The Dawn of “Just Me”: Zack Snyder’s Neoliberal Superheroes




THE RELEASE AND RECEPTION of Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice could not have been more predictable. Die-hard fans purchased tickets in advance, thereby guaranteeing that the film would be a massive blockbuster success over the course of its opening weekend. Critics generally hated the film — Snyder’s exercises in slow-motion violence and over-the-top spectacle don’t tend to be popular with critics. Eventually, a few contrarians showed up online trying to make the argument that the movie was better than its 29 percent “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and naturally some fans — desperate to finally enjoy the World’s Finest team on the big screen together — tried to insist that, in fact, the movie is pretty good. These fans call to mind The A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson’s description of Star Wars fans after The Phantom Menace: “They’re like the kid who dropped their ice cream cone in the sand, picking off the grains saying, ‘It’s still good! It’s still good!’”

The movie, which will be released on Blu-ray next month, is not very good. Its director is not a particularly good director, though he does have a distinctive aesthetic. Yes, his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is an entertaining enough movie, until you remember that the source material is available on DVD and is superior in every possible way. 300 (2006) is watchable provided you a) turn the sound off and just play The Very Beast of Dio on repeat until the movie is over and pretend that you’re watching the video Ronnie James Dio never got around to making and b) are drunk. Other than that, though, the rest of his movies are pretty terrible, and not in a fun way.

Part of the problem is that while Snyder has a keen eye when it comes to creating arresting visuals, his understanding of human beings is pretty weak. Consider Sucker Punch (2011), a movie that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be a feminist action movie but that, as Jason Mantzoukas pointed out in the How Did This Get Made? podcast, is about young women who are “raped into empowerment.” Or the scene toward the beginning of Watchmen (2009), during the weekly “beer session” shared between Dan and Hollis. Note how Dan announces that he needs to get going, despite the fact that he still has about two-thirds of his beer left. Imagine you had a guest over, and that guest opened a beer while you were talking, and then promptly set the beer down and announced, “I must leave now.” You would assume that you had said something offensive to prompt such an abrupt exit. That, or your guest is an android who does not yet properly understand human protocol surrounding conversations over drinks.

But Zack Snyder specializes in such androids. Indeed, the humanoids who populate his movies resemble people, but they are actually contrivances designed to explore whatever idea seems to be on Zack Snyder’s mind. In the case of Dawn of the Dead and the idea of exploring how desperate people respond to an escalating crisis in a claustrophobic setting, this worked reasonably well. In the case of Sucker Punch and its concern with finding strength through sexual assault, not so much.

So, what of his Superman?

As I’ve said before, Batman v. Superman is not a good movie. Nor was its predecessor, Man of Steel (2013). I will admit to walking out of Man of Steel slightly confused. Why make a movie about an alien who comes to Earth, destroys a city while trying to prevent the destruction of a world, and then murders his adversary and call it a Superman movie? Aside from dark hair and an affinity for capes, this protagonist has no relationship to the Superman of comic books, cartoons, television shows, and the character’s previous film franchise that featured Christopher Reeve in the main role. There was nothing inspirational about Man of Steel, and there was nothing particularly heroic about the character, played by Henry Cavill. He was better than the villains, sure, but he still seemed self-pitying, self-centered, and not a lot of fun. Even his adopted parents — who in other adaptations were shown to instill in young Clark a sense of compassion and devotion to others — seem to be somewhat sinister, with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent telling his young son that it might have been better for him to let a school bus full of children drown so as to not draw people’s suspicions.

Why make this movie and call it a Superman film? What, exactly, was the idea that Snyder was trying to explore?

¤

I can’t look into Zack Snyder’s mind, and interviews with him don’t provide much insight, as he is often rather inarticulate. I know that he thinks that his movies are “mature” — he has suggested that part of the reason some fans responded negatively to Man of Steel was that he had attempted to “grow up” the character (if excessive violence is a hallmark of sophisticated cinema, do tell Jean-Claude Van Damme that we’ll be reconsidering Bloodsport and might wind up stripping Rain Man of its Best Picture Oscar from 1988 as a result). But there had to be something else at work here. Surely, the whole point wasn’t just to build and then destroy Metropolis due to a villain’s idiotic plan and the most egregious act of superdickery in the character’s 75-plus-year history? (“Hey, General Zod, why don’t you try terraforming an unpopulated planet? You’ll meet less resistance.”)

