A Black Batman? A Look At Diversity And Racism in Superhero Movies


If recent choices by most awards groups and ceremonies to nominate predominantly white people making movies about white experiences for white audiences is any indication, we obviously still have a long way to go in confronting (let alone ending) institutionalized systemic racism and racist outcomes baked into the foundations of our entertainment and industries. More proof is found in fan arguments against casting Black or Brown actors as traditionally white superheroes. So it’s time for a history lesson and some frank talk about race, representation, and superhero cinema.

Some context for why I’m writing about this: I recently did two lists offering my personal picks of the best casting choices for Superman and for Batman in the upcoming rebooted film franchises. Those lists resulted in a great deal of fan anger and backlash over the fact my lists included Black and Brown actors, leading to a lot of social media and private conversations about it for the past month.

And this isn’t the first time. Every time I do any casting suggestion lists, or any time someone else does such a casting suggestion list, or every time we hear rumors or news about casting, if it involves a traditionally white superhero being cast as Black, then there is the same fan outrage unleashed, and it always takes the form of the exact same claims and arguments every single time.

Nothing changes. The “white-only casting” argument never adapt to the counter-points or rejects disproven claims, it never evolves for the passage of decades or accounts for the progress toward greater (at the very least) admission that more diversity is a good thing and that things have been mostly unequal in the past. We just repeat the same shallow, myopic debate, and even pointing out that it’s the same debate and that we’ve been through all of this and addressed all of the claims makes no difference, they’ll ignore it and just keep right on parroting the same things in a circular fashion forever.

Which frankly pretty strongly suggests most of them are just making disingenuous arguments and don’t much care whether it’s true or not, they just want to say it to excuse and defend their position that these white superheroes should only be cast as white and that any other outcome is not just against their preferences but also wrong and even immoral and grounds to boycott.

That’s some intense commitment to dying on this hill, and intense emotional reactions and opposition, for a position that insists it isn’t racist and that it’s not about race at all. The degree of hostility tends to be directly equal to the degree of insistence that they are not racist and in fact I am racist for suggesting casting a Black man as Batman or Superman.

So let’s lay it all out, examine it bluntly, and talk about racism within fandom and comics, including the history and in modern times, and why it’s not only acceptable but a good thing to consider diverse casting for traditionally white superheroes…

The characters who are the biggest, most globally recognizable and popular heroes with decades of history, stories, and comic book source material were mostly created between the late-1930s and mid-1970s. Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of superhero characters who sell merchandise and comics — which determines which movies get made — have a massive advantage of being around so long they have inherent brand awareness. Investing in movies is always partially motivated by the depth of support for and awareness of the character, plus merchandising potential.

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And the fact is, with the vast majority of recognizable popular superheroes coming from the 1930s-1970s era. Which means they were mostly created during segregation and prior to the end of Civil Rights Movement, or during the first several years immediately after the Civil Rights Act — four decades when there were almost no major lead roles for most people of color and especially for Black actors, and when inequality and persecution of minorities was the rule in our country.

Those realities affected who got to write and draw stories, the skin color of the people in those stories, and who those stories were written for. White supremacy had the force of rule of law in America, and comics that were almost entirely white in lead and supporting characters reflected that racist reality, plain and simple. We can love comics and love those stories while being honest enough to admit they came during such a time and represent those same prejudices and discriminations.

So when someone insists the characters need to remain the same skin color as when they were first created, they’re saying we must continue respecting and adhering to foundations rooted in and reflecting segregation, inequality, and overwhelming lack of representation for Black people specifically and people of color generally.

White men were the default setting for characters and heroes for most of the time period when these characters were invented — and it’s pretty obvious that this remains true even today, as a look at any fan discussion or Hollywood awards show will quickly confirm. Yes, there were exceptions, but they were exceedingly rare.

So insisting on remaining loyal to the exact way people were portrayed during decades of legalized racism and literal racist segregation, as if we cannot evolve our precious imaginary fantasy/sci-fi characters to a point beyond the “almost everybody always has to be white” context of their creation, is wrong and harmful.

