Why Batman will never be black

Last week, two official photos were released from DC’s upcoming Suicide Squad film: a cast group shot, as well as a photo of star Will Smith in full Deadshot gear. What’s interesting is that no one thinks twice about casting Smith as Deadshot, even though the character is white in the comics. While colorblind casting appears to be perfectly acceptable when it comes to a member of Batman’s rogues gallery, a black actor would never be cast as Batman himself, even though it’s not necessarily as ridiculous an idea as it might seem.

Why Batman will never be black

There are few things as certain in the world of comic books as Batman’s color palette. Theoretically, villains can become heroes, heroes can become villains, best friends can become mortal enemies, the dead can return to life, and multi-camera sitcoms could one day be funny, but Batman will always be white. I get why this is: heroes of color weren’t really a thing until the Silver Age, and by that point, Bruce Wayne was established as a white guy. But it is kind of sad that, even in an Elseworlds title, Bruce Wayne will always have WASP features when, in many ways, Batman would make a lot of sense as a black man.

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One of the fixed points in Bruce Wayne’s storyline is the death of his parents. In most cases, this murder is committed by Joe Chill, but he’s only ever apprehended by the police in one version (that I know of). This is part of the reason why Bruce becomes Batman. In Gotham City, crime is the rule and justice is the exception; however, when one seriously considers this situation, there are holes in the plot. Two of the wealthiest people in the world are murdered, with a witness no less, and there’s no massive public outcry for the killer to be caught?

Oh, sure, the killings make the local news, but can you imagine what would happen in real life if the CEO of a Fortune 200 company and his wife were murdered on the street? It would be the lead story on Fox News for weeks. And yet, somehow in the comics we’re meant to believe that the cops can’t solve the crime, leaving it up to a masked vigilante to track down the shooter.

Why Batman will never be black

Of course, a lot of the inaction in the Waynes’ murders can be attributed to the corruption in the Gotham PD. Depending on the story, this corruption ranges from “cowardice” to “no one but Jim Gordon is a decent person”, but even if all but one member of a particular police department is crooked, there are still other law enforcement agencies to turn to. If a family like the Waynes suffered a loss, one would think that their wealthy and powerful colleagues would throw a fit about police inaction and make it into a federal case.

The sad thing is, the conspicuously subdued response to their deaths would make more sense if they were African-American.

Racism is a difficult subject to discuss, mostly because there are people who think that racism doesn’t exist, or that it’s dwarfed by other injustices. But given high profile incidents of police misconduct this year and last, it would not be farfetched to believe that injustice for the Wayne family was a symptom of systematic prejudice.

Besides, Batman doesn’t distrust the criminal justice system, but rather those who administer justice. If he didn’t trust the system at all, he wouldn’t bring criminals in to serve time—he would just kill them. Moreover, why would a white guy in the one percent distrust the police force when they’re so often on the same side? He wouldn’t. On the other hand, for people of color, it doesn’t matter how successful you are; you probably still have an unpleasant cop story.

A black Bruce Wayne would also explain why he’s often depicted investing in the ghettos and slums of Gotham, when he could just as easily stick to fighting crime. His in-universe reasoning is to better the community, but he’s really trying to help a community he only tangentially knows. On the other hand, a black Batman, even if he never knew poverty himself, would be reminded of his privilege because of cultural stigmas. The world would make him painfully aware of how his life could have been, were he not born rich. Race would give his character a more weighty reason for caring about the lower classes besides altruism.

Along with his race, another aspect of Bruce Wayne’s character that seems unchangeable is the dichotomy between his personas, which is really a throwback to what inspired his character. Most fans are aware of how Zorro inspired Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, but not as many people know that Zorro was inspired in part by The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. I bring this up because all three characters put on an act of being frivolous so the public never figures out that they’re crime fighters. However, what greatly helps the Scarlet Pimpernel is his English heritage during the Reign of Terror. He’s able to sneak into France, kidnap guillotine-bound aristocrats, and whisk them to safety under the guise of a wealthy fop buying clothes. No one would believe that Sir Percy Blakeney is the Scarlet Pimpernel, for he’s too posh and odd in his English ways to be that cunning.

Why Batman will never be black

As much as I wish it were not true, there’s a similar sense of “otherness” that people of color face. In this case, that otherness would help Bruce Wayne out and oddly protect him. You have to think that the people around Bruce Wayne as played by someone like Christian Bale would always suspect that he’s Batman, because he looks like someone who would be Batman. But people would probably not believe the same of Will Smith (his previous superhero role notwithstanding).

As I said earlier, I realize that there will most likely never be an incarnation of Batman where Bruce Wayne is black. You’ll occasionally see a black Batman-like character like Batwing, and an African-American might one day don the cowl, but Bruce Wayne himself will always have the same coloring as Snow White.

