Man of Steel (directed by Zack Snyder) was released in 2013 to a decidedly mixed critical response. The standard in which critics spoke of the film seemed rather impartial. Some complained about its grey tone or its excesses in action spectacle. Some of the critics who actually enjoyed the film lauded it as a classic revision of the iconic superhero; finally a Superman we can take seriously, reimagined in the sphere of a post-Nolan landscape. The DC Comics fandom too voiced their opinion, and met with a similar divide. But not on the film, surprisingly enough, but on Superman himself. To this fandom, Clark Kent was never simply a “character” but a gold standard, something that was never meant to be interpreted but upheld, like a long preserved granite sculpture.
This isn’t anything new, of course. For decades, literary buffs have debated on the interpretation of beloved characters of classic literature. To some, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was too upbeat, the Wachowski’s V is too upright and unambiguous and Malkovich’s Valmont had persuasion but lacked charm. All of these points are arguable and despite the controversy surrounding each character, they will always be accepted, if not critically, than within the discretion (and privilege) of the filmmaker’s personal vision.
In the case of Man of Steel, however, Zack Snyder received no such slack. His Clark Kent has been labelled as being too dark, too melancholic. He killed Zod, apparently Superman would never have done something like that. Snyder’s vision of Superman was the antithesis of the cocksure American icon everyone grew up with. His Superman didn’t have the luxury of being referred to as an interpretation, he was a betrayal. But within any adaptation, should no literary character (be it comic or novel) be subject to the artist’s vision? What was it that made Superman so special that the values of the auteur theory should submit to the antiquated ideals of a cheesy, comic-strip caricature from the thirties. Herein lies the narcissism of the superhero fandom.
Man of Steel isn’t a good film, at least not in my eyes. Its messianic allusions are stiff, its moral contradictions unshakable, but its ambitions were true and not without merit. Snyder’s Superman was supposed to be more human, whatever faults he had as character were purely within humanistic limitations. His Clark Kent was never meant to be a hero we could look up to, but someone we could identify with. But Superman was never meant to be judged on ground level, but a figure placed on a pedestal, our attentions forced upon his grandiosity, non-judgemental and uncompromising, we were meant to admire him. What did it mean to us that he no longer represented such values? Children no longer had a role model, that “truth, justice and the American way” had no longer held any meaning, that an American icon had become so disappointingly human.
How we perceive Batman today isn’t any different, and ever since Nolan’s trilogy, we have looked back with scorn on Tim Burton’s late-’80s/early-’90s caped crusader, who frivolously threw criminals off buildings and neutralized them with their own explosives. What simplistically characterizes Batman to most people, a war-mongering crusader who refused to kill his adversaries, has become more of a guideline on how to properly portray the character.
Nolan has done a wonderful job upholding Batman’s morality, his Bruce Wayne is interpreted with the dignity and ambiguity that defined the caped crusader, but there has always been more to Bruce than novel pacifism, or an antiquated code of conduct that has remained mutual to all of Batman’s films. He was a character who internalized his suffering, who suppressed his rage beneath a veneer of hedonism, a rage that’s channelled through his nighttime persona, donning in the cape and cowl. He is one of the most vastly interpretable characters in literature, but in the past years his code has remained disappointingly unchallenged and morally static.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, for all of its flaws, is an unhinged accomplishment, if not as a film, than as a subversion of the Batman’s moral code. He kills without a second thought, driven by mad determination. His Batman is ruthless and, unlike the delusions of grandeur which accompany his “savior” persona, he isn’t a hypocrite either. “We are criminals Alfred, we’ve always been criminals,” says the world-weary Bruce Wayne, no longer bound by principles but by emotion. It’s a new Bruce Wayne, angry, impulsive and morally indistinct from his predecessors.
In Batman v Superman, Snyder seems to be evoking the Metropolis tragedy as a way to meta-analyze the destruction caused by Superman and Zod at the end of Man of Steel, a cataclysmic event awkwardly brushed off in that film. Batman v Superman absolves it in a way, and Superman’s role in world affairs is explored, with surprising foresight and criticism. Despite being depicted through eye-rolling celebrity cameos, clichéd news footage, an over-the-top montage (Snyder has always been style over substance), he challenges the way we perceive Superman, dismantling decades of an established pedigree and narcissistic forthright. It may do so unremarkably, but Batman v Superman manages to question his status as a hero, a role model and an ideal.