An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Please Write A Black Lex Luthor
Another film reboot of comics’ greatest hero offers a golden opportunity to definitively reimagine his greatest rival.
Dear Mr. Coates,
1.) Hi! First of all, I’m a big fan. Have been for years. You probably wouldn’t remember this, but we’ve actually met before, shortly after you published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. You gave a talk at the University of Chicago, and we briefly chatted a bit afterwards. Well, you chatted, I mostly stammered. ’Twas a good night. I loved The Water Dancer and Between the World and Me, although I still haven’t seen the HBO film. Don’t worry, it’s on the backlog and I’ll get to it eventually. Law school and all that. I’m sure you know how it is.
Ta-Nehisi Coates Writing a New Superman Film for DC and Warner Bros.
Ta-Nehisi Coates will write a new Superman film for DC Films and Warner Bros. The project is in very early development…
Sorry about that! That was unprofessional of me, insofar as being a comic book nerd in my personal capacity lends itself to professionalism. But yes, I was incredibly excited to hear the news that you’ll be writing a new Superman film, and I eagerly anticipate your take on the Man of Steel.
Now, for what little I know about the business side of moviemaking, I know that this announcement wouldn’t have been made unless things were well and truly in motion over at Warner Brothers. Considering how much longer you’ve been a comic book fan than me, I’m sure you’ve had ideas about how to write the big heroes for decades. I don’t have any doubt that even after eighty years of Superman stories, in comics and in games and on TV and at the movies, you can deliver something we haven’t seen before — especially if the rumors about potential castings are true.
So far be it from me to tell you how to do your job, especially since there are millions of comic book fans who probably already have ever since you started writing for Cap and T’Challa for the other guys. And as someone who liked what I saw from both of those runs, you have my every confidence that you can handle Big Blue. But, if the rumors are wrong, and we’re not about to see a black Superman… I’d honestly prefer it, as much as I’d love to see the Fox and Friends have a meltdown.
Because if I could snap my fingers and choose between a black Superman and a black Lex Luthor? I’d go with the latter.
Full disclosure, part of the reason that I want to see a black Lex is that growing up, well, I thought he always was. As a true child of the 90’s, my first exposure to Lex wasn’t the one from the comics or the Superfriends, or Gene Hackman’s depiction in the original movie. It was the version that was depicted in Superman: The Animated Series, created by the dynamic duo of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, and masterfully voiced by Clancy Brown.
Because this version of Lex was noticeably darker-skinned than most of the white characters (although arguably, weirdly enough, not Superman himself), my child’s mind translated that into Lex being black. Even though his race was never a factor in any of the stories on the show, it was just a background detail that morphed into gospel truth. It wasn’t until the show transitioned into the Justice League cartoon featuring John Stewart’s Green Lantern that I realized that Lex was never intentionally coded as black, and it was years later that I learned that he was reportedly modeled on Greek actor Telly Savalas of Kojak fame. Lex’s darker skin tone was a coincidence, nothing more.
And as pop culture has increasingly embraced more nuanced versions of classic comic book villains, that nugget eventually gestated into a question. We’ve seen how years of abuse can create a Joker, whose own abuse in turn could create a Harley Quinn. We’ve seen how the lasting trauma of the Holocaust could create a Magneto, much like the lasting trauma of slavery created a Killmonger.
So in that vein… what if Lex Luthor really was black?
And in a universe where Superman was white, as much as whiteness really means anything to a literal alien whose people had hopefully moved beyond the concept of assigning worth based on skin tone, how might that difference remix their rivalry, and add another dimension to Lex’s seething antipathy towards the Last Son of Krypton?
That concept is one of a million pitches across pop cultural properties that comes up whenever I and the rest of my nerd friends wade too far into the waters of fandom. Like a version of the Star Wars sequels where Finn was established to be Force Sensitive from the start, or a What If? version of Infinity War/Endgame that completely reverses which heroes got dusted in the Snap and which ones had to go through hell to bring them back. But in a world where you’re writing a Superman movie, I will gleefully cough this one up for free.
Here’s what I’m thinking: Imagine a Lex much like the Post-Crisis version we’ve come to know; a technological genius, a business tycoon, a tactical mastermind, and an influential power broker par excellence. He’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s well-dressed and of course, he’s sacrilegiously wealthy. All the traditional makings of a supervillain, both in fiction and in reality.
But the thing about this Lex is, he’s not a villain. Not yet anyway, not even close. The affably philanthropic front that we’ve seen past Lexes trot out to disguise their more unsavory behavior in the past? For the time being, that’s the real Lex.
