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.
Art expresses something of the symbol of the natural world, it is an imitation of life, for it seeks to convey through symbol, audio and visual image, a reflection, a truth, and the goodness of life itself. In contemporary life, there subsists a strained relation between the artistic expression and aesthetics — the philosophy of beauty — and it is certain that, this results from the loss of the religious sentiment of life: the contemplation of Beauty, found in the permanence of God, has ceded the place for praxis, that is, technology and a certain affection for only the consumerist production of things.
Zack Snyder foremost known for his comic book film direction, as evidenced in his successful Watchmen (2009) adaptation, once held a vision for the DC Extended Universe; a vision not shared nor accepted by all. Yet, it was ground-breaking, fresh, and took creative chances. It involved a re-telling of DC Comics characters, grounding them truly in reality and expanding their world to grant them more human motivations; while, however, robing them in the mythology characteristic of the DC Comics universe. The re-imagining of Superman is Man of Steel appears part of that conception, found in the tale of an alien among humans, who, despite their ignorance, their unbelief, and their innate xenophobia, chooses to become their greatest champion in the face of an alien invasion.
The world created by Zach Snyder seems an antithesis of Richard Donner’s; a vibrant world with landscapes teeming with animal creatures, on land and on air, which though harsh contrasts obliquely with the cold, lifeless world of the first Superman: The Movie. Both films are consistent in portraying the almost organic relation of Kryptonian technology with their home world, and Snyder’s visual tour de force is on display in the first twenty minutes where political debate over Krypton’s coming implosion yields way to unrelenting actions. Superman, indeed, is a man of action, and Snyder wastes no time in emphasizing this reality, showing that, even scientist Jor-El shows battle prowess against the battle-tested military leader Zod.
Zack Snyder appears to be comfortable with philosophical questions, addressing problems that are related with the fate of civilizations, and advanced races. The prospects of a world of superhumans is one, that, depending on the person and the taste, may have some appeal, though, not without their own perils. Comic book lore is well documented, here. It is a well known fact, that, Krypton was an advanced alien civilization that had adopted an almost totalitarian political structure, or perhaps, a theocratic structure where science and religion collaborated to form a population where Kryptonians from birth were genetically engineered to fulfill a pre-determined role using as, revealed, in Man of Steel, the registry of citizens called the Codex — this, is the danger of genetic engineering, of a world, where following upon an unfortunate development, population control is established, space exploration and cultural contact are banned, and a civilization exhausts its planet’s resources. In our own day, this raises our current ecological problems as well as the continued philosophical questions raised by technology and its use by governments that in their Leviathan conquest are continually putting to silence the notions of human liberty and rights.
The element of choice — Man of Steel reinvents Superman for post-modern audiences drawing upon comic book materials as Superman: Secret Origin and Superman: Birthright. What separates Henry Cavill’s iteration of Superman is that, here, Superman is clearly a man of destiny, one formed by his parents to elect his own destiny: “Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries”. Hence, everything in Man of Steel‘s narrative emphasizes Kal-El’s uniqueness from the animals greeting his natural birth, to the bonding of the Codex within his individual cells, to his being rocketed to Earth in a space ship as Krypton explodes, to his gradual discovery of his powers and alien heritage, and finally, the controversial death of his father, the loss of his remaining alien ancestry as the invading Kryptonians are sucked into a black hole, to his murder of Zod, the villain of the movie — Superman, is truly in this movie, the Last Son of Krypton, a victim of prejudice and xenophobia from a young age and throughout his life, growing up an outcast journeying the world in search of clues offering answers to his questioning.
“What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?”
Man of Steel received mixed reviews criticized for being too serious, lacking heart and joy — Superman barely smiles — and being characterized by overblown destruction reminiscent, in fact, of 9/11. Zach Snyder has been criticized during his career, for poor storytelling skills, and there are, indeed, instances in the film where this is glaring. The Man of Steel IGN review claimed that “Superman is reborn in high fashion”. Some reviews have pointed out that the film is a religious allegory, one that seems to align Superman with the historical figure of Jesus Christ. These claims are true, and though the movie presents primarily as science fiction with themes of alien invasion, it also incorporates religious symbology.
The film is inherently a visual spectacle and when Superman appears in costume for the first time, there is a sense of greatness. Zack Snyder excels at visual cinematography, action sequences and the First Flight features great displays of power. Superman soars for the first time, after having lept in single bounds! This is a scene reminiscent of the evolution of Superman’s powers over his storied history: from the ability to leap, to the transcendent power of flight that surpasses the force of gravity. Superman succeeds in re-connecting with his heritage, finding a Kryptonian scout ship that had been in a glacier in the Canadian Arctic for 18,000 years. This triggers a distress beacon that alerts General Zod and the surviving Kryptonian insurgents freed from the Phantom Zone by the explosion of the planet Krypton.
