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Why Did Snyder Make Superman the Bad Guy?

Why Snyder’s Übermensch misses the point

I finally got to see ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ recently and was able to see the culmination of this iteration of Superman’s character arc. And it was… interesting.

What began in Man of Steel as a man with a practical wariness against revealing himself to the world, progressing into a man who remained reticent to use his power in Batman vs Superman then culminated in Justice League into a man brought back to life so he could use his superpower who was still reticent to use it and become the Superman. This was an ever declining circle of what Superman as a character is supposed to be. Throughout the comics, from issue one until the — frankly — muddled multiple depictions of him in the New 52 era of comics, the one thing that remained consistent in the character is that he refused to be bowed in his desire to help, even to a fault. All Superman has ever done is wanted to bring villains to justice and use his power for the powerless, even when it has caused political unrest or has done damage to infrastructure or business. Since his inception he has stood for “truth and justice” and the lawful standards of his home nation, even promoting this as the “American Way” in the Christoper Reeve iterations. Clad in the American flag, Kal El is an immigrant, created by two Jewish writers at a time of their persecution and consequent migration, who is supposed to represent the best in humanity. He is the perceived idealised, Platonic form of a hero. In short, purely from a (largely American) moral and ethical standpoint, Superman is the ‘Good Guy’. Which is why it is so interesting that Snyder’s trilogy casts him as the villain.

In Man of Steel Clark’s journey from small town kid to being the ultimate superhero is hindered not by villainous Generals from across the stars but by the majority of human voices in the film. Both of Clark’s fathers go about trying to stop him, be that overtly by telling him he will be vilified and persecuted if he reveals himself when “the world isn’t ready”, or inadvertantly by telling him he is to rebuild Krypton on Earth at the expense of the current population, which would assuredly make Superman the villain seeing as how against foreign immigration people of every nation already are let alone for people from another planet. At all turns Man of Steel tells the audience people should be afraid of Superman and will hate him for what he is. In Batman vs Superman the entire premise is that this feeling towards Clark in the first movie was totally correct. Despite Superman being shown saving many people across the globe (from disasters that seem all too real and, as we are realising, all too preventable) these shots are couched in an argument that disagrees with his intervention in these matters. Superman’s presence causes a terrorist attack on congress, gets people kidnapped and prompts Batman to come after him out of the same fear of him that drove the plot of the first movie. He even dies, Christ like, at the end as a sacrifice to the people of Earth and only then is he rewarded, in death, with dutiful worship. Better dead and a symbol than alive as uncontrollable asset. As a consequence I was expecting Justice League to be a rousing cheer for his return and Superman finally becoming the symbol he always should have been, embodying the good in us all but here’s where it gets interesting.

In Joss Whedon’s version, that’s sort of what happens. Superman appears in time, a smile on his face, the original John Williams score to announce him and flattens the bad guy in a matter of moments. Whereas Snyder’s version instead commits hard to its portrayal of the Superman as a dark, malevolent force, arriving at the climax in a black suit and stern frown, mercilessly pummelling the villain, allowing him to be decapitated. This is after beating all the other members of the Justice League to a pulp earlier on in a fight that’s shot more like a horror movie than an action adventure. Snyder’s version certainly feels more in keeping with the intended arc than Whedon’s desperately crowbarred-in post-modern ironic finale where Superman races the Flash for lols. But, due to the fact it is incredibly unlikely Snyder’s tenure as custodian of the character will continue, this does seem like the final word on this version of the character and, consequently, Superman is left by Justice League as a feared, terrifying force that acts without oversight, or in the interests of the people. So why did Snyder go this route in his portrayal? Well there’s more than a few clues in the films themselves, starting with those dream sequences.

In Batman vs Superman Batman has a premonition of an evil Superman, flanked by Nazis-esque shock troopers, his eyes glowing a deep red, sneer etched on his face, bringing the world to heel beneath his red jackboot. This can be written off as the paranoid fears of a damaged man in the context of that movie on its own but when this vision is not only reiterated but reinforced in Justice League, with a specially reshot epilogue that depicts Superman as something out of Brightburn no less, Snyder’s motivation actually becomes somewhat clearer. What this lays bare is what Snyder believes Superman intrinsically IS: An embodiment and representative of the American State. Just as Snyder obviously adores Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns given that Batman vs Superman is, in places, a direct adaptation, Snyder clearly agrees with Miller’s perspective on Superman as “the big blue boy scout” and the more objectivist and individualist portrayal of Bruce Wayne. With this in mind it’s worth knowing Miller’s own politics that went into his portrayal of Superman in that particular comic. Likewise, Snyder has expressed interest in adapting Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead before, a novel that is a notoriously problematic defence of the right to individual power and resistance to government interference. As such, its clear to see how Snyder has carried this and Miller’s ideology through to his sympathetic depiction of Batman and less-sympathetic depiction of Superman.

