Why Superman Works No Matter What Color He Is: THE DEEP DIVE

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There’s been an accepted conventional wisdom about the character of Superman that has been reiterated ad nauseam and it drives me wild because it sounds and is IMHO a garbage cop out masquerading as an argument.

Above: Christopher Reeves as Superman in 1978’s Superman The Motion Picture directed by Richard Donner. Reeves is considered by many to be the definitive iteration of the character.

Above: the cover to the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 June, 1938.

There are elements that make Superman, Superman, and that have been the bullet points that keep a throughline of consistency for the character stemming from his golden age (Earth 2) first appearance in Action Comics #1 back in 1938 to Calvin Ellis the Black Superman of Earth 20 and President of the United States.

Above:  The legendary Jack Kirby illustrated a famous series of Superman covers in the 1970s that had their faces redone by Curt Swan because DC execs felt Kirby didn’t capture his essence.

The argument is that he’s an outdated, anachronistic character, “tough” to both play and sell to a cynical American populace. I don’t know when this narrative began, but it certainly became more common place following the theatrical release of director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013.

Above and below: Curt Swan for many, many years was the quintessential Superman artist. Swan drew the character in some capacity for nearly 40 years from 1948-1986.

Steel is a significant film in so far as it’s the movie that officially launched the current DC Cinematic Universe, one that was already woefully behind what Kevin Feige had done with Marvel Studios and his brilliant creation of a shared cinematic universe that reflected the one fans had become accustomed to in the comic books.

“He’s a tough character,” Superman actor Henry Cavill told Entertainment Weekly when talking up Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2015. “People like the darker vigilante.” Then he offered a possible reason: “I think it speaks to the human psyche more easily rather than the god-like being that we can’t really understand.”

Above: Batman (Henry Cavill) versus Batman (Ben Affleck) in Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Business Insider said at the time: “That’s a load of nonsense. [Cavill] is an actor, and a great one for Superman, with what looked like buckets of charisma utterly hamstrung by the dour script driving Man of Steel. It’s also his job to fully understand and portray the character who is in the script, not the one from the comics. It’s a shame, then, that the story he’s given simply doesn’t show an understanding of Superman. It also totally buys into some of the worst assumptions about the character.” 


There are two popular explanations for why Superman can’t succeed in modern movies: 

1. He’s too powerful.

He’s moved plants. Superboy #140 (1967)

2. He’s a not interesting, because he’s just a big ol’ goodie two-shoes.

And yet, Marvel Studios’ best series are arguably its Captain America movies and subsequently Disney+’s Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Both which wrestle with the same “goody two shoes’ baggage, if not being all powerful. Comic Book Debate: “When Superman was created in 1938, the American image of a superhero was simple: a person who acts simply because it is the right thing to do, to save those in need. Nearly a century later, the basic principles remain the same. In an era superhero films dominate Hollywood and characters are bringing in billions of dollars worth of revenue, these heroes are even more popular. Marvel Studios has an unquestionable death grip on the industry and Captain America has risen to become a favorite for audiences. With his charming quality, his dashing good looks, and his goody-two-shoes attitude, he’s the superhero everyone feels they can get behind in today’s world.”

Above: Chris Evans as Captain American in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Captain America’s rise to popularity is a bit mystic, especially when you consider what the character was originally intended to represent and the divisive turns he has run into in the comics. Captain America has always been political. I mean, his name is Captain America. In the series that saw him realized as a superhero for the first time in 1941, he was fighting the Axis powers of Nazis during World War II. From the time since the character’s creation, Steve Rogers has stood for peace, democracy, and coexistence. His abilities aren’t all that complex—he’s an enhanced human with wonderful fighting skills and an unusually strong moral compass.

Art above from 2020’s Superman Smashes the Klan.

In fact the best recent Superman story is in last  year’s Superman Smashes the Klan.  Comics Beat: Superman Smashes the Klan is one of the best Superman comics I’ve ever read, right up there with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow and All-Star Superman. Collected as a graphic novel after initially being released in three installments, SSTK adapts “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 1946 arc of the Superman radio show. It’s my favorite example of fiction’s power to change the real world for the better.In the original story (which you can listen to here), the Man of Steel saves a Chinese-American family from an obvious stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan, while teaching their neighbors–and of course, the countless children who tuned in to hear Superman’s adventures each week–values like inclusivity, anti-racism, truth, justice, and the American way.

