The Race of Superheroes

Christian Bale is Batman. Andrew Garfield is the new Spider-Man. Now it has been announced that Henry Cavill is the new Superman. What do these three men have in common?

Henry Cavill, the new starry eyed youngster from the farms of Smallville

They’re all British and they’re all white.

Regulars here are familiar with my take on casting for superheroes. Do away with the non-essentials and get to the core of the role. It does not matter what the race of the individual is so long as the core of the character can be matched. The visage of the character need not be a concern because even in the comics a character rarely looks the same from one artist to the next. Why should an actor be picked for being even remotely similar?

In the instance of Spider-Man, the character wears a body sock. For roughly one-third to half of any Spidey film, the character is completely covered. Why should only white actors be considered for the role? Worse yet, why can’t a black/Asian/Latino/Arab actor even audition for the part?

And all that could have been

Instead, the three actors mentioned above are all white because the original authors wrote the characters to be accepted by an overall white audience. But this creates a new pseudo-problem. If you think about it, Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman are three most popular comic book characters in the United States; and they are basically American cultural icons. But the current actors portraying them on the world’s most popular stage are all British.

We are outsourcing our icons to the British.

This is not blind patriotism. This is a mere observation. For some reason it is much more important to keep in line with broad aesthetics than to keep the cultural factors of the character. The characters struck chords with the American culture not because of how they looked but because of the roles they fulfilled in our collective American dreams. Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the poor on money and luck kid who found a special role in this world and continually gives back to the world – even though it is often detrimental to himself. (Not to mention the eternal lesson of great power’s being tagged with great responsibility.) Bruce Wayne/Batman is the rich and entitled little boy who lost it all at a young age but had the mental fortitude to devote his time and fortune to saving everyone from unfortunate circumstances. Clark Kent/Superman has always been hard for me to put my finger on, but he was the unnatural citizen who made America his home and fought for the protection and betterment of the country – later the world. He was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Man-made objects are majestic, but Superman always said that living things are superior and more important.

Shifting these cultural icons to British portrayals is not a horrible action. However, after last year’s racial closeout on Spider-Man, it is a bit of a slap in the face. It just continues to speak clearly of an American cultural message that we try to ignore despite its being clearly tacit knowledge: Race matters. We may have a black President, finally proving that anyone can be President someday, but he’s the 44th President ever and still only half black. Nick Fury was made black for the Ultimate Comics version of his character and the current Marvel Comics movies, but he has always been a minor character to fans – and some people were not happy about it. Even a very minor character in the upcoming Thor film has already caused protests because black people cannot be Norse gods. Race matters. It always matters.

I guess what I am clearly getting at here is this: Why do all of the superheroes have to be white?

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About Gospel X

I am a major mediaphile as well as a social researcher. My ultimate belief is that the media can be used to teach children prosocial behaviors and teach adults how to access paradigms. And I think that Mega Man is an amazing example of proteanism. Add me on Google : https://plus.google.com/u/0/113795848855477334599

Posted on February 1, 2011, in Batman, Batman, comics, DC, Marvel, modern mythology, movies, race and culture, real life, Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Superman, Superman and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I agree with your superhero casting thoughts.

    I’ve recently started watching Community. I’m not sold on Donald Glover as an action hero. But as Peter Parker? Absolutely. I think he’d nail it.

    Out of curiosity, who would you like to see taking a crack at the major superhero roles. Batman? Wolverine? James Bond?

    Batman.
    Will Smith is starting to age. But he, or a younger Lawrence Fishburn/Denzel Washington, could pull off the man-about-town Bruce Wayne and the vengeful, focused Darknight. There aren’t too many younger actors I have confidence to easily do that. Omar Epps perhaps? Otherwise, there are a few character actors from The Wire and Oz that I’d like to see get their shot:
    JD Williams (Bodie) and Mike Williams (Omar)

    For a younger Superman [I’m not a fan of Superman, so this is my best guess at the character] …

    Seth Gilliam (The Wire/Carver) in particular could be a solid Superman. Or John Cho (of Harald and Kumar) Both are believable as Clark Kent. And if they’d be willing to don some tights, they have what it takes to make me believe.

    Elba. Idris Elba.
    He’s British and projects smart and sleek, just like Bond. His downside is he’s gargantuan. Too tall. Too strong. Too commanding a presence. Where Pierce Brosnan can slip into a crowd of poker players, tourists, or museum patrons… like a spy — Idris Elba commands your attention at all times.

    • Who would I cast in superhero roles? That’s a really good question. I usually enjoy when studios cast nobodies and newcomers in big roles, like when they cast Brandon Routh as
      Superman. Big stars aren’t necessary for big roles. You just need to hire someone right for the part.

      For James Bond, I would really enjoy it if Chiwetel Ejiofor (from various things, but Serenity stands out) were to get a stab at the part. Seeing as Bond is only required to be British and badass, this seems like a strong fit.

      I could see someone like John Cho taking on the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. While I have come to find myself liking Tim Burton’s Batman films less and less over time, I liked his decision for casting Michael Keaton. You’re supposed to cast for Bruce Wayne. You cast someone extremely unlikely for the role of Batman. John Cho seems like he would be a great Bruce Wayne.

      And then I go back to thinking about Superman. I’ve never been a fan of Superman. Shaking up Superman’s mythology then sounds like a great idea. But what needs to be considered in casting that role is that Clark Kent needs to be a nobody – another person no one would suspect to be a superhero. Crossing racial boundaries requires that you fill the city of Metropolis with a diverse cast, and I can definitely get behind that. Otherwise, if you have a black Superman in a very white city, you create something akin to Ellison’s The Invisible Man. No one is ready for that level of social commentary in their superhero movies. I’ve also considered a black Superman in the Old South. Again, no one is ready for that level of social commentary.

