Zack Snyder is a fascinating filmmaker. He’s one of the most visually engaging, energetic and splendid filmmakers alive today. He’s also, by all accounts, a decent guy behind the scenes who seems to have great relationships, intentions and ambitions as a filmmaker.
He’s also an incredibly flaccid storyteller. When he’s not working off of the framework of better storytellers (300, Watchmen), he’s making hollow films with huge ideas and no means to fully express them (Dawn of the Dead, Sucker Punch).
This is clearly the case for his two completed DC Comics adaptations. Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman are two of the most ambitious and enthralling pieces of visual storytelling in the superhero genre to date. Theyre fluid, massive and eye popping films but the most basic level of introspection reveals a casual lack of confidence.
Even if you remove the disturbing visuals, bleak tone and high body counts, both of these films are dreary and joyless films that disabuse two of the most popular children’s characters to tell a “mature” story about despair, trauma and the terror of Godhood.
With the release of the infamous Snyder-Cut of Justice League this week, I wanted to go back and watch the two films with fresh eyes. I don’t think I’d fully sat through either film since 2016 when the latter was released. I was curious how they’d stack up upon reflection.
In doing so, I came to two strange conclusions about the films.
First being that they’re still not great (unsurprising).
Secondly, there’s alot going on in those films that’s worth discussing: these film seem to have developed the rabid fan base they have because they’re essentially perfect DC Comics films!
In alot of ways, I actually think Snyder is the perfect fit for the kinds of stories that DC Comics has long wanted to tell with their characters. Snyder and DC both share the same pretentious to pseudo-mythic storytelling and the believe that comic books are the next big medium for literary storytelling.
You can see it in the way that DC casts its cast of heroes. DC likes to treat its characters like a pantheon of Gods. This is event in all of their properties from The New Gods to Injustice: Gods Among Us. Even non-powered characters like Batman and Green Arrow are treated like Godlings and forces of nature.
Like, Green Arrow is just a dude. His only power is Communism and Archery?! Why is he fighting literal Gods?!?
Modern DC writers treat their heroes and villains with the power and grandeur that Norse, Greek and Roman writers treated their Gods with. They’re treated like forces of nature who’s whims can shake the foundations of the Earth. They’re above us, beyond us and we have no power to stop them. We live and die by their mercy and grace.
There’s a grandiloquence to this DC that’s part of the core of their brand appeal. Marvel treats its heroes like celebrities and everyday people. They live in normal cities, pay rent and struggle with relationship issues. When people meet Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, on the street, they ask him for his autograph. Whereas DC characters are looked at with adoration.
It’s clear this appeals to comic readers because fans of the medium have struggled with the fact that they’re favorite medium is quintessential “childrens” literature since its foundation and want to be able to hand out stories that reflect the emotional importance these stories have for them. Being able to treat Superman and Wonder Woman like secular demigods walking around us gives the stories an air of weight and importance to them.
That’s all well and good in a Grant Morrison/Ancient Aliens kind of way but the thing DC Comics and Warner Brothers lack is a sense of moral content behind these Godlings. These characters have gotten progressively less moral and more violent as time has gone on.
The comics have gotten more dark and mature and yet that’s mostly manifested in superfacial ways like cheap gore, gratuitous death and destruction and hardcore nudity (see: the time DC literally drew Batman buck naked/free ballin for the world to see).
There’s a reason why an unironically good character like Superman gets constantly rewritten as a villain frequently in modern retellings. Writers simply don’t know how to conceive how to write power and human decency in the same body and mind.
For a character supposed to be the secular rendition of a modern Christ-figure, Superman doesn’t have any sort of wisdom or guidance to BE a benevolent Demigod. He works much better as a character in fact when the writers focus more on Clark Kent and play up his common decency as sincerity and boyish innocence.
That’s why the Christopher Reeves Superman movies always worked! No matter how cynical the world was, Superman was always a good man! He was just a man of uncommon kindness and decency in the world of 1970s corporate America.
Consider them how Zack Snyder approaches the quintessential character of Superman. Thus far, he’s had a two movie character arc that was superficially wrapped up in the theaterical cut of Justice League. Disregarding the third part, what kind of story has Snyder been telling with the world’s most popular and optimistic superhero?
Man of Steel had an amazing opening thematically. We’re introduced to Krypton as a decadent dying world. It’s a tyrannical kingdom of selfish bureaucrats and eugenicists who have rebuilt society from the ground up to be entirely artificial. They’ve gone too far and now their world is literally breaking apart.
In a last ditched effort to save the planet, Zod performs a fascist military coup to save what they can and Jor-El attempts to send the last natural-born child of Krypton to a new world to start fresh and carry on the legacy of their world.
