The Brilliance of Zack Snyder’s DC Universe
His superhero films, full of complex characters, deep symbolism, and faithfulness to the comics, are unlike anything ever seen before — and possibly ever again
I. The Beginning
II. Birth of a Universe
III. A Super Vision
IV. The Reactions — and the Reaction to those Reactions
V. Justice Denied
VI. References, Allusions, Symbolism & Iconography
VII. A Heroic Cast
VII. The Future
“You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.”
— Kurt Woolf in a letter to Franz Kafka
I. The Beginning
We are living in the age of the comic book film.
The highest-grossing film franchise of all time is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Since its inception in 2008, the franchise has released nineteen movies that have grossed $15 billion globally (and counting) and, considering its most recent films, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, shattered box office records, it does not appear to be slowing down any time soon.
Yet while Marvel is a record-breaking worldwide juggernaut, it was actually their rival, DC Comics — through Warner Bros. — that introduced the superhero film in 1978 with Superman. With the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly,” the black-and-white image of George Reeves jumping out of a window was replaced by Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner’s genre-defining approach that made it look as if Kal-El really were flying over Metropolis.
In the decades that followed, as Marvel teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, WB kept churning out films based on DC Comics, mostly based on Batman and Superman — from the sequels of that original Superman, to the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman series, to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, all the way to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, which concluded in 2012 — but also Steel, Catwoman, Constantine, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Green Lantern, and others. Yet, while the characters often crossed over in the comics and even the animated shows, the films stood alone. No DC superheroes interacted with any others outside of their immediate realm on the big screen.
In May, 2008, Marvel Studios released Iron Man and followed it up with The Incredible Hulk a month later, thus kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a series of films with overlapping characters and small plots within one large, overarching plot, all of it overseen by one person: Kevin Feige. The enormous — and enduring — success of the MCU made a shared universe a dream of every studio, most especially Marvel’s lifelong rival.
II. Birth of a Universe
The MCU would go on to change Hollywood forever, but it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, although Marvel released its first two films in 2008, neither became the biggest superhero film of 2008. That honor belonged to The Dark Knight, the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series that would become the highest-grossing film of the year, both domestically and worldwide (Iron Man would finish second in North America and eighth globally).
Still, Nolan’s Batman existed in a world all his own, driven to don the cape and cowl because of what Gotham had become — and what it had made him. So, there would be no other heroes in Nolan’s universe, meaning that although they had a decades-long head start, Warner Bros. was suddenly behind, having allowed Marvel to gain an even stronger foothold in the world of comic book films.
That same summer, Warner Bros. executives, seeing how Batman (and The Incredible Hulk) could be successfully rebooted, immediately went to work on reviving the crown jewel of DC Comics: Superman. Following the release of The Dark Knight, Nolan and writer David S. Goyer were discussing story ideas for a third Batman film when Goyer said he knew how to make a modern Superman film. “Nolan said he took that idea and pitched it to Warner Bros., and the studio got excited, too. ‘But it’s not something for me to direct,’ he added. ‘It’s something we were just trying to put together a vision for, and then find the right person to take it forward.’”
Who was that right person?
Snyder had already brought a comic to the big screen with 300 in 2006 and again three years later with Watchmen. His style was visual, the shots akin to a splash page. Both films look like the graphic novels of Frank Miller and Alan Moore came to life:
It wasn’t only the costumes or the settings. Even the way he films his shots — which most critics despise — make the films feel like a real world illustration:
The reason Snyder’s previous comic-book adaptations, 300 and Watchmen, had worked was that the speed-ramping effect he so loved — in which he slowed down the action and sped it back up as the camera drifted along, a spectator to carnage — perfectly mimicked the experience of reading a comic book. You see a frame and then another frame, but not what happens between them. Speeding up, then slowing down, suggests how the eye flits across the page, going from one act of violence to another.
