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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.