[NOTE: The following post contains Major Spoilers for Batman V Superman]
The addition of Doomsday in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice didn't exactly bode well for the Man of Steel but, while hard core comic book readers knew that an appearance from the Kryptonian abomination could mean "The Death of Superman," casual audiences were shocked to see Clark Kent killed and buried in the film's final act. While specks of hovering dirt seemed to suggest that Superman would be back in action soon (especially given that the hero regenerated after nearly dying when he was struck by a nuclear missile earlier in the film) Justice League director Zack Snyder had also suggested the Man of Steel's return is not guaranteed to be an immediate one.
As a result, fans have kept busy debating exactly what the hovering dust meant - and, subsequently, what that hovering dust means for the future of Superman in the DCEU. Some even speculated Snyder's comments hinted that Superman will return as a villain in Justice League - as his resurrection could make him vulnerable to Darkseid's corruptive influence. So, how much Superman will we be getting in Justice League and what form will the Man of Steel return? Our time on the Justice League set gave us some idea.
Before getting into how much Superman there may be in Justice League, it's worth revisiting what, exactly, Snyder said about the character's death in the days after Batman V Superman released:
“He comes very close to death in space and the reason why we did that is because I wanted to show — and keep the idea in the viewer’s mind – that he can come pretty close to death and the sun can revive him, or he can be revived… [But] I think something more is gonna need to be done [to revive him this time]… I felt like there’s a mythological journey for Superman. There’s the birth, death, and resurrection thing. And when you bring him back, who knows what he is when he comes back.”
The last line, "who knows what he is when he comes back" was the main reason fans began speculating about a potentially malevolent turn for Superman post-resurrection. Given that a common criticism of both Batman V Superman and Man of Steel is that Kal-El's story is too dark and dour to deliver a fully-satisfying Superman movie experience, it's still hard to imagine that Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder, much less franchise consultant Geoff Johns, would want a third appearance by the character often seen as the personification of hope and virtue to be overshadowed by evil deeds.
After all, the film already has a villain in Steppenwolf, and seeing Superman fight a fellow hero was already the main selling point in Batman V Superman. No doubt, Snyder could go in that direction and see Superman fight Batman (again) along with the rest of the Justice League, but it's much more likely that the filmmaker will use Superman's sacrifice to fuel sympathy for the character and get fans excited about his return.
Which brings us to what we saw, or rather didn't see, on the set of Justice League: Superman. Other than a single image of the hero standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the Justice League, Superman information, artwork, and costuming was nowhere to be found on the set. Some readers will believe that's because Warner Bros. was restricting access to Superman details in order to keep the hero's fate secret (especially if he is a bad guy) but we were given pretty extensive access to the heroes, villains, and set piece concepts of Justice League - making for a relatively clear message: this is the story of the Justice League forming in the aftermath of, and because of, Superman's sacrifice. Yes, Superman (and actor Henry Cavill) will be in the film... but he's not taking center stage this time.
It's a sentiment that's reflected in the film's recently unveiled synopsis:
Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes—Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash - it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.
Understandably, some readers will interpret a "newly awakened threat" to mean Superman (reawakening from his near-death experience) but the synopsis also implies that "this newly awakened threat" is the aforementioned "even greater enemy" teased in the previous sentence. We know that Steppenwolf and Darkseid's parademon horde are featured throughout Justice League, and while all the pieces do not yet fit perfectly together, it's clear the enemy hinted at in the synopsis is Darkseid (moving his warriors into place from afar) - even if he doesn't take matters into his own hands directly until Justice League Part 2 (or later), relying instead on his minions to assault Earth in Part 1.
After all, as Lex Luthor suggested in the closing scenes of Batman V Superman, someone is coming: aliens from beyond the stars (read: Darkseid) have been informed of Superman's death - a bell that cannot be unrung.
For that reason, it's likely that while Batman and Wonder Woman - aided by the rest of the Justice League - may find a way to fully resurrect Superman, viewers shouldn't expect to see the character return to fighting shape (at best) until later in the film - possibly to turn the tide in that final catastrophic fight. We'll have to wait for more information, and potentially the film's 2017 release, to find out how Superman returns - since it took Kryptonian tech (and outside meddling) to bring him back in the original comic book story.
It may be as simple as returning Superman's body to a reanimation matrix in the downed Kryptonian scout ship, and letting him heal while the rest of the heroes join forces to hold off Steppenwolf, or Clark Kent's return could take a new twist in this version of the story - possibly with the help of those Mother Boxes (one of which already brought Victor Stone back to life and subsequently turned him into Cyborg).
Some fans will still be skeptical that Superman won't get a lot of screen time in Justice League but, after a central role in the first two DC films, and three new characters (not to mention a villain) to introduce in Justice League Part 1, it's as good a time as any for the Man of Steel to rest up and let other Earth heroes get a chance to save the day. And, perhaps, let the hearts of the audience grown fonder of him in his absence.
Suicide Squad will arrive on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman on June 2, 2017; Justice League 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 2 on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on July 24, 2020.