As far as the Snyder-DC heroes, I’m a little curious as to what is loathsome about them? Now: I’ll freely say that I could not stomach any part of Man of Steel, and BatvsSupes was terrible in almost every single respect, and that I only have vague memories of Watchmen.
But: he doesn’t seem to be malicious towards the characters at all, and the strength of the casting really shines through.
I started answering in the comments, but realized that it’s gonna need it’s own post. The subject of how poorly these characters were handled in these films is one of those that just keeps growing and growing the more you look into it.
To be entirely fair, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen these films, mostly because I hated them. I have seen clips and sort of ‘pieced together’ versions of them since in the form of reviews, critiques, and so on. If needs be, I’m considering doing a revisit just to be sure I’m being fair (and because I’ve grown into a much bigger fan of Superman in particular in the intervening years), but nothing I’ve seen since and none of the arguments I’ve heard in their favor have altered my views so far, so take that for what it’s worth.
Also, I will say that the casting is genuinely very good: Henry Cavill was an excellent choice and could have been a great Superman (as shown by the handful of moments he actually gets to play the character in Justice League). Ben Affleck’s a respectable choice for Batman, star-power issues notwithstanding. Most of the other casting choices are fine in and of themselves, absent what they’re made to do (Though other casting choices are not so good, and in one particular case the casting is rivaling The Conqueror as possibly the worst of all time).
So, the Snyderverse starts with Man of Steel, an extremely bloated, unnecessarily convoluted take on the Superman origin story (as in, we open with Jor-El having an extended action sequence on Krypton). I’m going to leave off the bulk of the film’s many, many writing, visual, and storytelling issues for now: instead let’s just talk about their version of Clark Kent.
Through flashbacks and so on we follow Clark from a child to adulthood as he learns of his powers and alien heritage. Clark was a bullied outcast at school, who nevertheless once used his powers to save his classmates when their bus went in the river. This prompts Jonathan Kent to suggest that maybe it would have been better for him to have let them die rather than reveal his powers for fear that he might become an outcast if people knew he was an alien. Then Clark learns of his true heritage, which prompts him, as a teenager, to snap “You’re not my dad,” at Jonathan. Then there’s a tornado and Clark, at Jonathan’s insistence, lets his own father die rather than reveal his powers.
As a young adult, Clark wanders the globe working odd jobs and periodically saving people (not bothering to hide his identity in the process, by the way). At one point he’s working in a bar when a truck driver harasses a waitress. Clark intervenes, but when the guy challenges him to a fight, he quits and allows himself to be humiliated rather than doing anything. Later that night, he destroys the man’s truck in vengeance by impaling it on the logs he was carrying.
I can’t quite remember the sequence of events, but it ends up being that General Zod and his people show up and demand earth hand over their Kryptonian refugee – namely Clark. This prompts a scene where Clark visits a priest to say “I’m not sure humanity is worth saving.”
Zod urges Clark to join him in re-founding Krypton on Earth, Krypto-forming the planet (there’s some BS about a genetic codex, but who cares) and wiping out the population.
This leads to a lot of big fight scenes, where Superman carelessly slams the other Kryptonians around, knocks them them through buildings, drags them into populated areas, downs a massive ship into the middle of Metropolis, and generally causes an insane amount of collateral damage (including losing what seems to be a good chunk of the entire population of both Smallville and Metropolis). Damage he barely seems aware of, to the point that he sometimes moves out of the way of projectiles so that they miss him and hit buildings full of civilians. All while pretty much getting his butt kicked by people who have had similar powers for a matter of minutes after he’s had thirty years of experience with them. During these sequences he saves maybe a dozen people out of what must be tens of thousands being killed.
He then makes out with Lois Lane amidst the smouldering ashes.
It ends with Superman snapping Zod’s neck because he apparently couldn’t think of a better way to stop him from lasering a group of innocents.
