Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?: Some Thoughts from a Disappointed Superman Fan Following Dawn of Justice


The climactic action set piece to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the second entry in D.C. Comics’ burgeoning cinematic universe, feature’s the company’s trinity (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) battling the monstrous Doomsday, a Frankenstein-esque creation by Lex Luthor that threatens to destroy Metropolis and the neighboring Gotham City. After our three heroes throw nearly everything they have at the behemoth, Superman hits the sacrifice-fly by stabbing Doomsday with a kryptonite-tipped spear. Before he dies, Doomsday impales the Last Son of Krypton with his jagged arm. What follows are two funerals for the fallen hero: one in Metropolis and another in Smallville. The memorial in Metropolis seems to neatly honor the godlike hero while the funeral in Smallville more squarely centers on the man himself.

It’s just a shame that Zack Snyder, director of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, assumed the vague character sketch that these films refer to as Superman does an adequate job at selling us on his nobility. Let’s set aside the obvious foolishness of killing off your cornerstone character in the second film in a planned long-term franchise. The final shot of dirt levitating from the hero’s coffin removes any doubts (in case you had any) to whether or not the Big Blue Boy Scout will be returning for future installments. The solemn tone of the ending is silly not only for its failed stab at profundity, a regular feature of Snyder’s work, but also for its implication that we have reached the end of Superman’s arc in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe).

The decision to kill Superman is just another example of why Snyder and the character are a bad match: the former doesn’t particularly like or understand the latter. You could argue that this conclusion could’ve been reached at the end of Man of Steel and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. The previous film’s visual splendor helped offset some of its head scratching elements, pushing me to reserve judgment to the validity of the character’s latest cinematic incarnation. “Maybe Snyder and company can course correct with a sequel. Surely they’ll learn from their mistakes and deliver well earned, valuable character growth,” thought myself and many other fans. In fact, Superman’s focus on defeating Zod and his dangerous cohorts in Man of Steel served greatly at the expense of saving civilian lives, a move that left many fans turned off at the new direction Snyder and Warner Brothers were pushing the beloved character into. Snyder played the awkward role of defending the actions of Superman and promising that his decisions (or lack thereof) would have implications in the sequel.[1]

But instead, Dawn of Justice doubles down on Superman’s mostly dour approach while giving him a staunch critic in Batman. The entire plot of Dawn of Justice is structured as a repudiation to Man of Steel and its titular character, giving one the surface illusion that the complaints from fans were heard and are being properly addressed. However, Batman’s entrance into the world gives Snyder the chance to play with a newer, more popular toy that sees him casting Superman to the side like a broken artifact of the past.[2] It is hardly a surprise that Batman is more in line with Snyder’s sensibilities: a dark, brooding hero that fights tirelessly against insurmountable foes under the illusion that he’s as human as you or I. Christopher Nolan may have invented a popular permutation of the modern superhero movie (dark and gritty) with his Dark Knight Trilogy but Snyder has decided to prove he too can carry on the mantle, even as he woefully lacks Nolan’s precision towards characterization and emotional bravura.

Snyder’s promises to keep Superman and Batman on equal footing in Dawn of Justice prove to be either a lie or a misunderstanding of his own biases. Batman and the rest of the film’s supporting cast[3] hold Superman directly responsible for the events in Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, as they consider his inhumanity as incompatible and dangerous to the whole of mankind. Some of their complaints are valid (his decisions about when to act and the methods with which he chooses) but most feel like Internet comment boards on Batman fan sites. “He’s not human.” “He’s uninteresting.” “How can we trust an alien with seemingly unstoppable powers?” “BATMAN WINS BECAUSE BATMAN.”

The worst part of all this is that Snyder fails to let Superman defend himself. Henry Cavill actually gives a pretty good performance throughout both films but the scripts (chiefly penned by David Goyer) give Cavill and the films hardly anything to work with. We hear his parents and Lois talk about his destiny and importance to Earth as essential to its survival in a growingly chaotic world. But his lack of much personality could easily lead a non fan to wonder, “What’s so great about this character anyway? What’s his inner life? What does HE, not his family or friends, stand for?” Snyder, like the characters in his films, treats his star as an alien whose humanity fails to extend much more than his physical resemblance to it.