Snyder’s films are far more interested in Batman once he is introduced, spending a significant amount more runtime with him than with The Big Blue Boy Scout. This is because Snyder sees Batman as being the ‘real’ Good Guy, in that he is the noble Billionaire who does right by his employees, not like the dastardly young Zuckerberg-lite Lex Luthor (who is also filthy ‘New Money’ compared with Bruce’s ‘Old Money’). Bruce is the Randyian hero writ large, a symbol of objectivist logic and market dominance, whereas Clark is the lapdog of the State. Superman here is a representative of America at large, the wandering hand of government interference with too much influence and too much power. Snyder’s arc for Superman casts him as the unelected elite, a powerful, unstoppable force, that allows us to live by its good graces but could turn against the people it purports to protect at any moment. Whereas Superman stood for the “American Way” in the ’70s which meant, truth, justice, rescuing kittens from trees and smiling at the camera, Superman in the post-9/11, post-bailout USA of the 2010s is a dark, malevolent, red-eyed, titan that should be feared at all times, it seems. In short, from this perspective, Superman is the ‘Bad Guy’. HOWEVER, is this, perhaps, not the correct way to depict Superman today?

To clarify, I do not agree that the equally malevolent and mercenary billionaire Bruce Wayne is the ideal hero, someone also acting without oversight, powered by an individualist philosophy and contempt for the State, but Superman is a questionable totem for the idea of “Good” in today’s society. The Superman, or Ubermensch as Nietzsche had it, was the philosophy that led the Nazis. The Superman is, sadly, the idealised form of the aryan citizen. This was not Nietzsche’s original intention for his philosophy of the Ubermensch but, regardless, it is now intrinsically woven into the name and the ideology that it inspired. Combine this with America’s own deep rooted white supremacy, that has come screaming to the fore in recent years, and the fact that Superman is an avowed representative of those United States, and this shadowy, nightmarish depiction of the Ubermensch is perhaps justified. The USA, with the largest military in the world, a militarised police force, a remit for maintaining war and a desire to continue to pollute in the name of a swollen, bloated, fossilised economy, should be feared by the world and its own citizens. Meanwhile a Superman, an idealised, strong, powerful, perfect white male, is a depressingly threatening and violent presence in today’s world. With one acting as the representative of the other, even becoming an embodiment of its values, then I would say Snyder’s depiction of Superman is, actually, pretty incisive. This was a point made by possibly the greatest living comic book writer, Alan Moore, when he said that superheroes and the genre were “white supremacist dreams”, the fallout of which was hilarious to watch as the industry tied itself in knots in an attempt to refute this glaringly obvious fact. No one wanted to be seen to insult the master of the form and the man who basically gave Disney and Warner Brothers their current crop of cash cows, but equally didn’t want to acknowledge the entirely valid criticism, so merely hand-waved it away with a “silly Alan” and went back to writing about powerful white men invading foreign nations for personal reasons. In fact this seems to be the overarching theme with the Snyder films: their fans and acting in bad faith.

The #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign quickly became a petri dish for the more rancid portions of the internet. Similar to #NotAllMen and #GamerGate in this respect, which attracted the worst kind of misogynists, racists and generally unpleasant white men with anime avatars, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut became a mean spirited, vindictive, reactionary slogan tied to some of the worst people 4chan could have dredged up. Regardless of whether people like me, who did not behave like this, may have wanted to see a director’s cut released, the campaign’s success sanctioned this behaviour by proxy. The release thus becoming an unwarranted validation for this distinctly poisonous brand of ‘Fandom’ that led to critics who didn’t love the final product being subject to the usual torrents of hateful abuse that we have all come to expect from the putrid trough of excrement that social media has become. And this is why I can’t get behind Snyder’s interpretation of Superman. When this particular type of audience is its most vocal defender and the image of Superman is the most aggressive, angry, violent and overtly macho version yet seen, then this is no longer the proverbial ‘Good Guy’. Superman in Snyder’s “universe” does very little good, either morally or ethically. He has killed all three main villains in each movie he has appeared in, for instance, something he was always been diametrically opposed to in every other iteration. This shows how Snyder, fundamentally misunderstands Superman largely because he seems to not even like the character, he has far more time and love for Batman, reflecting Bruce’s individualist, objectivist values as he does. As a result it is the people with a similar ideology that are drawn to, and most vocally in support of, this version of the characters, and, consequently why I don’t support it.

I still think the Snyder trilogy are good movies, I’m even the only person on earth who liked Whedon’s version of Justice League. I was always a DC kid and I remain so and I am just happy to see these characters on screen, but much like DC comics, Warner Bros don’t seem to have any idea of what to do with the original characters as they were intended because they don’t really understand them. I maintain Snyder is a good director and his cut is a far more cohesive film than Whedon’s sabotaged mess, yet my values and his do not align, but, more damningly, nor do his and Superman’s. Superman and Batman are inherently, inextricably political figures and, as such, the politics of the authors/creators will always bleed through into the text. In the future I sincerely hope Warner Bros hand the franchise over to someone whose politics have a little more sympathy for a character that just wants to do good.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.