By: Alejandro Salazar
King Arthur, Jesus Christ, Zeus; these are names which carry weight. To some they carry more weight than for others, depending on where you grow up or what group of people you align yourself with. The great professor Joseph Campbell, who studied literature and drew what would become a popular conclusion about myths worldwide, believed that across the world there was a common structure. He believed in A Hero’s Journey that united all of our myths into a set of trials and tribulations that we would forever revisit, learn from, and be compelled by.
In recent human history, a new kind of mythology has captured our attention. It has become a new phenomenon. The new Knights of the Round Table. The new Gods (if you will forgive the pun). This is the age of the Superhero. For over 80 years now superheroes have grown at an exponential rate in popularity. From small magazines that cost 25 cents to multi-million dollar films that fill cinemas worldwide. I am not going to document the last 80 years and the growth/development of these characters, it’s been done before and is basic common knowledge. What I feel isn’t common knowledge is that there is one character at the center of it all. Superman.
Now, I know people are aware of his importance, but I also feel there has been some revision of history. Superman is the original superhero, and all others stem from his concept. He is to put it bluntly the most iconic superhero in the world. I believe at one point a census study’s results showed that the Superman ‘S’ symbol is the most recognizable symbol in the world just behind the Christian cross. Even if it isn’t number 2 anymore, I’m sure you will still find it to be up there with the McDonald’s Golden Arches’ or Mickey Mouse’s ears. I do not take that as a positive or negative. It is what it is, and it says something about our world.
Now, what does all this talk of myth, Superman, and universal recognizability have to do with each other? Well, it has to do with Zack Snyder of course… get with the program people! For context, Zack Snyder is a filmmaker that has made some exceptional films, including the likes of Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch. I regard him as one of Hollywood’s best. He is consistently pushing the envelope, making films that subvert nearly every expectation, filled to the brim with radical choices. Often times these choices age well and prove to be rewarding during rewatches. In this instant gratification world where everything is at your fingertips and knowing things is as simple as typing a few characters in a search bar, he has a style that goes very far against the grain. In October of 2010, 72 years after the birth of Superman and one year after he deconstructed superhero films with Watchmen, Zack Snyder was announced to be the director of the next film iteration of Superman.
In interviews for the film, Man of Steel writer David Goyer never used the word “real” to describe the film nor the character, he always maintained the intent was to make a relatable world and hero. The film does take place in what is seemingly our world in 2013. Product placement jokes aside, it is a believable world. Relatability is a great lens in which to view Superman. People don’t often find him to be so, due to the alien factor. In Man of Steel, he is portrayed as an outsider. He is someone who never fit in and never could because of his differences, but it is precisely those differences that allow him to save the world. Isn’t that something we can all relate to and dream of? We all are different and often feel alone. Our differences separate us, but they also make us uniquely special. To have those unique attributes make a difference is surely something we all strive for in our everyday lives.
In Batman V Superman we see our heroes fall. The pop culture staples Batman and Superman face their ultimate trials and tribulations and their own existence as they gain knowledge about one another. The media plays a large role in this discovery while twisting the perspectives of both men in the other’s eyes. In the film, Clark Kent is given one of the best lines when he comes to a disagreement with his editor, Perry White. “Perry when you assign a story you’re making a choice about who matters. And who’s worth it.” The media makes this choice all the time, and it is troubling what they do with that responsibility. Superman is grappling with his path as a new hero in a world that doesn’t fully accept him yet. Batman grapples with being a hero who has seen everything turn for the worse in an unforgiving world.
Both characters allow the media to take hold of them and form a false perspective based on their biases created by their experiences as heroes. It isn’t until the two meet for the second time in the film that they find common ground in the (in)famous Martha moment. This is an especially powerful moment for Batman because he’s seeing the commonality between him and this alien but this alien also cried out for the help of another in the face of death. This also snaps him out of his kill rage towards Superman as the connection between Superman and his parents’ deaths is severed here.
Superman sees that someone in this world can fall as hard as Batman did and pick themselves up. They both see that there is good in this world. This is yet another universal message. The media twists things and pits us against each other during a time when echo chambers and circles of like-minded people make it easier to be tribal. But Batman V Superman is saying it isn’t too late, as Batman says, “We fight, we kill, we betray one another. But we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to.”
In an era where films of this ilk are more about the cool factor and making the heroes look good no matter what, it is incredibly ambitious to show our heroes stumble and fall over their ideals and insecurities. Seeing them be incredibly vulnerable, but ultimately pick themselves up is relatable… it is universal. In the landscape of superheroes right now this is an ambitious effort, especially with characters this popular. They come with so much weight, and they were treated as such by Snyder.
Having been a fan of Snyder these past few years, having absorbed all this knowledge and analysis of his films, the ambition is undeniable. There is a lot of analysis out there in the interwebs. It shows a hefty amount of mythology from our real world related to these heroes. From the obvious Christian and ancient Greek mythologies to the obscurity of Wizard of Oz and Moby Dick, his work is a treasure trove of mythological breakdown. I believe Zack was attempting to relate all this mythology to superheroes in an attempt to say that they’re just as important and powerful to our culture. I believe this was an attempt to not only put the Justice League at a higher level mythologically, but place Superman as an important figure in myth, in storytelling, and in culture.
Now I am not going to go through it all. It is all out there. For the most part, these films have been dissected. To this day people are still uncovering new nuggets of knowledge and analysis. Man of Steel and Batman V Superman are endlessly fascinating films that speak universal truths about our human experience. I have no doubt the rest of Zack Snyder’s Superman saga would have been as or even more astonishing. Below I am going to list some links to my favorite sources of analysis that have gotten me to fully appreciate these films and ultimately proved to me that Zack Snyder’s Superman was ambitious as all hell.
There is so much more out there, but I have provided my favorites. I encourage you to be open-minded, and as the man said: “WAKE THE F**K UP!”
(The Film Exiles T-shirt breakdown)
(JLU Podcast’s scene by scene analysis of Batman V Superman)
(Reel Analysis’ A Thesis on Man of Steel)
(Pulpklatura’s explanation and breakdown of BVS’s alternative storytelling style)
(Rebecca Johnson’s BVS analysis video series)
(Lupe Walker’s Allegory & Allusion video)
(NOTTHEPOPULAROPINION’s Lex Luthor analysis)
(NOTTHEPOPULAROPINION’s analysis of Batman’s trauma)
(Man of Steel Answers podcast)