Science Says Superman Should Be Black.
That’s the title of an article I wrote five years ago. Yes, it’s a provocative headline, but it’s also correct — or at least as accurate as you can get when applying realistic science to a fictional character.
In March 2016, Henry Cavill had played Superman in two films, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, and it’s possible that Zack Snyder’s Justice League (AKA ‘the Snyder Cut’) could be Cavill’s final outing as the last son of Krypton.
With recent rumors suggesting Warner Bros will cast a black actor as the next Man of Steel, it’s the right time to revisit the science behind why Superman should have dark skin, and why some people didn’t understand the reasoning.
Superman is like a plant
Superpowers break the laws of physics, but explaining why special abilities are impossible is no fun, so I explored the plausible.
The basic premise is that Superman is fuelled by sunlight and, as mentioned in Man of Steel, his cells absorb solar radiation.
In nature, organisms such as plants do something similar through photosynthesis. Plant cells capture photons in light using a green pigment, chlorophyll, within structures called chloroplasts that power chemical reactions to generate energy.
But Superman wouldn’t be green because, unlike plants, he’s not from Earth — he’s an alien from planet Krypton. His ancestors evolved on a world orbiting a dying star that radiated less light. For their cells to absorb radiation, they would need a dark pigment to capture a broad spectrum of wavelengths in light.
As NASA space-scientist Nancy Kiang said in the Scientific American article that inspired my Superman story, “Evolution might favour a greater variety of photosynthetic pigments to pick out the full range of visible and infrared light. With little light reflected, plants might even look black to our eyes.”
So in a plausible scenario, Superman’s skin would contain a pigment that works like chlorophyll but appears black in colour.
Pigments have different functions
Some people seemed confused by the explanation. But while it would be easy to dismiss them as stupid, as a science communicator I’m interested in the public understanding of science, so I tried to pinpoint the source of their confusion.
Forbes articles used to include a comment section and, after reading about 100 comments, I managed to identify a common theme — some people didn’t understand that Superman could be stronger because dark pigments would absorb more energy. That’s summarised in the following statement from ‘Joey’:
“This is the complete opposite of reality. Darker pigmentation blocks out the Sun which would make him weaker.”
So the misunderstanding comes from the belief that pigments can only have one function: to block light. You can understand why some people were confused as humans and other mammals use various pigments — collectively known as ‘melanin’ — to prevent solar radiation (especially UV light) from causing mutations that damage the DNA in cells. Melanin pigments help protect us against skin cancer.
People didn’t understand that pigments can have different functions. They were unable to make a distinction between one that blocks light — melanin — and a pigment that absorbs light, like chlorophyll, except black instead of green.
The misunderstanding reflects an intellectual error typical of people who don’t really understand biology: we’re only one part of nature. When non-biologists view the natural world, they focus on humans, an ‘anthropocentric’ perspective. It’s a mistake academics have made when trying to define ‘life’, for instance.
FIND OUT MORE: What Is Life? Here’s Why There’s Still No Definition
Color is not always about race
‘Science Says Superman Should Be Black’ went viral and received positive coverage on news sites and social media.
Reactions on Twitter made some valid points (“if science applied to superman he would not be able to fly”) and tongue-in-cheek jokes (“His real name is Kal-El. That already sounds black.”)
My article obviously touched on issues associated with race, so I also received negative feedback, including comments that contained racist language or casual racism due to unconscious bias.
As one commenter said, “While we’re at it, let’s make Superman gay as well.” That statement has several interpretations, such as the fact some people don’t want change for change’s sake, but I suspect ‘Matt’ was actually accusing me of being a Social Justice Warrior engaged in what’s now called “virtue signalling.”
The Superman piece remains one of my most popular articles — it had over 300,000 views by 2018 so I’d estimate it’s now been seen about half a million times.
But over the past few years, I’ve written dozens of features on the science or technology behind superhero movies. My favourite is an unpopular piece on the cultural impact of Black Panther in creating role models.
FIND OUT MORE: Black Panther’s Legacy: African People As Leaders In Technology
Over the past few decades, comic books have featured superheroes whose secret identity has switched from man to woman, most famously with a female Thor (who will be played by Natalie Portman in the forthcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Thor: Love and Thunder).
Importantly, it’s the secret identity that changed, not the character’s name. I’m not convinced that fans would accept a ‘black Peter Parker’ as readily as ‘Miles Morales, Spider-Man’, but I could be wrong. Samuel L Jackson portrayed Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, but he’s a minor character — not a major icon.
Assuming that Superman’s origin story includes being brought-up on a farm in Kansas by white parents, a ‘black Clark Kent’ might seem like a step too far.
Five years since writing my article, I still can’t think of a good scientific argument against why Superman should be black.