Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens with a shot of caskets. Shortly after, we're reminded of the trail of destruction left in Metropolis during Superman's battle with Zod at the end of Man of Steel. By the end of the movie, countless more are dead and many buildings have fallen.
It's not a very hopeful picture. And in a lot of ways, that goes against not only what Superman is supposed to stand for, but what Superman needs to stand for in our world today.
I get it. "Dark" superhero movies are in, especially on the DC side of comic book adaptations. And in general there's nothing wrong with that. Daredevil and Jessica Jones are both awesome shows about superheroes that are very much not for kids. Arrow, while a bit more tame, also does some great things with a very brutal Oliver Queen.
When they're at their best, dark shows and movies can do a wonderful job reflecting and commenting on things we need to see in media, including rough subjects like sexual assault and police brutality.
But we also live in a world where it seems like we can't go more than a month without humans blowing up other humans. Without incredibly sad family tragedies happening close to home (wherever home may be).
When those things happen, do we really need all of pop culture’s greatest myths to be dark and brooding, or should we be able to look to at least some of them to provide a bit of hope that there’s still good in this world?
It's no surprise to anybody familiar with the character that Superman is a messiah figure. I mean, Marlon Brando (as Superman's birth father, Jor-El) lays it out pretty clearly in the original Superman movie, saying, "They can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son."
(You can hear that monologue in the original teaser trailer for 2006's Superman Returns.)
I mean, come on. The Jesus comparison isn't exactly subtle. But it can still be effective.
Like Jesus, some of Superman's finest moments aren't action-packed. They're quiet, contemplative and meaningful.
One of the best examples of this in recent years is Superman saving a young girl from a suicide attempt. He doesn't swoop in to catch her as she falls. He doesn't use heat vision to melt her shoes to the pavement to stop her from jumping. He's just there. He shows up just to say, "You're much stronger than you think you are." He gives her a hug. End scene.
It's actually not the only time that sort of story is told. While the above save happens very quickly -- within a single comic page -- there's another that takes longer. In Superman: Grounded, the Man of Steel flies up to another potential jumper, but he doesn't hold her right away. In fact, he makes it clear upfront that he's not going to just grab her and stop her.
He says he'll talk with her.
They talk for a long time, and at one point they don't even exchange words, they just sit (or fly) silently. Superman uses his powers here, but not for any action-packed rescue scene. Instead, he just turns off a light.
That's what draws people to Superman, not the action. I mean, he's a hero that's practically invincible, so it's usually pretty easy to predict how each fight will end. Most of Superman's problems can be explained away with, "Well, he's got super speed. He can just solve this problem by running really fast."
People flock to Superman because he's a symbol of hope for a world that's very screwed up. When he arrives, there's a sense of, "Oh, everything's going to be OK. There's someone up there in the sky looking out for us."
We shouldn't have to worry that he's about to kill Batman for not-dire-enough reasons.
Sure, he makes his own mistakes and has his own doubts, and those can lead to interesting discussions of their own. In keeping with the religious imagery, some of those conversations take place in church. One even happens in Man of Steel.
The problem is, there are no "Superman saves suicidal girl"-style stories in today's live-action Superman movies. In fact, the latest one goes very far in the other direction.
Batman v Superman's director Zack Snyder along with the film's writers are certainly aware of the imagery of Superman as a Christ figure, but they don't seem to fully grasp the purpose of that imagery. A solid chunk of the film’s dialogue is spent talking about Superman as if he’s a god. Lex Luthor draws a direct comparison to Jehovah (and the Egyptian god Horus, which makes me wonder if writers got way too much of their ideas about religious history from shaky Internet videos instead of actual scholars). Jesus gets name-dropped. Cross and resurrection imagery abounds.
But Batman v Superman doesn't celebrate the hope that Superman brings -- it questions it.
Half the time when Superman shows up, he doesn't look like a savior. He looks like a vengeful, "Old Testament"-style God coming down to judge the bad guys, even if it means causing some destruction along the way. Even when Superman is treated like a messiah (such as in one scene where a crowd reaches out to touch him after he saves a girl from a burning building), it's usually followed up by cutting to a scene in which somebody else (often a brooding Bruce Wayne) is angry that crowds of people celebrate this alien who came from the sky saying he wants to save people.
And maybe they're right to be skeptical? This Superman, after all, played a role in the utter destruction that ravaged Metropolis in Man of Steel. This Superman snapped someone's neck in order to stop that person from killing an innocent family, rather than taking any of the other options that he, being Superman, had available to him. He and Batman both wreak a lot of havoc and are responsible for numerous deaths (Batman moreso, but still).
Zack Snyder’s response to those moments? “Well, what about [Star Wars: The Force Awakens]? In Star Wars they destroy five planets with billions of people on them. That’s gotta be one of the highest death toll movies in history, the new Star Wars movie, if you just do the math.”
Yeah, his response to Superman not doing enough to avoid collateral damage in Man of Steel is basically, “Well, the evil Empire in another series kills even more people than Superman did, so…”
One woman early on in the film discusses Superman by saying, "He answers to no one. Not even, I think, to God."
Lex, at another point, continues to address Superman as God, and he gets philosophical by saying, "If God is all-powerful then he cannot be all-good. If God is all-good, he cannot be all-powerful."
The theology behind like that would be another article (if not book) entirely. The point is that during the vast majority of Batman v Superman, the filmmakers don't want us accepting Superman as a symbol of hope full-stop. They want us questioning him. Asking whether or not his presence is actually a good thing.
That's not the Superman story this world needs right now.
We've had enough dark takes on classic characters. We've had enough morally grey areas. At a time when people all over the world are concerned about terrorists attacks and random murders and racism and sexism and a host of other things to stress out about, we need some movies where the good guys are just good. Plainly, unquestionably good.
Superman could have been that hero. He should have been that hero. But Batman v Superman would rather be dark and full of explosions.
Maybe that's what we deserve, even if it's not what we need right now.