Which Black Actor Will Be Cast As The Lead In The Superman Reboot?
While many DC movie fans hoped to see Henry Cavill suit up as Superman again, DC Films signaled they are going a different direction. Acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will write the script, which will be produced by JJ Abrams and Bad Robot. They’ve not announced a director yet, but we do know that the new Superman movie could feature a Black Kal-El. Recasting Superman, who we feel compelled to remind readers is an alien from another planet, as a Black man is a big deal. Superman is a mythic character like Hercules, Zeus, or Nuwa. So, seeing this character cast as a Black person will add a unique cultural twist to what is ultimately the story of a refugee finding a home in America. But the question on everyone’s mind is which Black actor will they ultimately cast as the new Superman?
Not just any actor can play Superman, though. One of the things that makes Superman a unique figure in our modern mythology is that he’s both all-powerful and all benevolent. When those two aspects are changed, like in the horror film Brightburn, the story just feels off. Even DC’s version of those stories, such as Injustice or Kingdom Come are compelling, but only because they are so out-of-character for the Man of Steel.
Of course, along with all this, there are the typical considerations made when casting an iconic role. Do they go with an established actor or someone unfamiliar to mainstream audiences? How physical imposing will the character be? There are many factors to consider, and passionate comics fans will have strong opinions about all of them.
Do Actors Who Played Superman In the Past Fit a Type Beyond Just Racial Demographic?
Images via the CW, Warner Bros., et al.
Many actors who played Superman in past movies and television shows have few similarities beyond the color of their skin. All of the actors who played Superman, in live-action, at least have dark hair, are over six feet in height, and all have a strong jawline. Beyond that they, these actors differ in physical characteristics from musculature to eye color to simply how they carry themselves. We’ve had 10 actors portray Superman in live action, 11 if the fabled Nicolas Cage and Tim Burton Superman movie hadn’t been grounded.
As a note, the years listed here for the actors who played Superman in live-action are from their first appearance to their final appearance. In the case of some actors cast in a single Superman movie, they later reprised the roles. Brandon Routh was cast as Superman, specifically the Kal-El from both the first movie and Superman II, and then he reprised his role for the Crisis On Infinite Earths event. Henry Cavill was also the actor cast for Man of Steel, his only Superman movie, but reprised his role in two other ensemble films directed by Zack Snyder. Zack Snyder’s Justice League was released, finally, in 2021.
(And for those upset about Henry Cavill potentially being out as Superman, remember Routh only got a single bite at that apple in 2006. Then, Brandon Routh’s Superman returns in the CW crossover event 14 years later. Anything is possible!)
The actors who played Superman are as follows:
Kirk Alyn (1948-1950)Kirk Alyn (1948-1950)
George Reeves (1951-1958)
Christopher Reeve (1978-1987)
John Haymes Newton (1988)
Gerard Christopher (1989-1991)
Dean Cain (1993-1997)
Tom Welling (2001-2011)
Brandon Routh (2006-2020)
Henry Cavill (2013-2021)
Tyler Hoechlin (2016-Present)
Alyn first played the Man of Steel shortly after his creation, in movie serials of the kind that inspired George Lucas to write Star Wars or Indiana Jones. George Reeves played Superman in the first TV series. Newton and Christopher played Superboy, technically, in a TV show that was a kind of prequel to the Christopher Reeve Superman films. Dean Cain played Superman in the 1990s TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Welling never technically suited up in Smallville, but to say he never played Superman is mere semantics. Lastly, Tyler Hoechlin was brought in to play Superman in Supergirl, and now he and Elizabeth Tulloch play the title characters in Superman & Lois which, at the time of this writing, is currently airing on the CW.
Whoever ends up cast as Superman in this next film, they have a long legacy to live up to, Black actor or not. Each of the above actors cast as Superman all took a different approach to the role. However, of all the live-action Superman actors, Christopher Reeve is the one performance that most actors try to channel if not outwardly emulate. Reeve portrayed Superman with a kind of quiet strength and compassion that seemed to fit with the character. The TV Superman, including Reeves, played Superman with a bit more ego than the film actors. Some Superman actors, like Routh and Cavill, played a less cheerful version of him. The point is, the interpretation of what makes Superman “Superman” is a moving target.
When In Doubt, Look at the Odds
Image via Marvel Studios
Like Han Solo, you may never want anyone to tell you the odds. Yet, oddsmakers are trained to analyze something and present an informative take on what might happen. We all know how this looks for sports. They examine an athlete’s or team’s records, the records of their opponents, and any “X” factors, such as past injuries, age, or whatever. However, they can also turn their talents towards other things like election outcomes or what Black actor will be cast as Superman. If people are putting their money down, there’s going to be a different thought process than when we nerds fancast epic feature films in our heads.