Above: A 1949 PSA, restored by DC in 2017.


Superman’s ideology is largely the same as Cap’s. At first glance. He wants to save people. He feels a tremendous responsibility to help the earth, despite having no obligation to do anything except that “this is [his] world”. Across each iteration of the character, whether it’s Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, or Henry Cavill, one thing remains — Superman wants to help people.

The most recent iterations of the character in the DCEU have been met with a divisive reaction. In many ways, this version of Superman is more relatable than ever. For once, he was conflicted. He saved people, but he also has a emotional journey to becoming the superhero we all know and love. He even renounced his American citizenship in 2011’s Action Comics #900. The nine-page story where this happened was written by David S. Goyer and was drawn by Miguel Sepulveda. In it, Superman for 24 hours stands silently, bearing the brunt of gasoline bombs, taunts and threats but also receiving cheers and roses from supporters, as the more than 1 million-strong crowd protests but isn’t fired on before the demonstration ends peacefully.

Above: Superman renounces his American citizenship in Action Comics #900 2011.

“I stayed in Azadi Square for 24 hours. I didn’t move. I didn’t speak. I just stayed there,” Superman tells the U.S. national security adviser, who has feared the all-powerful hero has gone rogue. But Iran’s government refers to it as an act of war and accuses him of acting on behalf of the U.S. president.

And that, Superman explains, is why he is going to give up his citizenship. “Truth, justice and the American way’ — it’s not enough anymore,” he says. “The world’s too small, too connected.”

He wondered if being Superman is truly was the right thing to do; in a climate where he was considered a terrorist, where people fought tooth and nail to destroy his good name, where a billionaire company owner literally manipulated the media into painting him as the villain. Yes, he killed. He does it once, out of necessity, yet it’s forever marked on the record of “Why DCEU Superman Sucks”. Despite the fact that Marvel’s iteration of Captain America has killed many times in the comics and films, it is perceived that if Cap does it, its okay, but for Superman, it’s not allowed.

The Hollywood Reporter: The Internet is abuzz over this week’s 900th issue of Action Comics, in which Superman says, “I am renouncing my US citizenship.”

“This is absolutely sickening,” commented one reader on Foxnews.com. “We are now down to destroying all American Icons. How are we going to survive as a Nation?” Swamp Fox Press blogged, “Bleep Superman. I urge a boycott of Warner Brothers, all DC franchises, and particularly Superman.” The conservative Weekly Standard called Superman’s citizenship renunciation “about the dumbest thing DC Comics could do.”

What’s next? Will Superman change his name to Stalin* — which also means “man of steel?” Probably not. But this summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger will drop Captain America from the title in Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea. And it’s no accident that both Superman’s renunciation episode in Action #900 and the forthcoming film Man of Steel, set to shoot this summer, are written by David S. Goyer. “They intended this to be a political statement, but it is really a slap in the face of the American identity,” claims Swamp Fox Press. “Show me any one country that has done more for the world than America.”

*Actually one of the best Superman stories ever is Red Son and he may not change his name to Stalin, but Stalin is a father figure. In Red Son, written by Mark Millar, the Elseworlds’ tale imagines an alternate reality where Kal-el’s rocket lands in Ukraine as opposed to Kansas and becomes the world’s greatest hero and a Russian.

This idea of a conflicted, relatable Superman is something Man of Steel director Zack Snyder and his team almost get, but they come at it from an angle that totally misses the point of Superman.

Above: Henry Cavill as Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel.

They treat him as a god among mortals, our greatest fear or our great salvation. The problem with this, though, is that it strips the character of his humanity and makes him downright unapproachable.

There’s a great anecdote that legendary comics writer Grant Morrison — the man responsible for one of the best Superman stories in recent memory, 2005’s All-Star Superman — tells about Superman in his memoir Supergods. In the memoir, he mentions the inspiration for his story — he was at a convention, and he saw a handsome man in a Superman costume just sitting down and relaxing on a stoop. That was Morrison’s epiphany: The most powerful man alive wouldn’t be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw. Thus this cover to All-Star Superman No. 1 by artist Frank Quitely.

Above, one of the most iconic, touching scenes in all of superhero comics, in which Superman stops everything to hug a teenager who thinks life isn’t worth it.

