Minor spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
One of the most frequent complaints about the last two Superman movies (Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman) is that the character of Superman is portrayed as too dark or “emo.” Some point to previous versions of the character where he would smile and wave at the crowd as the common folk cheered. As opposed to BvS, where his entire storyline was about people hating and fearing him. People point to Superman snapping Zod’s neck at the end of Man of Steel, something that Christopher Reeve would never do, as a disrespectful change to the character. However, Superman did throw a large cellophane “S” emblem at Zod and his minions In Superman II, resulting in them falling into a giant chasm in the Fortress of Solitude. So even the more Boy Scout version of Supes had to get rid of the bad Kryptonians.
To be fair, Superman snapped Zod’s neck because it was either him or the innocent people he was about to filet with his heat vision. And he felt terrible about it, so he didn’t kill anyone in BvS. Well, he didn’t kill anyone that he didn’t already kill in the last movie (Zod was Doomsday). Batman, on the other hand, with his machine guns on the Bat-plane…is an article for another time.
When I saw Man of Steel for the first time, I attributed the dark elements to the fact that the character of Superman was being brought into a more cynical, modern world. He was still just as idealistic as he has always been. The destruction of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel had more to do with his inexperience as a superhero than him not valuing human life. Like in the second episode of the 90’s cartoon when he tries to catch a plane that is falling, and the wing rips off. “Nice one, Clark!” In BvS, he is shown saving people from fires and floods. Bruce Wayne even references him rescuing cats from trees. But this Superman had to work harder to stay that way, especially with the public hating on him. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was buddy-buddy with the President, proudly declaring that “We’re all on the same team!” in the closing moments of Superman: The Movie. THIS Superman had his motives questioned by the Senate. More to deal with. Still Superman.
Many comic book writers and even those who have adapted the character to film and TV have pointed out that it is difficult to figure out how powerful Superman should be. Some comic books in the 50’s made him so powerful that he was either too absurd or made it difficult to come up with villains that could present a challenge. I do think that showing this character upset about the state of the world or the fact that he was adopted (a situation relatable to many) was an attempt to make him more relevant to the audience. But still, it was the same idealistic character working hard to stay that way in a cynical world, possibly with a cynical movie-going audience.
There are also many Superman stories that attempt to show how dangerous the Man of Steel could be if he weren’t such a nice guy. Superman: The Animated Series and the Justice League cartoons had quite a few episodes exploring this idea, whether he was brainwashed by Darkseid or becoming a dictator because he thought Lois was dead. Or because he thought The Flash was dead (didn’t realize they were that close), so he kills President Luthor with his heat vision. And then, there was the one where the entire Justice League became dictators in another dimension and called themselves the Justice Lords. And the Batman Beyond episode where he had Starro attached to his chest for years. And in the comics, my favorite Batman story Hush, where Poison Ivy controls Superman’s mind with some toxins.
The scene in BvS where Batman has a dream about The Flash coming through (what looks like) a Boom Tube, telling Batman that he was “right about him” and to keep Lois alive, reminded me of those darker Superman stories. Is this where they are going with the character of Superman in the Justice League films? Is he going to be brainwashed by Darkseid like the last few episodes of TAS after he is revived from his current state? Will Darkseid be the one who revives him?
Only time will tell, but the exploration of what Superman would be like if he were darker is nothing new. I agree with the naysayers in that I would prefer to have a scene where Superman is waving at a crowd of people who like him rather than a bunch of creepy people in skull masks trying to touch him like they want him to heal their leprosy. And maybe we will see that in the Justice League movies, after he comes back to his senses and whoops on Darkseid. Maybe being part of a team of superheroes and feeling less alone will soften the old softie.
So, between the cynical modern world we live In and the only people he’s met from his home world so far being monsters (literally or otherwise), it’s no wonder that the only time this Superman smiles is when he gets into the bathtub with Lois Lane. What do you think? Do you think we will see a more optimistic Superman in future films? And what about the rumor that they are reshooting a bunch of things in Suicide Squad to make it more fun? Is DC’s no-humor policy with their movies part of the problem? If they loosen that up, will Superman loosen up too? Comment below.