In this case, the smart money is betting on an actor we first met in The Wire and who recently starred opposite the late Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther. Back in November, reports surfaced in the trades that Warner Bros. wanted to nab Michael B. Jordan to play Superman. Even though he’s been cagey about whether or not those talks were for real, people still seem to think he’s the smartest bet. Online polls and oddsmakers have had Michael B. Jordan leading their “Who Will Play Superman?” lists ever since that first report last year. All this means is that people believe he could be cast and/or they want to see him in that role. But, as great as he’d be in the big red “S,” he’s not the only Black actor they could cast as Superman in the new film.
Which Black Actor Will They Cast as Superman?
Image via Guilhem Vellut via Flickr
The most well-known actor cast as Superman at the time of his casting was Nicolas Cage. In the 1990s, he was attached to play Superman in a film directed by Tim Burton that never came to fruition. Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, and Henry Cavill were all fresh faces to American audiences when their Superman films debuted. So, while they might go with a bankable star like Jordan, they might go for some a little lesser known.
Michael B. Jordan is, at the time of this writing, 34 years old. Traditionally, that puts him at a little older than the actors usually cast for Superman. Reeve and Cavill were both in their late 20s when they were cast. So, looking at actors in this age range, here are the five actors I think could swing the role if given the opportunity. Will one of them be the Black actor ultimately cast as Superman in this new film? Probably not, but I think they all would bring something vital to the role, if chosen.
Image via the CW
Noah Gray-Cabey is a go-to choice, even though he’s a little short for a stormtrooper Superman. Still, during his recent run on All American on the CW, he definitely has the physicality to pull it off nonetheless. His time on Code: Black shows his range, and I think there might be a Kal-El in there. Also, Supes wouldn’t be his first superhero. Gray-Cabey played the young Micah Sanders on NBC’s Heroes as a kid.
Image via SyFy
A little older than most first-time Supermen, Shamier Anderson would be a great choice for the role. I know him best from his stint on Wynona Earp as Agent Xavier Dolls. Yet, with formal training in musical theater and drama, he has a similar background to Christopher Reeve. A striking physical presence, he has the range to capture the complexities of both Superman and (perhaps even more importantly) Clark Kent.
Image via ABC
I first noticed Stephan James as John Lewis in Selma, and later in 21 Bridges. His turn as Jesse Owens in Race is what really makes me think he could pull of Superman. It was a physically demanding role, but one where he’s also portraying an important cultural figure. (And in this case, Jesse Owens was, you know, an actual person who lived.) Also, his stint as Preston Terry on Shots Fired shows how capable he is at balancing a character who believes in justice but accepts the realities of what that can look like for people in the US with brown skin.
Alfre Woodard and Trevor Jackson appear in Burning Sands by Gerard McMurray, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Isiah Donté Lee.
Perhaps best known for role as Aaron on Grown-ish, Trevor Jackson is another lesser known actor who could step into the red boots. The “-ish”-verse of sitcoms are in the Normal Lear tradition, where they deal with drama as much as they do with jokes. Remember, when Michael Keaton was cast in Tim Burton’s Batman, he was known almost exclusively as a comedic actor. Also, as a kid, he took over the role of Kevin Blake on Eureka. While not a character as well known as Superman, he knows how to step into a role that’s been defined by actors who preceded him.
Image via Lucasfilm
Since his debut in Attack the Block, John Boyega is not an unknown actor. Also, he did a series of space movies that folks may have heard of, two of which were directed by JJ Abrams. So, he’s tight with the producer of this new film. He’s the right age, at 29, and he certainly has the range (and American accent) to pull off the role. He’s no stranger to big budget productions, and he proved he can handle physically demanding roles. As much as I enjoy Jordan’s work, if Warner Bros. does go with a more recognizable name, I hope Boyega gets the nod.
Why It’s Time for a Black Actor to Appear as Superman
Image via DC Comics
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, they had no idea that this character would become the most iconic superhero in the world. Both of them came from a family of Jewish immigrants, and their personal experiences influenced the story. In fact, one of the first sketches of Superman showed him rescuing a man being held at gunpoint, who looked like Siegel’s father. The elder Siegel died of a heart attack six years earlier while being held at gunpoint during a robbery at the family’s clothing store in Cleveland, Ohio. The first stories showed Superman saving people from “everday” problems, including those inspired by real life. Eventually, they showed Superman fighting anti-Semitism. In fact, a full year before Captain America punched Hitler in the face, Superman arrested him (and Josef Stalin) in a strip drawn for Look Magazine in February 1940.
In fact, because Superman notes his punch would be “strictly non-Aryan,” it’s safe to say that his creators didn’t even view him as “white.” From here on, Superman’s story is the quintessential American immigrant story. He’s a refugee from a doomed culture, adopted by “All-American” parents, and lived as an outsider accepted by his adopted homeland. It’s this fact, above all, that suggests not only should a Black actor be cast as Superman, but that really non-white actors should played Kal-El in a modern retelling of his story.
See Henry Cavill’s (possibly last) turn as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max.
What do you think? Which Black actor do you hope they cast to play Superman in the next movie? Share your picks—well-known actors or longshots—in the comments below.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.