Films, of course, are not solely a visual medium. There is also storytelling, plot, pacing and, most of all, character development. Comic book heroes and villains are, by their very nature, not like anyone else and cannot be presented as such. Yet, at the same time, a real effort was made for films to treat these characters and the worlds in which they inhabit seriously. This was certainly true for Christopher Nolan, who went to great lengths to explain how Bruce Wayne could become Batman in a real world.
Snyder had a similar view and was determined to bring a realistic approach to the material — presumably that is what led Nolan to tap him to bring a plausible Kal-El to the screen. As Nolan said of Snyder:
“Zack has an innate aptitude for dealing with superheroes as real characters. That was what a new approach to Superman required. He understands the power of iconic images, but he also understands the people behind them.”
Finally, after several uninspiring sequels, decades of dormancy, and a false restart, Superman would be returning to theaters and, in the process, would be introducing the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
III. A Super Vision
What if Superman existed in our current reality? How would the world react to a literal illegal alien — the ultimate immigrant — with godlike abilities? And how would he, in turn, react to the world?
That is the idea that underpins Man of Steel, the Batman Begins version of Superman that Snyder directed and Nolan “godfathered.” While it is a solo origin story, it does include easter eggs that hint at the larger DCEU, including a reference to Booster Gold and a quick shot of a Wayne Enterprises satellite.
In fact, Man of Steel was planned as the opening chapter of a five-chapter story (much like a limited comic run) that was going to be “epic, grand, emotional, joyful and unforgettable” with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice acting as chapter two, the start of that film actually overlapping with the ending of Man of Steel. While the DCEU Superman is a confused, burdened messiah, Batman has clear allusions to Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns. Frustrated and cynical after twenty years of trying to overcome a Sisyphean task — “Criminals are like weeds, Alfred; pull one up, another grows in its place” — and haunted by the death of not only his parents, but also Robin, he has lost his moral compass. He sees Superman as the ultimate global threat and decides that taking out Gotham street punks pales in comparison to saving the world.
BvS was just another building block in Sndyer’s universe creation, which would have continued with the optimistic and redemptive Justice League. He had very bold plans. Even those that despise Snyder’s work could never accuse him of not bringing a grand vision to the DCEU:
More than a house style, however, Snyder oversaw a house ethos. And it’s here that the recent spate of DC films — as wildly uneven as they were, as messy as they could be purely in terms of storytelling — has always been more consistent, and more interesting, than their counterparts at Marvel. Consider Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the key to the MCU’s success. He is wildly erratic as a character, swinging from libertarian privatizer of peacekeeping to statist global governance proponent to mad genius tinkering with godhood to father figure aiding a kid in need, depending on what the movie he happens to be in needs him to do to keep the action moving. He’s a plot device, not a person.
There’s a unity of vision to the Snyder-led DC movies that is simply lacking over at Marvel.
Regardless of how one feels about Snyder’s work, no one can ever accuse it of not being ambitious. However, ambition often means eschewing safety and that can be alienating or even upsetting to those that want something comfortable and expected. He was taking a different approach to the genre and viewing these characters in completely new ways on screen and completely subverting expectations:
That’s what Snyder was doing, and he envisioned something ambitious and bold — an entire superhero cinematic approach that starts off by positing a new type world in which superhero exist, deconstructing the genre itself right in front of our eyes and building something unlike any we’d seen before in superhero cinema. The genre already existed and had dozens of entries by this point, so Snyder realized it wasn’t enough to start off with just another template-style approach which would be deconstructed later — doing it from the outset, with the knowledge audiences already have a built-in map of the genre and of the most famous of these characters, and from the outset challenging all of their assumptions so this otherwise familiar genre and familiar set of characters could not be taken for granted, and instead would surprise us time and again, was the goal.
When Batman v Superman was screened for Warner Bros. executives, they loved it so much that they gave it a standing ovation and immediately decided that they wanted to Ben Affleck to keep portraying the Caped Crusader for the foreseeable future.