Snyder, and by extension many people turned off by the character, fails to see that a large part of his heroism stems simply from his conviction that his powers should be used for the betterment of others instead of the empowerment of himself. Superman is three personas all in one: Kal-El (the Last Son of Krypton), Clark Kent (Kansas farm boy turned journalist), and Superman (global messiah).[4] These three identities may overlap but don’t always harmoniously agree, a trait that is perhaps the most human of all. His dueling personalities inform a larger one that leave in the audience a trust that he is greater than the sum of his parts, which already prove formidable. His abilities extend far beyond the physical and into the emotional, as his genuine desire to empathize with even the evil among us create a character that is always learning and adapting. All at once he’s the wayward immigrant who can never return to his home, the country bumpkin who does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and a world hopping journeyman who has seen more than you’ve ever known and still has many more roads to travel. It’s this sense of separation from any one identity that allow him to see allies and enemies alike on a purely individual level, making him the perfect savior, combatant, or negotiator for any given situation. Anyone who accuses the character as stagnant or inhuman has never fully appreciated the best of Superman and his vast, rewarding canon.

But in a cynical and self centered world that forces him to compete with Batman, the Man of Steel often looks square in comparison. The Dark Knight’s success, captivating in its own right, has found unparalleled success in a post 9/11 world that preys on fear of the internal and external. Finding solace in the dark and twisted guardian of Gotham City is warranted but frequently an easy-out that hardly lives up to the imaginative, aspirational example of Superman. Having Snyder in effect be the pitchman for a 21st century Superman is a failure on both his part and the 21st century. His general disinterest in what makes him special doesn’t do much in winning over new fans. Superman may appear as visually realized as he’s ever been but what’s the point if the character we’re watching isn’t very heroic or special? The Man of Tomorrow should be a template for the future instead of an ugly representation of the present.

So, what’s the solution? I’m fully aware that DC is in the process of amassing an army of screenwriters and directors that will forge ahead with their new universe as the success of Dawn of Justice begins to mount. However, considering the structure they’re erecting is built on faulty ground, I remain pessimistic to how strongly the foundation will hold together. Since DC has a long and storied history of utilizing their multiverse[5], I propose an alternate take on the character that both lives in its own continuity while allowing the current incarnations to exist. In other words, DC gets to keep building their larger continuity that allows for one-off adventures in parallel universes.

If handed the keys to the Superman kingdom, I would attempt to course correct the dourness of the recent films by making an out-and-out comedy. But it would need to walk a fine line between finding the humor inherent to the aburdity of the characters and situations and avoiding any ounce of parody that could threaten to look down on the material. The plot: Superman (Adam Pally) is cast into the throws of the multiverse by Braniac (Paul F Tompkins), who is trying to complete his final stages of self awareness that were abandoned by his creator Lex Luthor (TJ Miller). Superman hops across the various alternate worlds that populate the DC Universe (possibly even briefly stepping into the world of the current films) with the aid of Mr. Mxyzptlk (Martin Short), a fifth dimensional trickster who is neither friend nor foe. Meanwhile, Lois Lane (Gillian Jacobs) and Jimmy Olsen (Hannibal Buress) reluctantly team up with Luthor to stop Braniac from reaching his final form.

This Superman movie would feel more in line with Ant-Man, a mostly successful superhero movie that has fun with the wonky physics and jumps at the chance to feature earnest characters that still know how to crack a joke here and there. The Superman franchise tried this tactic before with Superman 3 to frequently tiresome effect but the 1983 experiment was a noble effort that could benefit from a modernization of sorts. I think the mostly underexposed status of the leads would help ingratiate the audience into the narrative even as there unique talents would provide the finished product with a spark desperately lacking in DC’s current slate.

But when it comes to the here and now, I still feel pretty optimistic about the future of the character, despite his mishandling cinematically. His comics in the New 52 continuity, a typically unintereting enterprise, have been mostly good, with the runs of Grant Morrison and Greg Pak on Action Comics and Geoff John’s Superman tenure serving as standouts. They continue to keep Superman interesting even as the general public’s perception of him is one of staleness. The character couldn’t have lasted this long if he didn’t have the capacity to evolve at a productive rate. My general feelings are that he’s one popular video game or runaway hit movie away, creatively speaking, from becoming the perennial favorite that he once was. And that’s the great irony of Dawn of Justice: Superman has never before appeared in something that promises to deliver the box office numbers as this and yet be represented as so fundamentally uninteresting. I do believe a man can fly. The question is whether or not the corporate entities that control him choose to.

 [1] http://io9.gizmodo.com/a-brief-history-of-zack-snyder-defending-the-end-of-man-1763888746.

[2] Snyder even has the audacity to have a scene where Perry White (Laurence Fishbourne) admonishes Clark Kent for his old fashion ideals with, “This isn’t 1938 anymore!” Get it, because Snyder loves comic books.

[3] Except for Ma Kent (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams). But of course they’re going to back up their man.

[4] In case you’ve never heard, Superman can serve as a Christ metaphor too.

[5] A hypothetical set of finite and infinite possible universes that correlate/interact to various degrees.


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