Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Future of Superman

Ta-Nehisi Coates split with Superman logo -H 2021
Shahar Azran/WireImage; Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
The celebrated writer has the insight and experience to delve further into the mythos in way never seen on screen.

After remaining grounded for far too long, Superman is finally ready to fly again. Though this time, when he returns, he’ll be made new once again. Warner Bros. is rebooting Superman with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and producer J.J. Abrams. On the Abrams front, his involvement doesn’t come as a surprise as the filmmaker has long been rumored to tackle Superman since his production company Bad Robot struck a deal with WarnerMedia. This isn’t the first time Abrams has circled a Superman film – he wrote Superman: Flyby in the early 2000s which was eventually shelved in favor of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006).

As for Coates, the acclaimed author and journalist known for his non-fiction work concerning African-Americans, The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, carved out a space in the world of superheroes as the ongoing writer of Black Panther and Captain America for Marvel Comics. Together, Coates and Abrams, have the opportunity extend the DCEU’s lens into its ever-growing multiverse.

A Superman reboot comes on the heels of The CW’s recent series, Superman & Lois, the casting of Sasha Calle as Supergirl in The Flash, and Henry Cavill’s upcoming, previously filmed but unreleased, interpretation in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It seems DC’s Kryptonians are once again having their day in Hollywood. Of course, rebooting Superman raises questions about Henry Cavill’s future in the DCEU, a future that many fans have been keeping their fingers crossed for. Despite rumors of cameos in upcoming DCEU projects, Henry Cavill’s solo Superman sequel never moved forward, despite filmmakers like Christopher McQuarrie expressing interest. With Zack Snyder’s Justice League set to premiere on HBO Max in March, fans are already wondering if it will mark a swan song for Cavill’s tenure, just as it seemed his future might finally be taking shape again.

It’s too soon to count Cavill’s Clark Kent out yet, as Coates and Abrams Superman seems to be something else entirely, an expansion of the mythos rather than a replacement. In the same way that Matt Reeves’ The Batman isn’t preventing Ben Affleck from reprising the role in The Flash, it seems this new Superman movie will ultimately be additive, allowing a range of visionaries to present their own take on these iconic characters all under the limitless potential of the multiverse. If anything, it seems we’ll be getting more Superman rather than less. And with this reboot, there is room to tackle something we’ve never seen onscreen before.

The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed that this new Superman project is aiming to star a Black Superman. It’s possible that this will be another version of Clark Kent, but more intriguing is the possibility that it will be either Calvin Ellis or Val-Zod, Supermen from within DC’s comic book multiverse. Calvin Ellis, created by Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke first appeared in Final Crisis No. 7 (2009). Inspired by Barack Obama, this iteration of Superman is also President of the United States of America, and uses his superpowers to directly confront global politics, alongside his own iteration of the Justice League that includes Wonder Woman, Nubia. Val-Zod, created by Tom Taylor, Nicola Scott and Robson Rocha, first appeared in Earth 2 No. 19 (2014). The Superman of Earth 2, Val-Zod was adopted by Jor-El, and sent to Earth along with Kal-El. Raised by pacifist parents on Earth, Val became Superman when Darkseid’s forces invaded his planet.

Calvin Ellis, Val-Zod, or potentially someone new could certainly change certain notions about what Superman means, and how his power is perceived. Certainly in a post-HBO’s Watchmen world, there are numerous questions about what a Black hero would and could accomplish when gifted with the powers of a god. Despite the growing number of Black superheroes in our media, Black Panther, Falcon, Black Canary, War Machine, we’ve never seen a Black hero with the powers of Superman take action.

In film and television we’ve always been aware of Superman’s alien nature through the fact that he can pass as a white man. And as a white man, and the privileges that come with that, Clark Kent/Superman’s fallibility is something to be reckoned with. John Ridley has been exploring this notion in The Other History of the DC Universe. Coates has the insight and experience to delve further into this line of thinking, not simply through a Superman who presents as white but one who presents as Black.

In taking on the project, Coates said in a statement to Shadow and Act, “I look forward to meaningfully adding to the legacy of America's most iconic mythic hero." In reflecting on Coates’ work on Black Panther and Captain America, the author isn’t afraid to ask tough questions of his heroes and their place in the world. While there are some fans who long for a Superman situated within nostalgia, a boy-scout who saves kittens from trees, or a reflection of Richard Donner’s take on the character, it would seem in terms of this reboot’s conception that neither Coates nor Abrams is interested in moving Superman backwards. The divisiveness over who and what Superman is, isn’t going anywhere, because the character is too big to mean any single thing to any single group of people. But this reboot provides an opportunity to break free of the shackles of expectation, those derived from comics, films and television. Hopefully what we’ll end up with is a film that works in conversation with Superman (1978) and Man of Steel (2013), entries in our mythological estimation of Superman that reflect where we are in our society, and how we see ourselves.