The good feelings would not last long, however. Few would understand, much less appreciate, that vision and, as a result, he was never given the opportunity to see it through to completion.
IV. The Reactions — and the Reaction to those Reactions
Upon its release, Man of Steel received mixed reviews with much of the criticism focused on the changes made to the Superman mythos — from the suit to his actions. Many found it to be un-Superman-like for him to be so focused on stopping General Zod that he (a) did not once stop to consider how their fight was decimating much of Metropolis and (b) ended his life.
Snyder knew what he was doing. He said, “that killing Zod was part of the learning curve that would transform a scared and confused kid into the Superman fans know and love by the end of the Justice League films.” He was also quite cognizant of the fact that the destruction of Metropolis and the resulting collateral damage would be a sore spot for some, namely those that have a very narrow view of what Superman is and should be, and that’s why it is shown from the perspective of the people at the start of BvS and is really the point on which the entire plot is based.
While reviews for Man of Steel fell in the middle — 55% on Rotten Tomatoes vs. 75% audience score — Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was pillioried, resulting in an avalanche of gleefully nasty reviews and an aggregate score of 27% (though a 63% audience score). A pattern emerged: “Fan reception to Man of Steel was much warmer than the critical reception — something that would become a recurring motif for the DC films.” BvS is almost certainly the most divisive superhero film of all time:
While it was critically savaged, Batman v Superman has a deeply devoted following who adore it for its dark deconstruction of DC’s two biggest icons. Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder if Batman v Superman would have been more warmly received in 2017; while Wonder Woman is a ray of light in a dark world, Batman v Superman embraces that darkness with a level of glee that borders on nihilism. That level of cynicism was off putting for most viewers in early 2016, and yet it feels oddly prescient at the tail end of 2017, predicting the chaotic forces that would come to dominate real world events soon after its release.
It’s weird that a film that made nearly $900 million and boasts both iconic American characters and multiple Academy Award-nominated actors could be a cult classic, but that is what BvS has become, largely because of the beating it took at the hands of critics. Its fans argue that it is one of the most misunderstood films in recent years — or ever — and feel as if the professional reviewers had a clear bias, that their reactions were more personal than professional, as if Zack Snyder’s style and approach were reprehensible and it was impossible that anyone would prefer or enjoy it:
The quick responses, sadly, showed how clearly the dislike, scorn, and negative feedback for anything Batman v Superman, or indeed DC or Snyder-related wasn’t coming from a critical source. Those who disliked the film weren’t part of a homogeneous group, but for the most prominent voices, it wasn’t enough to simply make their opinion that Snyder’s work was objectively bad, creatively bankrupt, or terribly misguided known. Going a step further, anyone who questioned that consensus, highlighted overlooked elements, or sought to engage with the work was foolish, pitiably zealous, and deserving of less than respectful response.
There is simply no grey area: that response or attitude is NOT a critical one, in the spirit of the word or philosophy. As time passed, many online personalities or pundits who considered themselves “critics” took this same stance against the idea of criticism as a conversation and investigation, outright refusing to question, consider, or respectfully engage with opposing opinions.
There were a multitude of criticisms lobbed at Snyder’s first two DCEU films (as well as the universe’s third, Suicide Squad, which he executive produced), but perhaps the most common was that they were dour, joyless affairs. Perhaps I loved them because I’ve long been annoyed with happy Hollywood endings. While some watch films for an escape, there are those of us that want to see the real world reflected back at them through a certain lens and the seriousness is actually what makes the films realistic and believable:
The world is cynical, skeptical, and jaded. War, poverty, violence, hatred — these are the daily realities for so many people, and even those in positions of so-called power realize how helpless they are to stop most of it. Lex Luthor’s remark about a person with knowledge being smart enough to realize they are powerless in the world is a crucial hint into his own psyche and how the scars of this lesson were beaten into him from a young age, for example. He articulates a truth, a knowledge about the powerlessness of mankind in the face of our own destructive impulses, and that we pretend toward power and knowledge to shield ourselves from those realities.
