I hate Zack Snyder’s Superman…
That’s something I said shortly after seeing Man Of Steel for the first time in 2013…
To this day I laugh at the fact that I use to feel that way. Because now, not only is Zack Snyder one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. His version of Superman is my favorite interpretation ever put to screen.
My journey from hate to love is a complicated one. But that’s because Man Of Steel is a complicated film. It challenges the audience. And more specifically, the fan. I understand why some don’t like Snyder’s version of Superman. And I’m not gonna try to convince you that you’re wrong. After all, how we feel about film is subjective. But over the years, my journey from hating Zack Snyder’s Superman to loving it, has taught me a lot, but mostly about empathy and understanding.
I’ve always said that if Zack Snyder’s Superman arc was done in a comic book, it would be more appreciated because fans tend to be more open to multiple interpretations in that medium. Zack has even said as much himself,
“It’s a comic book run. If I had done a run of the same story. It’d be way less controversial. Because you’d just be like ‘oh, this comic book writer wanted to take this take. And when the run ends, someone else can pick it up and do something else’.”
Zack wasn’t interested in starting a cinematic universe, but just telling his own story. And that consisted of a 5-arc saga centred around Superman. And with ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ coming out next year, it looks like that might just happen.
So, by evaluating the themes and characterizations in Zack Snyder’s Superman films. I will compare them with similar ideas expressed in widely praised comic books to show that not only does Zack Snyder understand Superman, but he’s showcasing him at his best.
“Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?”
These are the words of a kid who’s life has been turned upside down. After going his entire childhood and adolescence developing strange abilities, unable to live a normal life. Clark finds himself at a point where he discovers that not only is he adopted. But his birth parents are from another planet…
Let that sink in….
There have been criticisms that Clark Kent is too depressed. And though by in large I think that argument is false. More importantly I think it’s unempathetic when considering the reality of what Clark has been dealing with.
Wanting Superman to be a beacon of hope is a perfectly fine thing to want. But it has to make sense within the confines of the narrative. And it has to be earned. For Superman to be happy, he as to overcome his struggles like anybody else.
These panels depict Clark returning to Smallville after spending some time in Metropolis saving people as Superman. Already grappling with his place on earth, saving people causes him to feel even more isolated. And in turn, he returns to the people he makes him feel connected to humanity. It’s okay to show Superman being depressed, but much like Martha said, it’s all about growing up, and that’s just what Snyder intended to show. Speaking at the Supanova Pop Culture expo in 2013, Zack said,
“The main thing I wanted to do was take the idea of Superman and imagine a [POV] where you can sort of look through Superman’s eyes and feel what he feels…”
Zack was depicting a Superman who has to overcome. And to do that, you have to show him at his lowest. But most importantly you have to empathize with him. And that’s why it’s worth seeing the world through Superman’s eyes.
To understand Superman’s emotions, we have to understand his opposition. And quite possibly his biggest opposition is the expectation of him. Superman is a man with godly powers. But at the end of the day, he desires the things of man. But that doesn’t stop people from looking to him as their saviour. So there’s a responsibility that comes with dawning the cape and it isn’t a decision that should be taken lightly.
This panel addresses the very real fact that Superman is the only being that can truly help a lot of people. And it’s dawning on Clark that this is gonna be the expectations of the world. And there’s no turning back. He will have to give up his life. And that’s a big decision. In Zack Snyder’s BvS commentary on Vero, Snyder mentioned how the world views Superman,
“Even in the context of him rescuing someone. You understand how the lines can get blurred for normal humans. [There’s] this guy floating up in the sky, how do you not rely on him to solve all of our problems? And that’s not his thing. He’s a kid from Kansas just trying to do the right thing. And we look at him like this. And we ask a lot of him.”
The struggle is, Clark never asked for his powers. He just wants to be normal. But he’s also a good person. He’s seen the goodness in humanity through his parents and later Lois. So he naturally wants to help people. But how could we expect him to be our saviour? We cant. It has to be his decision, and it’s up to us to understand his circumstances. Because the truth is, he’s not an all-powerful god.