Why Batman will never be black

No matter how much sense it makes or depth it adds to the character, it won’t happen for the same reason why Bruce Wayne will never stay dead, and why he’ll never really emotionally develop beyond “darkness, no parents”. It’s because fans would lose their minds.

Yes, there would be plenty of people happy to see some sort of shakeup to the character, instead of rehashing the same tired storylines over and over. But there would be many more who’d be angry because “their Batman” is the one true Batman and will praise no other Batmans before him.

Ultimately, that’s my point and my problem. I don’t care if Batman is white. I don’t care if he isn’t. What I care about is how limited he is. This is perhaps the one advantage that Wonder Woman’s unstable origin story offers: flexibility. Diana tends to reflect whatever feminist movement is happening at the time, and because of that, her story and character are always changing, and always growing.

But while the tone of Batman media may change over the years, Batman himself doesn’t. He’s a present tense character that we think of in immovable past-tense terms. Fans have caged what and who Batman can be, making him a truly tragic hero.

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  • Moppet

    “The sad thing is, the conspicuously subdued response to their deaths would make more sense if they were African-American.”

    Maybe if it were in the time frame of the original Batman, but any Batman comic set in the modern day has to realize the massive media interest in cases involving minorities lately. The media has been clogged with one case after another regarding abuse, killings or other subjects involving minorities lately. This is a good thing, and a modern set Batman whose parent’s murder was ignored due to race, especially as a high profile family, would be flying in the face of everything people see on the news right now and today.

    To really make use of this idea, you’d have to set it a certain amount of time back, outside of a time when the media was really concentrating on stories involving minorities, as now. If Willow and Jaden Smith’s parents were killed it would absolutely dominate the news in today’s media. I hate to use a real life, albeit fictional, example like that though. It’s something I hope never to see happen.

    That said, personally I find gender/race flipping character to be shallow, lazy and short sighted. That goes regardless of which way you’re flipping the races/genders involved. It tends to come at the expense of actual characters of said races and genders (all along) being used, and given their time in the light.

    I could make it about the above, but the real reason, gender and race aside, I don’t want to see this take on Batman is because it would involve yet another reboot of the character – be it in comics or movies or what have you. We’ve seen way too much Batman, other characters deserve to be explored. The Batman nail has been pounded in enough. There’s a crater there now.

    • No joke. They could start drawing Superman as a black guy tomorrow with no comment or explanation and I would not care. Race is really not that core to most characters and really should not require a reboot. Just draw them a little differently.

    • Jim Nightshade

      Place it in the time frame of a month in modern day Chicago. Batman could easily deal with all of the black on black murders in the city. Rahm Emmanuel could be Commissioner Gordon. Who would the negro Batman battle, though? Which gang would he side with, or would he take out all of the negro gangs?

      My bet is that a negro Batman would unify the Gangs of Chicago under his rule, and thus necessitate a battle with the heroes from the other comic book brand against him. That would necessitate a legal war because of Superman and the others picking on poor negroes in the comic book world.

  • I thought about this a while back when people were complaining about color blind casting of Heimdall in “Thor”. That the Norse gods should be a definatively white group seeing as the Vikings were in fact white, ignoring that they also traveled the world as sailors and discovered many different races and could have acknowledged this diversity in their myths (and the fact that the myths were collected 200 years after they were in active practice by a white person in a predominantly white world and… the “races” of the gods become a little more fluid).

    People asked, “What about a white Luke Cage? Or Black Panther?” saying that you could color blind cast in both directions. My response was that being black is a big part of those character’s identities. Luke Cage is blacker than the ace of clubs. Most white heroes are white because that was the default at the time they were created. The books were marketed to white children and teens and the characters were white “role models”.

    So I asked myself what character would be the definitive WHITE character.

    It’s Batman.

    He is old money elite. His family has a crest, they have an estate, they are part of Gotham (New York) high society for decades or centuries and can trace themselves back further. The KNIGHT part of Dark Knight seems to very much infer the idea of old time very wealthy royalty using their money and means to protect the people of their Barony/County/Kingdom. Bruce is the Prince of Gotham and Batman is his armor both literally and figuratively.

    Now other cultures have crests and shields. They have totems. They have family lines… BUT! We live in a culture in which the idea of a wealthy landed black family did not, and still for the most part does not exist. Batman is very “white”.

    Superman could be any race. Martian Man Hunter frequently is multiple races. Wonder Woman, Flash, the various Green Lanterns (though they really need a woman from earth to be a little more diverse), and nearly everyone else could be a different race. Mr. Terrific was a white guy and is now a black guy, and the next one could be any race.