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If and when the specific race of a character is essential to their defining traits and background, then the skin color of casting can be relevant. Black Panther for example is an African King explicitly created to represent Black people and African history in the comics, and removing that would fundamentally change the character and his literally reason for existing. Likewise, the Red Skull is a racist Nazi, so it would absurdly shatter his foundational characteristics to make him anything other than a white man.

The easiest way to tell how important a character’s skin color is to their stories, personality, and foundational or best incarnation is to do this — take an old comic book of the character and change them right there on the page, change their skin and hair with crayons or pens, and then re-read the comic and see if anything about their personality and character has been fundamentally altered. If you did this with Black Panther, for example, it would simply render the comic absurd and wrong. If you did this with Spider-Man, however, it doesn’t make any difference what color his skin is.

And then there’s the fact that, with white characters so overwhelmingly the majority of characters in comics and specifically the characters from the 1930s-1970s period who dominate most movies and merchandising, the comparatively few characters who are people of color need to retain their places of representation in the genre, because changing them — even if technically you could do so without really altering their character — would reduce representation of an already marginalized and woefully underrepresented group in the genre.

But changing some of the white characters to people of color doesn’t “hurt white representation” and is a way to help rectify the decades of inequality and intentional, literally mandated lack of representation (because yes, studios and television stations and publishers all had expectations about how and when to give people of color representation, and you couldn’t just make POC superheroes and major supporting character during that period of decades).

White people have been and still are vastly overrepresented in film and TV and comics, far beyond the actual percentage of white people in society. White men in particular are insanely overrepresented. Yet when even a small degree of change is attempted to provide more diversity, white men complain about diversity being “forced.” Has it not occurred to anyone to complain about white casting always being “forced,” since it literally demonstrably was and still is — I mean, we are literally arguing about that right now as fans, it’s undeniable.

In fact, those complaints are literally a demand for specifically casting a white person based on the color of the skin alone, not merit, based on the simple claim “that’s how he was originally drawn during segregation so we should keep doing it even though he’s an imaginary person who sometimes is drawn with white hair and other times with red hair or brown hair, and even though he’s been cast young and old and in between, with or without a mustache in comics and live-action, so he’s literally demonstrably been changed in all sorts of ways including physical appearance.”

If people really cared about maintaining the “faithfulness” by casting whites-only for the role of Batman, then they’d oppose any white actors who didn’t maintain the appearance from the comics. But they don’t. They never do. And they don’t oppose changing the costume (they just disagree a/b which changes are acceptable and look best). And they’d don’t oppose changing the origins, or the supporting characters in different ways, or almost anything else so long as they personally relate to or otherwise like the change. It’s just skin color that is an absolute barrier for those who insist white superheroes must remain white for “faithfulness.”

I also want to point out the debate never features any actual specific supporting points and examples to demonstrate Bruce/Batman has to have white skin to maintain his personality, central identity, and major themes. Unless you want the movies to explicitly center Bruce’s privilege and make it part of the plot, and focus subplots and character arcs around the idea of racial inequality and how Batman’s role in society can either help or hinder progress and racial justice.

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If that was the story being told, then sure I’d say I see the reasons to want to cast a white Bruce in order to openly deconstruct his privilege and racial implications of his role as both a billionaire philanthropist and a masked violent street vigilante. Now, you could still talk about those things and approach the same themes if Bruce/Batman is Black — and I’d argue it’s time to intentionally focus more on taking opportunities to tell such stories from those perspectives instead of always centering white people in a tale purportedly about racial injustice and transformation.

But okay, tell that white-privilege-focused Bruce story and tie it all together to address the implications for Batman as well, and I can see a valid reason to argue for white casting. So, is that the story fans want, then, if they’re arguing for the necessity of Bruce’s whiteness and how it defines him and his role in society, as well as his role as Batman and so on? I’m asking you directly, fans who say “no Black Batman, he must be white” — are you asking for a woke Batman movie centering racial issues and inequality, and having Bruce and Batman confront and address that within Gotham?

I’m not knocking that, but I sure as heck don’t think the vast majority of fans who are yelling at me daily on social media that Batman cannot be Black are not big advocates of adding more politics and social justice themes and stories into Batman movies. I’d dare say the thought of a woke Batman would have them screaming “no” just as loudly. What they want is a white-skinned Batman and no further discussion of the race issue and no more talk of casting Black men in the role.

