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“My World Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and the Rejection of Nostalgia

Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman are deeply flawed films. However, they are also breathtakingly ambitious films.

There are very few big budget blockbuster films that look and feel like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Actor Henry Cavill has diplomatically described Batman vs. Superman as a “niche” film in order to account for the openly hostile fan and critic reaction to the movie. There is a sense that Cavill was trying to offer an apology without an apology, to appease certain vocal segments of fan culture without throwing his work under the bus. However, there is some truth in his words.

It is tempting to wonder how much of the vocal and aggressive online response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman comes down to the fact that these movies challenge popular perceptions of these iconic characters. Comic book writer Mark Waid was very vocal in his dislike of Man of Steel, not on the basis of the direction or the choreography or the framing or the craft, but because the film misunderstood “the essential part of Superman.” These complaints were echoed across the the blogosphere.

An unchallenged and unspoken assumption crept into discussions and debates around Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. The primary argument seemed to be that this wasn’t really Superman and this wasn’t really Batman, because these characters were so impossible to reconcile with the popular image of these characters. Many criticisms of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman measured them against other iterations of the characters, real and imagined. Man of Steel wasn’t colourful enough. Superman doesn’t kill. Lex Luthor is not Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea was that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman violated some unspoken compact with the audience, that it offered a version of these characters and their world that didn’t line up with audience expectations. Indeed, this is perhaps most notable in the inevitable comparisons between Zack Snyder’s work and the output of Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios had spent the better part of a decade building a reputation as a studio that was faithful and respectful of its source material, to the point of slavishness. Marvel Studios offered uncomplicated, straightforward adaptations.

However, there is a sense that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were rather consciously rejecting the culture of nostalgia that has become so dominant and overwhelming in contemporary blockbuster cinema, that the films represented a conscious effort to challenge audience expectations and to push provocative and ambitious interpretations of these characters and their mythos. Indeed, it is hard not to see the audience’s vicious and aggressive response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman as a response to that.

Batman and Superman are iconic characters in American pop culture. Both characters date back to the thirties, and have become part of the cultural shorthand. Not only are these characters iconic, but many members of their supporting cast are also instantly recognisable; “Robin”, “Lois Lane”, “The Joker”, “Lex Luthor”, “Commissioner Gordon”, “the Kents.” These characters have become a sort of cultural shorthand, to the point that a casual joke about the ineffectiveness of Clark Kent’s disguise can be dropped casually into conversation with somebody who has never read a comic book.

Indeed, certain interpretations of these characters have latched on in popular consciousness and certain images have become indelibly associated with these figures. Batman and Superman are not characters so much as archetypes, and certain interpretations have become dominant over the past few decades. Superman is arguably more of a victim of this nostalgia than Batman, given that Batman has been more consistently and more readily reinvented over the years. Superman has remained largely trapped in amber.

There are any number of iconic iterations of Superman; the original comics, the radio show, the George Reeves shorts, the Richard Donner movies. These all enforce a very straightforward and uncomplicated version of Superman, a heroic figure dressed in primary colours with an unflappable sense of right and wrong. While there have been a variety of later iterations and reinventions of Superman, none of them have really stuck: the hokey romance of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the cartoon Superman: The Animated Series, the jeans-and-shirt of Grant Morrison.

It is telling that these most iconic iterations of Superman all predate 1980. They date back to before the Reagan era, which is itself a source of strange contemporary nostalgia. A lot of digital ink has been spilled on the question of whether Superman is an outdated concept and whether he has any place in the modern world, but these discussions miss the point. The question is not whether Superman is outdated, the question is whether the version of Superman that exists in the popular memory is outdated.

This is perhaps best explored with a discussion of Superman Returns, the horrific 2008 Bryan Singer film that was intended as a soft reboot of the franchise released alongside Batman Begins. The difference between the two films is quite apparent from their title; whereas Christopher Nolan rebooted and reinvented the Batman mythos for Batman Begins, Bryan Singer was instead trying to restore a nostalgic memory of Superman in Superman Returns. Indeed, Superman Returns was explicitly a follow-on to the beloved Richard Donner films Superman and Superman II.

Superman Returns was an avowedly nostalgic treat, a film that promised to encase that late seventies Superman in amber and to indulge the nostalgic yearnings of the audience. The film not only followed on from Superman II, it seemed to build off the end of the director’s cut of Superman II. The film returned to Lex Luthor’s strange preoccupation with land grabs. The superhero’s introduction quite consciously riffs on his introduction in Superman, catching Lois Lane on a falling aircraft. There is even a Marlon Brando appearance.