Moreover, despite what many would have you believe, both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman had moments of levity and humor, though they were delivered in a dry, offhanded way. BvS stands as the low point of the multifilm arc, the nadir for the characters from which they can recover and ultimately find salvation. It is not unlike any other second act or middle part of a series (much like The Empire Strikes Back or Infinity War).
Yet rather than judge the films on what they were or what they were trying to do, a large swath of people lambasted them because they were not what they wanted or expected — and that is one area in which DC’s crossover legacy is a hindrance. For many, Christopher Reeve is the ultimate Superman and the way the character was portrayed was the only proper way to do so, meaning that any variations will immediately be scrutinized if not completely dismissed. The same is even more true for Batman — everyone has their own favorite version of the Dark Knight, whether it is Adam West or Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, so it is already an uphill battle. Some of those films and performances entered the public consciousness and became iconic, meaning that any changes or updates are immediately risky. That is one reason why Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was, like the film itself, so divisive.
One character, however, was not.
Perhaps at least part of the reason Wonder Woman’s appearance was so warmly embraced was because there had never before been a live-action film version to which audiences would measure it. That’s something that has benefited Marvel. Not only were they first with their shared universe, but it was also almost a completely blank slate. Since their most popular characters had been optioned by other studios, they needed to look deeper into the roster to create their universe. There had never before been a big screen adaptation for Iron Man or Thor, let alone the Guardians of the Galaxy, so there were no previously held notions or comparisons weighing them down:
Putting aside all of the hostility and simplistic assertions rooted in narrow attitudes and silly personal resentments, I think the biggest problem has been an approach that often contradicts the prevailing mainstream public impressions and expectations for several of the central characters — specifically, Superman, and to a lesser extent Batman.
Many casual fans do not understand the different machinations of these characters and simply want more of the same. As such, Snyder had been criticized for being too faithful to the source material. Imagine such a statement considering it wasn’t that long ago in a film that Batman not only pulled out a Bat credit card, but did so to purchase a woman. Snyder himself has said, “I love the characters, and maybe to a fault sometimes, I dork out on the hardcore aspects of the comic books.” Alas, many casual fans and most critics do not. His faithfulness to the comics is astounding, but the general public doesn’t know the Injustice: Gods Among Us storyline or the intricacies of the New 52 and instead only know that Superman changes in a phone booth (which no longer exist) or Batman never uses a gun (despite the fact that he did it numerous times in the comics). This iteration of the characters was unfamiliar to the larger public:
Batman v Superman showcases a version of the Caped Crusader that wide audiences had never really seen; not simply a Batman who is losing his fight against crime, but who has, for all intents and purposes, already lost. Batman, generally portrayed as the smartest DC hero, acts in brash, shortsighted ways, as he’s so blinded by the paranoia and fear that he fought against for so many years. He exists in a bubble of his own misery and cynicism, convinced the world is spinning out of control as the emergence of godlike beings push his feelings of helplessness into overdrive.
Justice League was always meant to be more optimistic. A superhero team-up as well as a redemption story, it was always going to have a lighter tone than the previous films because that is the arc of the story. “Man of Steel was Zack Snyder’s first Superman movie. Its direct sequel, Batman v Superman introduced the Dark Knight to hold Superman accountable for the prior film. And finally, the events of both previous films all led to Justice League — uniting DC’s biggest heroes as the thematic and logical conclusion, meant to signal the arrival of a brighter future (that was the plan, anyway).”
The negative, vitriolic reactions to BvS led Warner Bros. executives to panic and abandon that plan. The studio took the unusual step to fly critics in to see how much more upbeat the next film would be and that the character deconstruction would be kept to a minimum. WB went to great lengths to ensure that this time would be different.
They probably didn’t realize just how different.
V. Justice Denied
The rumors started almost immediately.