Superman isn’t good or special because he’s an alien who crashes on Earth and ends up being incredibly powerful. He’s special because after all that he becomes someone who always does the right thing because he was raised by a couple of decent people from Kansas.

That’s it.

Above: Behind the scenes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League with Cavill.

#GayNrd’s Dekker Dreyer says, “There’s a subtext to American comics that was always kind of disturbing, a very Ayn Rand kind of current that runs through them. The rich are mentally and physically superior and should be entrusted with society’s issues, not the government or lesser individuals.”

You can see it in the X-Men’s patronage by Charles Xavier to Iron Man’s patronage of the Avengers, Batman, all the “royalty” of the comic space like Wonder Woman, Aqua Man, Black Panther, Black Bolt… it runs through every aspect of popular comics. Some heroes that buck this trend are shown as barely holding it together and better serving as “neighborhood” heroes, like Spider-Man.
The one shining exception to this trend is Superman, and it’s not a surprise that he was the most popular hero for most of the 20th century as the “every man” actually had much more in common with him then globe trotting playboys like Doc Savage. Despite his great power he was a work-a-day farm boy trying to live in the big city. That luster faded from the mid-80s to today when our society has shifted to the worship of actual billionaire class moguls like Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs. America’s appetite for benevolent billionaire saviors is finally catching up to what comics always knew about our culture.

“Happy Miracle Monday!” Art by Doc Shaner via Reddit.

Part of it,” Dreyer continues, “on a subconscious level, is that Superman doesn’t receive his authority from anywhere. He’s not a space cop or a government soldier, or a king, or a billionaire, not even a multi-degreed super scientist… He has no credentials of any kind except the blatant ability and the choice to use his absolute power for absolute good. That, on some level, makes people in positions of authority uncomfortable.”

He adds: “That’s also key to Lex Luthor, who is, by all rights, a billionaire super-scientist who tries to maintain a dominating, but ultimately human, physical fitness standard. Superman is abhorrent to him because Superman took action without asking permission. It drove Lex nuts.”

My favorite recent version of Superman that lines up squarely with this is Grant Morrison’s and Rags Morales from Action Comics in 2011, especially when he’s in jeans and t-shirt.

Another recent example where he worked flawlessly was when he took on police brutality and left me breathless. In a 2015 storyline where his identity had been outed, “Superman’s relationship with everyone around him has completely changed. Some are supportive, and grateful, surprised to learn that he’s been living among them all along. Others, however, have a chip on their shoulder, resenting all the supervillains that he has attracted.”

Unfortunately for him, most of the angriest folks are cops.

Business Insider: This quickly escalates into open conflict by the end of “Action Comics” #41, when a welcome home block party for Superman is about to be stormed by police in full riot gear while the de-powered hero tries to take on a massive monster several blocks away.

It’s a moment that echoes similar events that have unfolded across the country recently in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, where law enforcement — primed to use excessive force — attempt to strong-arm peaceful citizens into submission. Like in those cities, the smallest miscalculation can lead to utter chaos.

Superman, absolutely exhausted from his fight, places himself in between the crowd and the cops.

It’s a beautiful, arresting image by artist Aaron Kuder and colorist Tomeu Morey, a cathartic moment for anyone who saw the shocking imagery coming out of Ferguson and felt utterly powerless.

But there is perhaps one story that underscores of all this best, and also demonstrates itself as a story that is something that only works as a Superman story: 1978’s Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.

Sports Illustrated: In 1978, DC Comics published one of the strangest, most enduring team-up books ever: Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. At the time, it seemed like a gag. A superhero and a real person fighting aliens in a an oversized comic? Today, it’s appreciated for its wild story, boundless creativity, and heroic treatment of a transformative, inspirational figure. “A Superman/Ali comic book had to be not only an epic entertainment, but also an exploration of the ideals and actions that made Superman and Ali heroes around the globe,” wrote Jenette Kahn, DC Comics’ former publisher.

The creative team of writer-artist Neal Adams and writer Denny O’Neil was always the first choice to handle the book. Adams, O’Neil, and Schwartz had collaborated on Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the 1970s, which had a groundbreaking sense of social awareness. According to Kahn, that made them the perfect choice to work on a project that would be laced with real-life issues. “Here was our opportunity to say something about the world without actually getting involved in the political arena, but getting involved in the area of humanity and high adventure and fun and enjoyment,” Adams says, adding, “Once you realize that you’re going to have Superman and Muhammad Ali fight for the right to save the Earth, the story kind of writes itself.”

