There’s a moment in 2013’s Man Of Steel where, in the midst of Smallville’s destruction at the hands of Zod’s alien thugs, Christopher Meloni’s US colonel says of Superman, “This man is not our enemy.”
It’s a moment that could pass as merely a grace note in Man Of Steel’s second half – a breather in the midst of its city-crumbling action. But it’s a line that gets to the core themes in the filmand its central character, as played by Henry Cavill. More than any screen incarnation we’ve seen before, Man Of Steel plays up the idea of Superman as an alien – a being initially bewildered and frightened of the powers our yellow sun gives him, and in danger of becoming an object of fear among Earth’s puny inhabitants.
Much of Man Of Steel’s drama comes from Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent’s alienation – his struggle to find a place among ordinary mortals, and his attempts to figure out what his abilities mean and how he can best deploy them. Superman’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, controversially suggests that Superman shouldn’t use his powers at all.
“You have to keep this side of yourself a secret,” Kent tells the 13-year-old Clark. “When the world finds out what you can do, it’s going to change everything […] People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
When you consider that Jonathan Kent was willing to die for this belief, the weight of the line “this man is not our enemy” begins to make sense. By fighting Zod’s forces, Superman exposes his power for all the world to see – and yet Christopher Meloni’s Colonel Nathan Hardy recognizes him as a force for good.
Man Of Steel was a controversial film in some quarters, partly because of its tone and also because of the violence in its protracted final battle. Yet I’d argue that, despite its flaws, Man Of Steel nevertheless managed to reintroduce a distinctly different version of Superman for the 21st Century. Sure, some may rightly have complained that this wasn’t the upbeat savior we might recognize from the comics, but Man Of Steel sees Kal-El at the start of his journey as a hero, still growing into the symbol he must ultimately become. It casts a less assured Superman for an uncertain age of terrorism, financial turmoil, and seemingly unwinnable wars.
As Zack Snyder said to us last month, “I think that it’s definitely an unsure world [in Man Of Steel and Batman v Superman]. Unsure how to go forward. That American optimism… I think it does speak to, now that we’re a global family, what it means to police the world and how hard that is. Clearly, it’s not easy. Every step we take, there’s land mines everywhere.”
Man Of Steel sees Superman asking questions that could be levelled at America in the 21st century. What does it mean to have such a huge amount of power? How can it be wielded responsibly? It’s no coincidence that the religious imagery typical of Superman movies is joined by military symbolism. Krypton’s ships, outfits, and artwork all recall fascist posters and statues of the 20th century. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is cast as a colonialist soldier intent on demolishing Earth and rebuilding it after his own image.
Superman’s moral dilemma throughout Man Of Steel is to find his own path, well away from the self-preserving indifference of Jonathan Kent and the aggressively imperialist stance of General Zod. If he’s to become a force for good, Superman must first decide what being good actually means. Zod’s death may have been abrupt and somewhat shocking in the context of a Superman movie, but maybe that was Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer’s intention – to give the hero a seemingly impossible moral choice, and have its consequences play out in the follow-up.
That follow-up was, of course, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a film so certain of the mass appeal of its title fight that it even has Lex Luthor announce the event like the master of ceremonies at a boxing match. Regular visitors to these pages will know that we found much to enjoy in Batman v Superman, not least Ben Affleck’s convincing debut as the Dark Knight, Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Yet, Batman v Superman also gave itself an extraordinary amount of things to do, even for a film extending to just over 150 minutes in length: it had to introduce Batman into the fold, establish Wonder Woman in her first big screen outing, set up Lex Luthor as a new villain, tease the forthcoming Justice League movie and its characters’ respective spin-offs, and so on.
With all this to sort out, it’s little surprise that Superman himself wound up taking a back seat. We may have seen Clark Kent finally get stuck into his day job as a reporter, and yes, Superman does finally get around to rescuing people this time around. But in a movie that is constantly required to skip from location to location, and from subplot to subplot like a ’70s disaster movie, the story arc established by Man Of Steel felt almost entirely lost in the mix.
Most of all, Batman v Superman was forced to skip through an important part of the Man Of Steel story – a story that could, I’d suggest, have made Batman V Superman’s conclusion far more powerful had it been told first.
Imagine, for a moment, that Batman v Superman didn’t come out this year, and that Warner-DC had made a direct sequel to Man Of Steel instead. What might have happened?
Well, I think it could have gone something like this: the US military is well aware that Superman saved Metropolis from Zod at the end of the last film, yet the world at large only saw the mass destruction emerging on the television. Superman, meanwhile, is still horrified at what he was forced to do to Zod, and resolves to never kill again. His final confrontation with his nemesis also made Superman realize that his true calling lies in helping people, and so Man Of Steel 2 sees the hero become what he always was in the comics and the Christopher Reeve movies: a symbol of hope.
Of course, there’s lots more to be added in a story like this. Lex Luthor might have to figure somehow, perhaps with some bizarre scheme like using Kryptonian technology to build luxury apartments on the Moon (look, I’m just throwing ideas around here. Don’t write in). Maybe the screenwriters could have introduced Toyman, or Mister Mxyzptlk, or Cyborg Superman. Superman would have needed a new threat of some sort to take on, but the important bit of Man Of Steel 2 would have been his development as a superhero.
Had Warner done this, the events of Batman v Superman might have carried more dramatic weight. In the eyes of the world, Superman is now a savior – but to an ageing, embittered Batman, still smarting from the destruction of Metropolis, Superman’s remains a danger to the entire planet. The pair fight, and, whether at the hands of Batman’s Kryptonite lance or on one of Doomsday’s pointy bits, Superman perishes.
By skipping from Man Of Steel to Batman v Superman, the story has to rush over the scenes that explore Superman as a beloved icon. We skip bewilderingly between moments where Superman is hailed a hero – such as the captivating Day of the Dead sequence – and those where he’s railed against for being a law unto himself. Where Man Of Steel had the time to build up Henry Cavill’s Superman as a quiet, inward-looking yet ultimately decent person, Batman v Superman can only show brief glimpses of his humanity – leaving Cavill to either look vaguely noble or furious as the scenes require.
It’s not just Superman who was robbed of a proper arc by Batman v Superman, either. Consider Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s relationship, which could have been given more room to breathe in Man Of Steel 2. Or Perry White, the Daily Planet’s editor-in-chief who’s reduced to muttering about football matches and Dropbox in Batman v Superman. The worst casualty, though, is probably Jimmy Olsen, the Planet’s chipper photographer whose fate is so abrupt and shrugging that many of us didn’t even realize who the character was until we read the end credits.
You might be reading this and saying to yourself, “Well, Man Of Steel under-performed at the box office, so it made more sense to make Batman v Superman.” Yet look again at Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – that film made $374.2m on a $150m budget. Man Of Steel made $668m on an estimated $225m budget, which doesn’t compare unfavorably at all. Had Warner taken the same approach with Nolan, we never would have had The Dark Knight.
Whether because of marketing or storytelling reasons, DC-Warner ultimately decided to make a team-up ‘event’ movie with Batman v Superman when they should, I’d humbly suggest, have held their nerve and continued the Man Of Steel narrative in greater depth.
Death doesn’t have quite the same sting in the comic book realm as it does in ours, of course, and it seems all but certain that Superman will be back in some form in next year’s Justice League. At the same time, we can’t help but wonder whether the first part of an intriguing story was sacrificed in favor of building a bigger franchise in Batman v Superman.
The scene is set for the Justice League, but Superman has found himself robbed of his moment in the sun.