I had, for a time, dismissed Snyder’s approach to Superman as just empty-headed, violent spectacle for teenagers who think that darkness in a superhero story is evidence of serious artistic merit. Recently, though, I learned of Snyder’s desire to adapt Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and I felt compelled to reconsider what I thought I knew about Zack Snyder’s understanding of Superman. I had thought that his version of Superman was decidedly unheroic, but I recently found myself wondering if perhaps Snyder and I have different thoughts about what heroism is.

I know that Ayn Rand and I would disagree about the nature of heroism. The Randian hero, or “ideal man,” is someone whose sense of morality is guided by “rational self-interest.” Her heroes — John Galt, Howard Roark — are men of uncompromising moral vision whose faith in their own talents and rationality is unwavering. Though the Randian hero may at times be generous, he rejects the notion that he owes anyone anything, and if he acts benevolently, it is because he reasons that doing so is the best course of action. The Randian hero may find himself surrounded by mooches and rip-off artists, but he remains disciplined and in control. He is also frequently good looking.

This description of the Randian hero would seem to fit Zack Snyder’s Superman in a lot of ways. Snyder’s Superman does some nice things, to be sure. In the first movie, he saves people trapped on a burning oil rig; he saves Lois Lane’s life a couple of times; he eventually thwarts General Zod’s invading Kryptonians, allowing the Earth to live. And in this most recent movie, he saves a Mexican girl trapped in a burning building; he saves Lois Lane a couple more times; he foils Lex Luthor’s plan and destroys Doomsday. All good things.

But at the same time, we never get the sense that he’s doing these things because he feels like he ought to be doing them — that, like Spider-Man, he feels that a sense of “great responsibility” must come with his “great power.” At no point in either of Zack Snyder’s Superman movies do we get the sense that he is really sacrificing anything for the benefit of others. Quite the contrary, in fact. His father scolds him for putting the lives of the other children ahead of his own well-being, and that’s really the last time that we see him take much of a personal risk in these films. Sure, he turns himself in to the US military in the first film, to be handed over to General Zod, whom he does not trust. But he also really has no reason to believe that Zod will kill or even physically hurt him. Furthermore, he makes a point of showing the soldiers who take him into custody that he can escape from them at any time — that the handcuffs are just for their comfort and his own amusement.

At the end of the first movie, he kills General Zod, snapping his neck to prevent him from killing any more innocent people. There is something coldly rational about this calculation: murder one man; stop that man from murdering many more. At no point does Superman try to cover Zod’s heat vision-blasting eyes with his own hands, or try to use his superspeed to get between Zod’s eye blasts and his intended victims, or do anything else to risk his own safety or comfort. Instead, he kills Zod, and then — in one of those melodramatic flourishes found only in bad movies — he sinks to his knees and howls his rage to the heavens.

Then, in the next scene, he seems to be feeling much better, and is shown tossing a military drone that was designed to track him to the feet of an Army general, assuring the soldier that he will help humanity “on [his] own terms.”

Much like the Randian hero, he refuses to be bound by a government or society that wants to tell him how, or for whom, to use his own innate talents.

¤

In the new movie, not much has changed in our protagonist’s attitude. He is still operating on his own, saving the people he decides are worth saving (Lois Lane, in a scene where she is held hostage toward the beginning of the movie) and callously disregarding the lives of others (her kidnapper, as well as a group of foreign soldiers being fired upon by mercenaries). I don’t know that I have ever read a comic book where Superman made such judgments about which lives are worth saving and which aren’t — and I’ve read a lot of Superman comic books — but this Superman makes those types of judgments without a moment’s hesitation. What’s more, his mother Martha (played by Diane Lane) reminds him of his father’s words of caution and selfishness from the first film, insisting that he doesn’t owe anyone anything.

