How The Boomerang Continues To Be Colonised In Popular Culture
'The Suicide Squad's Captain Boomerang is just one example in a long and racist history.
James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad has been getting rave reviews the world over for its bloodthirsty quirkiness and endearing depictions of camaraderie between a team of deplorable misfits that includes a humanoid shark.
— Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Suicide Squad. —
Yet in over 2 hours of comic-inspired carnage, my favourite moment in the film came in the violent opening sequence: the gruesome death of Captain Boomerang, played by Jai Courtney.
Courtney’s iteration of the character appeared in both the 2016 and 2021 Suicide Squad films, receiving praise for the loveable larrikin humour be brought to a role that could easily have been a more cringe version of Crocodile Dundee. But earlier this month on the Kyle & Jackie O show, Courtney spoke about he was initially reluctant to play Boomerang because of the character’s racist origins.
“In the original comics, he’s kind of controversial,” Courtney said. ‘There’s some pretty gnarly racist stuff. It’s very dated, very early ’60s.”
Jai went on to say that he took the role in the 2016 film after seeing director David Ayer’s more modern and “toned down” take of the character. But does toning down Captain Boomerang’s more overt racism make him less racist? Does it absolve the comic character’s racist and culturally appropriative origins?
What Is The Problem With Captain Boomerang?
Captain Boomerang’s conception, origin story and personality is built on racism against, and erasure of, Aboriginal peoples and culture. A problem that no amount of toning down can fix.
Neither John Broome nor Carmine Infantino, the two men who created Captain Boomerang, were Australian, let alone First Nations. Neither of them consulted any Indigenous peoples when they created the character back in the 1950s. However, the pair did enough research to learn what a boomerang was and have their brand new character use racial slurs for Aboriginal people throughout his appearances for decades.
The creators’ apathy and total lack of respect for Aboriginal cultures is also visible in the total absence of acknowledgement for the boomerang’s significance within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. In the comics, Captain Boomerang’s skill with boomerangs is not even one learned from Aboriginal people, but a hobby he picked up to channel the anger he felt toward his abusive parents. First Nations peoples are never acknowledged as the boomerang’s creators, nor acknowledged by Captain Boomerang himself beyond the use of slurs.
While some may brush all this off with the claim that as an antagonist and villain, he’s not meant to be a “good guy,” the continued use of the character in pop culture perpetuates anti-Aboriginal racism and cultural appropriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. But this problem is far from new.
The Problem Is A Lot Bigger
While many cultures the world over have documented the use of throwing sticks, the use of boomerangs is specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The word itself was recorded by European colonisers and settlers in the early 1800s, derived from Aboriginal languages they heard at the time. Boomerangs have specific cultural uses and significance to First Nations peoples that vary across the continent, but they range from use as hunting and building tools to playing significant roles in ceremony and even feature in sacred sites and creation stories within the Dreaming.
However, looking at the use of the boomerang outside of most Australian-made media, the boomerang’s cultural significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples appears long lost. Its most popular use is as a weapon in the hands of non-Indigenous characters — so much so the trope ‘Battle Boomerang’ is listed on TV tropes.
There are countless depictions of the boomerang across film and TV – and mostly it is completely divorced from its cultural context.
It’s a friendly limo driver’s weapon of choice in Crocodile Dundee, and even the Easter Bunny’s in Dreamwork’s Rise of the Guardians, and Dwayne Johnson’s “special skill” in the new Jumanji reboot. The boomerang has also featured as a twist on a murderous souvenir in BBC Sherlock. The list goes on. There are countless depictions of the boomerang across film and TV — and mostly it is completely divorced from its cultural context.
The 1950 Looney Tunes cartoon ‘Bushy Hare’ also featured an offensive boomerang wielding depiction of an Aboriginal man and even today, many non-indigenous kids cartoons have featured boomerangs as a source of humour. Peppa Pig’s ‘Boomerang’ episode features a boomerang wreaking havoc, and Shaun the Sheep has a similar episode. Both Avatar: The Last Air Bender and Marine Boy, popular animated series from the early ’00s featured non-Aboriginal characters wielding boomerangs as weapons.
Even in the worlds of fashion, video games and music decontextualised colonial depictions of the boomerang littered everywhere. Back in 2017, fashion brand Chanel released their 2,000 dollar version of the Indigenous tool to, thankfully, a great deal of international backlash. In the Mario video games, the adorable Boomerang Bro has been a staple character since the late ’80s. Likewise in music, ABBA’s ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’ track from their iconic self-titled 1975 Album uses the boomerang as a clumsy metaphor for giving and returning love. The music video features images from DC Comics, including Superman and, you guessed it, Captain Boomerang.
The Captain isn’t even the only non-indigenous comic book “hero” to wield the Aboriginal artefact. Batman famously has his own version, the ‘batarang’. Meanwhile, Marvel comics have featured a supervillain called Boomerang since 1966, a white Australian guy with a grudge whose special talent is also pitching boomerangs.
Like so much of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, boomerangs are have been colonised through commercialisation. Decades of erasure of the boomerang’s cultural and sacred significance to First Nations peoples have paved the way for careless, gimmicky uses of the boomerang throughout pop culture that are as humiliating as they are harmful.
It’s not a consultation that many of these characters are Australian, but salt on the wound that non-Indigenous Australians have colonised the boomerang too. Jai Courtney’s version of Captain Boomerang may not be as openly racist as the character in the comics, but the film’s representation of the boomerang as belonging to a man like him perpetuates the erasure of Aboriginal peoples from representations of our own culture.
Aboriginal Heroes Exist
The kindest criticism of Captain Boomerang I can offer is that he is a missed opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in the superhero genre. While many praise The Suicide Squad for being groundbreaking and for righting the wrongs of its 2016 predecessor, when it comes to Captain Boomerang, the same very old mistakes were made.
One could make the argument that had an Aboriginal person been cast as Captain Boomerang, issues with the character would be neutralised. But if Hamilton has taught us anything, it’s that casting people of colour in the roles of racist white people doesn’t absolve them of racism. Besides, Blak creatives deserve far better than bringing to life a character who has hated them for decades.
Casting people of colour in the roles of racist white people doesn’t absolve them of racism.
If James Gunn and his “horribly beautiful mind” had really wanted to update The Suicide Squad, he might have included Thylacine. Not only is she the DC Universe’s first Aboriginal superhero in over three decades, but she’s actually one of the Suicide Squad’s latest recruits in the comics. Her powers include heightened senses and heightened agility.
Thylacine, aka Corinna, is a deadly Ngarluma hunter from the Pilbara and was created by Australian comic creator Tom Taylor in careful consultation with Shari Sebbens and Cleverman creator Ryan Griffen. In her debut run, Thylacine even faces off with Captain Boomerang in an epic showdown between DC’s racist past in its better visions of the future. “Captain Boomerang is a very old character with very old ideas of what Australia is, and often very cliched and just a bit of a trope,” said Taylor.
And it’s a trope us Blakfellas are tired of seeing. Especially when kickass Blak superheroes like Thylacine exist. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the oldest living culture in the world. Our tools are not toys, gimmicks, or punchlines. They are part of a culture and history that is owed respect in popular culture.
Merryana Salem (they/she) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster. You can follow them on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they gush about LGBTIQ rep in media. Either way, she hopes you ate something nice today.