In Man of Steel, we were presented with a vision of Superman distanced from previous film incarnations. Superman: The Movie, and most of its sequels, present Superman as a pillar of virtue. A god whose only weakness comes in the form of Lois Lane. Aside from the questionable lengths which Superman will go to in order to either please or save Lois, it is those around Superman who are evolving while he remains the same. This functions just fine, but Snyder and company chose a different direction for Superman, one that has, and presumably will, have ripple effects through the coming DC Films.
We meet Clark Kent, son of adoptive human parents who are reluctant to let the world know of their son’s abilities. They fear that the scrutiny of the public may damage their son’s future and as we learn, their fear is at least somewhat justified. After his father sacrifices his own life to allow Clark to live in anonymity, Clark sets out on a quest to find his true origins. For the first time in cinema, the audience is sharing this journey with Superman himself. Clark Kent is not portrayed as an alien, but one of us. Clark soon finds himself hunted by his own race, and though he tries to appease them for the sake of his home, they wish to destroy it anyway. Though he is the only one who even stands a chance against the criminals, Clark is at an immediate disadvantage. Zod is not only as powerful as he, but has the training and experience our hero lacks. Though opposed by Clark and humans alike, countless die at the hands of Zod and his thugs. After a long, vicious battle, Clark is able to maneuver Zod into a prone position through sheer will. Faced with the immediate threat of Zod’s rage, moving to kill a group of people trapped in a building with them, Clark is forced to snap Zod’s neck. After doing so, he openly weeps. This Superman is still haunted by uncertainty in his own choices. Unlike his previous screen incarnation, there was no one to teach him exactly what to do. Superman, in this story, is not yet a “superhero”. A hero to some, a destroyer to others. One could argue that in this story, no one even knows what a superhero is. By the start of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Clark has been using the Superman identity to do good, but is under the constant scrutiny of the public. Clark is a man with a mother, a girlfriend and a job. He takes his civilian life as seriously as his duties, and it is taking a mental toll. At work, he seeks to expose a vicious vigilante, but is turned down at every opportunity. As Superman, he seeks to prove his honesty and good intent, but is criticized regardless of it. Clark is a man trying to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t always seem interested in his help.
“Alfred,we’ve seen what promises are worth. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that
In BvS, we meet yet another haunted man, Bruce Wayne. While the specifics of his past aren’t quite as elaborated as Clark’s, they also don’t need to be. We know there is at least one dead Robin in the past, and that others have betrayed him. Bruce has been The Bat for a long while, and things have not gone well. Tired and depressed but deeply motivated, the appearance of Superman has pulled another emotion out of The Bat, Fear. We are privy to his nightmares, one seemingly influenced by The Flash. In this dream, Batman sees a world where Superman is focused on Injustice (sorry, I need one in every article). It is the most disturbing of his nightmares and is, Parademons aside, a very reasonable fear. The order that the vigilante has created in his mind is now shattered by the appearance of the impossible, and the only recourse he has is an attempt to squash it like the criminals he has in the past. This Batman also has very little problem literally squashing criminals, a combination of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and pulp heroes of days past. A hero to some, but feared by most. Batman existed before the Superhero age, and at this point, has no reason to embrace such lofty ethics. Though the public seems to have at least a general knowledge of Batman and his methods, even they see the street level vigilante as nothing compared to the Last Son of Krypton. Knowing full well that his old methods arenot the answer in this new world, Batman find himself hunting the man of tomorrow, hoping to gain the control he seeks over the streets. He is misguided, but committed and intelligent. His shrewd research leads him to the one thing that can harm these aliens and he intends to exploit it to his best abilities. He will re-establish his world by removing Superman.
“Must there be a Superman?”