Cavill’s Superman finds an adversary in Ben Affleck’s Batman, as the title of the movie indicates. Batman, in his guise of billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, was on the ground during Superman’s fight with General Zod. We learn this in the movie’s (rather excellently shot) prologue. Bruce Wayne flies in a helicopter, then drives in an SUV, then eventually finds himself running into a dust and smoked-filled cityscape, trying to save his “people” (that is to say, the employees he knows) from the Kryptonian throwdown. Seeing the destruction these two aloof and arrogant aliens leave in their wake convinces Batman that Superman is too destructive a power to be left alone, guided only by his own conscience.

For his part, in his secret identity of Clark Kent, Superman becomes obsessed with the vigilante Batman, who tortures and kills people in his one-man war on crime.

Superman and Batman are positioned as opposites, but in fact they seem to have the same motivations and violent tactics. Both substitute their own moral judgments for the rule of law. Both make determinations about whose lives are worth saving. Neither really seems to think much about serving others, or at least, others that they don’t already have a relationship with (although admittedly, his willingness to go into an alien war zone to save his employees makes Batman one of the coolest bosses ever).

Batman refuses to submit to the authority of Gotham City police. Superman refuses to submit to the authority of the United States government in the form of a bleeding-heart Democratic senator played by Holly Hunter who, I think we are to understand, believes she is doing the right thing by trying to control Superman but who in the end winds up being blown up by Lex Luthor — right in front of a rather bored-looking Superman. And this is after she discovers that Lex Luthor has left a jar of urine on her desk, which just adds insult to fatal injury.

As I watched Batman v. Superman, I became more and more convinced that I was onto something with my Randian reading of Snyder’s Superman. After the scolding he received from his father in the first movie, he never again puts himself or his freedom in any serious jeopardy. He does heroic things, yes. But not out of altruism. He saves the Earth, because that’s where he lives. He saves Lois Lane, because she’s a beautiful woman and he winds up falling in love with her (who can blame him? Amy Adams is great, and her performance is a high point in both films). Even in the climactic battle at the end of the more recent movie, when he dies in his fight with Doomsday, he is not dying defending Metropolis from the monster’s attack, the way he died (temporarily) fighting the same monster in the comics way back in 1992. In fact, he, Lois, Batman, and Wonder Woman have Doomsday somewhat isolated when Superman delivers the killing stroke. Instead, Superman’s last words before charging the beast are to Lois. He tells her, “This is my world. You are my world.” And then he and Doomsday stab each other to death.

So his last action is not really self-sacrifice, especially because there was no reason for him to have known that he was going to die when he rushed Doomsday. His last words suggest that he is not laying down his life in order to save others, but, rather, that he was protecting that which belongs to him. His world. Even as he is killed in battle, his focus seems to still be on his own self-interest.

As compelling as I find my own insights, there are certain ways that they do break down. Superman’s concerns for Batman’s victims, for example, do not seem to be motivated by rational self-interest. In fact, he jeopardizes his job at The Daily Planet by pursuing the Batman story, as opposed to writing the story about a football game that his editor, Perry White, hounds him about for days (we can ignore for a moment that Clark is not a sports reporter, and that most daily newspaper editors are not going to give a reporter several days to report on a sporting event. It’s movie magic). There is no way that I can make Superman’s concern for the criminals that Batman brands — yes, literally brands — into something that is in his own rational self-interest.

And then there are Snyder’s own comments in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. He acknowledges that Superman follows his own conscience without regard to what others have to say, but he suggests that such an approach might come back to hurt him: “There’s no time to ask permission when someone is falling off a skyscraper, or there’s no time to ask permission when the White House is exploding. You got to act […] He’s the first responder in a lot of ways. He’s the first responder who gets sued by the guy he saves.”

I don’t know that too many first responders get sued for saving people. It might happen, but I doubt it happens frequently enough to justify the kind of cynicism that Snyder seems to be displaying here. I mean, we still have — and need — first responders, right? Still, though, if Superman does wind up getting penalized for even simple acts of heroism, it would be in his rational self-interest to hang up the cape for good. But he doesn’t.