  2. Damn Brits. Isn’t it quite enough that they’ve cornered the tea market, the bumbling romantic comedy market, and the children’s literature market? Now they need to corner the superhero casting, too?

    I doubt I would watch Spiderman if he were black, but that’s because it’s Spiderman. And I’d probably watch Bridget Jones instead.

  3. Did I say Bridget Jones? That’s a British movie…

    F*ck.

  4. Melanie Carbine

    Will Smith about 10 years ago as Spider-Man, though, would be great. I was wondering though why Batman was British. He’s supposed to be from New York City, er I mean Gotham.

    Umm, the tea market is not cornered by the British. Bubble tea. Green tea. Chai. Ummm, hi East Asia.

    I just watched the Green Hornet. The sidekick/brains is Asian. I had to laugh “if Asians are going to be stereotyped, at least they’re always awesome martial arts.” His resume cracked me up: martial arts expert, weapons designer, masked vigilante. (Yeah, trying to take it in good humor. It’s still the same stereotype without the ban on interracial relationships.)

    Superman, despite being an alien, is monomythically American. He basically immigrates to America, farms the land (in Kansas), plays baseball, and grows up to defend the free market (Metropolis). I did read a version where he lands in the Ukraine. Totally different story. That was, of course, the point. The truth is though that I have a harder time imaging Batman or Superman as ethnic characters particularly because Bruce Willis has so much money and Clark Kent is from Oklahoma. I find that a bit upsetting in and of itself though.

    • Tea and crumpets are the stereotypical snack for the British among mainstream America, so I’ll allow the joking remark to stand. It really comes down to whether you favor Earl Gray or green tea. We tend to have both here, so obviously I have no real preference.

      I haven’t seen the Green Hornet and don’t plan to until I can get it from the library, but I enjoy the fact that it extends the joke that started with the television series’ depiction of Kato. Bruce Lee was the whole show, and so everything after that pretty much depicts Kato as the only competent person. When Kevin Smith was shopping around a script for the movie, his version was basically going to have the Hornet sit and talk while Kato took care of all of the fighting off-screen.

      As for the Superman story, you’re referring to Superman: Red Son. I thought it was a very good book, and I especially enjoyed the weird time loop at the end. It’s a great story about the time and place of the characters’ origins really making them who they are. Plus Mark Millar is always an exciting read – just check out Wanted or Kick-Ass.

      By the way, you slipped up and referred to Bruce Wayne as Bruce Willis – but interestingly enough your statement remained absolutely correct. Anyway, while there are certainly some racial ties to money in the United States, I don’t think that precludes Wayne from being anything other than a WASP. Only recently in the comics have they really delved into the Wayne family being old money. Previously, it was just the previous generation of Waynes being rich and giving back to the city. So I think about it and say, Hey, Bruce Wayne is the son of a doctor and the heiress of a chemical company. As far as I’m concerned, he could easily be Jewish or Asian – but with the right story tweaks he could be anything. As for Superman, it would definitely take some creativity to alter what his ethnicity appears to be. But I’ve got one for you – Native American. That would be a worthwhile social commentary.

  5. Yeah, I really shouldn’t comment during school. Beside the typo art to artists, there was the Bruce Willis thing and at the end I said Oklahoma also. A Native American Superhero would be fabulous, but I just don’t see a Native American Superman defending the people “who take the best meat.” I also really don’t see the Native American population allowing that to happen. I vote Asian for Batman than he doesn’t have to appropriate Asian culture to gain his fighting skills.

  6. I am confused by your article.
    You seem to argue in favour of diversity…as long as the diverse people are all Americans.
    The actors of some of the recent superheroes have been British, but the characters are still presented and portrayed as American. Why does information about the actor bother you?
    If the super heroes were being portrayed as being British I could understand your concern, but the fact the actors are not from the same country as the characters seems to contradict the appeals for inclusiveness that appears to be the point of the article.
    We don’t have any actors from planet Kryton of Wakanda…so I guess Superman and Black Panther should never appear on film, right?
    And saying “this isn’t blind patriotism, its an observation” does not make it not blind patriotism. Saying “I am just stating facts” after you say something does not change the meaning, or make what you said okay. Saying the roles are being out sourced is not just an observation, its a negative conotation. You could equally have said “The best actors are chosen for the roles, regardless of where they come from”, but you chose to comment on the acotrs being chosen as if it is a negative.
    A dislike for foriegn people protraying Americans is a separate (and kinda sinister) complaint from what race super heroes are, don’t you think?

    • Thank you for your reply to a three year old article on my defunct blog. I thought this place might blow away with the wind, but it’s nice to know that visitors may come by every now and then. Even with the pictures, my words can bring someone to respond. Unfortunately, it also meant that I had to read this post again to figure out what the hell I was saying at the time.

      Everything is summed up in the last paragraph. Casting English actors for these roles isn’t an issue, but it’s interesting to note that people are more accepting of Englishmen portraying American icons than they are of American minorities portraying these roles. Who or what the character is or represents is of lesser import than the race of the character or how he looks. It’s a shallow take on things. Personally, I don’t mind these actors in these roles, especially since Christian Bale is amazing in almost everything he does. The foreign thing was brought up as something deeper for people to get up in arms about but choose not to because of the race focus in this country.

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