The early cut of Justice League was “unwatchable” and Snyder was “opting out” of directing any future films. These leaks seemed like plants, however, and considering Snyder’s love for the source material and all of the universe building he had done, it seemed unlikely he would just walk away halfway through.
Of course, he would leave eventually.
Upon the tragic news of his daughter’s suicide, it was announced that Snyder was stepping down from Justice League and Joss Whedon, writer/director of the first Avengers films, whom Snyder had supposedly brought on to help with reshoots, would simply handle the finishing touches.
Slowly, however, more information began to leak out and there were numerous reports that Snyder had actually been fired long before his exit had been announced. Despite the fact that studies have proven that Rotten Tomatoes scores do not impact box office figures, WB executives had had enough of the negative press and disappointing returns and chose to go in a completely new direction. However, the company micromanaged the film even more than initially thought and decreed a running time of less than two hours. Still, despite their demands, they refused to push back the release date. Why? The answer, as always, is money:
One executive told TheWrap Tsujihara and Emmerich “wanted to preserve their bonuses they would be paid before the merger,” and were worried that “if they pushed the movie, then their bonuses would have been pushed to the following year and they might not still be at the studio.”
As a result, Justice League ended up as a rushed Frankenstein of a film with two contrasting styles mashed together that resulted in a disjointed mess and clearly delineated the two competing factions of those that watch DCEU films. Most critics praised Whedon’s parts and thought they should have been the entirety of the film — “most of what works in the movie feels linked to Whedon.”
Some outlets even pointed to the final shot of Clark ripping open his shirt to reveal the Superman logo — an iconic American image — as proof that Whedon could have made a brilliant Justice League on his own. After all, that scene is very bright and hopeful, no way Zack Snyder could have shot that.
While the critical consensus was that Whedon was thankfully taking the franchise in a new direction, others — such as yours truly — felt robbed because Snyder’s film was mutilated, his vision tarnished, and unnecessary goofy sitcom-style jokes were crammed into it while Junkie XL’s score was abandoned in favor of the safe choice, Danny Elfman. The reshoots were not minor, as everyone initially claimed. Rather, they “drastically altered the final film.”
Some of the best images (including those used to promote the film) were nowhere to be found, such as:
Why would you delete that? This is another Snyder shot that looks as if it is ripped from straight out of a graphic novel.
So much was cut out. The black Superman suit. Cyborg’s entire backstory. Kal-El’s proper resurrection (with long hair and a beard). Entire characters scrapped or curtailed mightily. Long-term plans for Justice League 2 or perhaps even a trilogy. Tying up of loose threads. Superman’s lip (which Snyder couldn’t help but mock). All of it — gone.
The lighter tone and shorter run time could not overcome the drama surrounding production. The edicts did not work and Justice League (or “Josstice League”) failed to attract the mainstream audience, becoming the lowest-grossing DCEU film and creating a shakeup at WB while Snyder fans dreamed of one day seeing the director’s original film. It’s ironic that many of those that fired Snyder found themselves out of a job.
Even before Man of Steel, Snyder was already known for dark tones and complex plots with films that were at their best when presented in longer, director’s cut forms. Presumably, they knew that’s what he would bring to the DC universe. If you’re going to hire him, why change his trilogy (or pentalogy) 85% of the way through the process? Suicide Squad further references the murder of Robin and Justice League would have featured the Anti-Life Equation. Why not let him pay all of this off?
If they’d let Snyder finish the job, we’d have ended up with another polarizing film with a clear identity, instead of this freakish personality-free hybrid. Then, when the film disappointed at the box office Snyder could have taken the fall and the DC Extended Universe could be handed over to someone else. Because when I watched Justice League, I wasn’t thinking about how Snyder screwed this up. I was thinking that the execs at Warner Bros. have no idea what they’re doing. Not if they think Justice League is a movie anyone wants to ever sit through again.
