There’s one thing we can say about Justice League: no matter how Zack Snyder brings Superman back to life, it’s going to be a scene that’s hard to forget. Not only for the visual spectacle of Superman‘s resurrection, but because to this point, fans of the DCEU haven’t really seen the superhero they were expecting to (but not for the reason some disappointed viewers might think). Henry Cavill has brought the blue-and-red suited Man of Steel to life in two different films, and even teamed up with Batman and Wonder Woman… but that wasn’t Superman. Not yet, anyway. It’s going to take a death and resurrection to make this son of two fathers a superhero to stand on his own.
It may seem like a small distinction, but believe us, the version of the DCEU’s big blue Boy Scout who will play a “big” role in Justice League is almost certainly going to be something new. The conversation of whether he is a savior or a menace is over, having died alongside him in Doomsday’s wake. The Kansas farmboy trying to live up to his father’s hopes can rest easy. The last son of an alien empire trying to fulfill his father’s last wish can enjoy the victory. The world stands ready to embrace a new hero for a new era, and when he steps out of that grave in Smallville, it will be his first step as Superman, in all his glory.
From the looks of Justice League, he may not wait long to make his presence known to villains of the entire DCEU universe. But if you’re a little unconvinced that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel story has all been leading to this birth of the “true” Superman, allow us to explain.
Living Up To Jonathan Kent
The story of Jonathan Kent comes to a head in his death, both literally and thematically. The scene begins, fittingly, with Clark complaining that his family’s existence is too “safe,” and that he longs to do something “useful.” Jonathan keeps a cool head as he makes a stand for all of middle America, first with words, and soon with action, as a tornado appears to guarantee “safe” has gone out the window. What does Jonathan do? He commands his son to head for cover, and protect his mother above all else. Clearly valuing his wife and son more than his own life, he heads towards the danger.
Many critical of the film are likely to check out at that point, believing Jonathan should have obviously had his invulnerable son do the rescuing, as he heads for cover with his wife (or that Clark would already be Superman, and leap into action against his father’s wishes).
But that is not Jonathan Kent. That is not the man who raised Clark. And that is the exact kind of human heroism people tend to admire in the hardworking, farming, ‘salt of the earth’ America. When Clark heads back to retrieve the family dog, Jonathan again commands him to seek cover – passing a child into his arms, and demanding that Clark get his mother to the overpass. The audience is supposed to hope Clark will save the day, reveal he is a superhero pretending to be a farmboy, but the words that immediately follow drive home the point of the scene.
That flashback had begun with Clark expressing his desire for some danger, and his belief that simple Americans can’t be of much use to the world. Jonathan shows his son that safety is a gift, and that everyday acts of heroism are as useful as anything. It was the last lesson Jonathan taught his son – a lesson learned, as Clark then explains that “I let my father die… because I trusted him.” Clark put his desire for danger or greatness aside, and trusted his father’s warning. But in Batman V Superman, Jonathan returns to teach his son one more lesson.
After learning just how right his father was about humanity’s fear of someone different, Clark Kent – dubbed “Superman” by the world – sees his own hopes, ambitions, relationships, and even his intentions twisted by fear and suspicion. His emergence into the world has made him not a man, but a figure, a philosophical dilemma, until even the woman he loves doesn’t know if it’s possible to be together. Cue Jonathan Kent, explaining how someone to love can make the world seem a whole lot smaller.
In what appears to be a memory of his father, Clark gets some much needed perspective. Jonathan reminds him that they are simply “men from Kansas,” and that he, too, learned that pride comes at a price. That no matter what good you can do, others will always suffer. That realization haunted him until he met Martha, who convinced him there was goodness to be found in the world. He loved her, and she became his world. She became more valuable to him than his own life, in case any still doubted his reasoning during the tornado scene.
Clark only realizes his father’s meaning moments before his death, but it anchors Clark Kent’s story as that of a man, having integrated the wisdom of his father. Jonathan met Martha, and the world became simple, and good. Clark looks at Lois, and realizes the same. And true to his Kent name, that’s all the goodness Clark needs to put his life in danger to protect her.
Living Up to Jor-El
Since Jor-El is obliterated along with Krypton when Kal-El is still a baby, he typically plays a minor role in the actual formation of Superman. At least in terms of playing a true “father” role, since Jor-El is not the same kind of hero his son grows up to be… in fact, his defeat, and lack of power to change his world’s fate are what make that chapter of the story such a somber one. And on the surface, that is kept intact in Man of Steel, even if this version of the brilliant scientist Jor-El is a bit more… hands-on. This time around, though, his hopes for the baby Kal-El are a bit more profound.
