This article contains major The Flash spoilers.
Krypton was a beautiful place. Sasha Calle says this briefly, but insistently, during a pivotal scene for her character in The Flash. Prior to this moment, all we’ve really learned about Calle’s Supergirl is that her life has been one of misery and hardship. When she is discovered by Batman (Michael Keaton) and two Barry Allens (both Ezra Miller), she has spent years as a prisoner of the Russian government—a prize to be experimented on and presumably tortured in a locked box hellhole buried somewhere beneath the frozen waste of Siberia.
This Supergirl has every reason to distrust or even disdain human civilization on Earth. And she certainly is open to the idea. After being freed from the Russians and taken (finally) into the morning sunlight above Wayne Manor, she is cold toward the Barrys’ attempts to persuade her to take up their cause and fight a fellow Kryptonian, General Zod (Michael Shannon). Even in the glow of yellow sunlight, Earth would seem a bleak place following the reception she endured.
And yet, upon seeing how cruel and monstrous Zod is in his own right, and witnessing his lieutenants slaughter American soldiers who’ve come empty-handed to meet his emissaries, Calle’s Kara Zor-El is reminded of how monstrous her own people can be. It’s only then she returns to Wayne Manor and to the men who freed her, taking up their offers of fellowship. She even helps Barry the Older regain his superpowers by flying him directly into a thunderstorm.
It’s at this point, while reflecting on the implicit horrors she saw in Russia and the explicit ones meted out by her own Kryptonian people, that Kara says, “Krypton was a beautiful place.” It’s a line which suggests—10 years after the fact and perhaps 15 movies too late—Warner Bros. Pictures is at last attempting to redeem the original sin of Man of Steel (2013), which fatefully set the DCEU off on the wrong foot and carried it down a dark path from which it’s never recovered.
Andy Muschietti’s The Flash displays some affection for Zack Snyder’s movie, of course. Which is understandable. The aesthetic Snyder achieved with his first DC superhero film is still visually momentous, from his reworked and regal version of the House of El super-suits (with Calle wearing a variation on the costume Henry Cavill first donned a decade ago) to the canny choice of casting a brilliant actor like Shannon as the hawkish and militaristic Zod. Nonetheless, Man of Steel is the film that set the tone for the DCEU over the following years, laying the groundwork for what became the still divisive “Snyderverse.”
Admittedly, there are many qualities to admire about Man of Steel. Not so subtly taking a page from Christopher Nolan’s then-recent The Dark Knight trilogy (with Nolan on board as an executive producer), Man of Steel attempted to imagine how the governments and institutions of the world would seriously react to a Superman. To wit Alan Moore, how would the globe respond to the realization that, for all intents and purposes, God is real and he is American?
At a glance, it’s on par with how Nolan approximated a major American city responding to a preternaturally successful vigilante dressing up as a bat and cleaning up the town’s corruption. However, Zack Snyder is not Chris Nolan. So while the setup to Man of Steel is sound, the execution of its ideas is where the DCEU began to sink in its infancy. As imagined in Snyder’s 2013 film, Krypton is not beautiful. It’s a bleak, decadent dystopia that’s rightfully on its last gasps of relevancy when the movie begins. Here is a society bathed in dreary browns and yellows, gray skies and beasts of flying burden filling them as they engage in ceaseless civil war. It’s essentially a late stage eugenics project where only one brave man named Jor-El (Russell Crowe) had the wherewithal to stand against the excesses of his government and conceive of a son in that old-fashioned, biological way.
As this son all grown up, Cavill’s Kal-El suggests the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Despite being raised by loving earthy parents in Kansas (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and having their full support, Kal/Clark is wary and even scornful of humanity. At times, Snyder shoots him as truly alien, making his glowing eyes look faintly demonic as they simmer above a bewildered Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
Even when Superman makes the right decision, he does so reluctantly. After being confronted by the same Zod dilemma as Kara Zor-El will be in The Flash, he laments to a priest, “Zod can’t be trusted. The problem is I’m not sure the people of Earth can be either.” With a stained glass window of Christ floating above Cavill’s head, Snyder’s message is unmistakable. Superman is a messiah who will be sacrificed for an ungrateful and unworthy humanity. This would be prologue for much of the rest of the Snyderverse, including when Superman tells Lois that “no one stays good in this world” as he psyches himself up to do Lex Luthor’s bidding and murder the Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
Despite wearing the exact same insignia as Cavill in The Flash, and like Snyder’s Superman being able to tell Barry Allen “it means hope,” Calle’s Supergirl actually appears to believe in those words during her all too-brief screen time in the movie.