    But Batman makes the most sense in the context of Americana as a White person.

    (I wrote a lot).

    • Thomas Stockel

      Nothing wrong with writing a lot, if you have something to say, man. :)

      You raise some good points. I would say, though, that Wonder Woman really does need to be Greek, as she comes from Greek mythology and so that’s as racially relevant as T’Challa being Black Panther. As for Heimdall being black, I looked past it because it was Idris Elba, acting demigod. Seriously, put him in a grade “C” movie and it instantly becomes “C+”.

      • You know, Wonder Woman really doesn’t have to be Greek.

        Like the Vikings the Greeks were sea fairing and were aware of lots of races and cultures outside of their own. They would have seen black people.

        The idea that Themyscira is some extra dimensional utopia that is nothing but white women is also reallllllyyyy problematic. Having it be a multi-ethnic/racial matriarchal utopia that follows the principles and religious guidance of the Greek Gods… Less problematic.

        I would also draw comparisons to Asgard and K’un-L’un, that certain earth cultures saw advanced and mythical civilizations and emulated them (creating distorted myths that we know today), rather than the Marvel comics being inspired by the myths and everyone in real life bitching about how the comics and movies do not follow the myths. In that case Wonder Woman, Thor, or any other mythical figure could look however the artist wanted to draw them and the “real” myths and history could be seen as the white washed versions.

        Essentially in the DC universe Greek civilization emulated the Amazons (who are actually very diverse and wise) rather than the Amazons following and emulating Greek society. When the Greeks copied the history and myths of the Amazons they just made everyone Greek, and made Hercules the good guy of the story and played up the “masculinity = Good” angle. Hence why the Amazons did not interact with “Man World” for thousands of years.

  • Buck Turk

    I totally don’t see why a black Batman wouldn’t work, but I’m not really into comics and I’m not hard core about mythology. To me, most comics are like Shakespeare; it’s about archetype characters and anyone can play them without affecting that. Why not a black Hamlet? It’s about the craft of the actor; we know the character is a Dane no matter what. Or maybe black Hamlet isn’t; maybe he’s an African prince. It would work.

    • Cameron Vale

      Now you’re making me wonder if people would accept a white Othello.

      • Hex

        It depends on if it is an adaption or just a production of the play.

        In an adaptation, there shouldn’t be a problem as long as other story elements are kept intact. In a production of the play, it would work less but still be possible. His character is stated to be a Moorish general. Moors refer to Muslims, and to some extent, people of Arabic and North African descent. You could argue that he is Moorish but just so happens to be pale, but you would not be able to give up the characters ethnic roots without changing major parts of the play. Whether or not people would throw a fit over potential “whitewashing” is another story.

        • Cameron Vale

          It would be a little more tricky than that, especially with lines like “an old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe.”

          • Hex

            You have a point, but it is not uncommon for directors to cut or edit the bard’s lines to suit their needs. When I wrote my original reply, I was only considering character and plot elements and not specific lines. It would not be simple, but it would also not be impossible.

    • Michael Ejercito

      Having Batman be black would be like having Batman living in Los Angeles instead of Gotham City.

  • MichaelANovelli

    It would actually be a simple solution to make Wonder Woman black. Just have her sister Nubia come to Man’s World before Diana does. :)

  • Thomas Diehl

    There is a black Elseworlds Batman, though not Bruce Wayne. Stan Lee’s Batman is a black man named Wayne Williams who became Batman after doing jail time because of his father’s murderer. It worked pretty well.

    • Hex

      The more you know

  • NameWithheldByRequest

    If Batman were black, it would be better if Joe Chill were a white cop who stopped Bruce Wayne’s parents while driving their BMW in a predominantly rich white neighborhood and shot them. That would turn the Batman mythos on its head. Instead of black Batman battling criminals in da hood, he’d be battling racist cops victimizing blacks. This is, admittedly, even more unlikely then the scenario presented in the article.

    • Night Hawk in Supreme Power was like that in the early 2000’s. Though his parents were murdered by the Klan (which is actually a more and more out of date concept as the Klan is seen as passe even by other hate groups).

  • Greenhornet

    Oh yes, let’s do it because “black” is so FASHIONABLE right now! Can’t make a convincing/interesting “minority” character? Revamp an established character!

    Anyone who obsesses over race, religion, sex or nationality is a bigot!

    • This may shock you, but race is kind of an issue in the media right now. The idea of exploring such issues thru fiction and editorial writing is “fashionable” in the sense that you are supposed to write and discuss issues in a civil society.

      By taking popular cultural icons and portraying them differently you can illuminate feelings people might have that they were not aware of until they were framed in that way. So making Batman black would cause many to think about how they feel about race, vigilantism, and the 1% in different terms.