“Can you imagine how people on this planet would react… if they knew there was someone… like this out there.”
Perry’s fears are valid. The reality of Superman is that if he existed in our world today, people would not accept him with open arms. There would be an array of reactions. As I mentioned, some would love him and declare him as their saviour, and some would fear him and even try to manipulate him.
As we can see from the panels from both Superman Secret Identity and Superman Birthright, the world reacts in fear. And when people see something they fear, they desire to control. No one likes knowing there’s something more powerful than them out there. On the ‘Us UNITED’ Film Junkee Vodka Stream, Snyder recalled this approach when making Man Of Steel,
“One of the things I’ve always said about [MOS] is that I wanted to make sure that the movie reflected this notion that if Superman was real, what would the reaction of the world be to him. Not what would he do in the world. But what would the world do to him. It’s an interesting parallel. It’s not just ‘oh look. There’s a miracle man. Everything’s gonna continue.’ The reality is, if Superman showed up tomorrow, it would change the world.”
The characters that Snyder incorporates in his DCEU aren’t just Clark and his supporting cast, but also the world at large. How do ordinary people react, how does the government react, how does the media depict him? Those are as much of a character as anyone else because they impact how Superman feels. In the shots above we see a stark contrast between the two ways the world sees Superman. They either fear him, as we’re shown with him being handcuffed with a wall separated in between him and them. Or they embrace him lovingly and see the good in him as he does in them, as is depicted with Lois Lanes relaxed nature around Clark. Snyder understands that one of Superman’s most important relationship is his relationship with humanity.
“Superman was never real. Just the dream of a farmer from Kansas.”
These are harrowing words to hear from Superman. But given what he’s gone through, can you blame him? The duality of Superman is that he’s an alien with godly powers, with the upbringing of a man. Superman may possess godly abilities, but his desires are of man. Relationship, happiness, success, love. But that also means he has the vices of man. He doubts, he fears, he gets angry, he gets depressed. And as much as we might not like to admit it, he’s imperfect. To omit this would be to not truly see Superman as a man but as a caricature.
I love this panel because it not only shows Clark at his lowest, but it even feeds off of everything that troubles him. His feeling of alienation, the evil in the world, the burden to fight it, and his humanity. And like Snyder has said, it’s about us relating to him as a man,
“Its really about the human man that is inside of Superman. Like he’s raised in Kansas. [He’s] the man that still wanting to be accepted by this planet and how he struggles with the same things we struggle with.”
Superman doesn’t always need to be shown in this light, but to have light, you need to have darkness. And showing Superman at his lowest only makes his triumphs that much more impactful.
To understand Superman you need to understand the people that raised him, the Kent’s. Like him, they’re just human. Tasked to care for an alien from outer space, they took it in stride. And in a lot of ways they carry the burden with him. But they’re not perfect. The reality of what it would actually be like to raise a man like Clark isn’t lost on Snyder when he showcases their relationship. There’s very much a duality at play when it comes to caring for Clark in all of its aspects. And even in the comics, a precedent has been set.
In Superman Birthright, Martha is very much the nurturer and Jonathan protector. Like any parents, they want to protect their kids, but they also have to allow them to go out into the world and find their own way.
“It’d be a huge burden for anyone to bear, but you’re not just anyone, Clark. And I have to believe that you were… that you were sent here for a reason.”
This shot of Jonathan and Martha is beautiful. It tells us everything we need to know. You can see the worry worn across Jonathans face and the subtle confidence on Martha’s. Jonathan is the protector. He carries the burden of the family on his shoulders. And Martha is the rock. The one who keeps the family grounded. If you get bogged down by how Jonathan dies or what he says, you’re simply missing the point. Some have argued that Jonathan Kent gives mixed messages to Clark. But isn’t that what parents do? Cater to their child’s needs at a moment by moment basis, do their best as they go along? Snyder did the best thing he could’ve done with the Kent’s. He simply made them loving, caring, parents and let Kevin Costner and Diane Lane run with it.
