If there was anything guaranteed to rile the anti-woke brigade, it ought to be the news that Superman could soon be black on the big screen, just as a woman takes on the mantle of Thor. And yet, what’s that we hear rumbling through the cosmos like space tumbleweed, but the sound of (relative) silence?
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Apart from a few minor Twitter grumbles when it was announced at Comic-Con 2019 that Natalie Portman was to take on the role of Marvel’s thunder god, there has been very little in the way of backlash – certainly nothing like the horrible behaviour dished out to Kelly Marie Tran for daring to sign up to Star Wars, or to Leslie Jones for appearing in the all-female Ghostbusters remake. Nor have the trolls really begun to target reports that acclaimed essayist and novelist Ta-Nehisi Coates will pen a new film about the man of steel for Warner Bros that is expected to feature a black version of Kal-El. That movie is being produced (and possibly directed) by JJ Abrams, though there are rumours the studio might be looking for a black director, too.
With publicity beginning to ramp up for next year’s Thor: Love & Thunder, there’s still time for negativity to surface, as the trolls get their teeth into Warner Bros’s film. But right now, it seems there’s only positivity flowing around both projects.
Love & Thunder will once again be directed by Taika Waititi, who did such an excellent job with Thor: Ragnarok. And the reality is that Thor has always been more interesting on the big screen when he’s been out of sorts. The best moments in Kenneth Branagh’s underrated original 2011 movie are those in which the arrogant young Thor gets cast out of Asgard by a beardy Anthony Hopkins to learn humility and the true meaning of heroism as an Earthbound mortal. He’s also brilliant as a beer-gutted drunk in Avengers: Endgame.
You can imagine the Marvel bods, while trying to dream up Thor’s next adventure, seizing upon the recent comic book run in which Jane Foster becomes Thor as the perfect way to move the character on and avoid him reverting to the tedious cosmic princeling of Thor: The Dark World. It also helps when you have an actor of the calibre of Portman available.
The black Superman concept – Michael B Jordan is a hot tip to star – also boasts a what’s-not-to-like quality, especially if Warner Bros hires a director of colour. Coates boasts that rare combination of intellectual clout and geeky cool, as both the recipient of a 2015 “genius” grant from the MacArthur foundation and a writer of Black Panther and Captain America comics for Marvel. The idea of a writer who specialises in examining both the African American experience and the evil legacy of white supremacy working on a superhero whose mantra is “truth, justice and the American way” almost blows the mind. How would Kal-El’s perspective on humanity shift if he found himself viewed through a racist prism of fear and suspicion by some of the very people he came all the way across the galaxy to help? At the very least, we can be sure he would spend a lot less time trying to date Lois and saving imperilled cats.
The fact that movies like these are being met with enthusiasm should not signal that the dark side of the internet is dwindling. After all, we don’t have to look too far back to find a time when blatant racism was something to be brushed under the carpet, rather than publicly called out. Only this week, Harry Potter star Katie Leung revealed that she faced online abuse after her role as Cho Chang was announced over a decade ago, even stumbling upon a “hate site” directed at her. Leung told the Chinese Chippy Girl podcast she was told by publicists to deny the attacks were happening.
It would be nice to think that Leung’s appearance as Potter’s romantic interest helped boost the multicultural makeup of the world’s fifth highest-grossing film franchise of all time. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that if those movies had been made a decade later, an actor of colour might easily have been cast as one of the film’s leads.
That’s a cultural shift that’s already begun in superhero movies. When dealt with intelligently and creatively, shifts in the makeup of decades-old costumed crimefighters have only proved to make them more intriguing. Without the introduction of Miles Morales we would never have born witness to the Oscar-winning, psychedelic joy that was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Few would argue that Samuel L Jackson makes a better Nick Fury than David Hasselhoff.
Will Thor: Love & Thunder and the black Superman movie end up helping to change racist and sexist attitudes? It would be nice to think so. Will they be more intriguing than the films that might otherwise have been made? Almost certainly.