[Superman Fan Art by Ayhan Aydogan]
Long before Man of Steel ever jump-started DC’s shared movie universe, comic book movie fans had their opinions about Zack Snyder. Some saw his films 300 and Watchmen as artful adaptations of the graphic novel to a new form – while others saw them as indulgent messes. So, predictably, combining such an experimental director with a property as beloved and established as Superman resulted in a film that was just as divisive. And with DC’s biggest hero getting not just a follow-up adventure, not just a head-to-head showdown with Batman himself, but a movie launching the Justice League universe as a whole, lovers and critics of Snyder lined up to continue the debate.
Strangely enough, the criticisms of Dawn of Justice weren’t quite what we expected. Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman – both held by naysayers to be irrefutable proof of the film’s doomed future – were broadly praised… leaving Zack Snyder’s image of Superman to take the brunt once again. But still, the criticism often took on an unorthodox perspective. The usual claims were made (read: Snyder’s Superman is “not Superman” or “not my Superman”) but just as often, blog and fan sites were stormed by people who criticized Snyder and his writing team for the story they had chosen to tell – not how well they were actually telling it.
There’s no question that those who see Batman V Superman as a step in the wrong direction are entitled to their opinions, and Dawn of Justice is deserving of critical analysis, since an updated/modernized/re-imagined Man of Steel was always going to court heated conversation. But we can’t help but notice the actual story being told – the one that is Superman through and through – seems to have been completely overlooked, or criminally under-discussed.
That may be due to viewers, critics, or bloggers feeling Superman’s arc doesn’t deserve any attention, or they might have missed it completely. Either way, this Superman story is worth another look.
Because there’s one secret that the most rabid critics demanding a more traditional hero aren’t mentioning: as beloved as the classic, most well-known (stoic, optimistic, cheery, hopeful, courageous) version of Superman may be… he’s not all that interesting or relatable a character. Not as the blue-and-red side of the equation, anyway, since the moment he gets ‘Super’ and leaves the ground, the story does too, leaving much of his ‘human’ side behind – at least, the part an audience can actually relate to.
For those viewers who didn’t like Batman V Superman or simply don’t care for Snyder’s style, our dissection of Superman’s narrative isn’t likely to change your opinion. But even for those who had legitimate problems with the story, we hope to draw more attention to the subtler plot beats that never got discussed, let alone praised. In the end, we aim to show why Zack Snyder succeeded in telling one of the most relevant, inspiring, and accomplished stories starring the Man of Steel in recent memory – and unquestionably the most relevant on film – but to get there, we have to start at the beginning. After all, this story took two entire movies just to tell it.
Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan made it known that they were out to tell a very different Superman story this time around. One that, while honoring the source material, would look to re-define DC’s biggest icon – making him truly relevant to modern audiences. Considering that he’s remained as more or less the same, unassailable hero for over half a century, that in itself was guaranteed to court some detractors. Nevertheless, the resulting story told in Man of Steel grabbed onto ideas of society, community, family, destiny, xenophobia, and paranoia with both hands.
But more than anything else, the writers held true to their claims that Man of Steel was, at its core, the story of a man with two fathers. While faithful, that’s not usually the main narrative: Superman’s biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) dies not long after he’s born. His human father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), teaches him how to be a good man… then also dies, showing Clark that he can’t save everyone.
In Snyder’s version, the two men couldn’t have been more opposed: Jonathan Kent knew Clark was capable of great things… but the world – the viewer’s world, our world – wasn’t ready, and would react with fear and hate, not love and wonder. He believed it so strongly, he was willing to die so his son could have the life Jonathan wanted for him (essentially, a normal one). Jor-El, on the other hand, knowingly sent Kal-El to Earth to appeal to humanity’s better angels, trusting that they would follow his heroic example into greatness themselves.
But which father’s path would he choose? Whose belief would he trust? The human’s, or the Kryptonian’s?
Naturally, he chose the father who promised the greater mission – where Jonathan’s promised an identity crisis and life in isolation – and emerged as ‘Superman,’ Earth’s god-like protector from another world. After completely (and severely) dealing with invading aliens who embodied everything that actually should be feared about outsiders or demigods (like Jonathan Kent expected), the movie ended on a high note: Clark accepting his mission, and setting out to be the hero Jor-El hoped he would be.