Then in Batman v. Superman he opens by carelessly squashing a terrorist holding Lois Lane hostage (apparently killing as such doesn’t bother him. Also, this version seems incapable of using his powers in anything but the most unrestrained, destructive way possible: he can’t just rush up and knock the guy out with a flick of his finger or disarm him before he knows what’s happening: he has to slam him through several brick walls) then spends most of the film in a morose, existential crisis (“Superman was never real”. “No one stays good in this world”). He saves people while looking like he’s in perpetual mourning, then goes into depressed exile after someone sets off a bomb in his vicinity. During this his mother tells him he “doesn’t owe this world a thing” and he has a vision of Jonathan Kent telling him a story about how heroism is a zero-sum game where you can’t help some people without hurting others (same guy who, again, suggested he should let children die to keep himself safe).
We also get a vision of the future suggesting that Superman becomes the murderous dictator of a destroyed world after Lois is killed.
He then lets himself get completely humiliated by Batman before dying to stop Doomsday.
Okay, let’s delve into those.
So, it seems like Snyder chief takeaway on the Superman character is “he’s an alien”. Throughout the films Clark inexplicably identifies first and foremost as a Kryptonian (telling his mother “I found my parents”, introducing himself to Lois as ‘Kal-El’, talking about “My world” and “my people”, speaking of humans as though they were a separate concern from himself, etc.). This is fundamentally wrong. The core of the character is that despite his godlike powers, he’s an ordinary man, human in every way that counts, and he thinks of himself as such. He’s not an alien putting on a show of being human: he’s a man who happens to have a unique heritage.
Being a man, he still lives as a man, subject to the law, to morality, to human interests and desires, and he has to find a way to balance that with his superhuman abilities. This is a key point of what makes him interesting. Making him fundamentally an alien gives him a detached, purely ‘other’ characterization. He’s no longer an example or a paragon because he’s essentially separate from humanity.
Not to mention that it’s morally pretty reprehensible of Clark to decide that the people who have loved and raised him his whole life and the culture and civilization he grew up with count for less in his mind than the one’s he knows off a goddamn zip drive. Yes, he should be interested in Kryptonian culture and keen to preserve it and learn from it, but it cannot be his primary point of reference or the core of his identity.
You could, arguably, make this work by having it a phase he goes through: a bit of teenage rebellion or getting caught up in the excitement of his powers, but it has to be just that: a temporary phase that he learns from. It cannot be the foundation of his whole character.
Getting into more specifics, no version of Jonathan Kent should be telling Clark “maybe you should let people die to protect yourself.” No version Matha Kent should be telling him “You don’t owe this world a thing.” No version of Clark should let his own father die out of a fear of what might happen if his secret is revealed. The real Superman, faced with such a choice, wouldn’t even consider that: his attitude would be, “I’ll work out a cover story later, or I’ll get a new secret identity, or worst comes to worst, I’ll deal with it.”
(I don’t think Clark should be a bullied outcast either: he should be well-adjusted and well-liked, the one who defends other kids from bullies, not the one who needs to be defended. That’s not a huge deal, though, I just find it annoying that it seems like modern filmmakers have no idea how to write a childhood that doesn’t involve being a bullied outcast).
Clark should not be stealing clothes from people (he should knock on the door and politely ask to borrow some with a plausible story of a shipwreck or something). Faced with a bully, Clark shouldn’t just walk away and let the guy continue to abuse his coworker and then throw a petty temper tantrum when he’s out of sight. He should have the self-control to knock the guy around enough to teach him a lesson without blowing his cover, or else be able to find some other way to resolve the situation to protect the woman and put the guy in his place (and if he wants to stay undercover, impaling a semi-truck on logs is a lot more conspicuous then smacking a drunk around).
Normal human beings have enough self-control to do that, let alone Superman.
The massive collateral damage and the fact that Clark barely seems aware of it (again, making out with Lois Lane in the middle of ground zero, ignoring projectiles as they fly past him to blow up buildings, dragging Zod from a mostly-empty cornfield into the middle of Smallville, etc.) is another huge problem. Superman should be saving a lot more people than this. Or if, for whatever reason, he can’t, he should be absolutely devastated by the carnage. He should be doing everything he can, leaving himself open to attack in order to keep people safe or try to move the fight out of populated areas (which would also solve the issue of keeping the fights interesting when he should be dominating his less-experienced and acclimated opponents). Here he’s more concerned that he killed Zod than that he failed to save tens of thousands of innocent people. Not that he should be happy about the former, but he doesn’t even acknowledge the larger failure
(And having both these massive failures in the origin film, and indeed his first public appearance as Superman, was a terrible, terrible idea).