Immediately though, we’re faced with a contradiction. Clark Kent is a Godlike alien sent from the heavens to shape the destiny of the Earth. He isn’t coming with a clear mission though. He’s not Prometheus or Lucifer defying the whims of a tyrannical father figure. He’s not an angel or a Christ-figure coming to deliver the word of God to a broken world (Earth is otherwise portrayed in the film as beautiful and humanistic in Terrance Malick style slow shots of rural American life).
I guess you could say Jor-El is sending him to be the last refugee of his people but he knows full well that he’ll be regarded as a God among them and that the planet is deeply flawed.
As he grows up, the young Kryptonian struggles with his sense of meaning. This version Clark Kent has no affirmative ideology. He represents nothing. He is driven by nothing. All he does is “the right thing”.
That’s nice and all but he’s otherwise so existentially burdened that I don’t know why people think he’s so important. He’s significant as an alien because his existence disrupts a number of our preconceptions about life, faith and the universe but he, in himself, is not special besides the fact that he can punch REALLY HARD.
So this version of Clark Kent more or less spends the first thirty years of his life as a wandering vagrant doing kind deeds and then disappearing like a sexy version of the 1970s Incredible Hulk. He doesn’t really know what he wants but eventually he finds out he’s an alien from Krypton and that he has the power to change the world by setting an example for what they could be!
I’m not exactly sure what a depressive 20-something is gonna contribute to the world besides CrossFit advice but whatever…
So when Zod comes to Earth, we finally have his antithesis and a moral challenge for him to work against. Zod is everything Cal-El left behind on Krypton: he’s a violent, genocidal sociopath who is honor bound to a racist code that puts his own people above all other life in the universe.
So why did he come to Earth?
We learn at one point that Zod only came because he followed then tracking signal that was activated by Clark activating the alien ship in the Arctic. Clark’s desire to come to terms with his identity and powers creates the threat of the movie.
That… adds some interesting color context for Clark Kent’s journey. Superman, functionally, makes the world more dangerous by his very presence. His desire to learn more about his identity and meaning accidentally imperils the Earth. It’ll be a theme that continues to reappear throughout the two movies.
Moving on though, Clark eventually destroys the Kryptonian ships and faces Zod alone on the battlefield as the last survivors of their species. As we find out in Zod’s final soliloquy, he’s a genetically engineered being. His entire motivation from the start of the film has been preprogrammed. He’s psychotically loyal to Krypton and his people and he’ll stop at nothing to follow his programming.
Zod thus represents total adherence to the failure of Krypton. He represents the last vestige of his people’s failure and their affect on the rest of the universe.
Here we get Clark’s first major moral decision. Clark rejects his home world and people, destroys the baby-making spaceship AND the Terraforming device and kills Zod in cold blood. Krypton has been totally repudiated and left to be forgotten.
Now there’s been a lot of talk since 2013 about the moral implications of Superman killing Zod but I’m not terribly interested in the implications of them at the moment. Zack Snyder, David Goyer and Christopher Nolan wanted to write their own character with this new rendition and automatically excluding the possibility of a no-win scenario wasn’t something they wanted to write. I can overlook the “Superman doesn’t kill” thing for the sake of a stand-alone story.
The only real problem with it is that the story doesn’t comment upon it. He’s not disturbed by killing his last Kryptonian brother for more than a few minutes. He doesn’t regret it enough to dedicate his life to protecting life at all costs (which would’ve made a good setup for his sacrifice at the end of the next movie).
The most important thing about Clark’s decision to understand is that he’s made an affirmative decision to be a human rather than a Kryptonian. He has the powers of a Godling but he refuses to abandon his surrogate homeworld to protect his genetic line. Unfortunately this moment is confused by a lack of what Clark believes his true purpose is as Superman.
Superman has definitely staked his moral claim in some regard. He’a NOT Kryptonian. What is he though?
Again, this Superman lacks moral content. He’s entirely dedicated to rejecting everyone around him, besides Lois, and he never has a moment where people ask him why he does why he does. There’s no great speech in front of all of humanity where this alien refugee asks the world to come together in peace or to “be excellent to one another”.
He just simply IS hope despite the fact that he seems to make things worse by his presence. Both movies allude to the idea that Superman is a symbol of “hope” (his S symbol famously symbolizes Hope on Krypton) but it’s never explained how or why. Why does an alien being arriving on Earth give hope to the hopeless? It’s never fully explored or explained what that’s supposed to mean.
There’s a moment in the prologue to the theatrical cut of Justice League that kind of implies he does everything out of his love for Lois Lane but that’s the closest any movie comes to saying what it is about life that drives him to do the right thing. Beyond that, there’s not much to work with.
In the comics, Superman was always the representive of “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. In order for that to be true, he needs a challenge where those ideals are questioned and his adherence to them saves the day. Instead we got a film about rejecting the past at all costs, that teaches that our desires for good come with unintended costs and that cultures are things to be rejected.