What’s more, in the same interview, Snyder seems dismissive of the “black and white, unrealistic morality of fighting crime.” If ever there was a belief system that harbored an absolute, unyielding sense of morality, it was Ayn Rand’s. So, though Snyder’s Superman probably read Atlas Shrugged as a surly teenager in the adolescent fortress of solitude that was his bedroom and no doubt found it interesting and at least a little inspiring, he did not, apparently, completely subscribe to its Objectivist message.

In the end, I don’t know that Zack Snyder’s Superman films demonstrate a coherent philosophy. They seem to be the reflections of a guy who read a lot of superhero comic books as a child, made his action figures fight each other, saw a lot of special effects–driven blockbusters, read some Ayn Rand, got stoned, listened to some Rush, and then, as an adult, was loaned copies of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Dark Knight Returns and came to believe that the entertainment of his childhood could be made acceptable for an adult audience if it was just made a little bloodier.

¤

There were superhero movies before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but it seems like since then, we have been consuming them voraciously. From the moment that Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man flew through New York City’s skyline in Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, up until, presumably, 2019, when “Phase Three” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe concludes, the superhuman onslaught has been and will continue to be unrelenting. For that matter, I’m pretty sure that “Phase Four” will be announced soon enough, and these films will keep coming. In the 15 years since the United States was attacked, these stories of heroes fighting and vanquishing villains have been more than just movies. They’ve become cultural touchstones. Events, even.

On the one hand, it’s a great time to be a fan. If you had told me, when I was a 14-year-old nerd living in George H. W. Bush’s America with more Dungeons and Dragons dice than friends that, someday, it would be cool to know the difference between a mutant and an altered human, I would have thought that you were making fun of me. On the other hand, though, I wonder if, perhaps, the popularity of these films might indicate something a little off about our culture. As entertaining and inspiring as I find these movies featuring Captain America and the X-Men, I worry that our hunger for these types of narratives might be a little unhealthy. Superhero comic books are inherently unrealistic — the Manichean world where “heroes” fight “villains” who travel in groups who call themselves “The Masters of Evil” or “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” is rather childish by design.

It occurs to me, uncomfortably, that these superhero movies that I love became popular at around the same time that the president of the United States began to refer to some people as “evil-doers,” the way the caption boxes in the comic books I read as a kid described the Penguin and the Red Skull. I worry that these movies are nurturing a cultural desire to live in a simpler, less complicated world. A world of “good guys” and “evil-doers.” And I worry about what kind of a world we’re going to live in if we allow ourselves to be seduced by such comforting lies. In that sense, I wonder if Zack Snyder’s Superman movies, where the very concept of heroism is dismissed as headstrong stupidity that should be sneered at and scorned, might be a necessary corrective, a wake-up call to remind us that the world we live in is more complicated than Manichean dualism allows.

Of course, sometimes, people do heroic things. The first responder who gets sued is still doing something heroic. Even in the cynical Watchmen — which Snyder seems to have understood in the most superficial of ways — there is a moment when two characters, Dan and Laurie, risk their own freedom to save a bunch of innocent people trapped in a tenement fire. They may not be acting in their own “rational self-interest,” but they are not stupid or lying to themselves about whether or not it’s possible to affect positive change for others.

Perhaps, in the end, the best — and likely only — way to appreciate Zack Snyder’s Superman movies is to understand that while other (often better-crafted) superhero movies reassure that both justice and villainy are universal, easily identified concepts, his movies are a reminder that we ought not to kid ourselves about the world. Some movies tell us to aspire to do and be better than we are, but Snyder’s movies tend to remind us that even if we succeed in such an ambition, we are damn destructive fools if we think that makes us better than others. And if the past 15 years or so are any indication, sometimes we seem to need that reminder.

¤

William Bradley is the author of Fractals, an essay collection about illness, love, and popular culture, recently published by Lavender Ink.


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT