Must there be a Superman?

In this op-ed a fan explains why he believes disappointed fans of Zack Snyder's take on Superman further prove the self awareness of the "Snyderverse."

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22 mins read

After remaining static for many decades, the character of Superman was dissected and deconstructed for the modern age in “Man of Steel.”

Zack Snyder has been constantly challenging the character of Superman from his super highs to his super lows. While the fans of the classic version of the icon seem to not recognize the key aspects of him in the Snyderverse, there are also dedicated fans who would defend and insist on the essence of Superman that is found in Snyder’s Superman saga.

We know Superman from many different mediums. We know him from the comics, the movies, the animated shows, the podcasts, or simply due to his popularity. Fans know him to be a light-hearted, hopeful hero who is very firm with his morals and, most importantly, as a friend. Thanks to Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve’s legendary “Superman: The Movie” (1978), we now live in a world where superhero movies are the general audience cinema.

When “Man of Steel” came out, it gave us a very grounded view of what Superman is. Most fans of the character did not recognise this interpretation as Superman calling Snyder’s take “too dark and edgy,” “depressed,” “wrathful evil God” or “an irresponsible alien.. And none of them are wrong. But none of them are right either. It’s all a matter of perspective. Perspectives are subjective.

When Zack Snyder set out to make “Man of Steel,” he was strict about reinventing the comic character. He wasn’t going to bring in the suits from the old films or the iconic theme by John Williams. He was intending to do everything from scratch.

Superman is the beginning of all superheroes. Zack Snyder understands that responsibility. One might skip out on a movie about a lesser known superhero but no one misses out Superman. And hence, the biggest responsibility to come from that popularity is the influence.

A panel from “Superman Smashes the Klan” (2019) by Gene Luen Yang. Photo courtesy of DC Comics

Superman over the generations has reflected the prevailing values of society at the time, starting with him being a symbol of truth and justice to him being the symbol of hope to him being the person who believes in the “American way” or “a better way,” he has served as a representation of the generations through the ages. Movies from the 1980s were upbeat, and that’s where Superman’s tone came to be solidified for a long while.

“Superman” (1978) encapsulated a perfect representation of the American heroic ideal of that era. Now, when he was reinvented for a post-9/11 world, Zack Snyder wanted to ground the character. What he was doing was showing us the world from the point-of-view of an alien and how they saw the world, and Snyder also gave us the view of the people viewing the aliens.

It was truly political as we got to see both sides of the coin. And that’s when we realized, there weren’t just two sides to the story, there were many — people, government, his loved ones, people who think of him as a friend, those who worship him as a god, those who believe earth belongs to humans and not outsiders, and those who believe he’s a threat. These are all possible kinds of factions one can expect from “Batman v Superman,” and mostly because of the Black Zero event that had happened in “Man of Steel.”

Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman in “Superman: The Movie” (1978). Photo courtesy of Warner Media

Maybe if Superman’s first appearance to the world wasn’t when the world was being threatened by someone of his own kind, there would have been less factions. If it were a normal day where a technical error and a falling helicopter had introduced him to the world, maybe people would’ve thought he’s a hero and is just here to help

But this unfortunately wasn’t the case in “Man of Steel.” Due to the irrational motives of General Zod, Superman was forced to fight and stop him. In doing so, the duo were the cause of destruction in a large portion of Metropolis, killing thousands. “Batman v Superman” showed us that all of the destruction wasn’t simply shown because it was cool CGI, but because actions have consequences. Yes, it was his first day and he didn’t know every trick in the book, so he messed up. But nor he, nor did the world, forget what happened.

We get to see different points of views of this politics throughout the film. People think of him as some kind of a God. While some choose to worship him, Lex Luther and Bruce Wayne choose the opposite.