Superman doesn’t even trust the Army in this film… he just asks to be left alone and promises not to be a bad guy!! When they don’t listen to them he destroys their drones and satellites until they they do what they’re told.
I’m not sure Man of Steel realizes that it’s not saying positive things about this Superman when he does this…
MovieBob has a great point on this in his spoiler review for the film:
“It doesn’t really have a strong sense of what it’s trying to accomplish, at least nowhere near it’s sense of what it doesn’t want to be. It doesn’t want to be the Richard Donner Superman. It doesn’t want to be Superman Returns. It doesn’t want to be the Superman of the DC animated universe or even the comics. Which in and of itself is troubling because it means the filmmakers are starting from the premise that the material they’re starting from is somehow broken or inadequate and in need of their repair. But that wouldn’t be a dealbreaker if the did have some kind of new revolutionary take on the material.”
The film is so deeply averse to falling into the cliches of other Superman stories that it doesn’t build off of the foundation of the character in a meaningful way. If you want to write a morose, existentially bothered Superman story that explores the nature of power and godhood, go right ahead! You just need to fully commit to it.
Then of course, we get to Batman vs. Superman. This film is either one of the most hated and controversial pop films in decades or a shining example of cinema at the height of it’s abilities. It’s fans adore it beyond all reason and it’s critics despise it beyond all reason. It rewrites the entire DC mythos to build radically new renditions of its most famous characters and yet never fully digs into the craw enough to justify its characters actions.
This is a movie so dark that Lex Luther kidnaps Superman’s mother and threatens to torture her and burn her alive as a witch if he doesn’t commit cold blooded murder and destroy the Batman (this was pretty much the moment that alienated me from the story when I saw it opening night).
Let’s not breeze by that point either. Batman vs Superman is DARK. It’s probably the most superficially dark and unsettling film to earn a PG-13 rating in the last decade.
Yet it’s not just doing it for shock value. BvS spent three years in production and set itself up as the be-all, end-all of mythical and thematically deep superhero films. It wanted to be the film that turned the genre of Superman and Iron Man into proper cinema and tell an equavilent story to something like The Godfather and Goodfellas did for mobster films.
In execution, well you either like this movie or you don’t…
Ignoring the “quality” arguments for a moment, the film takes the themes established in Man or Steel and starts fully developing them. If the first film was merely distrustful of power and goodness, this film full on deconstructs the notion of Christ-like power down to the bones and leaves nothing left.
If there were ever an argument that the DC Heroes are totally amoral Gods, we see it in the opening scene of BvS where Bruce Wayne witnesses the cataclysm of the final scenes of the last movie as 9/11 style disaster wherein hundreds of thousands of people suddenly die in the rubble of falling buildings. It’s horrific and tragic. We’re lead to fear what’s happening to these humans caught in the rubble in the same way a natural tragedy leaves us shocked. We just watch human bodies get chewed apart by metal and fire and squander in the aftermath while Superman and Zod fight over the fate of the world.
If there’s any moral to the scene, it’s that humanity deserves to hate the Gods…
As will become clear though, nobody in the film hates Superman more than Clark Kent himself…
Clark Kent in this film is even more morose and self loathing than ever. The life of being the world’s savior is shown as burdensome and exhausting. He’s endlessly criticized by the news media and people show up in mobs to protest him as a “False God” and an abomination against God.
As quickly becomes clear though, It’s not just Superman who doesn’t like what he is. The movie itself hates Superman and distrusts the nature of what he is. The entire film’s plot rests on the notion that Superman is dangerous and untrustworthy and it’s clear the story agrees.
We even see it in the tiny details. As Cinema Sangha writes:
“This Superman is not a man of the people – he doesn’t seem to ever grant interviews, for instance – and he is constantly aloof. While the movie gives Batman and Lex Luthor a very particular (and well argued) point of view about this god among us, it offers no counterpoint for Superman. Superman himself doesn’t even seem to be very invested in being a hero or saving people. He never has a scene where he puts forth any kind of philosophy (and every character in this movie gets a scene where they are allowed to pontificate on sophomore-level philosophy). It’s because Snyder doesn’t believe in what Superman stands for. He doesn’t believe in the idea that he’s just a guy trying to do right by the world, and that he doesn’t have to learn to do right or be convinced not to quit, that this just is how Superman is. It’s as integral to him as his Kryptonian powers. Because Snyder can’t understand that aspect of Superman he undermines it at all times. His Superman engages in the bare minimum amount of heroism. We see Batman taking care of more business than Superman, who mostly helps the people closest to him (we also see Bruce Wayne save more people during the Battle of Metropolis than Superman did in Man of Steel). His Superman is an asshole, a pompous and condescending jerk who makes threats.”
The movie doesn’t just stop there. It does everything it can to casually mutilate the Superman mythos. Classic characters like Jimmy Olsen show up for individual scenes just to be assassinated. Superman’s own father gives a speech about how doing the right thing always ends up backing firing and creating unintended consequences.