At that point, you could reboot using the Flashpoint storyline (which seems like was already the plan considering Flash’s appearance to Bruce in BvS and Cyborg taking center stage in many of the group shots). At least then you’d keep your rabid core audience.
I’m not exaggerating or being hyperbolic when I say BvS was truly a transformative movie-going experience for me (even before the expanded “Ultimate Edition”). Everyone has one, or a few, films they saw in the theater that they couldn’t stop thinking or talking about — Batman v Superman was that film for me.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are films that stay with you long after watching them, regardless of how you feel about them. BvS stirred up a tornado of emotions on both sides — it’s been more than two years since it was released and people are still yelling at each other over it — while Justice League came and went with a shrug.
Rather than continuing to push the envelope, WB decided to try to play it safe in an attempt to thread the needle and failed:
And yet Justice League unquestionably lacks a certain spark that Batman V Superman has in spades. Batman V Superman feels dangerous — the work of an artist pushing at the boundaries of his genre in an attempt to say something new about these characters who have been part of the American lexicon for almost eight decades…It’s difficult to imagine anyone discussing Justice League with that level of fervor even a month from now…
They spent far more money to change the film and the box office receipts were actually worse. (Anecdotally, I saw BvS twice in the theater but didn’t see Justice League until it was available for home viewing because the studio meddling kept me away.) In short, it didn’t work and now, instead of a film that would have probably been loved — and, yes, derided — by many, it’s a film that was milquetoast and immediately forgotten. It failed to attract the general public while pissing off the relatively small but extremely loud and loyal core fans to the point that they were calling the CEO of Warner Bros. the best film villain of the year and more than 175,000 people signing a change.org petition to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut.
It isn’t only the fans. Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg, has left cryptic messages that seem to point to his disappointment with how Justice League turned out while Ciaran Hinds, who portrayed Steppenwolf, actually vocalized that he prefers the Snyder Cut: “That wasn’t the movie I worked so hard on. We hope the director’s cut comes out because it was better than the movie in the theaters.” Later, Jason Momoa said he was “obsessed” with the idea of the Snyder Cut.
Snyder’s first two efforts are still being debated and discussed because they resonated and that is a direct result of the director’s ambitious plans: “Looking back at every step along the way, the evidence — and filmmakers — say DC’s success (with average box office of $775M per film) has more to do with Zack Snyder’s vision than his critics would ever admit. And judging by the reception to Justice League, WB’s attempt to grab the reins back has left more questions than answers.”
VI. References, Allusions, Symbolism & Iconography
While so many films come and go, Zack Snyder’s DCEU efforts continue to be topics of conversation. Though they were not well-received initially, it appears that both time and multiple viewings have led to a greater appreciation and understanding of Man of Steel and especially Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Each viewing also uncovers another layer or meaning.
After all, Snyder is “the king of easter eggs, tossing so many of them into each of his movies that people are still finding them today.” The clear homages and lifting from the source material in his films are clear from the beginning:
And there are many, many more like Lex Luthor’s prison number designation tying into his first appearance in Action Comics, the Pb lead markings on Batman’s Kryptonite grenades, the phone line referring to the year and issue of “The Death of Superman” comic, and Diana rolling her eyes at Lex’s incorrect retelling of history.
There there is the brilliant “Knightmare” sequence that was baffling to many casual viewers, but was packed with hints including Flash using a Time Boom, a Joker card taped to the gun and (possible) foreshadowing of the future, including Superman being susceptible to the Anti-Life Equation and Batman standing on the ruins of the Hall of Justice.
The difficulty in laying bread crumbs in one film to be picked up in another is that the opportunity to make those future films may never come. Zack Snyder spent nearly a decade plotting this universe full of weaving, interconnected storylines and the realization of that sort of planning and vision requires time and patience:
One thing is certain, the filmmaker had a vision and knew what he was doing by mining different story elements from the comics and weaving them into a cohesive film narrative — exactly how a shared cinematic universe should be done. Sure, the payoff might’ve still been a long way off, but at least he had a clear creative direction.
