What the New Superman Film Means for the Franchise

Feb 26, 2021

Only 3 days ago, Superman & Lois debuted to overwhelmingly positive reviews for a DC CW television show (you can read GWW’s review here). With critics praising the visual effects, high production quality, writing, and casting of the new series, it seemed like the character’s future would be on the small screen. To some fans, it was even a sign that Warner Bros. was no longer interested in theatrical solo films featuring the character. Yesterday fortunately proved those fans wrong.

An exclusive from Shadow and Act revealed the studio has tapped African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates to write the screenplay for the J.J. Abrams production. The film is in the earliest stages of pre-production, with no other creative or director attached other than Coates (writer), Abrams (producer), and Hannah Minghella (producer). Coates’s hiring is a major step forward for the cinematic future of the character, one that hasn’t always been so clear.

After hitting it big the first time with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), the Christopher Reeve tetralogy was quickly mired in problems. The sequel had its director kicked out, and the remaining two films suffered budget cuts and creative troubles that led to both critical and financial failures. The 2006 sequel-reboot-retcon (those denominators should tell you what kind of movie it was: Unfriendly to casual audiences) Superman Returns (2006) faced no such production issues. It was the arguably misguided objective of the movie; to echo the Reeve era rather than attempting something new, that most fans would argue led to that version not continuing.

Hiring up-and-coming director Zack Snyder in 2010, Warner wanted to replicate the success of Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman reimagining with their other big icon. Certain they had a hit on their hands, Henry Cavill’s version of the character debuted to mixed reviews in 2013 with Man of Steel. That version of Superman went on to feature in the equally controversial Batman v. Superman (2016), the lackluster Justice League (2017), and the aforementioned Cavill-less cameo in Shazam! (2019). His next appearance will be in the highly anticipated director’s cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), although that won’t be a theatrical release. This new Coates-penned film would be the first live-action Superman solo venture in 10 years or more, assuming it doesn’t release by early 2023.

Following the disastrous release of Justice League’s (2017) theatrical version, the studio scrambled to change all of their plans for the future of the universe. A universe without Snyder, or his vision for the characters he introduced, including Cavill’s Superman. While the studio would eventually collaborate with the filmmaker again to allow him to complete his much coveted visionary cut, the effects of their post-Justice League decision had already taken their toll on the franchise. 

The Flash (2022) is heavily expected to use the time travel and multiverse elements long associated with the title character to officially break off from the elements that defined Snyder’s vision of the DCEU. This would cement a choice they have already made to develop the franchise into one less worried about continuity and consistency, and more focused on telling individual stories featuring their characters that don’t wear bats or letters on their chest.

Of the various films released after what fans have apathetically dubbed Josstice League, including Aquaman (2018), Shazam! (2019), and Birds of Prey (2020), all had one thing in common; Fans and critics alike welcomed their new lighthearted tone, akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This looked like a perfect opportunity to reintroduce Cavill’s Superman  as more hopeful and classically entertaining. One closer to the comics that a sizable amount of the fanbase has been clamoring for since 2013. However, Superman himself caused some issue with that.

In September of 2018, Cavill took on the lead role on The Witcher, which would go on to inconvenience him from reprising the Superman role. He’s spent the last few years sharing sporadic updates through Instagram, press junkets, and interviews, stating that he’ll eventually don the suit and cape again. So far, he hasn’t. The latest update on this situation came from Variety in the summer of last year, stating Cavill was in discussions to return in a DC feature, albeit in a small or supporting role due to his schedule. 

In one of his statements, he said “I’ve not given up the role. There’s a lot I have to give for Superman yet.” Both Snyder fans and detractors alike seem to agree that with the right material, Cavill could soar as the Big Blue Boy Scout. However, with his availability being a wrench in the studio’s intent to release another solo Superman adventure, it’s not surprising that it would turn to other avenues to see how, and with who else the franchise could continue.

Almost exactly a year later after he landed the role of Geralt of Rivia, Warner would start investigating one of the aforementioned avenues. After signing a gigantic deal with the studio, Abrams was immediately inquired on his interest in DC franchises. While Bad Robot got to work on Justice League Dark projects right away, announcing them as little as a few months after the deal, it seemed as if Superman was not on their plate.