During the Day of the Dead sequence, we get to see the actual point of views of people. How even a normal good deed, like saving a girl, is a political one. He’s happy to save her, and he’s happy to see the mother of the girl relieved knowing that her daughter is alive. But then everyone gathers around him and thinks of him as a savior, like Jesus. He’s not happy about that. He doesn’t want to be a God. On the news, Vikram Gandhi presents his views calling him a messiah and that he shouldn’t be chained down with rules while the other panelists oppose that idea, believing that everyone on earth should be under control rather than being unobserved. Glen Woodburn believed that we as humans have a horrible track record of following people with great power, which eventually led us to atrocities.

“Do you know the greatest lie in America, Senator? It’s that power can be innocent.”

We believe in who we vote for, or who our heroes are, but saying they’re pure is madness. It’s all about who’s the lesser evil. And since Superman is a part of this world, even though good, he is a part of this political faction.

The scene then further presents us with the dialogue that “Maybe he’s not a Devil or Jesus character, maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing.”

That defines the “why” of Superman. He’s not here to act like some god but he is just a normal guy trying to live a normal life while helping others because he believes it’s the right thing to do and has the power to do so. This is a callback to Superman being thought of as some kind of Jesus figure. A faction of people in the film believe him to be the same, serving as social commentary.

The blockbuster offers a conversation between the public viewing Superman as a Jesus figure, while his private network knows him as just a kid from Kansas who likes helping people. When he’s worried about how he’s viewed by the world, Martha calms him down by saying that they’re just people, they hate what they don’t understand.

“Be their hero, Clark, be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be, or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing… you never did.”

Martha Kent

This is one of the most poignant points in the film, mirroring the fatherly advice Jonathon gave in “Man of Steel.” The film constantly presents Superman with the option to pick his own destiny. This is a human strength, in contrast to Kryptonian society where this wasn’t possible because everyone on Krypton was born with a specific pre-programmed purpose.

“What if a child aspired to do something other than what society had intended for him or her? What if the child aspired to do something greater?”

Jor-El

It isn’t surprising that power is a subject of controversy in this world. Hence people thinking differently about Superman shouldn’t be surprising either. Just like in the movie where people are debating what Superman is or isn’t, what he should or shouldn’t do, fans in the real world quarrel about it on the internet every day.

We know our version of the character and, if we’re accepting, we would respect other views or get. Basically, it’s our sense of aesthetics that makes us believe we know the character, and that that’s the only definition of the character. We usually come across this particular debate that Superman isn’t some depressed individual but rather a hopeful one who believes in a better tomorrow and he wouldn’t say something like, “no one stays good in this world,” but let me ask you, If you were Superman and if you could hear what people think of you and how they expect you to behave in a certain way, would you be able to be happy inside?

Yes, he’s hopeful and he wants to do good, as said by Lois in “Man of Steel,” “to truly disappear, you’ll have to stop saving people… and I don’t think that’s an option for you.”

We have to understand that he’s a human being. We call him human — but we don’t let him be human. Not by expecting him to be happy all the time, which is contradictory.

Superman is an immigrant. We, as the people on this planet, can’t even accept one of our own kind. There are rallies just to make people realize that just because someone is different doesn’t mean someone is a monster. Do we really think accepting Superman would be easy?

It’s not ancient history when people were rallying for the rights of black people or for Asians. We still live in a society where if you’re a black person or Asian or LGBT, people would wish you ill will.

Superman is one such different person. He literally represents what being different is. Do you really think people would be that accepting of him? We don’t even trust our own neighbours! Superman constantly hopes for a better tomorrow and works for it for he doesn’t see who hates him and who loves him, he sees one world and he believes in that unity.

But being that high on his position, it is natural to be sad , even though he doesn’t show it, he is frustrated and it’s okay. He’s like us. He is allowed to feel. By saying things like, “he’s Superman, he’d never be depressed or edgy” is just us taking away the basic human rights because as humans, we don’t accept him as one of our own.

The most common impression of Superman is that he doesn’t kill. He isn’t violent; he always finds another way. The biggest controversy here was during the scene where Superman snaps the neck of General Zod, eventually killing him.

Some critics argue that he could’ve just forced his neck to the ground or covered his eyes, and that Superman would’ve found another way, leaving killing as a last resort.

Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Sarah Douglas as Ursa, Terence Stamp as Zod and Christopher Reeve as Superman in “Superman II” (1981). Photo courtesy of Warner Media

Are we really forgetting how Superman crushed the hands of a powerless General Zod in “Superman II” (1980) and how he threw him down to the bottom of the Fortress of Solitude?

The death of Zod in “Man of Steel” (2013). Photo courtesy of Warner Media

We come to these possible solutions of how Superman could have avoided the situation because we are familiar with comics, but is Kal-El even Superman at that point? It’s his first day and he says, “You’re a monster, Zod, and I’m gonna stop you.”

He only wanted to stop him but Zod, being purposeless now, had descended to madness and was on his way to get his revenge: “This ends only one way, Kal: either you die or I do.”

Zod wasn’t going to stop. Superman tried his best to stop him but then, at the end, he had to kill him to save the family. That way, he chose the humans over his own kind even if that meant him being alone now. If Superman hadn’t snapped, Zod would’ve caused more destruction because he wasn’t interested in talking. This idea is further explored in “Batman v Superman” where a commentator wonders about the scenario in which “Superman could’ve saved your child (World), but on principle, we did not want him to act”

Henry Cavill as Superman in “Batman v Superman” (2016). Photo courtesy of Warner Media

When has Superman said he would never kill? That’s the easy way out, if it works, no hero would kill, but they have no choice, they have to use justified violence for the greater good, as argued in the “just war” theory.

Superman, in “The Death Of Superman”, moments before he entered the battle against Doomsday, said, “Believe me when I say I wish that violence wasn’t necessary, but violence is the price we pay to accomplish the greater good. As heroes we choose to protect that which is good.”

Superman, even when he doesn’t know who to trust, even when he’s questioning his own existence, chose Earth over his own kind and he cut the Gordian Knot by killing Zod.

Superman is often seen as a symbol of the perfect world, as someone who can’t make mistakes but we as humans are born to make mistakes and if we consider Superman as one of our own, we have got to accept that he can make mistakes too. We expect too much from him but he’s just a kid from Kansas trying to do the right thing.

Even when the bomb went off in the Capitol, everyone made a big fuss, with negative reactions like “Why is he so depressed? Why is he not saving them? Why is he crying? I don’t remember a sad Superman! This is not the Superman I know and love from the comics and the movies!”

Imagine being in his position, standing in the middle of ruins wondering why you couldn’t see the bomb and why are humans killing each other just to prove you a monster? What has he ever done? Was Pa Kent right? The world wasn’t ready. He was right when he said the world would fear what they don’t understand and so was Martha when she said “people hate what they don’t understand”. At that point, anyone would lose the hope in them.

No one would want to stay in a world where people kill their own kind for chaos. How can someone wanna stay knowing that they’re the reason the world is quarrelling? With great power comes great responsibility, but with such responsibility, also comes anxiety and constant existential crisis.

At first, his father, Jonathan Kent, only wanted him to be careful so that the government doesn’t find out, but then he knew Clark had to wait. Jonathan literally died just to prove that he loves the world and would do anything for it but all we see are negative reactions from the general public that prove the sad lessons in the movies.

His sacrifice was how the world realized he was only here to help, and when he returned, he wasn’t holding back or was confused because now, people knew he wasn’t the enemy. They knew he wasn’t a monster or a god but just a friend who’s here to help.

This shows how “Batman v Superman” predicted the audience even before it ever came out. It’s okay to look up to him but we have to let him be. Otherwise what are we talking about here?
Must there be a Superman?

Jainam Turakhia

Jainam Turakhia has been a fan of DC for as long as he can remember, but what really tickles his inner creativity is Zack Snyder's vision for the DC Universe. From there Turakhia has traveled to a lot of destinations exploring works of other artists who make movies or write books/comics. Zack Snyder however, is always his hometown. He loves watching, and analyzing, anything and everything. Still a student from India studying Chartered Accountancy, Turakhia's passion for stories doesn't seem to end.

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