Every generation has a Superman.
I consider myself lucky to have been alive at a time when I could, as a four year old, go see Superman: The Movie in theaters. “You’ll believe a man can fly,” was the tagline, and that sums up the sense of awe and wonder imparted by that film. The grace and decency of Christopher Reeve defined Superman for decades, and for many he became the definitive live action version of that character.
That movie opens with a quick reminder of what the world was like in 1938, when Superman was created by two Jewish kids in Cleveland. The Great Depression was on, and war was happening in Europe. Fascism was sweeping the Continent, and in America it wasn’t clear what we were going to do. In 1938 things seemed bad - this wasn’t some hokey, sunny ‘good old days,’ these were tough days, sad days, discouraging days. Days a lot like today.
It was into that world that Superman was born, a paragon of decency in a time when such a thing was needed. His creation wasn’t reflective of some sort of mass optimism but rather a rally cry for optimism. Over time he changed and morphed - characters were added to his world, he got weaknesses and detailed origins - but one thing stayed the same at the center of the character, and that was his basic decency. Superman was a vision of strength wielded with responsibility, a character who reflected not what America was but how America wanted - and needed! - to see itself.
By 1978, forty years after Superman’s creation, things had come kind of full circle. It’s easy to look back at the 70s as a decade of coke and disco, but for real people things were different. America was experiencing the aftermath of a great recession, and the oil crisis was a recent memory. As the economy stagnated our cities became overrun with crime and poverty; New York City almost went bankrupt. In 1977, which would have been when Superman: The Movie was being conceived and created, the great blackout in New York led to widescale rioting, looting and fires. It was easy to look at the country and see it falling to pieces, only a few years after it had barely crawled out of the morass of Vietnam and gotten past the criminality of Richard Nixon. Things looked bleak.
Enter Christopher Reeve.
Watching the 1978 Superman with modern eyes it’s perhaps hard to realize just how corny and out of step that Superman was; the film gives you all the cues you need to understand that, but the natural response of modern audiences is to look at all older films and settings as quaint or hokey. But the world into which Reeve’s Superman flew wasn’t silly or light - it was a dark time, one that needed a hero who could cut through the morally grey bullshit, who wouldn’t make excuses for the bombing of Cambodia or the racist destruction and abandonment of urban infrastructure.
There have been other Supermans since, and while none have, in my opinion, reached the heights of Christopher Reeve, all have imparted a similar sense of decency, humbleness and grace. From Brandon Routh to various animated incarnations, children growing up over the past 40 years have found new Supermans they could look to as inspirational models of how heroes act.
But what do the children of today have? Warner Bros, custodian of the Superman legacy, has handed the keys of the character over to Zack Snyder, a filmmaker who has shown he feels nothing but contempt for the character. In doing so they have opened the character to an ugly new interpretation, one that devalues the simple heroism of Superman and turns the decent, graceful character into a mean, nasty force of brutish strength.
Where Superman was originally intended as a hopeful view of strength wielded with responsibility, Snyder presents him as a view of strength as constant destructive force; where Christopher Reeve’s Superman would often float and flit away, Snyder’s version explodes like a rocket at all times, creating sonic booms above city centers in fits of pique, such as after his scene of moping on Lois Lane’s Washington DC hotel balcony. He is a constant weapon of destruction, often smashing concrete when he comes to earth. There are no soft landings for this Superman.
Grace is a word that I have used a number of times here, and I have meant that in multiple ways, both as a description of physical movement and as a way of behaving. Superman can be firm, but is always polite, and he does not hold his powers as a cudgel above others… unless it’s Zack Snyder’s Superman. Here is a character who threatens first and asks questions later, who resorts to physical violence against Batman at the slightest provocation, who has no words of comfort or wisdom for anyone, who even flies away after a terrible disaster at the US Senate.
But there’s another element of grace inherent in Superman, and that is the grace of god. That’s reflected in his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, which uses the Hebrew suffix ‘el’ - meaning ‘god’ - and which was not appended by accident. Kal-El’s name not only aligns him with Judaism (it is translated by some as “Voice of God,” and is a pretty good example of why Superman is not a Christ figure) but with God himself. It isn’t that Superman is god, or a god, but that he represents the grace of god, the beauty and mercy we find in the best divine moments. But that beauty is missing from Superman in the Snyderverse, where he is a cold and distant being who hovers ever so slightly out of reach of people trapped by flood waters, or who allows himself to be worshipped by a crowd of cartoonish Mexicans. This marble statue has no love within him. He offers no comfort.