Sure, he lives comfortably in a penthouse apartment in downtown Metropolis, maybe with some beachfront property in Coast City to boot. But he invests in scientific breakthroughs with no eye towards turning a profit, he relies on clean power, he ensures that his many employees all earn a living wage, he doesn’t cut corners in his technological development, and he gives freely of his money and time to Metropolis’ underserved communities. Maybe in a digital landscape that threatens traditional journalism, his money helps keep the local paper afloat, and maybe that’s translated into a good working relationship with their star reporter Lois Lane. Maybe he’s even worked with Bruce Wayne in this continuity, and has not-so-subtly pushed his friendly rival to invest less money in WayneTech’s R&D and more in social programs so that Gotham City doesn’t need to rely on the mythical Batman to save them. Insofar as there is such a thing as an ethical billionaire, Lex is it.
But he’s still black.
And as a black man in America, no matter how much good he does, no matter how rich he gets, no matter what accomplishments and honors he can hang on his wall, he lives in a country where at least half of its people will always hold that against him. And a good chunk of the other half doesn’t really care either. Sure, they’ll post black squares on Instagram, they’ll treat racial justice protests like a summer picnic, or hell, maybe they’ll pat themselves on the back for reading a book by a certain black author to show they know something. But when the chips are down, Lex knows what the score is, and he’ll never forget.
Because this Lex is the child of immigrants, a boy who bore the slings and arrows of racism all his life. A boy who was told to go back where he comes from, when he’s already there. A boy who was told he needed to value his education in order to succeed, only to be dismissed as an elitist when he puts it into action. A boy who worked just as hard as his peers to get where he is, only to be told that it was handed to him because of affirmative action. A boy who eventually grows into a man that knows, all too well, what lies within the whispers and mutters every time he turns his back on the red carpet or at black-tie dinners. A man who hears his wealthy peers sneer at “illegal aliens” when they think he’s out of earshot and who disguises his desire to wring their necks by accidentally snapping flutes of champagne. And whenever that man gets too bold or too brazen about his genuine desire to build a better world, he’s told to “stay in his lane.”
And that resentment gestates, and it festers, and it lingers, and as much as Lex likes to pretend it isn’t there, there’s a reason why he spends so much time in his private gym and has to keep spending so much money to repair his equipment. It isn’t because the universally-acclaimed most-eligible bachelor in Metropolis is looking to settle down. It’s because for all that he’s done, for all that he’s doing, Lex is all too aware that it isn’t enough. And for all his money, he can’t buy the power to really change the world for the better — past failed political runs optional.
And for all the power he does have, Lex knows that for some people, he will never be seen as anything more than just another nigger.
And then one fateful day in Metropolis, maybe during a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, this alien shows up.
An actual alien, not the slurs lazily thrown at brown people by the patricians bold enough to think that Lex actually enjoys their company. Someone in blue tights and a red cape that just shows up one day, defying every known law of physics in the process, and saves dozens of lives. And when the world manages to come to grips with what’s just happened, details begin to trickle out about this new stranger, who otherwise looks like he was ripped from the cover of a magazine. He’s from a planet called Krypton that no longer exists. He’s super strong and he’s super tough. He can shoot flame from his eyes and frost from his lungs. He can hear a mosquito buzzing from a mile away, and he can see through walls.
And he can fly. Gods above, can he fly.
And when people ask him what the big S on his chest stands for, he sheepishly says that it’s his people’s symbol for hope. The country considers this for a half a second, laughs uproariously, and immediately dubs him “Superman.”
And while Lex is initially grateful to this stranger for helping save his city, and is as awestruck by his might as the rest of the country, it is not lost on him for a moment that if this “Superman” looked less like the prototypical star of a CW television drama and a bit more like him, there would be much less adulation and much more apprehension.
Lex pushes it aside at first, because this stranger seems like the real deal. His mere presence seems to deter crime and inspire hope, all the moreso when he begins popping up around the world to help out with disasters both natural and manmade. In time, Metropolis’ champion becomes Earth’s champion, and as much as Lex is bracing for the other shoe to drop… it never does. A lifetime rubbing shoulders with the elite of corporate America has conditioned Lex to be prepared for the worst of people, but when it comes to Superman, the worst thing about him seems to be his fashion sense.
Underwear on the outside, really?
But over time, and as Superman becomes more and more of a fixture in Metropolitan life, Lex starts to get frustrated at this stranger. Sure, he foils bank robberies and puts out fires and helps little old ladies cross the street. But with the considerable power, fame, and influence at his fingertips, the alien doesn’t actually change anything. The last son of a destroyed planet doesn’t advocate for policies to combat climate change, a so-called hero doesn’t get involved in human rights atrocities happening at home or overseas, and if we want to get really cheeky about Superman films of the past, we can even throw in something about nuclear disarmament. And racial justice? Forget it— small wonder, Lex thinks bitterly to himself, that someone willing to be called “Superman” isn’t doing everything he can to ensure that people are treated equally.