The second act of the movie commences with the first alien contact with the Kryptonians. On every screen on Earth and in every language, the phrase “You are not alone” is transcribed before the menacing voice of General Zod speaks. Superman is faced with the prophecy of his father: to stand proud in front of the human race or choose to oppose them by joining his Kryptonian heritage. What is revealed, is the fact, that, despite his mother’s guidance and his budding affection for Lois Lane, Clark Kent remains alone to face his own choices and bear the burdens of his destiny. Perhaps, here is raised the fact that, The Last Son of Krypton is eminently a figure of tragedy, a giant who, for all his otherworldly power, must continually be willing to take a leap of faith, and make the sacrifice for the benefit of the human race.
The Battle of Smallville, is the highlight of the movie for it literally puts to the fore the human element enmeshed in a battle between alien gods. Superman’s confrontation of Zod, and Faora and Nam-Ek is spectacular and visually satisfying. There is drama and action, and Faora is allowed to shine through her philosophical intelligence and her military code. When Kryptonians battle, there is ample destruction! And Superman is fast busy to fight off the invaders while protecting the U.S. Army soldiers. Superman’s punches are explosive and the apparition of heat vision reveals the certain madness and angst characteristic of the Kryptonian loner. Man of Steel appears definitely patriotic for it seems to paint the U.S. Army in a heroic light: they are visibly outmatched, both genetically and technologically by the more advanced aliens, and yet, they fight on with courage and dedication. Science fictions, here, is painted in a realistic setting, a small town with its IHOP restaurant and its shopping centers, amidst a battle of epic proportions. Here, Man of Steel succeeds in well-choreographed battles that foretell the future of Dragon Ball Z cinematic adaptations.
Zod’s master plan is revealed in the third act of the movie: He intends to terraform the Earth and create a New Krypton where the atmosphere and topography of the Earth are modified to fit Kryptonian physiology using a gravity weapon called a World Engine. Alien invasions are not new in literature and cinema, and it is safe to say, neither in Hollywood. The film raises the important question of evolution and of its associated precept — “the survival of the fittest” — where the strong prey on the weak. Is it defensible for a more advanced alien race to eradicate another species for the purpose of re-claiming its lost heritage and re-live the long past glory days of its civilization? Zod and Faora are guided by an evolutionary morality that seems to justify genocide on the basis that their more advanced alien heritage entitles them to eradicate an entire population of human beings. Basically, a form of Social Darwinism that recalls the historical practice of eugenics during the 20th century and the myth of improving the genetic pool of humanity by eradicating its least fit members. For Superman, however, “Krypton had its chance!”
Superman and the U.S. Army succeed in thwarting the Kryptonian invasion, sending them into the Phantom Zone. The final battle with Zod, seems to deprive the audience of its energy and be the expression of a certain depression by its director. In fact, it appears excessive though, spectacular. Man of Steel seems to introduce in Zod, an interesting villain, who despite his cruelty, has mitigating circumstances for, he was genetically engineered to act in the best interests of his species. The neck snap, remains one of the most controversial decisions of Zack Snyder’s career, for, by making Superman a killer, the film seems to question his own morality and contradict decades of on-screen portrayal of Superman as a morally upright person committed to never take a life, instead always finding another way in order to protect it.
For all its criticism, Man of Steel was a financially successful film. Though, it revealed the cultural disconnect that exists in the general audiences for the character of Superman, who at times, seems to appear too much as Jesus Christ. Superman Returns seems to have voiced the perceptible impression that post-modern man does not need a savior, but would rather, save himself.
The film stands as An Ideal of Hope, one that attempts to re-assert the place of Superman as an alien, one who is not human, in a world that holds him in distrust, and who, nevertheless is willing to sacrifice his life in order to be its protector. In contemporary culture, art plays the important function of entertainment; at the same time, it generates questioning for it continues to create wonder and seize the imagination. This is only a reflection of one fact: art continues to move culture, and is the final bulwark against totalitarian power. The story of Superman, is one that reveals the power of life and in this particular iteration, evidences the current zeitgeist, one of a people that has grown disaffected with its ideals and standing in distrust of the alien in response to the threat of terrorism and financial instability.
The myths of yesteryear, used to function as the cultural narrative that united the people. Since the 20th century, science fiction has steadily replaced that role because science has become the final authority. Today, art continues its important work of defining an era, but also of paving the way for the future. The degree of freedom of a civilization, can be measured in its artistic activity. The greatest threat to the totalitarianism of Communism is not the philosopher, theologian or political activist; it is the artist.