* first published on Hopscotch Friday, April 2016.
Superman is dead. I saw his corpse last week, in more ways than one.
As I strived to hit deadlines in time for the Easter long weekend, YouTube clips autoplayed in the background. I looked up to see a photo of Adventures of Superman actor George Reeves dead at his open casket funeral. I put my pen down. The 1950s TV Superman — a fantasy father figure for a generation of nuclear age children — was dead right before my eyes.
As Superman, Reeves sold breakfast cereal, promoted the purchase of savings bonds to school kids and guest-starred on I Love Lucy. In reality, Reeves felt like a failure, and when he suicided in 1959 the newspapers read ‘Superman Kills Self’.
The headline startled children. They didn’t know who George Reeves was. The television program simply presented Superman as Superman, a real figure. In the 1950s, Superman was a living — but now dead — thing.
Reeves embodied a character that’s equal parts childish power-fantasy, religious myth, humanist ideal and patriotism personified. For a generation of post-war youngsters, Superman simply represented a much-needed goodness. As the YouTube clip ended, I imagined the sadness of the children who woke up one morning to discover that Superman was dead.
I did not, however, have to imagine it for long.
That night I saw Batman V Superman.
Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel. Snyder’s Man of Steel portrayed Superman as a messianic cipher with no clear motivation — a figure whose use of power was dictated by the conflicting legacies of deceased fathers. The character notably failed to stop collateral damage at the film’s climax and killed an enemy in battle. While the film made enough at the box office, it failed the historic character known for his goodness.
This Superman returns in Batman V Superman. Here Superman fails to rescue Jimmy Olsen who is executed in a war crime. He fails to guard villagers from a militia his presence provoked. He fails to protect Martha Kent who is assaulted and threatened with a blowtorch. He fails to save the Capitol Building, and the lives therein, as it is destroyed in his midst. In fact, Superman’s presence seems to invite destruction and offer no revelation.
Throughout the film, Superman fails to communicate any functional moral philosophy. He is a joyless hero who would leave this world better off had he never arrived. Superman’s final act of sacrifice — dying while stabbing the creature Doomsday — might have been his redeeming gesture had the creature not been born from Superman’s own unclaimed alien technology. Snyder’s Superman, released amidst the confronting vision of terrorist attacks in Belgium and Pakistan, simply fails.
As Batman V Superman ended and I saw Superman laid in a coffin for the second time that day, it seemed the logical conclusion to this version of the character. Snyder hasn’t been trying to deconstruct Superman. He has destroyed him. We can muster any number of clichés about flawed protagonists being more compelling, or muse about the relevance of truth, justice and the American way, but there is something with which most can agree: We don’t need more failure in today’s world. We need goodness.
Children grieved the death of Superman in 1959 as it represented the loss of a goodness that they needed. No child in 2016 will be sparing a thought for Batman V Superman’s failed hero as they see him buried. Snyder’s decisions reflect an attempt to update a brand marked by nostalgia. Violence and melancholy could be what some audiences want after all, but a failed hero is the last thing we need in this time of open terror. Nobody needs this Superman.
As I wandered out of the cinema after Batman V Superman, just hours from Good Friday, I thought about the death of God and the nail bombs in Brussels. I also thought about George Reeves, who might have died feeling like a failure but lived embodying a hero for a generation who needed it. We need goodness too, as much as ever before and that is why our fantasies should overcome. Comic book heroes aren’t real, but they should at least succeed. They should be good.
Zack Snyder killed Superman. I saw the corpse.
For goodness’ sake, hope for resurrection.