Oh, and you can’t claim that this was intended to set up BvS, since if it were, Superman or someone would have acknowledged it in Man of Steel. Instead, Man of Steel doesn’t even seem aware that it’s a problem. So, if it was intended as a set up, then the characters are behaving like myopic sociopaths, and if it wasn’t, then the writers were unaware that Superman leaving thousands of bodies in his wake is a huge issue until audiences pointed it out to them. It’s bad writing either way.
In BvS, there’s a bit where Lex blows up the Capital while Superman is there using a lead-covered bomb (don’t ask). This prompts Superman to go into guilt-ridden exile. Because apparently he feels that it was his fault that he didn’t stop it? Why would he assume that? He should be devastated and enraged, of course, but his response should be to pour all his efforts into tracking down and catching whoever was responsible.
This points to another, and arguably more fundamental issue: throughout both films, Clark is incessantly morose, miserable, and downbeat. He hardly ever even smiles or jokes or looks happy. Nor do we get a sense of what his values are or why he does what he does, never any sense of why Clark is Superman. We don’t even know whether this version of Superman has a moral principle against killing people (he’s anguished when he kills Zod, but it isn’t clear whether this is because he killed someone or because he killed the last other Kryptonian. The fact that he thinks nothing of squashing the guy in BvS argues the latter, as does the fact that he seems to be very tempted to kill Luthor in their confrontation and only stops when Luthor reminds him that his mother will die if he does).
It’s non-stop doubt and deconstruction, not just from his opponents, but even from his own parents. He never, as far as I can recall, actually comes out with a reason why he’s decided “humanity is worth saving” (Superman shouldn’t start from asking that question: at most it should come up in his darkest hour), nor does he ever make positive affirmation that what he is doing is right or that he cares about people for their own sake. Yeah, he saves people, but he does it with an expression and attitude that suggests he doesn’t know why he’s doing it (unlike in real Superman stories, where he saves people with gusto and then gives them a friendly quip or pep talk, or a self-deprecating word to Lois to explain his absence).
In fact, I can’t figure out why he bothers helping people except that, on a meta level he’s supposed to be Superman. He claims it’s because his father wanted it of him, except Jonathan wanted him to let people die, so….
In Man of Steel, his big declaration of motive when he decides to stand against Zod is “Krypton had its chance!” Note the negative nature of the statement: not “Earth is my home,” or “these people deserve to live,” or even just a “you’re insane”. The fact that he has a brief moment of crisis before this where he actually hesitates to reject Zod’s offer is another problem: saving humanity at the cost of not replacing Krypton should not be a difficult choice for him.
Superman is supposed to be a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic character: the hero who fights in the light, who doesn’t wear a mask, who tries to show people the best they can be. He’s supposed to be a good person who happens to have the power to do what any other good person would want to be able to do. Here, he’s an apathetic, ineffectual cipher.
When he goes off to fight Batman, he tells Lois “No one stays good in this world.”
No version of Superman should say that. Contrast with the message a real version of Superman leaves her with in a similar situation in a better movie: “Believe. Always believe.”
Again, he doesn’t even have the decency, moral awareness, or self-control of a normal person in this version. He even blows off a work assignment just because he doesn’t think it’s important (why Perry White doesn’t think ‘vigilante dressed as a bat is branding people one city away’ isn’t worth writing about is another story, but Clark should have the responsibility and maturity to do the damn assignment anyway. No one is in character in these films. Except maybe Alfred). I’m not sure how much of this is deliberate subversion and how much is just that Snyder and his writers seem to have no clue what a genuinely exemplary human being actually looks like, but it’s bad either way.
