By Josiah Wampfler
“Truth. Justice. The American way.” These are the qualities that represent Superman to many people. Since 1938, the character has been known as the pinnacle of heroism and his name has been synonymous with hope and optimism in popular culture. But today, we have a different Superman. This Superman exists in a world not unlike our own, where cynicism is common and acts of heroism are not always met with praise. This Superman is a man who is not entirely sure what being a hero means or whether the world actually needs him to be one. And it is this Superman, according to critics like Devin Faraci at Birth.Movies.Death, that spells the end of an American icon. And it is Zach Snyder who killed him.
In his article, “Superman and the Damage Done: A Requiem for an American Icon,” Faraci claims that Snyder’s “ugly new interpretation” of the character in both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice “devalues the simple heroism of Superman and turns the decent, graceful character into a mean, nasty force of brutish strength.”
This view has not been uncommon in the days since Batman v. Superman released. I have heard people say that the film “got the character of Superman wrong,” that the film “isn’t what superhero films are supposed to be” or that Snyder “deeply misunderstands” the character of Superman. The film has been ravaged by critics, and while many of the criticisms are valid – the film certainly has an array of problems – I find this particular criticism to be quite dubious. Zach Snyder does not “deeply misunderstand” the character of Superman. It is those that are saying this that “deeply misunderstand” Snyder’s vision for the character.
The complaints with this Superman began back when Man of Steel came out. Critics of the film decried this new Superman who was unsure if he should be a hero, caused massive destruction to the world in his fight with General Zod and executed Zod by snapping his neck. While Snyder having Clark let his father die is still inexcusable, everything else made sense. Superman’s reluctance to be a hero was an interesting dimension to a usually flat character, the massive destruction caused makes sense in a battle between two super-men and Superman had no choice but to kill Zod.
The same critics that leveled these complaints against Man of Steel are the ones saying that Zach Snyder has officially killed the character in Batman v. Superman. The great irony of it all is that Snyder gave critics exactly what they wanted: consequences. While Man of Steel seemed to overlook the destruction caused by Superman, Batman v. Superman dwells on that destruction and gives weight to that destruction. This is because the new film is mostly told from Batman’s perspective – easily the biggest critic of Superman.
Yes, this Superman is not the do-good Boy Scout that Christopher Reeves’ version was. Yes, we are compelled to mistrust the Man of Steel in this film. We don’t particularly like the character through most of the film because this is not a Superman film. It is a Batman film (hence why his name is first in the title).
Granted, the film does not always do the greatest job of keeping with Batman’s perspective and that is one of its many problems. But, one only needs to look a little closer and it is quite clear that this is the case. Man of Steel seems almost overly optimistic compared to the darkness in Batman v. Superman because Batman is an overly cynical character. This overly cynical Batman would seem pretty crazy if the Superman he wanted to kill was the same as Christopher Reeves’ Superman. We would hate Batman, and it is very important that we are sympathetic to Batman in this film.
The other aspect of Snyder’s Superman that critics get wrong is the overall themes he is working with. Devin Faraci writes in his article, “One of the larger themes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is the idea that every act of heroism is a catalyst for something terrible in the world, a point of view that is not only a) insane but b) inherently anti-Superman.” He goes on to call this theme “intrinsically nihilistic.”
This is another example of how critics are fundamentally misreading the film. Again, Snyder’s themes sometimes get a bit muddled, but they are quite clear if only you look a little deeper.
The theme of the film is not that every heroic action will lead to something terrible, but that every heroic action could lead to unintended harm. The film is not saying Superman shouldn’t be a hero, it is saying that he should think more about the consequences his actions have on the world around him.
You can draw a direct correlation between the debate the film has over Superman and the debate we as a country have had over our foreign policy and specifically our drone program. When we call a drone strike, we may kill a terrorist leader, but there is also the chance of civilian casualties. Just as we must consider the effects of a drone strike, so too must Superman consider the effects of his actions. As another comic book company’s character said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Also, so what if this version of Superman is a bit nihilistic? Sometimes nihilistic, dark storytelling is more appealing because I think we like to wallow a bit in the darkness of life every once in a while. Sometimes these stories are just more interesting than the glossy, hopeful stories of past Superman films. This is probably why Batman is a much more popular and beloved character, despite him being far more cynical. Maybe, we all have a bit of nihilist in us.
Still, some critics proclaim that Batman v. Superman is not what superhero films are “supposed to be.” They say that superheroes are meant to be beacons of hope for us to look to; that superheroes are meant to inspire us. They long for the days of Christopher Reeve, where seeing Superman on-screen was a way to escape the darkness of life.
While I certainly love the Marvel brand of superhero films that are bright and hopeful and Christopher Reeves’ Superman was the first great superhero film, I like that DC has decided to bring something different to the table now. They don’t want us to escape the darkness of life. They want us to really think about it.
The last line of Devin Faraci’s article states, “I feel bad for the youngest generation who has been handed a jar of granny’s peach tea instead of truth, justice and the American way.”
Maybe, Faraci, without even knowing it, just stated exactly what this film is trying to say. That, by flipping this American icon on his head, by making us question the man whose slogan is “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” Snyder is saying what a lot of younger people are feeling today: That the American dream we were taught would be there for us is no more…and in its place is a lonely jar of granny’s peach tea.