The wild plot boils down to the two men being used by an intergalactic empire to solve a bet and are forced to box in front of billions of extraterrestrials and humans with the winner going toe-to-toe with the Scrubb champ. That all sounds good, but there’s one big problem. Superman is, well, Superman. If a human punches him, the human’s hand breaks. “The first thing and the obvious thing was we had to level the playing field,” O’Neil says. “Ali was a superb athlete. Still, you know, Superman pushes planets around!”

The solution they came up with was to depower Superman. When he trains with Ali before the big, intergalactic fight, Superman uses a fragment of a red sun to dilute his powers. (Remember, Superman is powered by Earth’s yellow sun!) And then the bout itself happens in a ring orbiting a red sun. And let’s just say, on equal footing, Ali makes the Man of Steel know what it’s like to feel pain for real.

O’Neil and Adams were laser-focused on doing justice to the real-life person at the center of the story. Neither O’Neil (who left the book before it was completed) nor Adams (whose work makes up the bulk of the comic) wanted to insult Ali, disrespect him, or abuse the trust given to them by a man they both admired. To get his dialogue correct, O’Neil visited Ali at his training camp in the Catskills in upstate New York to watch him and listen for speech he could use. Adams, meanwhile, went with Ali’s quotes verbatim. “You will find certain sections of the book where he’s yelling at the bad guy where we’re quoting him directly,” Adams says. “Most of the speech patterns and the words and the phrases where Muhammad Ali’s.”

The book was lightyears ahead of its time, and in today’s pop culture-obsessed world it stands as a fitting tribute and introduction to the Greatest of All Time. “Neither before nor after the publication of Supers/Ali has there been anything like it,” O’Neil says.

“Everybody laughed at [the idea],” Adams adds. “Nobody’s laughing anymore.”

But by the end, one thing is clear: only one superhero could legitimately hang tough with Ali, and that’s Superman.

Last year Warner Bros. announced they had enlisted producer J.J. Abrams and Ta-Nehisi Coates to write the latest feature on the iconic superhero. The studio is searching for its director and star as it kick-starts the next phase of its DC universe.

According to The Hollywood Reporter: In a fitting twist, the director search is pitting DC against none other than Marvel. As Warners looks to fill its Superman vacancy, Marvel is on the hunt for a Blade helmer and is combing through the same list. But the question will come down to what kind of filmmaker Bad Robot and Warners want: an up-and-comer who can be backed by Abrams, who knows his way around tentpoles and franchises? Or an established filmmaker like a Barry Jenkins or a Ryan Coogler?

The former list can include Creed II’s Steven Caple Jr., J.D. Dillard, Regina King — who got raves for her drama One Night in Miami — and Shaka King, who is popular at Warners thanks to best picture Oscar nominee Judas and the Black Messiah.

Coates isn’t expected to deliver his Superman script until mid-December. While the next Superman will likely land with a name director, the star could be a relative unknown, as was the case when Brandon Routh suited up for Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns and Henry Cavill donned the cape for Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel. Neither Superman Returns nor Man of Steel lived up to outsized expectations, with the former earning $391 million worldwide and the latter taking in $668 million. By contrast, James Wan’s Aquaman nabbed $1.15 billion in 2018 and Todd Phillips’ Joker scored $1.07 billion (and multiple Oscars).

But establishing a new tone with the launch of the next Superman franchise is key to Warner Bros.’ DC film future.

Sources tell THR that Coates is crafting a Kal-El in the vein of the original Superman comics and will have the protagonist hail from Krypton and come to Earth. While the story is currently being crafted and many details could change, one option under consideration is for the film to be a 20th century period piece.

Director Zack Snyder, has described the prospect of a Superman movie with a Black actor in the lead role as a “probably long overdue move”.

Snyder while promoting his Zack Snyder’s Justice League, told the U.K. based tabloid The Mirror: “My feeling is that you know, I’m a fan,” revealed Snyder. “I love J.J. and I love what he’s done. I’m interested to see what happens. It’s a bold and cool and, you know, probably long overdue move.”

Meanwhile, Snyder’s enduring love for British actor Henry Cavill’s interpretation of the Man of Steel is also clear. “But I love Henry as Superman,” he added. “Of course, I do. He’s my Superman.”

Above: Cavill in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

There’s a bigger, and to studio execs more compelling reason to see if the concept of Supes works across the racial divide and that’s money.

MSNBC’s Hayes Brown weighed in saying, “This feels bigger to me than most superhero movies, even compared to the titanic juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has the potential to be even bigger, in my opinion, than 2018’s Black Panther — and that’s saying something, considering it was nominated for best picture. Because while the Ryan Coogler-directed film had the MCU’s cultural heft to boost its appeal, well, this is Superman we’re talking about.”

Hayes continued: “So far, though, the closest we’ve come to grappling with the idea that America’s fate could be in the hands of a Black Messiah is through HBO’s Watchmen miniseries, helmed by Damon Lindelof. Watchmen was the rare piece of art that completely transcends both its genre and its source material. It’s a show centered on America, which is to say the scars that racism both personal and systemic have left on this country. It left me reeling after each episode.”

Above: Yahya Abdul-Mateen as Dr. Manhattan.

Over the nine episodes, Lindelof dared to reveal that the first superhero in this world, Hooded Justice (Jovan Adepo), was a man whose secret identity was a secret identity, a Black man fighting crime in white face. The villains of this saga: a secret society of white supremacists, seeking to harness the abilities of the most powerful being in the known universe, who had, unbeknownst to most of the population, taken on the identity of a Black man (Yahya Abdul-Mateen).

“These are all elements that a Black Superman would by necessity have to deal with directly. What does it mean for a country built on the notion of Black inferiority to have a Black man as its protector? What would it take for America to trust someone so far outside its control? Superman is, like most superheroes, a protector of the status quo — but what does it mean to safeguard a world with such an unequal application of justice to people who look like him? And how does the immigrant tale of Clark Kent, raised, I would assume, in this adaptation by Black parents, factor into his story?

Above: Val-Zod, Superman of Earth 2.

Critics may be coming out in force but there’s already at least two extant Black Superman characters: Val-Zod of Earth-2 is one of the last Kryptonians of his universe and the second to use the mantle of Superman and Kalel, the Superman of Earth 23 (Created by Grant Morrison).In his civilian identity, he is Calvin Ellis, President of the United States of America.

Above: Kalel aka Calvin Ellis, the Superman of Earth 20.

One of the most intriguing things that Wednesday’s report revealed is that “one option under consideration is for the film to be a 20th century period piece.” That would give all the room needed to really address these issues and, I would hope, still tell a story that feels both timeless and of the moment in the way the best Superman stories are.

Game Rant: The exact storyline for the proposed Superman movie hasn’t been released, and it’s unclear whether this new version of Superman will still be Clark Kent or whether DC will draw from the comics, for instance dipping into the multiverse by having this version of Superman be Calvin Ellis. In the comics, Calvin Ellis is the civilian name of Kal-El, the Superman of Earth 23. He also happens to be the president of the United States in this version of Earth.

This could be an interesting route to take, because DC could touch on some political commentary, and it would be unique to have one of their heroes have their civilian identity be the leader of a country and be of great importance in both their hero and civilian life, and explore how they manage to juggle both. This approach might also call to mind similarities to Sam Wilson, because of the American iconography that would accompany both characters (albeit in different ways).

In the way that Sam’s arc in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was about him taking on the mantle of Captain America and what that might mean as a Black man in the United States, it would be really interesting to see an arc involving Calvin Ellis and how becoming the American president as a Black man might carry a lot of the same implications and difficulties (and the fact that he’s technically an alien not originally from Earth could also play a role in this story and add further compelling commentary).

Brown concludes: It may be unfair to put this much weight on Coates’ script this early on — the final product isn’t due until December, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Given how deeply he’s considered these issues, though, I’d be surprised if Coates isn’t the person putting the most pressure on himself to find the right story to tell, one that centers this iteration of Clark Kent’s Blackness while still appealing to a mass audience.

Hayes: “It will be years before his vision is realized, and first the project needs a director and a star — but we’ve been waiting 83 years for the day when Superman doesn’t have to be white. I can wait a little bit longer.”

And so can we.