Meanwhile everyone talks about how controversial he is, how dangerous he is, how disruptive he is. We are told he’s an icon of hope, but chiefly for the sake of the characters expressing doubts as to whether he should be (Clark himself at one point says “Superman was never real”). There’s also some talk about ‘hope’ in the abstract (mostly in Jor-El’s ramblings), but it never amounts to a principle or a clearly set of values or anything but a word that gets repeated over and over, contrasting sharply with the dour, cynical nature of both the films and the protagonist. The movies spend almost all their screen time subverting and questioning Superman’s character and position as a beacon of hope and almost no time establishing them. They’re so set on deconstructing him that they don’t bother to construct him in the first place. The total effect is of a failure and fraud who finally redeems himself by dying.
Also, to dip into Justice League, much as I enjoyed the scene where Supes dominates the entire rest of the team at once, Superman’s default, confused state should not be “kill everyone,” provocation or no (that would have made the episodes of The Adventures of Superman and Lois & Clark where he got amnesia following a meteor strike very different). And even if you could soup up some explanation of why he’s like that, he needs to react to it afterwards: “Oh, my God: I nearly killed people…”
(That’s not even considering the fact that, in an amnesiac state, Superman should be defaulting to Clark’s personality).
Speaking of which, regarding the nightmare flash-forward in BvS: Superman’s reaction to the death of Lois Lane would not be to join forces with Darkseid and become a mass-murdering dictator. Again, this points to the trend of undermining his position as a hero: the repeated suggestions that he’s just one bad day, one tragic loss away from becoming the worst villain of them all.
Because apparently he has no qualms about killing people, imposing dictatorial rule, or destroying the planet as such outside of the fact that he has a girlfriend? Or he genuinely considers that an option, but Lois somehow makes him think it’s worth trying to save humanity instead? This ties in with Jonathan Kent telling him that he only decided there was good in the world after meeting Martha, suggesting that Lois Lane is the only reason Clark sees any good in humanity at all, which is, again, fundamentally contrary to his character and frankly rather appalling.
I’m fine with the idea of Superman potentially going rogue, by the way, but it wouldn’t play out like this. He’s not going to be siding with Darkseid and helping to commit world-wide genocide. If he loses his way, he’d become more like the Gort-based civilization from The Day the Earth Stood Still: “Here’s a perfect, peaceful, enlightened society. Disrupt it and die.”
All of this, once again, points to Snyder’s fundamental misinterpretation of the character: the idea that Superman stands so far apart from humanity that he would ever consider just wiping them out (remember the “not sure humanity is worth saving” line?), that the most interesting thing about him are his powers, and that he really has no core beliefs or motivations of his own, he just sort of reacts to things.
Regardless, Superman’s sense of morality cannot be that fragile. Again, normal people do not go from ‘I lost the woman I love’ to ‘Stalin had the right idea,’ let alone someone like Superman.
Incidentally, this is something I notice a lot in contemporary fiction. Modern protagonists don’t usually have principles or values that they believe to be objectively right. Instead they have relationships. You rarely hear the protagonists in contemporary stories actually articulating a set of principles that they believe in, they just say something like “I believe in my friends” or “I believe in us” or some such thing. So here, Superman doesn’t believe in truth, justice, and the American way, doesn’t articulate why he refuses to kill his enemies or why he believes in humanity’s potential for good. Instead, he simply ‘finds good’ in his relationship with Lois or his mother, apparently with the proviso that if that ever gets taken from him, all bets are off. Likewise Batman doesn’t seem to care about justice, but he comes to respect Superman and try to honor his ‘legacy.’
(Even apart from the moral issues, given that their relationship is given almost no development and Lois herself almost no characterization outside of ‘determined reporter who loves Superman’, the idea that Lois is what keeps him on the straight and narrow is frankly embarrassing. Lois herself is extremely ill-served here as well, by the way, lacking almost all the fiery self-assurance and affectionate sarcasm that she’s supposed to have, and lacking any clear personality to replace it with. Like Clark, she’s a lay figure being halfheartedly put through the motions, not a developed character).