A bright discovery by director Muschietti, who cast Calle in The Flash based on the strength of her audition (with Calle’s biggest previous credit being The Young and the Restless), the actress is able to communicate a resounding depth in her thousand-yard stare. There’s an unmistakable empathy for others in her scenes. Due to the limitations of being an ensemble player in a narratively unwieldy movie, she only has a few scenes to convey the character’s journey, but she expresses both a tangible melancholy and firm conviction. Also, unlike the rural midwest dream of growing up with the Kents, Kara has plenty of reasons to dislike humanity.
Man of Steel juxtaposes Clark’s confession to a priest with a flashback of him being bullied as a child and unable to fight back, implying that his suffering has been great. Kara, on the other hand, went through what Costner’s curiously objectivist Pa Kent feared would happen to Clark: She was captured by an authoritarian regime and imprisoned as the ultimate research prize. Yet in the little narrative shorthand The Flash affords, she is not broken or condemned to the cynicism and self-pity that characterized Cavill’s Superman in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Instead she recognizes in Barry a kindness. He saved her from that laboratory hell when others (including Keaton’s Batman) would not.
And after seeing how vile some of her fellow Kryptonians are, she doesn’t decide to fight with Batman and the Flashes out of a resignation, picking the lesser of two evils. She sees good in them. Hope, even. She thus insists to them that Krypton is beautiful; an idea you can’t glean from (or judge by) Zod.
Of course within the narrative, she was old enough to remember Krypton when she left (unlike Superman), but there is something more to it than that. In Man of Steel’s pessimism, nothing about the world that birthed “Superman” was beautiful. It was Orwellian, and even Superman passes judgment on it after meeting Zod—letting Zod in essence represent all of his homeworld—when he decrees, “Krypton had its chance.” He then uses those demonic red eyes to melt Zod’s attempted eugenicist project at the end of Man of Steel. It was just one more ugly note in an ultimately ugly movie.
So after Kara reveals optimism for Earth and Krypton, I had hope that The Flash would fully redeem Man of Steel’s original sins. Because what really set the DCEU down the wrong path just wasn’t a misanthropic view of Superman, but also his actions. That film carelessly and blithely plays with the imagery of 9/11 like it was an Instagram filter, ending with Superman and Zod decimating Metropolis in a fight filled with falling skyscrapers. Superman never seems to care once about the carnage he’s unleashed. Instead he pauses to make out with Lois Lane over the rubble of presumably hundreds of thousands of dead and dying.
The Flash doesn’t have the characters learn from that mistake so much as largely ignore it, with the climax of the movie taking place out in a desert by default. There Batman, the Barrys, and Supergirl battle Zod’s forces while being far away from a huge civilian population. It still felt like this was the chance for Supergirl to make amends for her alternate timeline cousin’s mistakes though. She could beat Zod without slaughtering thousands—and perhaps without snapping his neck as if she were a Spartan at the gates of Thermopylae. This Supergirl at least seems to care a little more about the humans than Cavill’s Superman, stopping mid-fight with Zod to save a spiraling helicopter, only to be enraged when Zod crashes through that same vehicle, blowing up the pilots out of spite.
In these brief seconds, it felt like what the better DC comics aspire to for their Kryptonians: the creation of heroes who are motivated by hope and a faith in people to do the right thing. She isn’t fighting out of a sense of reluctant obligation or resentment.
Alas, it doesn’t matter. In the end, The Flash avoids having her go King Kong on Zod because it also doesn’t let her win the fight. In fact, she turns out to matter almost not at all in the film’s endgame. Instead she’s suddenly and brutally slaughtered by Zod multiple times. The shocking twist, along with Keaton’s Batman dying again and again, is ostensibly to put some dramatic peril on Barry’s shoulders. For whatever reason, Zod winning this battle is a canon event (even though we saw him lose it in Man of Steel), and Barry must accept he cannot fix the past. So he instead erases it, at least in this timeline. As a consequence, he seems to erase Calle’s Kara from existence as well.
I cannot help but wonder if this creative choice was the byproduct of post-production reshoots and editing revisions, because Supergirl and even Keaton’s much loved Batman drop out of the movie, last seen anticlimactically dying multiple times before being replaced by (of all things) George Clooney. In terms of Barry’s personal journey, it’s somewhat cathartic, but for a filmgoing experience, it’s underwhelming. Half the pieces on the board are discarded in favor of grotesque fan service that tastelessly brings Christopher Reeve and George Reeves back from the dead.
The movie even (and unintentionally) could be said to vindicate the cynicism inherent in Snyder’s vision. Altruism, heroism, and having faith in humanity is for suckers. To beat Zod, you must become interchangeable with him.
Given the behind-the-scenes shuffling, this awkward ending is perhaps the last time we’ll see Keaton as Batman or Calle as Supergirl. For both that’s a shame, although more so the latter as we barely got to know this characterization. But even then, it was far more super than anything from the Snyder years.
The Flash is in theaters now.