With Man of Steel set to arrive in cinemas next week, Anghus Houvouras looks at the ‘controversy’ surrounding the casting of a British actor as the iconic superhero…
THEM: I’m really upset that they cast a non-American for the role of Superman.
ME: You’re being ridiculous. It doesn’t matter. You’re being silly.
THEM: I HOPE YOU DIE IN A HOUSE FIRE.
That last part is actually true. While having a discussion about why so many of our superheroes are being played by Brits and Aussies, I was literally told by one hyperbolic Superman fan that they hoped I die in a house fire. Apparently I struck a nerve.
Some of the less rage filled members of the discussion tried to make more salient points. Many centered around the idea that Superman is inherently an American standard. A character created in America and who always had espoused the values of “Truth, Justice, and the American way.” Others compared casting a non-American as Superman would be akin to casting a non-Brit as Bond. The argument being that some characters are intrinsically tied to a specific nation.
It’s a very American argument. When defending the indefensible, you cry out hypothetical hypocrisy. I’m sure if James Bond was being played by an American, people would have a conniption of epic proportions. However, that hasn’t happened. I don’t recall a lot of my friends from the UK getting worked up when Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Sherlock Holmes. Certainly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective is an iconic English character. Was anyone that offended by the idea of Holmes being played by an American actor? To that end, I didn’t hear a lot of people upset at the idea that the part of Abraham Lincoln was being played by an English actor.
Is this really shocking anymore? Most of our favorite superheroes are played by other non-American nationalities. Spider-Man is played by a Brit. Batman is Welsh. Professor X and Magneto are both British. Or Irish depending on which screen version you’re watching. Wolverine and Thor are Australian. Judge Dredd is a Kiwi. The fact is most of our favorite comic book characters are being brought to the big screen with lead actors that aren’t American. No one really seemed to make much of a fuss until it was Superman. Here’s what star Henry Cavill said in an interview when the subject was approached:
“It is an iconic American role… well, he’s an American icon. Whether it’s an American role or not, I can’t be sure. Superman is a universal image, and what he stands for is very universal. He was certainly raised in America, but he in himself is not necessarily American, because he comes from somewhere very far away and very different, and he is very different. And therefore all the more beautiful when he tries to do so much for all of us who are so different from him.“
It’s a very safe answer. The kind of tap-dancing one does when trying to avoid controversy. He’s right to some degree. Superman is an alien. An outsider who comes from a different world and has to try and fit in. That immigrant mentality is very much a point of American pride. That everybody who came to this country at some point called another nation home. Superman is no different than the millions that flocked to these shores in the hopes of creating a better world. With the one major difference being that none of them can fly or shoot lasers from their eye sockets.
Americans feel a connection to Superman because he represents the best version of us. The kind of person who does what is right no matter the consequence. Who unselfishly serves his fellow man. An incorruptible soul motivated not by money or power, but in the deep seated belief that all of mankind is worth fighting for. Superman is personification of the American ideal. He is what we wish we could be, even if we’re a far cry from the values that Superman represents. For Americans, the idea of ‘losing’ Superman is a reflection of the idea that we have lost our way.
Cavill is right on one major point: the idea of Superman is a universal one. That inside all of exists the capacity for greatness. Truth and justice is not an American concept. Neither is hope. These are fundamental truths that existed long before America was formed. And yet, Americans have an unhealthy sense of ownership over those principles.
Superman may have been created in America (by a Canadian immigrant no less), but his story, like all great ones, transcended borders and ideologies to appeal to a wider audience. And whether he’s played by an American, a Brit, an Australian, an African, or an Asian, the inherent values Superman represents will still be true.
The truth is this debate is ridiculous. As a fan of comics, all I want is the best actor playing the part. These arguments often reveal the worst in people. In one discussion where I defended the Cavill casting, someone declared:
“If you’re going to cast Cavill as Superman, you might as well cast Idris Elba” – asserting the idea that if Warner Bros. wasn’t going to cast an American in the role, that they might as well just change the race of the character as well.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I wish I lived in a world where Idris Elba could be cast as Superman. We don’t live a world cool enough for that to happen.
I suppose there will always be those with a limited world view who believe that their favorite characters exist in a specific framework and that anything outside those expectations will be sacrilege. And that’s unfortunate.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available from Lulu.com.