The disdain, or at least disinterest, that Snyder has for Superman is palpable. He dumps almost every key aspect of the character – the optimism, the commitment to principle, his status as an ordinary person, the Lois Lane love triangle (and with it the humility and self-abasement that balances his heroics), the strong value for life, even the fundamental decency – and spends most of the bloated run time emphasizing what a confused, morose, ineffective figure he is and having him toss his powers around in the most excessive, uncontrolled manner possible while undermining and cross-examining his ostensible iconic status with superficial philosophizing and suggesting he’s one bad day away from becoming a horrible monster. That’s when he isn’t just plain ignoring him in favor of other characters and plot lines.
If you have any doubt that Snyder wanted to annoy fans of Superman, look no further than Jimmy Olsen. At the start of BvS, a completely new character shows up, announces his name as Jimmy Olsen, and gets immediately killed because he was really a CIA plant and was using Lois to spy on his target. Now, there was no reason whatsoever to make this character Jimmy Olsen. You could have named him anything. But someone decided to make this throw-away character who deceives Lois and then dies one of the core Superman cast.
The only reason to do something like this would be as a middle-finger to the fans.
That’s really the question that recurs through all of this: “Why? Why are you making these choices? Why are you having Superman’s first meeting with Lois Lane involve him cauterizing her wound with his laser vision while she screams in agony? Why did you think it was a good idea to have Clark let his father die to protect himself? Why is Superman so joyless, directionless, and self-doubting? Why did you ‘force’ Superman to kill someone in his first film? Why do you have this whole nightmare sequence of the future at all? Why the sea of skulls and the H.R. Gieger-esque Kryptonian designs and the enormous body count? Why is any of this part of your vision for Superman?”
It’s really hard to come up with a plausible explanation other than “a sense of contempt for the character as he has been traditionally portrayed.” Or at the very least it’s hard for me to see how the films would have been any different if that were the motive.
(Also by the way, Synder’s too incompetent or apathetic to even instruct Henry Cavill to act differently as Clark Kent and Superman. In fact, Clark Kent hardly exists at all in these films.)
Ugh, I haven’t even gotten to Batman yet.
Fortunately, Batman isn’t as bad as Superman (partly because he’s already ‘darker’ character, and partly because he doesn’t have a whole film focusing on him), but again Snyder tries to push the ‘edginess’ by having Batman being a straight-up psychopathic murderer who brands criminals with his logo, ensuring they’ll be killed in prison (whether that’s an expected result or prompted by Luthor, the fact that Batman keeps doing it regardless is still on him), at least when he doesn’t opt to simply blow up bad guys with the batmobile’s firepower or toss batarangs into their throats. He also freely uses guns while ranting about how pointless his crusade against crime is, and has allowed Wayne Manor to fall into decay, because apparently he no longer cares about his family name or legacy. Oh, and he claims that the chief lesson his parents taught him was “dying in a gutter for no reason at all.” Thank you for that insight in the character who’s life is entirely defined by the legacy of his parents.
Then of course there’s the little fact that Batman decides to straight-up murder Superman in cold blood because he’s afraid of what he might do in the future.
That’s frankly a line you cannot have Batman cross. I’m not completely against Batman killing (though I think you need to have a very good excuse for that), but once he decides to preemptively murder someone because of what might happen later then he’s crossed over from hero or even antihero into straight-up villain territory. And he precedes it by beating, torturing, and taunting Superman while he has him at his mercy.
However dark or rough he may be, Batman cannot be doing this kind of stuff. He should be preparing of course, ready to take out Superman if need be, but cold-blooded, premeditated murder cannot be an option for him, especially against someone who hasn’t done anything wrong (unless you want to count his reckless, myopic incompetence. Justify one character assassination with the other character assassination. There’s quite a bit of that in this series). Paranoid murderer is not the right characterization for Batman.
I kind of feel like that should go without saying.
Also, Alfred should not be allowing Bruce to go through with this. This is an “I’ve locked the Batcave until you come to your senses” moment.
And you can’t say “well, the movie is him learning from his mistake,” because this isn’t the sort of thing you just ‘learn’ from. You can’t excuse this as a difference of philosophy or a conflict of interests. You can’t even excuse it as a momentary loss of control in the face of extreme provocation (e.g. Civil War) because he planned the whole thing. There is no way that Clark and Bruce can be friends or teammates after this, at least not without some serious penance on Bruce’s part.