The only piece of information in regards to Warners’s plans for Superman was that the character was considered “no longer relevant”. This incited ire from both fans and comic book professionals alike. Earlier that year, Michael B. Jordan pitched a take on a black Superman that failed to materialize, but the idea of an African-American version of the character (and the desired “relevancy” that would give the character) sounded interesting to them. Hiring Coates to script the new feature for what is expected to feature a POC lead looks like the next logical step of that.

While the new announcement didn’t explicitly state that the film would feature a black actor taking on the role, the idea has long gestated in fandom since the rumor first broke. Coates specializes in writing that spotlights black characters and topics relating to African-American identity, leading even more fans to think the new movie will feature a black Superman, a departure from all previous entries in the franchise (both theatrical and TV alike). It might also be why Abrams is not taking the director role: The producer and studio might be looking to hire a black director to execute their vision of Coates’s script. 

Jordan didn’t sign on for the Superman role during his original pitch due to a lack of confidence in the franchise and scheduling conflicts, but industry insiders claim the studio might very well reach out to the actor again to reconsider the role, now that the future of the film is much more certain.

With superhero fandom and its stories becoming more inclusive and diverse than they ever have before, presenting one of the most iconic (or the most iconic, if you want to get into an argument) characters in pop culture as a minority would present a shift not just in superhero media, but maybe even Hollywood as a whole. Below are the various directions Coates and Abrams could take the franchise, perhaps breathing new life and vitality into the character in a way Warners has never really been able to do.

Calvin Ellis

Created by acclaimed Superman writer and comics superstar Grant Morrison, Calvin Ellis was built as a mix between Clark Kent’s desire to change the world, and Barack Obama’s ability to effect that change worldwide (with a side of Muhammad Ali as confirmed by Morrison themselves). The “President Superman” of Earth-23 was explored in 2011. This version of the character would go on to form a group of heroes that protects the Multiverse as Justice Incarnate. Armed with just as much vigor and determination as Clark Kent’s Superman, Calvin became a fan favorite that has gone on to reappear in current DC comics from time to time.

While the grandiose action and Multiversal altruism the character lends himself to would be interesting to see onscreen, it’s his status as President that might hinder the story. People aren’t exactly aching to relate and emotionally connect with politicians in 2021, and presenting a version of the character that works in the Oval Office might lend more credence to the false myth that Superman as a character is unrelatable and disconnected from the masses. The core of the character is that he’s just a guy trying to help out, with all the love, pain, and laughter that comes natural to all of us Non-Kryptonians. If the creative team on this film wants to go with a take that will be more empathetic and grounded to audiences, there’s another black version of Superman they could go with.


The Superman of Earth-2, Val-Zod was first a pacifist, influenced by his parents’ teachings that violence was “the stupidest way” to solve a problem. In a world where the forces of Apokolips had invaded Earth and a murderous Superman clone was running around, that ideology wouldn’t stick around long. Nevertheless, Val-Zod learned to use his powers for good, knowing he didn’t have to give up his love and altruism to punch the bad guys. Plus, his costume’s design is enough to set him apart from Clark, while also making it clear he’s a welcome part of the Superfamily.

All that said, his comic book lore is about as complicated and inaccessible as Calvin’s. Requiring the existence of an alternate Earth with a history all of its own, a team of supporting superheroes urging him into becoming his own, and living in the shadow of the first Superman possibly undermining his importance. So that almost leaves us with really only one choice. The clear choice, but maybe not the obvious one.

Just make Clark Kent black

Well, not Clark Kent per se. If they want, he can still be called Calvin Ellis, or Val-Zod, or whatever other name they come up with. Or, just call him Clark. Perhaps not just in name, but in structure too. Rather than dealing with multiversal shenanigans, alien invasions, or elements of the sort which would not be unwelcome in a superhero film, but probably a tad too much when audiences (and the studio) claim Superman is already hard enough to get into. 

Whatever his name might be, or whatever the context surrounding him (which could very well be an original creation taking bits and pieces from the iterations presented before) the story could very well just be about an average guy who just wants to help out. With a normal day job, a love interest, and friends to hang out with. Driven by his desire to help others, better the world, and inspire hope in others, making this new black Superman take over the role of Clark Kent could do wonders for the modernization and popular embrace for the character. Showing that the ideal of Superman is not one that belongs to a specific, white straight man from Kansas, but to all of us who go out into the world everyday with the wish to help others. And finally driving home the point that at our core, we can all be Superman.

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