Even if not everyone appreciated Zack Snyder’s particular rendition of the Man of Tomorrow, or enjoyed the manner in which it was executed, I remain appreciative of the fact that, by the end of its two-film story arc, it succeeded in humanizing Kal-El, the Man of Steel. Superman, from his introduction and maturation in Man of Steel (2013, henceforth MoS) to his existential crises and sacrifice in Dawn of Justice (DoJ), finally earns the blatant Jesus-metaphor that has stuck with the character for decades by enduring the controversial, divisive reception of Christ himself — both from within the film and without.
Whether Snyder, David S. Goyer, Chris Terrio, Ben Affleck, or Henry Cavill appreciate the real-world irony of this situation is unknown, but what is known is that these two films probably portray the concept of “Superman in the real world” about as well as any filmmaker ever could. Again, whether you like their execution of that concept or believe the concept should even be attempted is another discussion entirely.
In short, Kal-El/Clark Kent grapples with his extraordinary powers and interstellar legacy from an early age in Man of Steel (2013), and then further grapples with the opposing ideologies of his two fathers when his legacy (re: General Zod [Michael Shannon] and his cohorts) track him down on earth. Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) goals for his biological son are idealistic, even romantic — to embrace the full strength of his powers and inspire the best of humanity to a better future. Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) is far more pragmatic, realistic, and protective of his adoptive son; he acknowledges and reaffirms the potential within Clark, but warns of a fearful and hate-filled world (of which Bruce Wayne’s Batman is the ultimate personification) that may reject him outright.
By the end of Man of Steel, Kal-El/Clark Kent seems to have embraced the mission his biological father encouraged rather than his adopted one, pushed by the necessity of saving the earth from Zod and his memory of allowing Pa Kent to die through inaction. However, as we learn in DoJ, acceptance by humanity is fickle and often divisive. By the end of MoS, many people were opening up to him, but given the immense collateral damage of that film, many others continued to blame and reject him as Pa Kent had foreseen.
It is in this fashion that Snyder’s Superman extends beyond a walking Jesus-metaphor and embodies questions of national sovereignty. The classical Christopher Reeve-era Superman championed the character as an embodiment of “truth, justice, and the American way,” but in this modern context of both the story and the film itself, Snyder’s Superman is as much a reaction to that ideal as it is a modernization of the Superman archetype itself. From the Iraq War to the Vietnam Campaign to the global fight against organized terrorism today, the significance of Superman’s ability to cross national borders, wield immense power, and act unilaterally is highly applicable to his country of citizenship. Can he be trusted? Should he be allowed to act as he does? Do human rights trump national sovereignty and self-determination? What say you, America…
Kevin Costner: “It’s something, isn’t? One minute in Kansas living on a pancake so we come to the mountains. All downhill from here, down to the floodplain, arm at the bottom of the world. I remember one season the water came bad. I couldn’t’ve been twelve. Dad had out the shovels and we went at it all night. We worked ’til I think I fainted, but we managed to stop the water. We saved the farm. Your grandma baked me a cake, said I was a hero. Later that day we found out we blocked the water alright – we sent it upstream. A whole Lange farm washed away. While I ate my hero cake, their horses were drowning. I used to hear them wailing in my sleep.”
Henry Cavill: “Did the nightmares ever stop?“
Kevin Costner: “Yeah. When I met your mother. She gave me faith that there’s good in this world. She was my world. I miss you, Son.”
Henry Cavill: “I miss you too, Dad.”
Superman’s entire arc in DoJ (continued from MoS) is a quest for belonging by solving the many existential crises he faces, the juxtaposition between his identity and his powers, the contrast between his near omnipotence and obvious lack of omniscience. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent clearly desires to do the right thing and cares dearly for those he hurts through negligence or inexperience. He strives to live up to the lofty ideals of his biological father rather than live in perpetual identity crisis and anxiety, but finds the world in which he lives now resembling the warnings made by Pa. He saved the world in MoS, yes, but he also allowed thousands upon thousands to perish before he vanquished Zod and his cronies; moreover, those villains likely never would’ve terrorized earth in the first place if Jor-El hadn’t sent him there upon birth. Now, it appears that dilemma of doing right but still allowing wrong follows Superman wherever he goes, no matter how many people he saves. Being a hero isn’t so straightforward, it seems.
The answers to the problems Pa Kent foresaw aren’t really answers in and of themselves, but rather means to move on and accept his place in the world, no matter how many mistakes he made in the past — the love of a good woman. This is Superman’s classical masculine redemption, mirroring Batman’s classical masculine rejection of hateful violence in exchange for violence as a defense of innocence. Most male-orientated coming-of-age stories follow one of those two routes: Finding redemption through feminine companionship or an embracing of heroism.
The problems that Clark Kent faces as Superman don’t really have answers, because he will always strive to do the right thing, and he will always make mistakes, and some people will hate or fear him regardless of his actions. You can control no one’s fear but your own, as Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) pointed out in another film, Captain America: Civil War (2016).
