Update September 2016
From now on, all of my superhero-related posts will be published at my A Clash of Heroes Blog.
A lot of critical ink has been spilled about Zack Snyder’s newest film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Many people love it, but many others seem to hate it. I won’t rehash here what other critics have said. Instead of reviewing the film as a whole, I want to take a different approach. At the risk of sounding like a fan-boy or an apologist, I want to answer just one of the the most common objections that critics have had against BvS: its depiction of Superman.
Many people have criticized Snyder’s depiction of Superman as cold, unfeeling, or wooden. “That’s not my Superman,” a lot of people have said. While I sympathize with those who want an optimistic, idealistic Superman, I don’t think that this Superman is really very different from past versions; it’s the world that changed. Past Superman movies have, by and large, shown him in a world that loves and trusts him unquestioningly. But is that how the world would respond to someone with the power of Kal-El of Krypton? Like it or not, Snyder has asked, “How would people really react if Superman existed?”
After a prologue dealing with Bruce Wayne, the real action of the film begins with Superman saving Lois Lane from terrorists who have taken her hostage in an African village. When they realize that Superman is coming, the terrorists slaughter many of the villagers and flee, leaving only their leader with Lois held at gunpoint. Then the scene turns to a Senate committee hearing, where a surviving villager says that Superman answers to no one, “Even, I think, to God.” Even though he did not kill anyone, the committee holds Superman responsible for the deaths of the villagers because, they say, his presence there caused the violence. If that strikes you as ridiculous and unrealistic (as some critics have argued), then I suggest that you pay closer attention to real-world politicians (who aren’t exactly models of reason).
The rest of the movie paints a conflicted picture of the world’s opinion about the Man of Steel. About halfway in, we get a montage of news clips where senators, scientists (even Neil deGrasse Tyson), and other figures discuss the staggering implications of Superman’s existence. Some of them conclude that Supes is a force for good, while others are deeply afraid of him. Some think that he’s a god. Others think that he’s “just a guy trying to do the right thing.” Metropolis builds a monument to Superman right in the middle of the city, and one man climbs the statue to spray paint the words “False God” on it. When Superman arrives at the Capitol Building to appear before a Senate committee, a mixed crowd of protesters and supporters have gathered to greet him. When he rescues a girl from a burning building at a Día de Muertos festival, the celebrants gather around him, reaching out to touch him like a saint or a messiah. The world doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about the Man of Tomorrow. Again, this strikes me as perfectly realistic.
Bruce Wayne’s reaction to Superman is the real driving force of the film, though. When he and Clark Kent meet for the first time, Bruce calls Superman an “alien who—if he wanted to—could burn the whole place down.” In another scene, he tells Alfred, “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race. If we think that there’s even a one percent chance that he’s our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” Though some people have quibbled that this is pretty illogical reasoning for the World’s Greatest Detective, it’s perfectly understandable reasoning.
All of this criticism and rejection weighs heavily on Superman, and at points in the film, you wonder whether or not it’s too heavy a weight for even the most powerful superhero. “Nobody stays good in this world,” he says in a particularly low moment. But when the climactic moment of the film arrives, when it seems that he has every reason to have lost his faith in humanity, Superman tells Lois, “This is my world.” And then he goes and does what Superman does best: he saves everybody.
I have seen more than one critic say, “Zack Snyder loves Batman and hates Superman.” I wonder if those critics and I saw the same movie. I would argue that far from being a pro-Batman, anti-Superman movie, BvS is the exact opposite. It’s a repudiation of fans who favor Batman over Superman. Batman fans often criticize Supes by saying that he’s “too powerful” and that he “can’t be brave like Batman because he’s invincible.” If anything, BvS is a rebuke of that kind of talk. It puts those same arguments in Batman’s mouth and shows them to be the hogwash that they are.