Recently, Snyder has been using the social media site Vero to share behind-the-scenes photos, answer fan questions, and explain some of the layers in the films and there is much more than just easter eggs and references to the comics and future films to be found. It is clear to everyone that these films were meticulously planned, with seemingly innocuous (or confounding) scenes or throwaway lines actually playing larger roles, either symbolically or as a setup for future stories. And his fans cannot get enough:
Sndyer’s time in the DCEU may now be done, but that doesn’t mean the analysis of his work in this universe is. He’s developed a very passionate fanbase over the years, something that is always on display when it comes to discussing Man of Steel, BvS, or even Snyder’s original plans for Justice League Part 1 & 2.
Man of Steel presents Superman as a metaphor for Christ — with Zod acting as the Antichrist — from the miraculous way he was conceived, to his being sent here from the sky by his father to help the people of Earth — Jor-El even says to him, “You can save all of them” — to struggling with his powers and the responsibility they place upon him like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before ultimately accepting his fate at the age of 33.
It also examined the relationship between Objectivism and Christianity in our current culture. The Christian allegory and biblical references do not end in Man of Steel, but are even more abundant in Batman v Superman, a film so full of meanings and symbolism that it led to a fan-led, Snyder-endorsed #BvSReferences challenge contest to find as many meanings as possible, such as the juxtaposition of Superman reaching out from skulls in the Man of Steel death vision and the people in skeleton face paintings reaching for him after he saves a girl during a Día de los Muertos celebration:
Zod represents the Antichrist and Lex Luthor is the representation of Satan, specifically from Paradise Lost. Thus, if Superman is Jesus, then he must sacrifice himself to save the world:
“Earlier in the film, Lex [Luthor] complained that ‘no man in the sky’ intervened to save him from ‘daddy’s fists and abominations,’ yet when Doomsday awakens, his first act is to punch Luthor and Superman stops him. Why save the man that is trying to destroy you? Christianity teaches that Jesus loves everyone, including sinners and even Judas, the man that betrayed him — ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
There is much more than just Clark as Christ.
There are the biblical allusions of horses signifying death — perhaps even referencing the four horsemen of the apocalypse (or Apokolips). There is Batman believing the “lie of the light” and, as a result, the omnipresent darkness of the film representing the feelings of the characters and the rain eventually acting as a baptism. Even the controversial “Martha” scene is full of character insights and meaningful layers for anyone that took a moment to realize them (like the accurate reaction of a triggered PTSD patient).
There are references to other works, as well, ranging from John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur (Superman and Batman are akin to King Arthur and Lancelot) to Greek mythology — when Luthor is staring at Zod’s body in the genesis chamber, he invokes Icarus, telling Zod he “flew too close to the Sun,” which Snyder confirmed holds a double meaning as too close to the Son of Krypton.
This also plays into the psychology of the characters themselves and informs their actions:
The main theme of the movie is how we project things that aren’t necessarily true onto others. Batman projects all his fears and feelings of powerlessness onto Superman, Lex all his issues with God and his father. Superman likewise projects all his fears and insecurities onto Batman. Don’t forget one of the most important lines in the movie, “We’ve always created icons in our image and projected things onto them. Maybe he’s not this devil or Christ character, maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing.” I think this describes Superman exactly in the movie.
They go out of their way in the film to show you how human and imperfect Kal is, more than almost any other version of the character. Then they contrast and contradict this with very blatant Christ symbolism. I think this was Snyder’s way of involving the audience and showing us that we project things just as much as the characters in the movie. We are shown time and time again that Superman is just as messed up and human as the rest of us, but the overt symbolism and parallels makes us project this idea onto him when it’s clearly not true. It was Lex who sees Superman as a Christ analog and its made very clear he’s psychotic, so I don’t think that’s the message the movie wants us to take away.