But by then, Batman V Superman shows us, things had already started to go very, very wrong.
Although he wasn’t really to blame for the destruction and collateral damage wreaked upon Metropolis – Bruce Wayne conceding that Superman brought “war” to Earth, the real threat – Superman’s emergence and wish to do the right thing resulted in disaster. Despite his commitment to optimism, hope and trust in people’s inherent goodness at Man of Steel‘s close (classic Superman), Jonathan Kent’s words proved to be every bit as true. But like most sons, Clark had to learn the truth of his father’s advice for himself.
As soon as he arrived on the scene, BVS suggests, people were split; in a world where a piece of mail can’t be sent across borders without agencies inspecting it, fearing the worst, how could a man capable of doing or going as he pleases not instill fear? Or, in the words of famous interviewer Charlie Rose, it’s no surprise that “the most powerful man in the world should be a subject of controversy.” And, in truth, one look at human history confirms that as well-meaning as people may be, believing the absolute worst in even those trying to do good is inevitable.
Even worse, people seem split between two equally problematic opinions: that Superman is destined to become a villain (not really true), or that he’s a godlike savior (just as false). Snyder and Goyer may have pitched Man of Steel‘s premise as “what would actually happen if a flying man arrived tomorrow,” but it was only in the sequel that we see what they had in mind.
It’s as ‘meta’ as a Superman story can get: the Man of Steel learns that being a hero isn’t as simple, colorful, or as much fun as it used to be. And in a racially, religiously, politically, and morally conflicted world like our own, even ‘doing the right thing’ can come at a price and negative impact to someone, somewhere. Where Superman intervenes in modern nations or conflicts, people die – and those who mistrust him don’t wait to learn the specifics, simply accept it as proof of their suspicions.
But more importantly, whose rules should a superhero follow? As Rose similarly poses to a U.S Senator in the film, there’s one big question that all the discussion and hearings are building toward: is it morally or ethically right to let a person be killed because the citizens agreed that Superman shouldn’t be allowed to save them? That throws the flying, strength, X-ray vision, and the rest of the ‘Super’ right out the window: that’s a question being posed to the man (or, more accurately, human).
If the movie didn’t have to contend with introducing a brand new Batman, or planting seeds of the DCEU, the questions raised in these scenes could have been given more room to breathe – and could be explored more clearly in the R-rated Dawn of Justice cut. Forget a superhero: how does a country decide when it’s called to intervene on foreign soil? When does sovereignty take a backseat to human rights, or compassion? Those are the questions being posed to a single farmboy from Kansas, who is realizing everyday that his adopted father’s words may have been true, and exposing himself to a world that now fears him is a bell that can’t be un-rung.
And as his own government asks him to provide an answer, he hangs up the cape to figure things out.
It’s fitting, then, that this should be the time when a memory from his past resurfaces. As Superman– Clark realizes that ‘being a hero’ isn’t what he expected, and that as much good as bad seems to result from every action he takes, he remembers his father’s story of the time he learned the exact same lesson. The scale might be different, but Jonathan tells his son that seeing your best intentions go horribly wrong, or learning that pride often comes before the fall, are human – not Kryptonian – experiences. And as much as the cape and tights might make Clark feel like it’s a burden only he carries, his father shows that he’s simply learning that the path to becoming his own man can be a painful one.
Mistakes are made and, in Jonathan’s case, he’s haunted by the pain he caused, the family he troubled, and the false pride he enjoyed. The only thing that finally stops them isn’t some heroic victory, epic feat of strength, or even a balancing of the scales (you can’t un-make your mistakes) – it’s the love of a good woman.
When he had no reason to stop questioning whether he did good or bad, or what kind of man he really was, it was only Martha Kent who put the questions to rest. That distinction is important: she didn’t answer the questions – they can never really be answered, and Jonathan seems neither proud nor haunted. She just made him stop asking, or believing that these grand questions of what it means to be a hero need to be answered – or even can be.
And remember: deep down, Jonathan Kent was an optimist, despite those who claim Zack Snyder turned Superman’s greatest supporter into a proponent of paranoia and mistrust. Man of Steel showed that Jonathan recognized greatness in Clark even as a child, and even Martha concedes that Jonathan saw the truth about Clark “is beautiful.” He didn’t defeat his demons – at least, that’s not how his story/advice/memory describes it – he found a woman to love, who became “his world,” and the question of whether he was a hero or not stopped mattering.
