WARNING: This article makes direct, repeated mention of the manner in which Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ends. If you haven't yet seen the film and do not want to be spoiled about the film's ending, it's recommended that you don't read this week's column.
The polarization from fans, critics, and general audiences over Warner Bros.' Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn't seem to have calmed down in the week since the film was released in theaters. After a negative critical reception and a very divided fan reaction, the film has seen unprecedented success for the superhero film genre, further indicating that a very real divide exists between those whose job it is to review the film, and those that have actually paid to watch it.
Much of the polarization comes from the way the film leaves the audience: literally on a casket in Smallville that contains the body of a deceased Clark Kent, impaled through the chest by Doomsday in the closing seconds of the film's climactic battle.
Speaking for myself – as a massive Superman fan, as well as a former comic book retailer – I find it surprising that many of the same people who have outwardly questioned the modern cultural relevance of the Superman character are now calling foul on the fact that the film kills him. Where there was silence from some fans and outlets before on the subject of Superman, you now see impassioned tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and articles that go into voluminous detail regarding how Batman v Superman, and Man of Steel before it, have "wronged" the Superman character on a fundamental level, and how the vision of director Zack Snyder is incongruous when compared with the way a lot of people envision the Last Son of Krypton.
Now, this is not directed at the faithful fans of the Man of Steel (all 50 of us), but to everyone else – from those I tried to convince of Superman's greatness for six straight years behind the counter at a comic book store, to those who have blasted the character's continued existence online and at conventions, to others still who rely on an argument that calls Superman a bygone character that should fade away from the public's memory – I have a message for you regarding the death of Superman in his latest film. And, to try and push the point home, I'll let another DC Comics-associated character give you that message directly.
Why Zack Snyder Killed Superman: He Believed You
When DC Comics editor Mike Carlin and writers Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, and Roger Stern agreed on the idea of killing Superman in the pages of DC Comics in the early 1990s, part of the reason they did so was because they perceived a growing lack of appreciation for the original superhero. In a 2006 documentary about the character's history, Carlin repeated the sentiment when he said, "The world was taking Superman for granted, so we literally said 'let's show what the world would be like without Superman.'"
In the 20+ years that have passed since that story broke records and brought millions of new comics readers into the fold, the Superman character has seen a decreasing year-by-year number of adherers, if social media and comic book sales are any indication. As darker, more morally complex characters have increased in popularity and stature, apathy – and in some cases, outright derision – for Superman has increased. While the majority of comics fans don't have a binary attitude when it comes to characters they enjoy, a very vocal sect of fandom seems to. It's those fans that reason in their minds that because Superman is well-adjusted, he wasn't relatable, and is therefore unworthy of their time and/or money.
Before he got the job to reintroduce movie audiences to Superman, director Zack Snyder often illustrated a penchant for enjoyment of morally dubious characters, or tales taking place in morally compromised worlds. His 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead written by future Guardians of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn showcased the moral compromises that the survivors had to make in order to deal with the crumbling society around them.
His film adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 was visually stunning, giving an aesthetic beauty to the harsh violence that King Leonidas and his Spartans would both perpetrate and endure. Watchmen is a story that is virtually all about compromised ethics, and Snyder's 2009 film adaptation endorsed and maintained those themes, while placing a layer of grittiness and blood over the timeless images first rendered by the book’s original artist, Dave Gibbons.
A child of the sixties, Snyder came of age during the darker renaissance of the comic book medium. He was 20 years old when Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns, the clearest comic book influence on Dawn of Justice. He was also in his early 20s when Watchmen was first published, when comics observers generally believe that darkness in many major characters started to define much of the medium's popularity. In fact, some noted comic book historians have even proposed a new name for what we now call the “Modern Age” of comics: they feel we should instead call it the “Dark Age.”
Over the past thirty years, which has seen everything from the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, to the rise of Image Comics and Todd McFarlane's Spawn, as well as popular relaunches of The Punisher and harder-edged adult series, Superman seems to have appealed to less and less people. All over the internet, fans have openly questioned the character's modern viability, and I can certainly attest to a wider comic-book cultural resistance to the Man of Steel that has grown over the past decade-plus.
Superman of the DC Extended Universe: A Dark Reflection of the Heroic Icon
As people have often talked about since June of 2013, the Superman of the most recent films is a noticeably different incarnation of the character. While Man of Steel talked a lot about the word “hope,” it didn’t do enough to actually give service to the emotion of hope. Seeing Superman break the neck of General Zod in the film’s climax was, for many, the last straw: this was a Superman that some fans just didn’t recognize.
In Batman v Superman, there are several moments where the notion of guilt and death weigh so heavily on him that he concedes something that other incarnations of Superman never would: “nobody stays good in this world.” By the time the film concludes with the character’s death – albeit with a door left wide open for his return – many critics left the theater feeling that the film was a total downer.
So, what led us here? What has given birth to this more compromised vision of a formerly uncompromising icon? To lay the blame solely at Zack Snyder’s feet feels a bit shortsighted, though.
Snyder has basically believed the words coming out of the mouths of ardent Superman haters for the last 20 years, and has tried to deliver a vision of the character that could resonate with them. Instead of giving us a recognizable and unique superhero character in 2016, Snyder has instead chosen for 2016’s belief in dark, morally edgy storytelling to shape Superman. The result is, for many, an unrecognizable character when compared with several comics-based iterations of the original superhero.
How DC Comics Has Let Superman Down
Who else is to blame for this, though, besides Zack Snyder and the people he’s attempting to appeal to? DC Comics, and their studio arm DC Entertainment. Since the DC element of Warner Bros. has no position of power comparable to the one Kevin Feige inhabits at Marvel Studios, DC Entertainment is more than willing to bend to the vision laid out by the film’s director and the noise of character detractors, instead of having someone with the power – and knowledge of the source material – to say, “No. That’s not Superman. Fix it.”
I and many other fans are of the mind that there’s a better, more truthful path for the Superman character to take. In a seemingly never-ending pool of darkness that audiences and comic book readers have grown so accustomed to over the last 20-plus years, Superman has a distinct chance to stand apart from the pack by becoming a noble figure of aspiration once again. It doesn’t mean that you have to make him a paragon. After all, the tragedy of Superman is that he wants, more than anything, to be human.
Since he can’t, though, he knows that he can actively choose to make the world a better place simply because that's what he's most equipped to do, and that comes from a belief in people, and in a reverence for life and light.
I have no doubt that Zack Snyder was trying to give audiences something he felt that they wanted, based on what he’s been hearing a generation of fans say about Superman for as long as thirty years. If anything can be taken from the divided reaction to his latest film, then I hope it’s that he, Warner Bros., DC Comics, DC Entertainment, global fans, and others across the world begin to understand that we need to hope again. We need to walk out of the theater with a smile on our faces, and look up in the sky to think of the joy of flight, and the good that he – and by extension, us – is capable of.
This is, in the end, one of the primary reasons Why the World Needs Superman.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.