That is only scratching the surface. There are literally hundreds more (update: Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio chose their ten favorite fan entries).
There is a cadre of individuals that believe the since Snyder is explaining all of these details, it “proves it’s not a good film.” After all, if you have to explain it, then you failed as a filmmaker, right? But he’s only explaining them because (a) there are others that found these references and asked him about them and (b) furthermore, he wasn’t given the chance to pay it all off in future films. If there is no ending, it’s only natural for people to wonder what that ending would have been.
The dictum in directing a film is “show, don’t tell.” And he did that. Yet critics were confused, so he then told, and they in turn criticized him for having to tell them. How is one supposed to escape that circular logic?
Zack Snyder never talks down to his audience, but it’s clear that his detractors insist that he should employ the most basic, lowest common denominator storytelling and dismiss anything more: “These truly are academic allusions, symbols, and imagery being discussed in the context of how they shape the film as a piece of art…and easter eggs are not the same thing. Movie reviews outlining the reasons a film is ‘the worse [sic] ever’ are not the same thing. And critics using their position to make conversation and the sharing of different opinions more difficult are not the same thing.”
Few, if any, superhero films have been studied and analyzed the way Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have been — and continue to be — and that’s something that cannot be captured by a Rotten Tomatoes score.
VII. A Heroic Cast
While his films are still pored over and scrutinized, it certainly seems that Snyder’s most enduring legacy at DC will be his casting. In the midst of all of the criticisms and questions regarding the films, no one questioned the actors he chose. Even his harshest critics can agree with that: “No matter what you think of his filmmaking style, Snyder’s casting of the DCEU’s principal characters is an area where he’s consistently hit the nail on the head.”
His colleagues agree.
Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins called the choice of Gal Gadot a “magical gift” and admitted that Snyder and his crew did a better job of casting than she would have done while Aquaman director James Wan called Snyder’s casting of Jason Momoa “a stroke of genius.” Gadot, Momoa, and Fisher were diverse choices and give the DCEU a more universal feel — white Americans aren’t the only ones that can be superheroes.
The direction — and directors — of the DC film universe may be changing, but the majority of actors are not. Fans and critics alike love the casting choices Snyder made — and his casts love him. They defended him against the whirlwind of negative reviews of the first two films and bought into his vision.
When Ray Fisher displayed his “I Love ZS” t-shirt at Comic-Con, it was initially received as a sort of sympathy card for Snyder after the tragic passing of his daughter. However, as news of the drama and mismanagement behind Justice League began to emerge and word spread that Snyder had actually been fired, the statement took on a different meaning. Fisher, who like the rest of the cast was presumably contractually prevented from speaking honestly on the matter, was still making his feelings known.
Much of the universe’s cinematic future is full of doubts and confusion and there is certainly work to be done, but finding the right actors to portray DC’s mightiest heroes isn’t an issue.
It’s already been handled beautifully.
VIII. The Future
So what comes next?
There are five DCEU films planned over the next two years — Aquaman, Shazam!, Wonder Woman 2, Cyborg, and Green Lantern Corps. There will be more DC films after that and chances are they’ll be more traditional and, as a result, better reviewed, but Snyder’s shadow still looms large over Metropolis, Gotham, Themyscira, and everywhere in between. Even if he is no longer there, his “vision for the DC remains in the DNA of its heroes.”
Ingrained audience expectations, gleefully malevolent reviews, and a panicky movie studio desperate to shortcut the process in an attempt to catch its rival all led to the premature departure of a filmmaker that had grand plans, took risks, packed his films full of references and symbolism, and clearly loved these characters and the books from which their stories came. Snyder brought a graphic novel to life on the big screen and he delivered superhero films that were unlike anything ever seen before — and possibly ever again.
Realizing the groundwork he laid and the plans he had for future films, it’s almost depressing to think about what could have been.
The Zack Snyder era is over and “the DC Movie Universe is worse off because of it.”
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