I’m not generally the type of person to get riled up about casting rumors, but the buzz dropped on Friday’s Popcorn Talk that Warner Bros is currently casting for John Stewart as Green Lantern and not Hal Jordan gets me going in all the good ways. Let me tell you why.
(Sidenote: The guys on the show comment that people in their chat room are calling that casting “PC bullshit” and the host, to his discredit, actually says “I understand that comment,” and that gets me going in all the wrong ways, so don’t click on the link unless you enjoy being rageful, but it’s important to source the casting rumors, so. Sourced.)
Back on topic and joy:
As has been pointed out previously by astute women on this site, superhero movies by both DC and Marvel have been woefully white. The controversial casting of Jason Momoa (the wet naked poster child for the narrative revolution) is the smartest thing Warner Bros has done in terms of diversifying the Justice League in years. Choosing to move forward with John Stewart is not only a great move in terms of diversity and getting more black superheroes into the DCU, but John Stewart himself is a better character than if they simply cast a black actor as Hal Jordan. Period.
This recent article on comicvine highlights some of his awesomeness, and points out that for the younger generation, John Stewart might have been the first Green Lantern they knew, thanks to the Justice League animated series from 2001. This is the same generation that only knows Hal Jordan in the context of the Ryan Reynolds movie that Warner Bros (and probably Ryan Reynolds) would like to wipe from existence, so already John Stewart is a better choice in terms of not having to recast and re-mythologize Hal Jordan.
But the most important aspect of the choice of John Stewart is that John Stewart’s character has from the very beginning been a not-at-all-subtle attack against racism and systemic racism as embodied by the police. The comicvine article breaks down this relationship starting from his first appearance in 1971 in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87, which is a good starting point, but this first appearance also deserves to be analyzed again in the context of John Stewart’s potential significance in the context of the DCU.
What DC did with the first interaction between Hal and John is pretty incredible, looking back. It may seem strange to say, but the most significant aspect of John Stewart’s first appearance is that DC did not shy away from writing their superhero Hal as being prejudiced against John simply because he was black.
This isn’t Marvel’s thinly-veiled allegorical civil rights agenda. This is DC’s actual superhero being called out for being racist by a superior alien species. Can you imagine someone calling out Hawkeye on being prejudiced against mutants? I can’t.
John was also not “from the streets,” going against an important trope in terms of representation. John is a trained architect, placing him firmly within the middle to upper-middle class, albeit one who has fallen on tough times since he mentions buying his clothing from the Salvation Army and that “jobs aren’t exactly plentiful for black architects in the Land of the Free these days.”
Why, hello, systemic racism. Nice to see you in a non-allegorical sense!
It’s also not a coincidence that Hal first sees John interacting with the police. Shockingly, DC took the opportunity to include another reality of black experience–and one that hasn’t changed for the better the past 40 years.
John’s first mission is similarly non-allegorical in how it deals explicitly with racism and particularly with Hal’s personal prejudice against John. Hal and John save a senator from an out-of-control tanker truck, and Hal is unimpressed when John accidentally on purpose lets some of the oil get on the senator’s face. John’s defense: The senator is a racist. Hal is furious and assigns John to guard the senator to teach him a lesson, and calls John out on his “reverse racism” in this cringeworthy exchange:
Are you as pissed off with Hal as much as I am? Good. Because this is why John Stewart is important.
Hal gets schooled.
The senator goes to a rally and is shot at by a black man, but it turns out that the shooter was using blanks and part of a ploy by the racist senator to make it look like the black community was on “a rampage.” Another black shooter was going to go after a police officer, but was stopped by John. Turns out, John recognized them as being the same men who were with (insert commentary on how this subtly alludes to the racist stereotype that all black men look alike).
As a result of all this, Hal (and white readers) are the ones who end up learning a lesson about systemic racism and personal prejudice – even if it wasn’t explicitly stated. This is pretty bold, politically, for 1971, and creates a longstanding relationship between John Stewart and the realities of systemic racism.
So for the people who say that it’s a “political” choice, I must absolutely agree – but not for the reasons that they believe. Choosing John Stewart allows Warner Bros’ “gritty” reality to actually reflect the reality that black people face every day. It gives them the opportunity to tie the DCU to recent events and growing social awareness in a way that the MCU could never. It would be, perhaps, the smartest thing Warner Bros has done in recent memory – or at least since casting Jason Momoa – and considering decidedly mixed reaction to the leaked Batman vs. Superman trailer, WB needs all the positive buzz they can get.