superhero movies is not unheard of in the comics. A mixed-race Miles Morales is Spider-Man in the Ultimate universe; John Stewart is the Green Lantern my kids grew up reading about; and Steel took Superman’s place after he died fighting Doomsday.
I don’t point out this missed opportunity for any other reason than I am interested in doing, seeing, and reading new things in the sci-fi and fantasy genre. For example, in my YA fantasy novel Dragontamer’s Daughters, Isabella and Alijandra, the two protagonists, are Latina, as is their mother. Several important supporting characters are “Diheneh,” my story’s version of Navajo.
I didn’t assign those ethnicities and races to the characters because my family or I are members of those groups, or because I’m trying to be politically correct. I’m not targeting Hispanic and/or Native American readers of YA fantasy lit (be honest, I have no idea how many people of those groups follow the genre).
It’s just that as I was writing DTD, it occurred to me that I hadn’t read of many Hispanic- or Native American characters in fantasy, and I thought it would be interesting to have some. So that’s why I did what I did.
The makers of Man of Steel, however, chose to do otherwise, casting Henry Cavill, who closely resembles the comic-book version. If they ever considered casting a non-white, they rejected it. And why? Some would say “racism,” but more likely, methinks, is that they just understandably took the safe route and went with the status quo.
Audiences who know superhero characters (and who doesn’t know Superman?) are used to them appearing a certain way, and when they sit down in the movie theatre, they expect to see them as they know them. I’m not the only fanboy who thought the Mandarin should be Chinese, and when The Falcon appears in next year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, fanboys will expect him to be African-American (and he will be).
So sure, Superman can be black, but people think of him as white, even if he doesn’t “have” to be.
In the end, it all boils down to money, of course: superhero movies are not art, and are not meant to be. Yes, it’s nice when a Dark Knight can address social or political issues, but really, all a superhero movie needs to do to be considered “good” is to have characters that fans know and care about beating the stuffing out of each other in exciting ways.
Here in the Golden Age of Superhero Films, the movies cost too much to make (MoS ran $225 million) and there’s too much to be made (Avengers grossed $1.5 billion): no one’s going to risk on alienating audiences—and thus derailing the gravy train—by presenting a Superman the ticket buyers aren’t expecting.
This disappointed me a little bit, until I reminded myself that I really ought not to be expecting so much from a summer popcorn movie. I saw Man of Steel, and I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll buy the DVD when it comes out. And maybe one of these days, I’ll see something really daring and innovative in a superhero movie.
(An aside on Iron Man 3: I was not happy with how the movie makers handled The Mandarin—it smacked of being a cynical ploy to lure in fanboys by using the name of Iron Man’s archenemy without him actually being the character they expected. It’d be like if the movie makers told us Darth Vader would be in the upcoming Episode VII of Star Wars, but come to find out, it’s actually just some no-name wanna-be in a knock-off costume. As I mentioned here, I believe the makers of IM3 portrayed The Mandarin as non-Chinese so as make sure their film would be shown in that country).