Everything Snyder Gets Wrong in Batman v Superman Reinforces Why The Man of Steel is Essential
One of the first comic books I remember reading as a child was Death of Superman, a cross-title event series from publisher DC Comics that, you guessed it, culminates in the death of Superman. The book was given to me in trade paperback form — a collection of individual issues compiled into one book — in a shoebox filled with dozens of other TPB and single-issue comics, by my Uncle Fred. I read through so many of those books and gained an early appreciation for the medium because of that shoebox. Thanks for that, Uncle Fred.
Death of Superman, as the title suggest, was a bleak time for the Man of Steel. The plot follows the emergence of a monster who just appears out of nowhere called Doomsday (yes, the same one from the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only looking less like the terrible Michael Bay-produced CGI Ninja Turtles), who pretty quickly gets to work fulfilling his namesake.
After walloping the Justice League International team and rampaging through Metropolis, Superman finally confronts the behemoth and they duke it out in big comic book brawl for the ages. Eventually, they literally beat each other to death. In in one of the series’ more memorable images,, Lois Lane cradles Superman’s bloody body in her arms, as the legendary ‘S’ cape billows behind them, tattered and torn.
This story, written and drawn by a slew of DC scripters and artists across multiple Superman titles, most predominantly Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Storm, Jon Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, and Jackson Guice, has received a bevy of praise and criticism, making the storyline one of the most controversial in comics history. Most of the criticism stems from the book’s aftermath – the “return” part of the story, when Superman comes back to life (no one in comics stays dead except for Uncle Ben). Others were none too happy with the brutality Supes took part in during the Doomsday arc.
This was a new spin on the character; one typical of the so-called “Dark Age of Comic Books”, a period beginning in the mid-80s and running through the 90s in which the industry shifted toward darker, grittier, and supposedly more mature stories. Comic books titles like Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.’s Daredevil: The Man without Fear and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen became huge hits, inspiring this wave, eventually reaching even the Man of Steel himself. Superman would not be the only Golden Age character to undergo a major shift in tone on account of these ultra-violent, darkly conceived stories – but his was one of the more dramatic swings.
Superman has always stood for three basic principles: Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Naturally, he is a symbol of optimism; it’s rooted in his origin. The character was created by two scrawny Jewish guys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were trying to scrape by in a brutal, depressed economy. I don’t need to give a history lesson for readers to understand that the 1930s were a tough time for the United States. When Action Comics #1 hit shelves in 1938, America was just four years away from officially entering the Second World War. It was a precarious time for American citizens mentally, physically, and even morally.
More than just a personal statement from Siegel and Shuster, sons to Jewish immigrants (Despite what Zack Snyder’s movies imply, Superman is not a Christ figure; he was tucked in a breadbasket and sent to a strange land so he might live – like Moses, the archetype Jewish immigrant), the character was a bright, colorful symbol of those core tenants of the American Experiment: Truth and Justice. The character was meant to inspire Americans, to help them persevere through the Depression.
Superman was an antidote to the gloom that filled their daily lives – a dosage of optimism that helped remind everyone, “We Can Do It.” Superman pursued the good to no end; he saved every life, because he believed inherently that every life was worth saving. From Superman’s inception, he saw grace in humanity, making him an enduring symbol of hope, from 1938 through present day.
I mention all of this history because it’s important in understanding the way I approached superhero comics as a teenager, and the way I suspect Zack Snyder still approaches them. I did not like that version of Superman for a long time. Frankly, I hated the character; I just couldn’t get into his style at all. He was always strong – in every sense of the word – and that was so boring to me. As far as I could see, the only tragic flaw Superman possessed was that he “cared too much”, which was an idea I could not roll my eyes at hard enough.
Superman was boring, but the dark stuff was great. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck’s Spider-Man crossover story, Kraven’s Last Hunt and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – these were the superhero stories I was drawn to. As a somewhat-angry and rebellious teenager (as most are), I ate up the surface-level subversion those kinds of stories served up, without really caring to understand anything else about them.
What I’m saying is, by the time I was seriously reading comics, it was a post-Miller/Moore world: The Joker could rape fan-favorite characters (or, at least, implied rape), Batman could kill and Superman could die. I can’t remember reading comics at a time when they didn’t include some element of darkness, so in a way, I was predisposed to disliking Superman’s whole Norman Rockwell, Greatest Generation vibe.