In all but his weakest moments, Lex is able to convince himself that jealousy has nothing to do with it; that no amount of training or exercise or discipline could enable him to do what Superman does. But more than that, Lex believes, Lex knows, that if he had just a fraction of Superman’s power, he could do so much more good than he’s already doing.
But he’s just a man. He’s no superman. And during an otherwise routine interview conducted by the Daily Planet’s newest reporter, an imminently likable if incredibly dorky fellow by the name of Clark Kent, Lex can’t help but let the resentment spill over.
Not long after Kent publishes his piece with the more inflammatory quotes redacted, a discretion for which Lex is eternally grateful, Superman flies to meet with him. And Lex doubles down on his anger, pointing out all the many areas in which a genuine superman who actually cared about the world could step his game up. It’s great that he fights the occasional monster and foils the occasional invasion, but with all his might, it’s not enough that Superman simply protects the world as is. He needs to improve it. He needs to save it.
Together, they can save it.
And Superman sadly says that no, they can’t.
As powerful as both of them are, neither of them are gods. They both have weaknesses, they both have biases, they both have shortcomings. And the world is too big, too complicated, too messy, for two men to think that they can just impute salvation upon it without creating new problems in the process, or thinking that they wouldn’t be corrupted by the increased power in the process. He was sent to protect humanity, to guide them. But not to take control.
And silently, Superman bears the brunt of Lex’s criticism and accepts that being raised as a white kid in rural Kansas has left him with a much different version of his adopted homeland than the one Lex grew up with. In time, we see Superman grow into an icon of not just the best of what we were and are, but truly of what we can be. And if it means that he has to sacrifice some of the goodwill of his adopted people to take a stand, so be it.
But for Lex, it’s too late. All he’s heard is Superman admit to having a weakness. And after channeling his inner Papa Pope and raging at Superman for all the luxuries that his alien heritage mixed with his All-American appearance gives him, Lex vows that whatever that weakness is, he will find it.
And insofar as Lex becomes a villain from here, this is as villainous as he becomes. It’s not about taking over the world, or killing millions, or making himself richer or more powerful. It’s all about a personal vendetta against a being whose very existence seems like a mockery, who’s a living symbol of the empty words and performative patriotism that has tormented him for years, a would-be savior who’s only standing in the way of real progress by papering over problems. And while Lex nominally never fully stops being the philanthropist he was pre-Superman, it’s increasingly evident to everyone but him that his heart isn’t really in it anymore. The tragedy of this Lex is that as much as one man can really change the world, he still could, and does want to. But his hatred of someone who he thinks could do it so much more easily, in the end, is the only thing standing in his way.
Where do we go from here, either in this movie or in sequels? Who knows? Maybe Lex teams up with a Zod, a Brainiac, or a Vandal Savage to take down Superman, only to realize later that he’s allowed his jealousy to twist him into the exact kind of self-centered monster he hated all his life and believed Superman to be. Maybe he pulls a face turn and joins the Justice League, or maybe he founds the Justice League specifically as a countermeasure against Superman. Maybe he becomes the megalomaniacal villain he’s always been, maybe he becomes the hero that Superman, on some level, always wished he would’ve become. Maybe we pull an inverse Smallville, and in the end, Lex’s best friend doesn’t become his greatest enemy — his greatest enemy becomes his best friend.
Regardless, none of this is meant to imply that for this version of Lex to exist, Superman has to be anything other than the Big Blue Boy Scout we’ve known and loved all our lives. His earnestness, his idealism, his cheer, his goodness; I want all of that to be replicated in its full cheesy glory. In essence, Lex’s character is meant to hold up a mirror to the fact that for all his goodness, Superman can still be even better. It’s meant to reflect that “truth, justice, and the American way” sounds great, but sometimes the American Way obstructs both truth and justice. It’s meant to reflect that being an all-loving hero doesn’t necessarily being all-beloved, and in the increasingly messianic stylings of a character created by two Jewish guys, sometimes that means being hated.
But that’s the measure of a hero. And if the version of Superman that your script eventually looks like the ones I’ve known all my life, I humbly think a black Lex Luthor somewhere along the lines of what I’ve described can bring the best out of comic books’ brightest.
4.) One last thing before I go.
Much like Lex, we’ve seen multiple versions of Supes’ supporting cast before, from Lana Lang to Jimmy Olsen to Jor-El to Marthaaaaaaaaa Kent to Kara Zor-El to Connor Kent to Perry White and of course, to the comic book queen of queens herself. But to the best of my knowledge, there’s only ever been two versions of Bibbo Bibbowski in live-action, and he didn’t have a speaking role either time?
Criminal. Simply criminal. In the immortal, if slightly paraphrased words of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El:
All jokes aside, good luck. I can’t wait to see what you and the WB crew come up with. And of what little I know about the future, if the world is back to what passes for normal by then, I can guarantee that I will be there on opening night.
Mickey “Totally Willing to Work on This Movie For Free” Desruisseaux