In the closing moments of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) tells Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne why she walked away from the world one hundred years previously. “Man made a world where standing together is impossible,” she says, in a succinct summation of the bleak worldview Zack Snyder has chosen to present in the new DC Comics cinematic universe, beginning in 2013’s Man of Steel and reaching intensely unsubtle apotheosis in last March’s Batman v Superman. This worldview didn’t just spring from the imaginations of Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer, though; it’s actually an uncannily accurate portrayal of the current American ideological and political landscape.
It’s into this landscape that Snyder inserted Superman (Henry Cavill), along with fellow DC superheroes Batman and Wonder Woman. The result was a vision of Superman that audiences have never seen before, one that’s a far cry from his typical depictions in comics, television, and movies. Snyder’s Superman is by turns ambivalent, aloof, and recklessly violent. He reacts to situations with an alarming disregard for the potential consequences of his actions. He is, in short, the perfect metaphor for post-9/11 America.
Over the course of the last fifteen years America has become an increasingly polarized nation—a fact that’s been thrown into sharp relief by the current presidential election. In the process, the idea of what America stands for has been fundamentally thrown into question. Concepts of decency, humility, and compassion no longer seem to stand at the center of American identity.
When Clark Kent, fighting to cover the Batman’s reign of terror in Gotham, reminds Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) that The Daily Planet used to stand for something, Perry callously responds, “And so could you if it was 1938, but it’s not 1938.” Not a particularly subtle reference to Superman’s anachronistic origins seventy-eight years ago, but it does raise an important question: If Superman’s function is to serve as a reflection of American ideals, then what does he look like when America’s ideals are no longer truth and justice?
He looks like Henry Cavill in Dawn of Justice. America has developed an alarming tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, giving little thought to the potential consequences of our actions. Superman is also very quick to resort to violence in BvS. In his first appearance in the film, Superman busts into the room where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is being held at gunpoint by an African warlord and, without even making a token attempt to resolve the situation peacefully, launches into the guy, knocking him through at least three walls, and then apparently just up and leaves. If the murder of a human being (don’t tell me that guy might’ve survived. Just…just don’t) at the hands of the Man of Steel wasn’t bad enough, the slight, cocksure smile we see on Superman’s face right before he leaps into action makes the whole situation especially disturbing.
And what are the consequences of Superman’s ill-considered actions in Africa? He sets himself up to be blamed for Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) men laying waste to the entire compound, throwing his status as a force for good further into question. And the fun doesn’t stop there; Superman repeatedly engages in violent behavior in situations that would have been better served by the more restrained ethos the character traditionally lives by. He wrecks the Batmobile and threatens Batman, without considering that antagonizing a guy who runs around in a bat costume branding people might not be an effective strategy. Most egregiously, at the end of the movie, when he realizes he needs Batman’s help to save his mother, Superman attempts to reason with the Dark Knight for all of two seconds before deciding to try and pummel him into submission, a decision that almost leads to his death via Kryptonite spear.
America’s increased tendency towards reactionary violence isn’t the only recent ideological shift that Snyder examines in Dawn of Justice. The other, which he began exploring in Man of Steel, is xenophobia. Xenophobia, specifically towards Muslims but also more broadly, has been consistently on the rise ever since 9/11, reaching new heights in recent months thanks in no small part to a certain orange-haired goon currently running for President. Many Americans are increasingly afraid of the “other”, and what’s more “other” than an extraterrestrial?
Snyder has taken this xenophobia and applied it to the world of Superman. Bruce’s entire motivation in the movie is that Superman’s power, the thing that makes him “other”, poses a fundamental threat to the human race. The montage in the middle of the film where Superman is shown rescuing various people around the world—the one segment of the movie (apart from the end) where we see him being unambiguously heroic—is undercut by snippets of characters like Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch and real people like Neil deGrasse Tyson questioning whether Superman’s existence is a good thing. For every character who sees Superman as a force for good, there’s another that sees him as a ticking time bomb that will inevitably blow up in mankind’s face.
The result is a Superman who feels a keen ambivalence about his role as a hero. He spends a large portion of BvS debating variously with Lois, his mother, and his imaginary father whether or not the Superman can exist in a world that fears and vilifies him, or if he was “just the dream of a farmer from Kansas.” This is by far the most dramatic departure Snyder takes from the roots of the character, as Superman’s calling to serve humanity, no matter what, is arguably his defining characteristic.
None of this is to say that Superman doesn’t exemplify the more traditional heroic aspects of the character at any point in Dawn of Justice. As I mentioned above, we get a montage of Supes acting the hero midway through the movie, and by the end he overcomes his ambivalence and makes the ultimate sacrifice for mankind (though that sacrifice feels like a decision that stems more from structural necessity than a genuine emotional shift in the character). Sadly, such behavior is the exception rather than the norm for Superman in BvS.
Snyder’s post-9/11 reinterpretations weren’t reserved exclusively for Superman; Batman and Wonder Woman were also affected. Batman espouses Dick Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” essentially verbatim (and also murders a lot of people). Wonder Woman, as mentioned previously, hid herself from the world because she felt it was impossible for men to stand together, a reflection on the stark polarization in modern culture and politics. These attitudes, like with Superman, represent broad departures from the characters’ traditional ethos. Batman’s desire to be better than the criminals he fights typically involves a doctrine of nonlethal force, and Wonder Woman’s comments fly in the face of her entire reason for leaving the Amazonian homeland of Themyscira, and do poor justice to her determination in the face of adversity.
It’s important to note that none of the changes made to the Trinity were wrought out of ignorance. I believe that Snyder understands these character’s histories and defining qualities very well. Rather, they are the carefully considered result of Snyder’s desire to present an accurate depiction of modern society and to reflect the attitudes of that society through the lens of these superheroes. Unfortunately, as well thought out as that idea was, it was also a mistake.
If Snyder wants to create an accurate depiction of the uglier aspects of American culture and politics that have arisen since 9/11, that’s fine. But these characters aren’t meant to reflect that ugliness, they’re meant to refute it—especially Superman. When Superman refuses to consider for even a second that Batman might be a good guy, my eyes roll, because Superman’s supposed to look for the good in everyone. When he resorts to violence as a first course of action, and wavers in the face of fear born out of ignorance and deception, my blood boils, because Superman’s supposed to stand against those who use violence and fear as weapons. When he tells Lois that “no one stays good in this world,” my heart breaks, because Superman’s supposed to be the one person on Earth who does.
I reject virtually every aspect of Snyder’s interpretation of Superman, and yet, at the end of the day, I can’t really bring myself to fault him for it. I live in the same world he does, after all. I see the same things he does. Snyder had the opportunity to show audiences a man standing against all the ugliness currently found in America, but instead he gave us a hero warped almost beyond recognition by it. Superman is supposed to represent the American Way, but in a world where America doesn’t seem to stand for anything anymore, perhaps Zack Snyder gave us exactly the Superman we deserve, against exactly the right backdrop.