As Superman and Batman finally come into direct conflict, their situations deteriorate further. Superman, convinced that the Bat is nothing more than a psychopath (something that Batman does not have much evidence against) stops him from stealing Kryptonite from Lexcorp, for now. Yes, Lex did have a hand in motivating Superman to do this and pushing Batman further, but they were both pretty much there. Keeping the weapon out of Wayne’s hands was a bonus. The increasingly frustrated Superman threatens Batman, assuming that this will scare The Dark Knight into ceasing operations. Of course, it does not. Regardless, The Bat’s plans are stunted for the moment. This seems to give the doubtful Kryptonian a touch of needed confidence in preparation for addressing the country. Luthor cannot let that stand. As he should, Superman responds to public outcry and accepts an invitation to speak at the capitol. In a plot by Luthor, everyone there except Superman is killed in the explosion. This serves to damage Superman’s name and confidence even further. Clark is racked with guilt, ashamed that he was not more aware of his surroundings. Luthor wins this round. This leaves him in a lurch, and needing to consider if Superman is something worth existing, a question that would have been inconceivable in past incarnations. In her most important moment in this saga so far, Lois insists that he is. She, knowing who Clark really is, believes he is Superman. Clark is not so sure and leaves to clear his mind, with the weight of a decision that will impact the entire world. He finds him self in
desolate mountains, a solitude that only an invulnerable man could find. As he does so, we are presented with the film’s pivotal moment. As Clark hikes through the mountains, he has a vision of his father Jonathan Kent. The apparition relates his own failures to help his son see the bigger world. More importantly, he outlines the real answer to Clark’s problem, love. Lois’ faith in him and confidence in his intentions. Love brings clarity.
While Superman was away, The Bat prepared for his last stand. Bruce, now consumed with fear and hatred toward Superman and possessing a Kryptonite sponge… spear, I mean spear, waited for the strange visitor to come back to Gotham. Luthor, whose presence creeps through the film and comes to a head here, ensures its not a happy reunion. As Superman, one much closer to his potential, returns to Metropolis, he swoops in and saves Lois. Luthor knew he would, he also knew that he would save his mother. He wanted him to do it by killing Batman but Lex, who can only be accurately described as a “total sicko” in this world, underestimated the power of good. Superman heads to Gotham to ask for The Bat’s help, though he does not intend to let his mother die if the perceived lunatic does not agree. He doesn’t get it at first, and in fact almost dies trying. But with one name, love brings clarity. Batman realizes that Superman isn’t just an alien invader or a nuclear deterrent, but a son, a man in love and a man as confused and conflicted as he. He sees that like himself, Superman is trying to do good. Here, a long buried emotion brings Batman his clarity. Don’t get it wrong, Batman is no saint yet and he’s still going to save Martha his own way, but its a start. Luthor then unleashes Doomsday, which involves lots of punching and a nuke, but ultimately serves two purposes. First, it brings clarity to the conscience of the reclusive Wonder Woman, finally forcing her to emerge from the shadows. Her arrival is perhaps the film’s most triumphant moment as her power and skill are the first visual cues of something League-like. Now, we’ve been better acquainted with Diana since, but these moments are important as the audience had no indicator of her intentions. We now know that this wasn’t a complete change for her, but a rebirth of sorts. It will be interesting to see if the Wonder Woman sequel will expand on how she became so hesitant, or if it was the events of World War I that did so. Regardless, Diana was a lot closer to Superhero than either Bruce or Clark, she just needed the push. And, of course, The Death of Superman. Here is Superman, selfless and resolute. Sacrificing his own life to save all of Earth. The Christ parallels are easy here, but unlike Christ, Superman has had more than a moment of doubt. This Superman didn’t feel like a god and found his strength in his own humanity. Like most people, this process has taken time. His hesitations gone, he is able to do what he must.
The death of Superman serves to restore Batman’s faith in humanity, or perhaps I should say sentient beings. It also serves to bolster humanity’s appreciation of Superman. Now motivated to honor the legacy of the fallen hero and having some memories of The Flash’s warning, he proposes the pursuit of other metahumans. In his last (probably not) moments, the film gives us a Superman with clarity. Batman and Wonder Woman inspired by his example. The journey of two movies is not to insult the ethics of the super hero, but to enrich the journey there. Instead of a Superman who simply acts, we are given the opportunity to get into his head to see him grow from man to Superman. Without this guiding light, Batman fell to his darker nature, a force of vengeance instead of rectitude. He too can, and has been saved by clarity. Building a story around a team that is almost invincible is a difficult task, especially when you don’t have the benefits of decades of character development. With 5 movies before it, The Avengers wasn’t even a sure thing and took a lot of planning and revising to pull off. Humanizing and humbling these characters seems to be Warner’s method of keeping them interesting while moving toward their big team movie. A story not of gods, but humans ascending to something more. In another movie, someone said “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Here, I think there is still some time before the darkness is dispelled by the light, but I have little doubt it is coming.