During the Spring of 2017, the DC Extended Universe suffered the family tragedy of Zack Snyder, the Batman v. Superman director suffered a tragic loss of his daughter to suicide and the departure of Zack Snyder from the Justice League film in the process of reshoots, parting ways definitively from the DC Extended Universe. Upon his departure, Joss Whedon was brought onboard the project for reshoots.
The DC Extended Universe
In 2016, Zack Snyder laid out his vision for the DC Extended Universe, a loose term for the connection of shared stories told by the director and Warner Bros. since Man of Steel. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was released during that time with great anticipation. Early box office was a $422 million opening debut though the movie would go on earning $855 million, a mild success despite its one-year promotion and marketing.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is loosely inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, a grim comic book alternate continuity classic written by Frank Miller that sees the Dark Knight come out of retirement to solve crime in Gotham City. Batman finds himself in conflict with the government, and Superman is brought in to take him down. A vicious battle ensues during which Batman emerges victorious though with a twist.
The basis of Zack Snyder’s approach is to introduce the audience to a more modern take on iconic superheroes of the DC Extended Universe, including Batman and Superman. Referring to the comic book in question, Zack Snyder states:
“When I read that comic book series, you know, in ‘86 I was floored by it because I felt like it promised me something. It challenged…my fundamental notions about Batman. It sort of inspired me to reconnect with Batman the character and comic book in general.”
— BlackTree TV Interview
The DC Extended Universe was planned by its godfathers around the notion of deconstructing the myth of iconic DC characters in favor of a more grounded approach. Zack Snyder’s first installment in the DCEU, Man of Steel (2013) reads very much like a science-fiction alien invasion film as opposed to simply a DC comic book movie. It presents with important themes of alienation and xenophobia, free choice and predestination, inter-species conflict and immigration. Superman is presented as veritably alien, different from humans, and one who despite his good nature, his upbringing, and his protection is unable to fit in. There are deep issues of anxiety, angst, deep-seated frustration and visceral distrust at a world that does not accept him. It is very much a film compared to the comic book Superman: Birthright.
Philosophical analysis of Zack Snyder movies is replete with symbolism, mythological references, comic book Easter eggs and numerous action poses straight from the comic books. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice reads like a political thriller, and from alien invader Superman figures as a messiah, a Christ-like figure that the world has come to embrace passionately or reject dispassionately and with intensity. The religious symbolism commenced in Man of Steel is taken to its extreme end with Superman’s sacrifice at the hands of Doomsday, a Kryptonian monster-mutant who is bent solely on the destruction of Superman and everything he stands for, engineering by the Kryptonian scout ship and Lex Luthor.
Criticism was mounted at the fact that Superman’s story ends abruptly only within two movies, before the audience can fully invest in the character. Batman, here, figures as a tragic figure, tortured by paranoia to the point of insanity and time travel in the forms of dream and Knightmare. Part of it is inspired from the popular Injustice: Gods Among Us series that sees the fear of a Superman tyrant here due to having succumbed to the Omega symbol.
The DC Extended Universe created by Zack Snyder has proven very divisive among critics and fans alike. Despite its superstar talent, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice garnered a “rotten” score of 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. For all its ambition and its attempt, at soaring its characters “in the sun”, Snyder’s vision has proven to many critics as too somber, depressive, angst-ridden, lacking heart and characterized by poor storytelling. The main critique mounted against Snyder’s work has been that the characters are not faithful to their authentic iconic representations; rather, they are deconstruction mythos of DC archetypes.
Justice League released in 2017 and was originally meant to follow Snyder’s formula introducing a two-part Justice League story featuring Steppenwolf invasion of Earth and Darkseid’s attempt to impose the Anti-Life Equation on Earth. The DC Extended Universe is at heart a Superman story, which the director meant to tell in a five-part storyline. Darkseid was meant to appear at the end of Justice League in Zack Snyder’s original 3-hour long plan before Joss Whedon stepped in for reshoots upon the family tragedy. This was to be the set-up for Justice League 2 and a potential Justice League 3 which would essentially recount the story according to the events of Final Crisis.
Warner Bros. Steps In
Upon the family tragedy, Zack Snyder’s unpopular and unsuccessful vision led Warner Bros. to part ways with the director and embrace Joss Whedon’s vision for Justice League. WB indicated its difference of vision from Snyder’s more somber tone and wanted to emphasize a more lighthearted approach to its characters and actually make Superman “smile” in Justice League. In that regard, Justice League was a success though it under-performed at the box office, because it featured a superhero team-up that convincingly set the stage for the rest of the shared universe.