Even the claim that all of this is true, but that we still cannot have a Black Batman because it will enrage racist and others who oppose casting Black men in the role for “other” reasons, still entirely centers the feelings and demands of racist white people and argues for maintaining a status quo of institutional systemic racism and all of the decisions and outcomes that arose directly within that status quo and consistently reflected it back.

It is letting the racists maintain racist suppression of diversity and maintain a historic racist status quo, because if they don’t get their way they get loud and threatening. It is catering to racism, even if it’s from a business perspective about trying to appease racists and not rock the boat. Not rocking the boat so that the racists will have a smoother ride at the expense of everybody else is itself enabling and perpetuating racism, and such business practices themselves are therefore racist, when that’s the justification — be it for movies, TV shows, or faux-news outlets.

Yes, there are lots of great Black characters in comics who were created as Black characters and who deserve adaptation and representation in films and TV. I absolutely agree, and I believe the studios should be constantly pressured to do better and create more diversity — again, let’s be clear that this is also the implication of what the “white-only” Batman folks are suggesting by insisting that instead there should be an increase in adaptations of all these various diverse characters, so do they support the fact that these other white superheroes will need to be paused a bit in order to free up the money and space in theaters to adapt these other diverse superhero stories? Or is this just another example demonstrating of how disingenuous and ultimately rooted in racism the vast, vast majority of the arguments really are?

Because yes, by all means, let’s do that, and let’s diversify the adaptations we’re getting. Great idea, and I’ve been on record supporting this 100%.

And we can do that at the same time we also make the choice to cast Batman as a Black man. There is zero reason whatsoever to pretend that we have to choose between either casting traditionally-white segregation-era characters as Black or adapting other superheroes who are already Black. We can do both, and we should.

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Some will point to, for example, the fact there are other people besides Bruce Wayne who are Black and who donned the cowl — the image at the opening of this article, for example, depicts a future version of Batman who is Black. The folks who insist Bruce can’t be Black will accept the idea of a Black Batman who is not Bruce, apparently…

Whether they’d accept a Batman who isn’t Bruce is another story, of courses. But I’ll ask: if you say Bruce has to be white, do you support casting a Black actor to have a Batman franchise about a Black Batman who isn’t Bruce and who is DCU’s official Batman? What if there are no standalone solo Batman movies with a white Batman, so there’s just a Black Batman but he’s not Bruce Wayne, is that okay? Or is this where you argue that you also don’t want to get rid of Bruce so it has to remain Bruce and Bruce has to remain white, so that the very idea of supporting a different Black Batman is just a hypothetical exercise for you which you abandon if it was real?

This raises the point that it’s all about insisting Bruce Wayne remain a white man, and that Batman remain Bruce Wayne, and therefore that Batman remain white. Someone else can wear the costume in separate stories set outside of the “real” DC continuity, and in those instances it’s supposedly okay if those characters are Black, except of course for the complaints that it’s being woke and so on, which inevitably follow the rare occasions that a major traditionally white superhero is portrayed as Black. It’s “see, it’s fine as long as it’s not REALLY him” pretense, often/mostly from folks who also tend to frown or outright criticize those other examples anyway.

A frustrating element in all of this is, for all of the controversy and arguing taking place every time this comes up, the truth is that once it happened the aftermath would stabilize and calm rapidly as it became obvious it was good and that it’s not a big deal in the way the opponents act like it is.

It’s only a big deal because they are so aggressively opposed to it on what always comes down to racist grounds or grounds that arise from fears of racism, not the merits of whether or not Bruce/Batman needs to be white or can just be cast by whomever is best for the role, or who fits this iteration, and so on. I think we need to intentionally make the choice to cast more diversity into traditionally white-only characters, and the fact is I think each time it happens it will be fine and the initial backlash will quickly fade and the sky won’t fall, as long as the movie is good.