The film doesn’t just think that the character of Superman is corny, it actively exists to break him down. His mythos, beliefs and identity are all laid on the chopping block and deconstructed until all that is left is the cold depressive Godling with no purpose for his powers. The portrayal more easily matches the portrayal of Clark we see in comics like Lex Luthor: Man of Steel where Superman is portrayed like a monstrous anti-human abomination who talks down to mere mortals.
Any trace of hope in the film is dead from the word go and Clark Kent just isn’t capable to being an panacea for it. He’s too burdened by the weight of his power and duty.
By the end, Clark Kent’s sacrifice is almost entirely colored by his self loathing. Just as he flies off to kill the Batman, he looks to Lois Lane and says “Nobody stays good in this world”. He’s seemingly lost hope that his ideals can survive in a world determined to break you.
In the end, he kills the monstrous Doomsday and suffers a mortal injury. In slaying the being that Lex Luthor describes as “the devil”, the story’s stand-in for God dies with him. Superman only finds absolution and humanity in his death. He’s only accepted by the world the moment the world realizes that it doesn’t have him anymore.
Man of Steel implicitly suggested that the world was put in mortal danger by Superman’s presence and Batman vs. Superman takes that idea farther by foreshadowing that Superman’s existence will put the world in danger. When a time-traveling Flash shows up early in the film to warn Bruce Wayne, he tells him that he’s right to worry about Superman and that he needs to do something to stop him.
If it weren’t for the fact that Superman is implicitly going to come back to life in the third movie to fight the New Gods, the movie would all together be suggesting that the world is better off without Superman. Maybe Justice League originally was supposed to resolve this tension by rebuking this Superman’s own hated of himself by teaching him what he COULD be but I really doubt Zack Snyder has that kind of emotional depth within him. I don’t think he knows how to reach in a characters depths of despair and to pull them out (least we forget, the last time he tried he gave us the MARTHA moment).
This colors Superman’s death as though he were relieving the Earth of his burden. By God killing himself alongside the devil, the world is implicitly left safer. This isn’t tragic hubris or nobility. This is nihilism. This is a character collapsing under the weight of his own depression and the world being better off for it.
Superman’s life has to actually mean something for his death to matter. When he lacks the moral character to stand for himself and defend his right to exist, the world is right to declare him a monster.
It’s more or less clear where Zack Snyder is/was planning to take his four-hour Justice League film. The New Gods like Darkseid will show up on Earth and Superman will be resurrected because he is the only being capable of fighting other Godlings. Lo and behold, the resurrected Superman turn out to be briefly evil, in the style of Injustice: Gods Among Us, and the Justice League will have to win him over so that they can team up together and win.
This speaks to Snyder’s intentions for Superman. He’s supposed to be the secular messiah who dies for humanities sins and then rises again. Of course, the subtext will be darker because the more Christlike he becomes, the more monstrous and evil he becomes.
According to leaked storyboards from the planned Justice League trilogy part of the original plan for Superman was that he was going to become a kind of surrogate father to a child born from Batman and Lois Lane some time after his resurrection. One can see the point of this. Superman turns evil but is turned good again by the opportunity to be a proper father and to live a normal human life.
One can also see how this ending more than likely wouldn’t have resolved the central tension of Clark Kent’s life. He merely resolves the tension of life by finding love and connections with others. The God becomes more human and, assumedly, denies his nature to do right by his son and give him a better life.
That version of the story was going to end with Batman making the ultimate sacrifice to stop Darkseid and save the world. The human kills a God and the God chooses humanity over power. For Superman, he finds redemption and meaning only through the human act of bringing love and care to the next generation.
Alas, I don’t think it would’ve worked in execution.
Superman works as a character when he’s a fundamentally good person with a simple heart. The more we treat him as something distant and emotionless, the less we can understand him as a character.
While I respect that Zack Snyder clearly had a long-term plan to TRY and resolve these tensions without his story, I don’t think he fully understood them. He didn’t seem to fully understand what kind of story he was telling even though the pieces seem to fit together for an epic franchise about the nature of Godhood and Man.
Admittedly, I’m excited to see where the Snyder-Cut ultimately goes! I’m certain it’ll at least be a more interesting and engaging film than Joss Whedon’s theatrical cut of Justice League which felt artificial and hacked to bits in the editing booth. I want to see how some of Snyder’s ideas play out when given their day in court. I’m curious to see IF he can find a story resolution to Superman’s emotional plight, or for lack of that I’m eager to see how insane the movie ends up being!
Unfortunately, I can’t say I have high hopes. Snyder is ambitious but the kind of story he’s trying to tell doesn’t work if you don’t dramatize the answer to the most basic question of all for Superman as a character, “what does it mean to be a good person?”