A hero is often defined by their choices. And Zack Snyder knows this. He often presents his films with tough choices with everlasting consequences. And his Superman films are no exception. In Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman, Clark Kent is faced with tough decisions. Decisions that not only affect himself or those around him but the fate of humanity. On the ‘Us UNITED’ Film Junkee Vodka Stream, ‘BvS By The Minute’ host, Andrew Dyce asked Snyder about deconstructing characters, and Snyder responded,
“For me that’s the why of the whole thing. To challenge the archetype that has been established. I always say if this is a construct of the character that is unbreakable. Why does that exist? With Superman or Batman, you wanna create a scenario where they can’t rely on their mythological trope that saves them from that. Because that’s how you get to the reality of the ‘why’ of the character. Because then they have to actually confront that aspect of them.”
This is a profound way to think of how we should treat our characters. Because a lot of the time, we wanna keep our characters in a box, but it does pose the question that if they never break, how can they overcome in the first place? And Zack applies this idea to many of his characters. As I mentioned, to show light you need to show darkness. And this is something that is representative of the comics as well.
In Superman Birthright, Lex Luthor opens up a portal to Krypton, and Clark sees his birth parents for the first time. But due to Lex’s nefarious plans, he gives it all up for the greater good of humanity.
This is similar to how Superman in Man Of Steel had to give up the future of Krypton because Zod only wanted to rule over Krypton if it meant decimating another civilization. And in both cases Superman chose humanity. And that’s what sets Superman apart. Not the power he possesses, but being able to discern right from wrong, and making the hard choices when no one else will.
Superman is the greatest hero of all time. And if he’s gonna be translated to the silver screen. He deserves to be shown in all of his facets. And the best way to do that is to allow the character to grow. If they’re perfect off the back, then there’s no arc. And the best way to give Superman an arc is not to have him fight bad guy after bad guy, but instead to have him struggle with what makes him special. His humanity.
The reason I found it imperative to parallel the comics is to show that Zack wasn’t trying to unnecessarily deconstruct, modernize, or reinvent Superman. But instead, highlight underrepresented aspects of his character. And to do that Zack had to ignore how the character was previously adapted.
“Lets just pretend we found the comic books under the bed and said ‘hey lets make this into a movie'”
Zack knew that if he paid too much attention to previous iterations, he would just be compared to them, so instead, he went with his own vision. A vision that aimed to get to the ‘why’ of the character. A vision to truly understand the character.
I love this part of All-Star Superman because it represents the heart of Superman. Just after his father’s death, Clark is forced to see the good in something. To deliver a message of hope. Bring light amidst a dark moment. To overcome when it doesn’t seem possible.
“You will give the people of an earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Much like the comic panel before, Jor El’s speech further reiterates the heart and soul of Superman. He’s not the untouchable mythical being. He’s one of us. In a lot of ways that quote by Jor-El is not just about the people Clark will inspire, but also about Clark himself. For Superman to inspire us to overcome our struggles, Superman must overcome his.
For Clark to become the hero we all know he can be, he has to go on a journey. He has to stumble, he has to fall. And we have to be patient. Because he will get to that pinnacle. But first, we have to empathize. First, we have to understand. And this is a lesson not just for Superman. But the man behind him, Zack Snyder. And I hope I provided a different perspective on Zack’s take on the Man of Steel. I was once against his vision, but that was because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the importance of relating to Superman. I didn’t understand Zack Snyder as a filmmaker… I was wrong. And if it wasn’t for my friend who told me to give it another shot, I would have never have fallen in love with it.
So with ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ just around the corner, there’s no better time to go back and give Zack Snyder’s Superman another try. Except this time watch it through an empathetic lens and an understanding heart. Because it’ll only be a matter of time until we’ll finally get to join him in the sun.
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