Wonder Woman released in June 2017, 5 months before Justice League. To date, it presents as the DCEU’s most successful cinematic adaptation and the most well received among audiences. This proves that audiences are able to react positively to DC characters when they are portrayed according to their iconic portrayals in comic books and media. Wonder Woman was particularly powerful for its portrayal of love, of Wonder Woman’s decision to choose love over Olympian power and the false dream of a utopia presented by Ares at the end of the movie. It is in a sense, a coming-of-age movie that sees the transformation of nubile Diana Prince into the fierce princess warrior Wonder Woman.
The DC Extended Universe is the product of a brain-trust of Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, Geoff Johns and Christopher Nolan. In many respects, its passing marks the passing of a great experiment in tragedy, conflict, drama, and cinematic production the likes of which frankly attempt to transcend the superhero genre into mythology. That the DC Extended Universe attempted to separate itself from its main competitor, Marvel, by presenting its characters in a shared universe in single films such as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, before spearheading their solo films, shows their attempt at difference and at providing a distinctive voice.
For all the criticism mounted at Zack Snyder’s films, the films took some creative chances that it can be safe to say may stand the test of time despite being “dark and gritty”. Zack Snyder may yet prove to be the sage, the ground-breaking director of our time who spearheads a complete cultural re-consideration of our cherished icons, heroes and super heroes and forces to look into mythology with new fresh eyes, with eyes of wonder but tragedy, drama but heroism, passion but ferocity. Zack Snyder, has been described as a visual director and a comic book fan though, he seldom respects the source material in the DCEU in the proper way.
In the end, the current direction of the DC cinematic universe is one of hope and optimism, which moves away from the plan of a shared universe and prefers separated solo film story outings with the recent Aquaman film, which was well received. The future is bright for the DC cinematic universe, only if Warner Bros. and its executives are willing to look at signs of hope and present authentic representations of the characters that are timeless and strong.
Justice League (2017) released to mixed reviews and performed mildly for a movie of its caliber on a $300 million budget with a box office of around $650 million. It was less financial profitable than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice though less divisive. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a “rotten” score of 40% while audience score was around 72%.
Despite its apparent shortcomings and its failure in establishing the DC Extended Universe, a vision of a shared universe of characters spearheaded by Zack Snyder and Deborah Snyder and godfather by Geoff Johns and Christopher Nolan, Justice League made some interesting developments.
One notable character development is that of Cyborg. Cyborg is portrayed by Ray Fisher. Justice League centers around Batman recruiting Wonder Woman, the Flash and Cyborg in his superhero fight team, “an alliance” to fight the alien invasion of Steppenwolf, a general of Apokolips’ armies, with the three mother boxes. During mythological times, Steppenwolf’s armies are fought off by the heroes and the gods of Earth – for the first time – and the three mother boxes are enthrusted to the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the tribes of man.
Cyborg, is at the center of Steppenwolf’s conquest of Earth. Upon the death of Superman, darkness overcomes the Earth and Steppenwolf decides to invade the Earth: He hears the Mother Box’s call to invade the Earth possibly as a response to Superman’s passing, the over-bearing darkness on Earth, and the creation of Cyborg by scientist Silas Stone with the Mother Box. In DC comics science-fiction, mother boxes are sentient computers used by the New Gods in order to connect to the Source and grant them highly advanced and technological abilities.
Cyborg is presented as the breakout character in Justice League. Though Superman and his death figure as the prominent centers of the movie, in fact, the heart of the movie, and the motivation to revive him, to restore hope to the world, Cyborg is the one who actually moves many of the story plot points forward.
Cyborg might be the only character who truly develops throughout the movie. He goes from being a complete loner, presumed dead, and who isolates from society to being part of a superhero team, and learning how to work with others and trust others. He is the true genius of the team and though Batman makes the executive decisions and Wonder Woman the tactical and the battle field decisions on the team, Cyborg is the technological genius of the team, the one who orchestrates everything. An interesting theory is the fact that the creation of Cyborg by Silas Stone and not simply the signal sent by Lex Luthor to Steppenwolf in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is the signal that attracts finally Steppenwolf to Earth.
Cyborg may be considered in this fact, an agent of Apokolips, Steppenwolf calls him “a child of chaos”. In the resurrection of Superman, Cyborg is the one that actually attacks Superman first though due to his armor’s defense systems over-powering him. It can be stated that, Cyborg is the character who is the most mysterious since we do not know how much of his allegiance lies with Apokolips, how much control the Mother Box has on his mind, and how much he is willing to commit to the Justice League.