After two films I do not believe this is an accident. I believe that Zack Snyder is systematically destroying Superman not because he doesn’t understand the character but because he profoundly dislikes the character. One of the larger themes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the idea that every act of heroism is a catalyst for something terrible in the world, a point of view that is not only a) insane but b) inherently anti-Superman. And in case you think I’m reading too much into the film (where Pa Kent’s ghost gives a bizarre horse-drowning speech that makes this explicit) here’s Snyder on the press tour for the film:
When we find him, he’s been dealing with the everyday world of being a superhero, but there’s a paradigm shift happening in that the unintended consequences of some of those rescues are starting to come into fruition.
Like, if you’re just taking a cat out of a tree, you can’t touch anything or the arborists will say, ‘he damaged the tree branch when he got the cat down.’ Or, ‘the cat wasn’t neutered, so now there’s thousands of cats.’ There’s no winning anymore for Superman.
Somebody tell Zack Snyder how cat reproduction works.
What Snyder is talking about, and what his movie ends up being about, is the concept of staying in your own lane - don’t get involved in the affairs of others because it’s always going to create unintended consequences, and usually bad ones. That’s an intrinsically nihilistic point of view, and it’s absolutely bizarre to me that it’s a point of view that Warner Bros allowed to be attached to Superman. It’s like making a Strawberry Shortcake movie that is all about diabetes.
Snyder’s intentions in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman is to destroy Superman, something he actually accomplishes literally at the end of the latest film. I can only imagine what sort of hyper-distant, Dr. Manhattan-ish being Snyder will pull from that grave in a future movie, especially since BvS has officially killed off Superman’s human alter ego, Clark Kent*. Snyder has been chipping away at the foundations of Superman for some time, killing Dr. Emil Hamilton, a close comrade of Superman, in Man of Steel, and unceremoniously executing Jimmy Olsen in this film. BvS also tells us that Snyder has every intention of killing Lois Lane in the future, as his gameplan for the future of the DC Movieverse is to recreate the Injustice game/comic, where Superman becomes a murderous warlord after Lois Lane is killed.
I don’t want to get into the question of what Superman would or wouldn’t do. Those esoteric arguments go in circles, with people drawing on random - and highly unusual - moments from previous comics, or from eras in Superman’s history when he wasn’t fully formed as a character. What I want to get into is the simple fact that for the last eighty years Superman has been an image of hope and inspiration, a character who represents the best of us. For generation after generation of kids, the first intro to that character is often through then-current media portrayals of him (comics these days are incredibly kid-unfriendly, and most kids do not want to watch old stuff - they want to see the current thing). For generations there have been depictions of Superman that get the basic qualities - Truth, Justice, the American Way (an idealized version of it, at least), decency, kindness, happiness, love - correct. Whether you think Superman Returns is any good or whether you think the animated Superman show or Justice League Unlimited is the best ever, they all contain depictions of the character a someone a young person can look at as a model for action. What would Superman do? Be a good guy, be polite, be kind. Every time.
Every time until 2016.
Just like 1938 and just like 1978 it's a tough world out there. We're in a sluggish economic recovery and we're stumbling out of two terrible, costly wars of aggression. We are in the middle of an election cycle that is actually insane, one where a guy with openly fascistic and racist tendencies is a lock to win the GOP nomination. We wake up to news reports of suicide bombings in Brussels and in a park full of women and children in Pakistan. Cops shoot black children dead on video and don't get prosecuted. The ideals of America seem distant today, and hope seems even more distant. Just as in 1938 and 1978 we need a bright, hopeful figure to fly in and remind us of what we can be, of who we are when we're not weighted down by the hate and the problems. We need a Superman.
Zack Snyder killed him.
When I was four years old I sat in a movie theater and I believed a man could fly. I sat in a movie theater and I saw a guy doing the right thing because it was the right thing, and he never hemmed or hawed, he never held himself above the people he helped. His strength wasn’t just physical, it was moral, and it was inspirational to me. While I identified with other characters who struggled - characters like Spider-Man - I always looked to Superman’s inherent rightness as true north for my moral compass.
Of course you can’t even bring a four year old to see Batman v Superman, but even if you did - and if they didn’t run screaming from the film’s excessive violence and darkness - what kind of a Superman would they find waiting for them? Not a hero. Not a decent guy. They would find a guy filled with anger, a guy who is haughty and disdainful of regular humans. They would find a guy who, in many ways, represents the worst of us, a guy who struggles against his urge to do the right thing. And there are no current cartoons to fill in the gap, no explicitly kid-friendly comics. (There is, thankfully, Supergirl on CBS, a show forced to pick up the torch of Superman that Warner Bros and Zack Snyder have tried to douse)
Every generation has had a Superman to look to, to learn from. I feel terrible for the youngest generation who has this cruel, selfish Superman. I feel bad for the youngest generation who has been handed a jar of granny’s peach tea instead of truth, justice and the American way.
*For the record, in the original Death of Superman comics Kent was named missing in the destruction Doomsday caused in Metropolis, which allowed Superman to retain the secret ID - and normal life - after returning from the dead. In BvS Clark Kent is explicitly killed and buried.