It is, if nothing else, the kind of Middle-America wisdom you would expect from a humble farmer. And despite being a scene between Superman and his adopted human guardian, it’s truly a passing of wisdom from father to son.
In the interest of not making this too subtle (and in keeping with comic book conflicts) Snyder lets the dilemma take physical form thanks to Batman, embodying the certainty that if Superman could be a threat, then he is a threat. Ironically, being challenged as a demigod (and trying to be killed for being one) actually brings out the human side of Clark more than anything ever could. After all, like Bruce’s feeling of powerlessness has, in the words of Alfred, “turned a good man cruel,” so too does the loss of his superpowers turn Superman into an angry, brutal combatant.
Being drawn to the ‘man’ side of his upbringing and identity is all well and good, but the fact remains: as ‘Superman,’ Clark is at odds with himself on a fundamental level. As Batman claims, that also means he has never truly known what it is to be a man – a problem the Dark Knight remedies with the use of kryptonite gas grenades. The result, he narrates, is that for the first time in his life, Clark Kent knows what it means to be afraid. He may not intend or even say it, but the implied message is clear: Batman has sought to crush Superman’s will, but in the process, has made Clark Kent nothing more than a man for the first time in his life.
And men, he soon learns, feel fear. Without that… there is no bravery.
It’s worth pointing out that Superman is actually beaten, giving Batman the moral, philosophical, and physical victory. But as the embodiment of man’s worst, cruelest impulses stands perched to kill the alien “incapable of knowing what it means to be a man,” a woman intervenes. A woman for whom the ‘alien’ she loves as a man has become her world, sliding in to rescue the man who loves her, and who has entered the gladiator match to save the woman who had been his world… who just so happens to share a name with the woman who has come to define his would-be killer’s world.
Needless to say, if Man of Steel is a story about fathers and manhood, then Batman V Superman is just as much a movie about mothers, or womanhood. After all, Bruce Wayne is experiencing the opposite kind of crisis to Clark: having passed the age his father was when he died, Bruce has no lessons to learn, no legacy to adopt… he is, quite literally, a man without any father (even Alfred is framed as more of a partner, not mentor this time around). But Bruce’s mother? Well, the mere mention of her name returns him to the pain and loss he felt the moment of her death.
Of the two, Bruce Wayne is clearly the more troubled. Is it any coincidence, then, that the woman who remains his world is one shot dead on the sidewalk, “for no reason at all”? Jonathan Kent only made sense of the world when he found someone to love – without the same, Bruce Wayne is tortured, living in a world that only makes sense once he’s “forced it to” (bonus ‘oblivious’ points for Bruce Wayne ‘dreaming’ of a ruthless, rage-consumed madman who lost his link to humanity when the woman he loved was killed… and not appreciating the irony).
We’ll point out once more that as Lex Luthor claims that “every little boy’s special lady is their mother,” it’s Martha Kent who is used to bring Superman to his knees, not Lois Lane (Amy Adams). It’s evidence that Clark’s world still revolves around his childhood home: he returns to his mother for advice, not Lois, simply informing her of his decision. So Lex may be more correct than he realizes, since the fight that follows will be started, and finished, based on that exact idea.
When Clark is at his most defeated, he even frames it in terms tied to his upbringing, claiming that “Superman was never real. Just a dream of a farmer from Kansas.” But most viewers may not realize that, since Jonathan never voiced the idea of becoming Superman, it’s likely Clark is actually referring to himself here. The implied realization is that Clark has questioned whether the human farmboy is who he really is; if he’s nothing but a man in the worst way.
Like his father smiled with a mouthful of ‘hero cake’ as his own mother comforted him, Clark seeks out his own. But he remains so mired in questions, so willingly isolated, that he fails to see he’s still walking the same path towards manhood that Jonathan did years earlier.