Justice League paints Cyborg as heroic who intervenes at pivotal points in the film plot. He is instrumental in the formation of the Justice League, in locating Steppenwolf and the Parademons under Gotham Harbor, in resurrecting Superman, in locating Steppenwolf and the Parademons’ base in Russia, and in ending the threat of the Mother Boxes by helping to separate all three, despite the “blowback”. Cyborg’s only flaw or hubris in the movie, is his link to the Mother Boxes, to an Apokoliptian technology that in theory should have killed him from his fatal injuries but that ended creating him with “cybernetic enhancements”, a Cyborg. He is veritably “a child of chaos” who is able to solve the problems that the Justice League is facing: the absence of Superman and an alien invasion from Apokolips.
In the end, Cyborg is the breakout character. The fact that he is African-American is consistent with the comics, that he is a genius and capable of solving crises shows that the DC Extended Universe is able to portray diverse characters in a positive light. And this, is a sign of hope.
One of the most memorable scenes in movie history. Flash in super-speed slow-motion in the Tunnel Battle in Justice League (2017).
“Next time they shine your light in the sky, don’t go to it. The Bat is dead. Bury it. Consider this mercy.”
– Superman, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”
Prometheus brought the beginnings of culture to mankind by stealing fire from the gods, particularly from Zeus, and granting it to humans. This a truth of common Greek mythology passed down the generations through the ages, and which has served the function of explaining the origins of humanity and the process of its evolution on the Earth. Myth, serves that part, which Lex Luthor summates in the well known dictum: “knowledge is power”, in this instance, technology, skill, or art, are the source of power and ability. This power, is reflected in the ascension of the human species since prehistoric times; with fire, the human being evolves in his diet and his nutrition, expands his habitat, develops new economic habits and social roles, and grows in his communion with nature and in his society with the other. Slowly, he attains to true humanity, if not, personality.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice moves like an adapted comic book superhero drama, deftly bringing together different comic book storylines, drawing inspirations from The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman. It reads in part as a political piece in its statement on the avowed and cavalier interventionism of the United States, symbolized in the rogue actions of America in the face of terrorism and the apparently irresponsible attitude of Superman himself who rescues Lois Lane from certain death at the cost of his reputation and in disregard for the lives affected. This forms the premise of the story, a narrative that examines the perception of the Superman by the humans through the vengeful eyes of Bruce Wayne, who from the events of Man of Steel vows to exact retribution and deal with the threat, political, human, and cataclysmic that the Man of Steel poses as a result of the invasion of the Earth by the more advanced Kryptonian aliens; indeed, the Dark Knight is forced to watch the destruction of his Wayne Tower in Metropolis with the associated weight of deaths and human suffering. Eminently, the movie is psychological and dramatic, as it progresses through dramatic events that pace preponderantly the life of disturbed Bruce Wayne from the beginning scene of his parents’ funeral, to their prior death, to the action scene in Metropolis which leaves a decided Batman committed on the path to vengeance.
From their inception, Batman and Superman have figured as opposite, but perhaps, complementary sides of the same coin; their origin relates the operation of contradictory forces at work and present within humanity: transcendence found in the desire for otherworldliness and the surpassing of the capacities of the human nature is found in the tale of the Superman, who in reality is a child of the stars, an alien come to announce new times of civilization for humanity, in which man attains to veritable godhood as he overcomes the limitations of physics and fulfills the demands of morality in a heroism that is a never-ending quest for justice, that desire for the ultimate conquest of good and of compassion; opposite, is the immanence of the Batman, in a darkness that is worn even on his spandex costume, which elicits fear in the hearts of the cowardly lot, an urban legend that thrives on the shadows to exact the justice of a vigilante whose existence is the fruit of human evolution, of a progress that is transhuman and which delineates the path for humanity through the mastery of the weapons of fear and strict discipline for the human heart. One, is a hero, burdened with the weight of the world, the influence of public perception, and the care for his beloved, the other is a vigilante, a hero tortured by his tragic past, a trauma that has set him from an early age on a crusade to right society’s wrongs on his own resources, at the cost of his own sanity, of his social relations, and of his true heritage.
It is a mise en scene in fact, driven by paranoia, a motivating factor in the conflict that animates the central characters: Batman believes Superman to be a threat to human existence, Superman sees Batman as a vigilante with no respect for the law nor heroism. Both are tragic figures, destinies guided by their tragic pasts, united in a common maternal name, yet, who fail to conciliate their common objectives, particularly due to the over-arching masterful stroke of Lex Luthor, who manigances their confrontation and seems to enlighten their philosophical differences: Superman seeks acceptance in a world in which he is inherently an alien, and Batman seeks a validation of his traumatic experiences in the quest for domination. Both protagonists are staged through a juxtaposition of their lives and of their conflictual struggles, and when they are in confrontation as superheroes for the first time, it is conflict and antipathy that are elicited.