      • FK3

        I’ve mentioned this on other sites about switching the race or gender of an existing character – it’s a gimmick that ultimately does no good. In the new Fantastic 4 movie coming out, Johnny Storm is now Black. Unless the movie is a huge success (which seems doubtful), the next reboot will just go back to the original versions.

        It’s so much better creating a new character. STAR TREK introduced Captain Sisko, so now there’s another great Starfleet captain that can co-exist with all the other Captains. He will be immutable, and forever a part of the lore. Turn Picard Black for a movie? It’s nothing more than a one-off.

        DC Comics introduced a Black Green Lantern, and we have the luxury of a whole new, completely realized character that can stand side by side with the “original” one.

        Playing musical chairs with a character’s race or gender doesn’t do anything for the races or genders selected. There’s plenty of room in fiction for new characters, and now is the time for them to be truly unique.

        • Moppet

          I tend to agree, Sisko is a great example. He’s actually my favorite lead in any of the shows – though, given Deep Space Nine is my favorite Star Trek I may have a bias. John Stewart (possibly not the best picked name, given “John Stewart”) ended up being my favorite Green Lantern of all of them, and he didn’t do it by being Hal painted another race. He did it by being a character that grew from someone I didn’t have a handle on, to a character I reveled in seeing more of.

          Create a new character, or use an existing character of said race or gender you want to use. That’s always my view of things, because, quite simply – various genders and races deserve to be explored for who they are, not as a token race or gender you painted over an existing one.

  • mamba

    They already made a black Batman. In fact, they probably made several, but here’s one from the top of my head:

    Marvel’s “Night Thrasher” in the 90’s: A black man who’s parents were killed in front of him so he dedicated his life to fighting crime. He has no powers, but has armor and other gadgets provided by his rich support system and “Alfred’ stand-in guardians. He almost has the same mental attitude as well…somber but more rage-filled (youth teen vibe). He even formd a team so he’s have colourful sidekicks to counterpoint.

    Besides, I think he has more than enough black to his persona to compensate, like it’s the opposite of his rich white playboy lifestyle. Personally I don’t care what colour he is, only how he’s written. since his skin changes nothing and any other changes would be pandering pointlessly anyway, it’s a meaningless discussion.

  • lemonvampire

    Another interesting aspect of a black Batman would be his relationship with the Gotham police. Batman is often depicted as unofficially working with the GCPD while occasionally being officially condemned by them as a vigilante, but they’re seldom depicted as being completely against him. Now imagine how the police would treat him if he were black? It’s very unlikely that they would ever support him in any capacity and more likely that they would be constantly pursuing him with lethal force. And it would add a whole other level to the corruption of Gotham City if Batman were fighting both the criminal element as well as the social injustice of racism in the police force.

    • NameWithheldByRequest

      This is a good point. They’d probably declare him a terrorist and call in Homeland Security to hunt him down.

  • Now I want Bruce Wayne/Batman to be black after reading this but as a twist, when black Bruce Wayne dresses up as Batman, his costume will include a latex face underneath the cowl so he appears to be a white man which will help keeps the Bruce Wayne/Batman personas separate but the fake face will also defeat facial recognition software to boot.

  • John Sorensen

    Probably someone has already mentioned this, but Stan Lee did a black Batman in 2001 as part of the Just Imagine Stan Lee creating the DCU project. So yeah he got there before Grant Morrison did. The books were quite fun. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_Imagine

    • John Sorensen

      The African American Batman character by Stan Lee was a pro-wrestler, and the origin story is similar to Spider-Man

    • WelshPirate

      I always thought Stan Lee was pretty full of crap with that one. For one thing, he’d already made his own version of Batman. His name is Daredevil, and he was still white.

      • mamba

        Or for that matter “Night Thrasher”, a slightly younger more angry Batman. Almost the same origin story too. (parents murdered, trained and given theme weapons by rich people, quest for justice, etc…) There are ohers, but that’s one that’s pretty close to the mark.

  • Juan D’Marco

    Bruce doesn’t have to be black, he can just be succeeded by a black person. It happened with Black Goliath, John Stewart and Miles Morales, so it can happen with Batman.

  • thanatos8285

    I think it would be really relevant to do a black Batman story now. Initial story goes down the same way, but instead of even TRYING to investigate the crime, the usual Faux News types just drum up a bunch of bullshit about what a thug Thomas was, and how it looked like Martha was going for a gun, and write Joe Chill as a George Zimmerman type. That’s what drives Batman to don the cowl, but this isn’t your daddy’s Batman. This Batman is more like the Punisher. Still pursuing justice, but any cops getting in his way are no better than the criminals and will share the same fate. And just like his parents never got the chance to stand up for themselves, neither will the criminals.