Jor-El doesn’t intend to send his son to Earth so that he can simply survive, nor ensure Krypton’s own survival, as Zod sought to. When Kal first meets his father’s artificial intelligence aboard the Kryptonian Scout Ship, Jor-El explains the the destruction of Krypton wasn’t a catastrophe. The planet’s unstable core was the cause of the planet’s destruction, but was truly the result of Krypton failing on a species level. And for that reason, neither Jor-El nor his wife would be escaping the planet alongside their child. In this version of the story, Jor-El believed that ” Lara and I were a product of the failures of our world… and tied to its fate.”
A fate that began to form when Krypton turned away from discovery, from creativity, from hope and optimism… and sought control, strength, fear of the unknown, and pride in their strictly structured society. But by being born free from that social system and sent to Earth as a newborn, Jor-El explains…
“You’re as much a child of Earth now as you are of Krypton. You can embody the best of both worlds: the dream your mother and I dedicated our lives to preserve. The people of Earth are different from us, it’s true. But ultimately I believe that’s a good thing. They won’t necessarily make the same mistakes we did. Not if you guide them, Kal. Not if you give them hope.”
That “dream” he refers to is the return of the choice and chance that, he believed, had sparked Krypton’s own greatness. It’s the idea that children could dream of becoming something more, something greater than the role society intended: “You are the embodiment of that belief, Kal.” In no uncertain terms, Kal-El is his father’s dream of a better world made real. His hope that humanity would avoid the same fear, complacency, and resignation that had led to Krypton’s downfall. All his son need do is inspire them, and guide them towards a brighter future filled with possibilities.
Which is why Kal-El is feeling pretty defeated by the time Batman V Superman rolls around. Kal-El hasn’t succeeded in inspiring humanity. Some see him as a godlike figure, which is preferable to those who see him as a figure to unite against, but neither is what his father hoped. Jor-El hoped that his son, by being of both Krypton and Earth, could guide humanity towards the light… not lead them there. In the end, it was his Kryptonian father who showed him a dream, and his Earth father who showed him the way.
Seeing Jor-El’s dream of every person’s potential to be a force for good in Lois, Kal-El did what all Kents do and rushed in to save the day at the risk of his own life. But with Batman V Superman and Man of Steel telling the story of a single life, picturing them as one whole reveals the true journey our hero has taken. His story began with his father taking a blade to the chest, sacrificing his life in exchange for the mere hope of a better tomorrow… and it ends with his son meeting the same fate.
The only difference is that Kal-El chose that sacrifice, while Jor-El was killed by Zod. But when you consider that Jor-El’s hope was that his son would have a choice, him spending it to kill the monster born from Zod’s corpse is pretty poetic. Even Jonathan Kent’s hope is fulfilled, with his son’s sacrifice changing the world for the better, inspiring humanity because he embodied the strengths of another world, and the willingness to die to protect this one. And as Jonathan fell to protect those he loved, and Jor-El fell in defense of hope, their son falls having lived up to both of their legacies.
Which raises the question: what will he be when he rises?
No Longer a Son… But a Superman
From the above breakdown, it should be clear that to this point in the course of the DCEU, Clark Kent of Earth, once Kal-El of Krypton has simply been trying to live up to his fathers’ wishes. Understandably, the pressure seemed too much to bear at times. It isn’t that often that audiences get to see Clark Kent frowning over dinner, as pundits on late night news programs discuss the “threat” he poses. Not to mention how his inability to integrate “Clark” with “Kal” has distanced him from those he loves. In his final moments, he folds the two into one. And following his death, it appears all realize he really was just trying to be a force for good.
That origin story is, in hindsight… well, an actual origin story explaining how a baby sent from Krypton became the superhero the world now knows as “Superman” – a being who is greater than any normal man, not simply “different” or “unknown.” A man of his own making, with no legacy or deceased father’s shadow to attain or escape. A man who has learned the lessons of both fathers, of both worlds, sacrificed all he had in a demonstration of true, selfless, heroism… and lived to see the future he inspired.
To this point, the character has merely been a Man of Steel, or the Superman idea that Bruce Wayne went to war against out of fear and xenophobia. When he rises from his Kansas grave to show the world he still protects it… Superman will truly arrive, having earned every syllable of the name, and embodying the unbreakable resolve it promises.
It may have taken longer than some would have liked to get there, but it explains why “Super” isn’t describing his powers – it’s describing the man himself.