As such, Clark Kent’s mission of belonging begins with his parents and ends with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). His Kansas-roots remain with Martha Kent (Diane Lane), from whom he seeks counsel for his superhero insecurities. She reminds him that his ultimate responsibilities are to himself, and that he should not have to bear the burden of the whole world on his shoulders, regardless of his physical abilities. It is the most archetypal, classic advice a mother could have for her son. She, like Pa Kent, is first and foremost in charge of protecting her child. Conversely, Lois Lane encourages him to maintain his ambitions and family crest, but Clark’s relationship to her is quite different than to his mother, Oedipal complexes be damned. She is his romantic partner, but not a part of his identity — at least not yet. That comes later. Clark Kent leaves her with the melancholic words: “All this time I’ve been living my life the way my father saw it, righting wrongs for a ghost, thinking I’m here to do good. Superman was never real. Just the dream of a farmer from Kansas.”
The woman that actually brings Clark to his knees is Martha Kent. As Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) points out, “Every little boy’s special lady is his mother!”
Martha Kent’s kidnapping is what leads into the titular brawl, and it’s here that Batman brings the Man of Steel to his lowest point in the entire duology. As noted in the previous section of this essay, Batman introduces Superman to mortal fear and bravery in a way Zod never could, given his Kryptonite arsenal and sadistic strategy. Put bluntly, he beats Superman into submission.
The irony of the battle’s outcome is deafening: Superman was brought up a humble farmer’s son, raised to do good, and yet was blessed with extraordinary biological ability. Though Batman clearly doesn’t lack for good genes either, he’s no Kryptonian, and yet was born with immense wealth and material upbringing. At best, Batman’s wealth serves as an enabler for his most violent, wrathful tendencies in an attempt to compensate for the one thing he needed, but never had — a family. Family is what Superman is fighting to protect, as Batman refuses to listen to reason and resorts to blows almost immediately. In the end, the would-be villain, who is defined by his loss of family, defeats the would-be hero, who has been defined by nothing but family, both adopted and otherwise.
It is in these moments, when Superman has been reduced to his most mortal human essence, when he has essentially been stripped of all Kal-El or Superman-identity and remains only Clark, that Lois — who loves all three parts of him — rescues Clark Kent from the beast. How much Lois Lane or Martha Kent doubles as Bruce Wayne’s lost family here is unclear, but what is clear is how Lois adds to the painful humanity Bruce at least sees in his victim in his moment of clarity.
The aftermath of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent’s fistfight is merely a backdrop for the latter’s acceptance of himself, and his place in this world. He hasn’t found the answers to all the esoteric questions his abilities have prompted, but he has discovered that he never truly will, and that he doesn’t really need to. Why? Because he’s found a new meaning to himself and his world, and that is Lois Lane.
“Lois is the key!” Cries the Flash (Ezra Miller) right after Batman’s Knightmare dream-sequence, and he wasn’t wrong. While it’s unknown what part this foreshadowing will play in future DC Extended Universe (DCEU) movies, in DoJ at least, Lois Lane provides the anchor that cements Clark Kent’s acceptance of becoming earth’s (not Krypton’s) greatest hero. While Jor-El provided inspiration for the superhero mantle, and Pa and Martha Kent provided guidance and protection for it, Lois is ultimately the one for whom Clark Kent and Kal-EL embrace it. Lois represents his world now. For him, she is worth fight for — even dying for.
The key to Superman belonging in this modern age was his love for his girl. Call it cliched, but hardly unrealistic — as any man who’s loved a good woman can attest. That’s how a man becomes Super.
I understand why many people, particularly general audiences and comic-traditionalists, may have been baffled at the extent of the tone of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but I remain adamant that the film has much hope and optimism beneath its brooding, dour exterior. The movie demonstrates a powerful understanding of the depths of psychological despair, as well as the extent to which mutual understanding, i.e. empathy, can resolve it. It also shows how our sense of belonging is measured by our relationships to those who care about us the most, inside out, namely our family and romantic partners.
Bruce Wayne’s arc as the Batman sheds any apologetic rationalization for his self-destructive, violent behavior, painting him not as a ninja-trained badass, but as a wounded, feral animal. At his core he remains a petrified kid, still reliving the night he was powerless to stop his family being taken from him, over and over. This cycle finally ends by seeing himself again, but from the opposite side, as a young man powerless to save his loved ones, while a monster holding a spear stands over him, its boot on his throat. The path was a circle. So he changed it.
Superman’s arc, begun in Man of Steel, concludes with his embracement of being a hero at last, when it comes at the highest personal cost to boot. He accepts that there aren’t always easy answers to the big questions his existence prompts, as do all of us, and that’s OK. He finds satisfaction in how he will always belong to his family, and most of all, to the love of his life.
For those who both loved and hated this film and its characters, Warner Bros. and DC’s transformation of the DCEU in response to this film makes sense. Regardless of fan-reactions or box office returns, Batman and Superman’s journey must evolve. There’s a good chance these upcoming DC films, while retaining the core thematic and cinematic DNA of their predecessors, will be more optimistic, and I think that fits perfectly, both for the sake of the franchise’s financial future and its overarching narrative. Superman will return, and Batman will not fail him in death. They have endured and will come out of the darkness stronger men, and stronger characters. They’ve earned it.