I’m old enough now to recognize that the reason why I didn’t like Superman as a teenager is because he was everything I wasn’t. He was powerful, and in my life as a mostly unrecognized high schooler, I felt powerless. Altruism came naturally to Superman, and I had to fight myself over caring for anything outside of my own interests. Morally, Superman was the model I knew I should strive toward, but I felt like I could never live up to that image, which cultivated a sense of resentment toward the character.
Now, it’s a different story. I’ve lived through my own share of existential- panic-inducing global tragedies, and I came of age, politically speaking, during the Bush Two administration. I watched the Twin Towers crumble on live TV, and a couple of years later, I watched the nation launch the War on Terror with a “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign, also on live television. I began to realize that we were living in dark and perilous times, not unlike those that inspired Siegel and Shuster to conceive of a character who could swoop in and save the day – a character that had all the answers.
I recognized that every trait I loathed about the character – his politeness, his sacrificial nature, and his straight-laced heroism – was in some way a defense against the darkness of the world. Even Superman’s quiet, modest approach to being a good person feels like an antidote to the toxic cynicism everyone on earth helps create in some way. I understood how important such a symbol is to humanity.
Zack Snyder, I now fully believe, never had that Road to Damascus moment with the character. The director, who for some reason was awarded the contract for blueprinting the narrative and aesthetic tone of the entire DCEU, appears to be someone who still looks at Superman and sees a major dweeb. In both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Snyder does everything he can to downplay or question all that defines the Man of Tomorrow. Snyder’s Superman doesn’t seem to be interested in saving people, or stopping crime at all – a point that Snyder makes over and over again, both purposefully and unintentionally.
Case in point: In BvS, Superman has a bizarre hallucination, or dream, or something (the film, like in so many other instances, is unclear on exactly what it is we’re watching), where Pa Kent tells his adopted son a strange story about damming a flood rushing toward the Kent Farm. Doing so caused the flood to redirect toward a neighboring estate, drowning their horses and killing the family’s livelihood. I may be fuzzy on the details of that scene, but Snyder’s intention is clear: he wishes to remind Superman – and the viewers – every action, heroic or villainous, has consequences, intended or otherwise, and more often than not, those consequences are negative. Life is fatalistic, so why should Superman even bother with this superhero business in the first place?
I’ll admit that I find this angle an interesting idea to tackle with superhero mythology. It’s not exactly a novel concept, because it’s a theme inherent in the characterization of most superheroes (“With great power, comes great responsibility” and all that). Nonetheless, the theme is flush with interesting questions surrounding the moral and ethical implications of deciding to devote one’s life to super-altruism. I can’t exactly fault Snyder and his screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio for approaching the film from this angle.
What I can take issue with, however, is the relentlessly pessimistic perspective with which Snyder views this subject. If the director had attempted to balance the “being hero is hard and maybe not worth it” stuff with events that convey in Superman even a shred of internal conflict over the idea, maybe this approach would have landed. It’s crazy saying this, but it was too big an ask for Snyder to have filmed a scene in which Superman heroically and selflessly saves innocent people, while taking pride in the act. That kind of thing doesn’t happen once in the movie, because Superman is sad all of the time.
In fact, Snyder goes so far as to set up just such a scene, before literally blowing it. One where Superman is ready to express why he chooses to be Superman — in a Congressional hearing no less, so pretty much before the whole world. It could have been a moment where the audience both understands why Superman wants to be a superhero, and why he resists the call. But Snyder totally whiffs it. He turns this potentially crucial moment of characterization into an utterly nonsensical plot point. The scene is so off the mark, it actually feels spiteful toward Superman. Which, I now understand, is perfectly fitting: Zack Snyder does not take Superman, nor his commitment to Truth, Justice, and the American Way, seriously. He would rather laugh snidely at all of that, like I did as a child.
At one point, the movie spews out a throwaway joke that is so indicative of how much Snyder misunderstands (or, outright hates) Superman as a character. Clark Kent is in the Daily Planet’s newsroom, pitching some kind of feel-good story on Superman to his editor, Perry White, to which White replies (I’m paraphrasing here): Nobody wants that kind of story anymore…it’s not 1938!
After trudging through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, emerging with a renewed sense of appreciation for Superman, I have to completely disagree with Snyder. I now know that he doesn’t want that kind of story, but judging from the film’s dismal Rotten Tomatoes score, and it’s even more embarrassing, record-setting weekend-to-weekend drop off at the box office, it’s safe to say that audiences do, in fact, want that kind of story.
The question is: will the suits at Warner Bros. hear the referendum? Will they bench Zack Snyder, or will they allow him to trounce all over Superman yet again?