If any of the previous Batman movies had instead featured a terrific Black actor, not a single one of them would’ve suffered from it, been less great, been less of a hit, or felt in any way at all different — other than, of course, how great it would’ve felt to see it happen and to teach the lesson that yes this works and no it’s not doomsday or a franchise-killing choice. And some day, it’s probably inevitable that we will have a Black Batman, and years later everyone will look back and think how silly and transparently racist the entire issue was for so long.

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So it’s time for those who adamantly oppose a Black Batman to answer whether they therefore believe the Batman films should center the issue of racial privilege and include social issues and perhaps be considered woke, and if they also think it’s time to shift funding from so many films about Batman and Superman and other white superheroes and invest those funds instead into movies with Black and Brown superheroes. Or do they want the same superheroes, guaranteed to be white?

Saying they also want Black and Brown superheroes adapted isn’t enough, because we know the reality is only a limited number get made due to funding, so for more diverse heroes to get movies we have to accept less movies about the other heroes if you insist they remain white-only.

It’s frankly crazy and absurd that we are even still having these debates in the 21st Century. Casting a great Black actor as Batman shouldn’t be controversial. It shouldn’t have been controversial in the 20th Century either, but we live in today and today it shouldn’t cause the amount of argument and debate and fear that it causes every time the idea comes up.

There is no good argument against it that doesn’t arise from racism or from simply ignoring half of what I’m saying (that we should also adapt the other characters, too, who were created as Black and Brown, including reducing movies about white superheroes to make more room for the others). If there were, someone would’ve made the argument by now.

Even if all someone says is, “I just prefer my superheroes to look like they do in the comics, I don’t care what color they are that’s just always my preferences,” then I’d ask if this feeling translates into actively opposing casting Black actors as Batman, and then I’d ask if they feel so strongly about it that it would ruin the movie for them no matter how good it is or how good the actor is in the role, and then I’d ask if strictly opposing it on the basis of race and saying it would ruin the movie simply because of the fact the person doesn’t have white skin shouldn’t still be considered an overt bias strongly favoring one skin color over another and asserting one skin color in that context is inherently superior. Because that’s pretty much what prejudice and racism mean and how they manifest, no matter who it is making the assertion.

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So to those who oppose Black casting for Batman (or Superman, or other traditionally white superheroes, since folks tend to apply this complaint every time a white superhero is talked about with Black casting) — and most specifically I’m speaking to white and white-presenting fans here — the situation is simple: address the points, offer good points explaining the benefits and necessity of Bruce having white skin and why exploring Bruce having Black skin would be a bad thing, or at least admit the reasons are either personal racial preference or fear of racist backlash.

The latter still argues in favor of essentially perpetuating the racism so racists don’t get mad, and doing separate movies for Black-only superheroes that supposedly would be equal to the white-only superhero movies (but I doubt that would be the case, one of many flaws in this specific version of the argument). So the outcome is still “reward racism by letting it determine outcomes.”

I 100% recognize marginalized people obviously have entirely legitimate, important reasons to fear such backlash and I don’t discount nuances of the particulars of racism’s manifestations). Sadly, history proves that placating and compromising with racists doesn’t do much other than prolong the time it takes for substantive change while bartering away equality and representation to appease people who have no intention to uphold their end of the bargain or reward diverse films. They’ll demand white-only Batman, and then denounce other diverse projects as “too woke.”

And let me be clear about a final point: I am not explicitly discussing the actual or eventual casting of Batman in The Brave and the Bold and what it will inherently mean, I am discussing the issue of whether to consider Black actors for the role, that it’s not just acceptable but right and necessary to consider a wider casting list including Black actors, and that if they do eventually cast Batman with a Black actor then it will be fine and (assuming it’s a good movie, obviously) widely accepted by the mainstream public. My own list of best casting options includes a Black actor in the top spot, as well as an actor of Indian descent and three white actors. My longer list includes two more Black actors, an East Asian actor, and two more white actors.

The point being, casting a white actor or having white casting suggestions is not racist — insisting on only casting a white actor is racist, whether it’s intentional racism or arguing to pander to racists for other reasons that still result in pandering to racists.

Be sure to check back again soon, dear readers, for more updates, reports, and analysis about the DCU. And I’ll have other movie news and box office discussion for you as well, so stay tuned.

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