In defense of Zack Snyder’s Superman

I haven’t seen “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” but I have seen many articles decrying certain aspects of this film, namely the fact that Superman and Batman kill people and that the film is a wanton vessel of violence and destruction. While the latter may very well be true, I can’t speak to the quality of the film. However, as a child of the 90’s who was swept up in the deluge of after school cartoons including “Superman: The Animated Series” and as an American living in the twenty first century, I am aware of the character Superman, his world, and I have a general notion about his ethos. One part of which includes a sanction that he shall not kill. This seems typical of someone who calls himself the “protector of the world.”

This epithet is not unique. Hercules (or Heracles if you’re Greek) is known as “the divine protector of mankind.” He is a superman of sorts, semi-divine (born of the god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene) and with massive strength. In most traditions, he rids the world of monsters (most of which are part of his 12 labors, e.g. the Hydra, the Nemean Lion, the Stymphalian Birds).#

While these are no doubt good deeds, Heracles was also capable of terrible things, like murdering his family when afflicted with “madness” by Hera. This is the plot of Seneca’s play “Hercules Furens,” written in ca. AD 50’s. The date is important because this is right in between the reigns of Caligula (AD 37–41) and Nero (AD 54–68), two of the more insane, wantonly violent emperors (at least according to Suetonius). This is the Silver Age of Latin Literature (AD 18–133) known for Mannerist and Baroque works of art (the works of Ovid, Seneca and Statius contain some of the most bizarrely violent passages in literature. No, really, this guy Tydeus eats someone’s brains in Statius’ Thebaid).

Meanwhile, superhero films since ca. 2010 have explored ever darker themes (Batman Begins) which is not a coincidence: this is two years after the Great Recession, nine years after the World Trade Center attacks). So, artistic periods cycle over time. Right now, we’re in a period where artists (PRODUCERS) are championing hopeless, nihilistic plots and violence* (e.g. Clash of the Titans, Inception, Black Swan, Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, The Wolf of Wall Street).

Snyder may not have been successful, but I don’t think he was solely trying to make Superman dark for the sake of being dark. Yes, I do think he wanted to make something that was de rigueur, but I also think he was looking for something deeper to explore in Superman’s ethos, something more Classically tragic+, and a perfect analogue is the tragic Hercules.

# Superman had his own 12 labors in “AllStar Superman.”

  • Yes, I realize this is a sweeping generalization. But that doesn’t preclude it from being true.

+ Some of Snyder’s other films contain Classical references — “Man of Steel” features young Clark Kent reading Plato, and he directed the Greek epic “300” and produced “300: Rise of an Empire.”