Throughout the story, as Clark is swept up in the global discussions, massive threats, and identity crisis finally coming to a head, he’s failing to see what the audience is being shown (or told) at every turn: that Lois Lane is the key. And specifically, she’s the key to Superman’s humanity. If the core question posed by Man of Steel really is ‘will Clark Kent pursue a life as a human, or a life as a superhero?’ then it’s Lois Lane who helps him answer it – or, as Jonathan might say, helps him stop asking the question. By the movie’s end, Lois is also what brings these many subplots to a head, offering a conclusion that Superman’s (traditional better-than-human) characterization usually makes impossible.
It isn’t until the final battle that the points are driven home (for Superman AND the audience) when Clark, for the second time, encounters kryptonite. This time, he does it willingly. As he’s shaken back into consciousness, feeling weak – and human – clarity finally arrives. Having been crushed under the (literal) boot of mortality, having prevailed over the fear and paranoia his human father warned him of, and having lost his childish assumptions about the mission his alien father encouraged, he’s left with Lois Lane by his side.
It’s here where he finally realizes what Jonathan meant, acknowledging that Lois has become what his mother had been to his father. For him, like Jonathan, the new sense of purpose is immediately clear, with even the film’s musical score quieting to drive the point home. It really shouldn’t be understated: this is one of, if not the most human moment imaginable for the character, with Clark mortal, injured, and not actually thinking of being a hero or of grasping his duties to mankind. He’s just a man who has found a woman to love, like his father before him, who had become “his world.”
Having finally walked the path of a man – not a Superman, or alien, or anything else – and having experienced the pain and fear which, according to Batman, were the only things that made bravery possible, he cracked a smile, kissed Lois goodbye, and flew towards his death.
It’s this moment that seems to have been lost in the discussion about Zack Snyder’s love or disdain for Superman more than any other: the moment in which Kal-El of Krypton finally learns what it means to be human – finally is human – followed immediately by the decision to sacrifice it all. And, viewing both Man of Steel and Batman V Superman as one narrative, the success of that story really does depend on viewers acknowledging it, even if they may not appreciate or enjoy its delivery.
When faced with the impossible tale of a man of two worlds, two fathers, two completely different ideologies, Zack Snyder and his team found a way to not do more than satisfy one of the sides – the wealth of ‘Super’ in Man of Steel – or even make some larger, grand statement about the impossibility of satisfying both – Batman V Superman‘s most obvious theme. Despite the odds, they managed to raise those questions and then some… before satisfying both sides of Kal-El’s identity. And in the realm of “Superman” mythology, those stories are nowhere near as common as some might believe.
Prior to the end, Superman achieved what his adopted father hoped he would: made a good life, in the humblest, most human terms. And having found it, he gave it all up. There isn’t the slightest hint that he intended his sacrifice or actions to inspire humanity around the globe, as his birth father had dreamed. But judging by the State funeral back home, and the gathering of all walks of life at his memorial in Metropolis (“if you seek his monument, look around you”), he succeeded.
And he did it by embracing his humanity. He did it by sacrificing like only a human can… and in the process, became Earth’s greatest hero – not Krypton’s.
There are obvious parallels to be made, like those in Man of Steel, to any savior or Christ-like figure (having united people, or saved them from their worst instincts in death, more than he could in life). But Snyder’s version of Superman – an alien who found out what it meant to be a human, and became a hero in sacrificing it – is driven home during the juxtaposed funeral scenes in Washington, D.C. and on the Kent farm.
Casual comic fans may not know, but in the pages of DC Comics, Superman’s body was laid to rest at his monument in Metropolis. It’s a decision that seems fitting until, like Lois Lane years later, you realize that Superman’s family was left with nothing to bury, resigned to commemorating his passing by burying a box of photos, and his baby shoes. But as Wonder Woman and Batman carry Superman’s body to where it belongs – the lap of the one who loved him most – the film makes the point clear in a single image: the body of Clark Kent, a Kansas farmboy laid to rest at home.
He was raised as a hero who would never be at peace, but in his last moments, found it. That’s the kind of sacrifice that should make sense to any man, and every hero. But delivered by Zack Snyder, it became the one sacrifice that only Superman could make – and in return, it’s the sacrifice that made his Superman.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is now playing in U.S. theaters. Suicide Squad will arrive on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman on June 2, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17, 2017; The Flash on March 16, 2018; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps. on June 19, 2020.
Header Art by Ayhan Aydogan @ArtStation.