Oh, and the reason why Superman doesn’t just talk to Batman instead of fighting him – when Superman has no reason to be fighting Batman at all, since as far as he knows he’s in no danger whatsoever from him and his motivation for being there at all is try to convince Batman to help save his mother – is that Snyder thought that they shouldn’t talk in their suits because he found the idea of costumed heroes talking to each other to be silly. Who the hell let this guy anywhere near these characters?
(And I have to point out that two minutes later, Superman trusts this man to save his mother’s life).
Besides all of that, if preemptive murder is a moral option for Batman, why the heck is the Joker still alive in this universe? You mean to say that Superman needs to be put down with extreme prejudice, but we still have to suffer through Jared Leto’s performance? That doesn’t seem remotely fair.
(See, that’s the practical issue with allowing Batman to kill as a matter of course: there becomes no reason for him not to simply execute the Joker or any of his other rogues the next time they meet. Or even hunt them down Punisher style and throw a Batarang through their throats. Once Batman starts killing people, he can’t have a rogues gallery anymore).
Both Batman and Superman in these films seem to have no faith in or motivation for their own missions: they’re just going through the motions because apparently they lack the personality or agency to do anything else. The films spend most of their time deconstructing and subverting them, questioning the very purpose of their ‘heroics’. That is when the movies aren’t tripping over themselves to be as violent, dark, cynical, and dour as possible. And in all that time they neglect to give their characters any goals or values worth examining in the first place.
It is as if the filmmakers have a degree of contempt for the very idea of costumed superheroes.
Now, the excuse being made for all of this is that “Snyder wanted to start off with dark, unimpressive versions of the characters and then payoff with them becoming true heroes in Justice League.” But the problem is that these are core characterization issues. Superman’s lack of humanity, lack of purpose or principles, his alienation, his morose, dour attitude and so on are not things that can be adequately corrected with a bout of character development at the end of a nine hour story line. Because even if you somehow correct all of that at the eleventh hour, he will still have been the character who spent most of his life and most of our time knowing him as an apathetic and ineffectual alien. A Clark Kent who has to learn optimism, care for human life in adulthood after letting his father die and after dying himself is for that very reason an unacceptable version of Clark Kent. A Superman whose first public appearance has at least a five-digit body count cannot ‘grow into’ an icon of hope. Ditto for a Batman who ‘grew out of’ being a paranoid murderer who regularly guns down thugs from an armored vehicle and tried to murder Superman in cold blood (also, this version of Batman is a 20 year veteran, which in itself wrecks the “developing into the classic character” idea: he should be retiring at this point, not ‘growing into’ the role).
Part of characterization is where the character comes from, the history that has shaped him. Even if we try to argue we’re building to the real Superman and Batman, I would argue that the real Superman and Batman cannot legitimately come from these characters. If you want to take them on a journey and have them develop into themselves, you still need to start from someone who is fundamentally the same person. For instance, Superman can learn something of the complexities of life or the unintended consequences of using his powers, but he needs to start from being an essentially decent, hopeful person, not a morose alien consumed with the idea of being an outcast.
Not to mention that having these be the dominant notes for both characters for the vast majority of your grand vision is terrible, terrible idea to begin with. It’s like Luke Skywalker thinking of murdering his own nephew in his sleep or Godzilla running away from a fight; whatever justification or explanation you can come up with for Superman killing people and wondering if humanity is worth saving or Batman resolving on cold-blooded murder as a preemptive measure, the fact that he is doing it at all is the problem.
This is not how you work with established, beloved heroes. You can’t have them acting completely the opposite of their characters, undermining or contradicting them for the bulk of the screen time of three bloated movies only to claim it’s brilliant because the final hour arguably has them growing into something like the people they were supposed to be in the first place (I’d also like to point out that at the start of that third film that will tie everything together and allow the characters to come into their own, one of our protagonists is a 20 year veteran nearing retirement and the other is dead).
And all of that is assuming that Snyder’s cut of Justice League actually does what this argument claims it does. All the above should give a good idea why I’m skeptical of that.