“And now you will fly to him, and you will battle him to the death. Black and blue. Fight night. The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world: God versus man; day versus night; Son of Krypton versus Bat of Gotham!” — Lex Luthor
Zack Snyder does not spend much screen time articulating their philosophical psychology, limiting their dialogue to terse interesting lines which highlight their inherent antagonism of one another. In reality, the film operates in a sense a parallelism between characters that are a yin and a yang, night and day, darkness and light, evil and good and who seem to complement each other’s innate dynamism, questioning in the end their heroism. Indeed, who in the confrontation is the true hero of the narrative? The paranoid Bat driven to frenzied madness by his belief in an existential threat, or the omnipotent God who is not willing to rise above his revulsion for the Gotham hero in order to save his very mother? The question to be asked is whether good and evil are necessary to each other’s life, that is, whether their interaction contributes to their common enlightenment, for in this movie, the lines of heroism are blurred by the prospect of death and the intoxication of mental paranoia. If Lex Luthor is the villain of the story, he is in reality merely its sage, its Prometheus, who brings enlightenment to the yin and the yang through the excitation of their respective fires, delineating that in the end it is Batman who is the villain in need of Redemption.
Luthor poses pertinent philosophical questions on the permanence of Evil in the world: he reduces the conundrum to an affair of an inadequacy between Divine Goodness and Divine Omnipotence, showing that the enduring Evil prevents from the absolute existence of either attribute in God. In reality, his challenge to Superman leads him to doubt his own goodness, revealing the frailty of his humanity and his moral code, which remains constantly renewed in his love for Lois Lane and in his attachment for his mother, who stands as his moral compass. Does Good have a limit, and is Evil the limit of Good itself? Or perhaps, is life inherently tragic and is there no power that can liberate man from suffering and the eventuality of death?
Batman v. Superman reveals that conflict in life is oblivious to fairness and that often the wrong side can bring about a victory despite having paranoid reasons and a faulty if not fractured, vision of reality. Tragedy and conflict, are then, up to chance and randomness, or perhaps to freedom, destiny and of the inherent interplay of the forces that are the basis for human personality? The answer remains a mystery, and is revealed in the fact that at the moment when life seems at its darkest hour, the unexpected, the wondrous of a miracle and of a divine intervention can grant it new fervor, as Wonder Woman makes her impressive appearance in costume to save Batman from the monstrous Doomsday. Doomsday serves to fulfill the spectacular, in a world demanding more blockbuster entertainment in its motion pictures, his display of power provokes a wanton destruction that fulfills the need of fantasy, a certain cathartic release from the dramatic tension that has paced the movie till the apparition of the Kryptonian deformity. Here, political intrigue and psychological demonism enters the realm of the comic book superhero with its tour de force, its manifestations of metahuman powers, abilities beyond mortal ken, in a battle of gods and monsters that instills fears even in the hearts of the bravest, such as the Dark Knight.
The central protagonist, Superman encounters in Wonder Woman a powerful ally, an equal of sorts that arouses his admiration and fills him with renewed fire. Here, the rhythm of the musical score takes on the urgency of a cool, and jerky song of a raspy and sorcerous nature, the fruit of the genius of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. In the predicament of Lois Lane, comes the realization that conflict armed with power must inevitably face destiny, or perhaps, a resolution of tension. Superman in the contemplation of Doomsday’s savagery senses his true place, as a Savior who loves a world that in the end does not accept nor understand him, safe in the arms of his confidante with whom he shares his life, “you are my world”, he tells Lois.
Tragedy and conflict, then, are eminently a matter of altruism, of a realization that the fire of conflict is resolved in a Passion, the performance of sacrifice that liberates destiny in freedom and love, and grants the power to transform the human soul, convert the human heart, and enable to see a vision of life in a new way. Voire, tragedy and conflict find their resolution in the conquest of the narrative that is life itself in the use of weakness and epic grandeur that is the act of selflessness. Superman succeeds in dealing with the lethal threat by overcoming his exposure to Kryptonite and using the lance as a weapon to stop Doomsday permanently. Comic book drama is a reproduction of the mythology of yesteryear, founded on a science-fictional universe transposed with the narrative dynamics and the values of the post-modern atmosphere, granted a new medium in their representation via the art of the cinema. The filmmakers pursue the Christ metaphor to its determined conclusion, for Superman’s sacrifice despite its lack of narrative construction with the DC Extended Universe resumes the imagery established in Man of Steel, that of a giant amidst the world, a Protector against the wishes of humanity and despite its suspicions, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to ensure its future. The characters are certainly affected by such an action, and the film ends with the assurance that the story is to continue, moving forward the tale of an alien from another world who overcame the drama of life with a message of hope: that belief in the ultimate protection of life is the strength that resolves all conflict.