Warner Bros. have something big planned for Superman. The Justice League trailer was full of awesome DC moments – from a newly-purposed Bruce Wayne hunting down the metahumans to Aquaman riding the Batmobile before taking on parademons – but one thing notably absent was Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel. Of course, Clark Kent was killed at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but he’s set to be resurrected in the DCEU’s epic team-up as a culmination of his three-movie arc, making his absence rather pointed.
Indeed, despite not being in the recent trailer/poster reveals, Superman was present in the SDCC reveal image and Cavill takes second billing on the cast list (after Ben Affleck, naturally), so it seems like – as Zack Snyder has stated – he’s got a pretty large role to play. The conventional expectation is that it will be as the League’s ultimate savior, emerging from his grave to stop Steppenwolf from annihilating the Earth. However, one theory posits that it’s something less heroic – that Superman may actually be the villain of Justice League.
Essentially, the idea is that Kal-El isn’t simply resurrected by the power of the Sun/Kryptonian tech/other fantastical means by Bats and co., but by Ciaran Hinds’ villain as a way to pacify the team. Instead of just taking on a villain who is “old [and] tired” and a parade of identical henchmen, much of the gang’s efforts will be a concentrated on corralling a future teammate. Superman will inevitably be eventually redeemed by his innate humanity, but it gives the League a more personal foe that charges a later showdown again Darkseid.
That would certainly explain why he’s been hidden in the trailers. Yes, it surely helped social tracking to have the mystery of his absence, but when a return is so overtly teased at the end of the previous film it’s a bit moot. They’re trying to replicate “Where’s Luke?” from The Force Awakens when the base answer to the question feels known, so perhaps instead they’re hiding a complicated answer. It also explains the tight, purposeful editing of the trailer – it was theorized at the time the restrictive shots were avoiding Superman being part of the team, but it may be to hide that they’re actually fighting him.
It’s true that we know very little about Superman’s role in the film, to the point where the fact he wasn’t present for the candid set visit last June and almost all discussion being in the vein of “we don’t want to spoil it” suggests something beyond a standard Jesus-riff. From what we do know, it certainly doesn’t look like Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince think his return is possible, adding credence to him being resurrected by other means. Although it’s on a grander franchise scale where the true purpose of it may be.
What Would It Mean For The DCEU?
While making the Justice League’s defining superhero the bad guy in the first ever big-budget, live-action Justice League movie would certainly be bold, it wouldn’t be out of character for the director, studio or franchise so far. If anything, it actually plays into the arc that the DCEU has set up.
Zack Snyder has lifted from various elements across Superman’s near eight-decade history for his version, but when it comes to the overarching story the biggest inspiration is 1992’s The Death of Superman, which – as the name suggests – killed the Man of Steel (before he was brought back a year later). Warner Bros. has obsessed with this arc pretty much since publication and (along with a desire for latent Christ imagery) it has been at the centre of their approach to the character; the studio previously tried to adapt it with Superman Lives and did a light approximation with Superman Returns. But what Snyder has further brought to the table is the underlying question of whether Superman, an alien from another world simply assuming the title of protector, is actually good. Evil Superman is essentially the bringing together of all those threads for an action-packed conclusion
The DCEU so far has been asking “what does it mean to be a hero?”, and there’s no plainer way to extend that than by making its founding icon a temporary villain. This was the entire point of Man of Steel being a first encounter-style movie and in Batman v Superman provided the core motivation for Kal-El’s sacrifice, which, in terms of an arc, leaves little room for the development of Clark in Justice League; he wakes up from his nap and continues where he left off. Being an antagonist, however, provides that final barrier to overcome and tangibly realizes what’s been alluded to for the past two movies; although we’ve seen Supes and Batman fear the possibility of unchecked power, the only execution is the Knightmare sequence, which is more warning that genuine threat (a threat that’s rather flat without some element of it coming to pass).
I would be totally in line with Snyder’s particular ethos too. His approach to the DCEU is a full embodiment of the superheroes as Greek myths school of thought, which has led to very broad, big ideas realized in somewhat simple ways – in Batman v Superman, to raise the theme of “Should there be a Superman?” he simply had a montage where various characters asked “Should there be a Superman?” Snyder operates on a very clearly defined surface level where text and subtext are one and the same, and so having Superman go bad is the next step – especially given how Death‘s follow-up The Return of Superman had him in a black version of his iconic suit. Black equals evil, right?
On a more visceral level than all that, though, a reveal like this would allow Justice League to offer something beyond the simple uniting of the team. The thrill of iconic characters sharing the screen that so powered The Avengers has become dulled after more plentiful and frequent team-ups and has even already been played in the DCEU with Batman v Superman‘s Trinity. Having the League united by their leader’s darkness gives something unique to a film that many critics could find past the point when it arrives in November.
There is a strong counterargument to each element of this possibility, but it’s definitely within the realm of possibility and worthy of being entertained. Although while the points above definitely put it within an outside chance that Superman will be resurrected as an acolyte of Darkseid, vague thematic justification based on what we’ve seen so far isn’t enough to say it’d be a good thing to happen.
The Problems With The Idea
While it’s easy to focus on The Death of Superman when they, well, killed Superman, from a modern standpoint discussing this speculator-bubble-fuelled event is worthless without the second part. The Return of Superman was originally known as Rise of the Supermen – a multi-run spanning arc that featured four potential inheritors to the Superman title that culminated in the quartet revealed as villains/imposters and the original being brought back to life with a mullet. The whole thing is regarded as a mess by fans (something that makes Warner Bros.’ subsequent obsession so perplexing) and obviously needs changing for any big screen adaptation. But for all the aforementioned logic, is the ideological opposite of Superman the way to go?
When you really think about the whole concept, it’s rather baseless. The bad hero is infinitely less interesting than the conflicted one, and while Superman has overcome that internal struggle with his sacrifice, the idea of coming back from the dead and being a literal messianic figure is a fresh conflict in and of itself. There’s something so simple about making him evil – so reductive – that would make spreading it out over three movies feel like a waste. The ending of Man of Steel presented Clark Kent as if the classical Superman mythos was now upon us, but something so seismic puts BvS and Justice League still in origin story territory. A common criticism of the DCEU Superman is that it fundamentally misunderstands who Supes is, and even though like most decisions Snyder’s made it’s rooted in some comic source (in this case Injustice), it definitely takes us away from being a solid take.
The real problem with it, though, is the prospect of its resolution. This is something that has proven the DCEU’s major hurdle, evidenced by the two most controversial parts of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman; both Zod’s neck snap and Batman’s “Martha” were the culmination of the film’s dominant story thread where Snyder tried to convey a deep emotional conflict in a quick action moment. Whether you found them effective or not, it’s impossible to not cite them as divisive, and the danger is that this same idea will be repeated again in however Evil Supes is pacified. It’s proven that Snyder’s weakness is in culminating ambitious threads, so with a movie as strong at its core as Justice League and one that already has a Superman return regardless, he can sidestep any more issues by playing it straight and simple.
There’s a lot of intrigue in the prospect of making Superman a villain and it’s totally within the realm of possibility that Zack Snyder would choose to explore it in Justice League; it fits both his view on the character and the ideas he’s playing with in the DCEU. However, that view and those ideas have proven to not be totally universal, and for something as landmark as JLA’s big screen debut, it may actually be better to play purer and turn into a sense of hope.