Superman Returns is also the worst Superman film ever made, its blind nostalgia allowing Bryan Singer to turn the title character into a date-raping stalker deadbeat dad. It isn’t that this is a betrayal of the character, or any nonsense like this. The title character in Superman Returns is a creep with superpowers and with no sense of responsibility about how he uses them. It is heavily implied that he impregnated Lois during his time as a mortal and then wiped her memory in Superman II. Rather than take any responsibility for this, Superman instead lectures Lois about smoking.

Given this fundamental betrayal of the concept of Superman, and the fact that Superman Returns reduces one of the most iconic figures in American popular culture to a date-raping stalker deadbeat dad, one might imagine that the internet would be livid. Surely the same fans so upset about the desaturation in Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman would rage against this portrayal of the Man of Tomorrow? Surely those fans who bristled against the idea of an unhinged Batman would rise up in protest? If Lex Luthor as Mark Zuckerberg was too much, then what was this?

Superman Returns never attracted the same hatred and rage that fans directed at Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Indeed, recent years have seen a cottage industry emerge in discussions about how Superman Returns is “underrated” or “forgotten”, as if fans should be thankful that the movie about a date-raping stalker deadbeat dad Superman at least had some colour in it. The film pandered to nostalgia, evoking the cultural memory of the Richard Donner films. There was a sense that fans were happy enough with that pandering that they didn’t care what the movie actually was.

Nostalgia has always been a potent cultural force. Indeed, it could be argued that even Richard Donner’s Superman and Superman II were exercises in nostalgia for the versions of the character with which the key creative figures grew up. However, in the twenty-first century, it frequently feels like nostalgia has become the dominant cultural force. Modern blockbuster cinema is dominated by reboots and remakes, to the point that there have been three blockbuster Spider-Man franchises in the past two decades.

Of course, it’s isn’t just superhero movies that are subject to nostalgia. The modern wave of blockbuster nostalgia has seen a revival of franchises that had long been considered over, a form of franchise necromancy with long-delayed sequels like Jurassic World or Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, or even television revivals like The X-Files or Full House or Twin Peaks. The quality of these revivals varied on a case-by-case basis, but there was a clear sense that a lot of popular culture was built around the idea of offering audiences something which they had seen before.

Part of what makes Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman so interesting is a firm rejection of this approach, a conscious rejection of the popular memory of these particular characters. Indeed, Man of Steel makes a point to consciously reject any nostalgia for the Richard Donner era in setting itself up as a gigantic homage to Richard Donner’s Superman II right before pulling the rug out from under the audience in the final act. A lot of audience members were shocked and horrified by the brutality of Man of Steel, ignoring the fact that this revulsion was the entire point.

The opening scenes of Man of Steel play as a messy and confused homage to the opening scenes of Superman and Superman II, providing back story on Krypton and introducing the character of General Zod. This is interesting of itself. General Zod is a character who exists largely as a footnote in comic book continuity, but who endures in the popular memory due to Terrance Stamp. Using him in this context quite consciously evokes Superman II, right down to the storytelling device of having him exiled from Krypton and deciding to conquer Earth.

Interestingly, Man of Steel repositions Zod’s invasion. Zod does not simply plan to install himself as leader of Earth, he plans to rebuild Krypton on Earth. He plans to resurrect the old world on new foundations. It is worth noting that this is exactly what Ares attempts to do in Wonder Woman, promising to restore paradise on Earth by wiping away the sinful mankind. In this way, both Zod and Ares are positioned as nostalgic forces in their narratives, representatives of lost and destroyed worlds who wish to restore the natural order of things.

Man of Steel does not embrace Donner era nostalgia in the same way that Superman Returns did. Instead, the film actively rejects it. Superman kills Zod at the climax of Man of Steel, a provocative act in any context, but especially when Zod is treated as a representative of the old order. However, the movie’s most stunning and vicious repudiation of Superman II comes before that execution, with a brutal throwdown through Metropolis. It is very consciously a riff on the iconic climax of Superman II, when Zod lays siege to the studio-bound Metropolis, a nice continuity nod.

The climax of Superman II remains one of the film’s most memorable moments, and one of the defining superhero spectacles. Although obviously limited by the constraints of late seventies film making, the sequence offered audiences the kind of action only ever seen on the comic book page. It is very clearly the antecedent of all the superhero blockbusters that followed, most notably The Avengers or The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The sequence is widely regarded as a cornerstone of the genre.

However, it is also incredibly toothless. There is never a sense of peril or horror. The citizens of Metropolis seem mildly inconvenienced by the arrival of these superpowered aliens, as if this is just a weird interruption on an otherwise normal day. There is no sense of horror of carnage. Some vehicles are destroyed, some signs are broken, but there is a sense that Metropolis will be back to usual within the next few weeks. It is a very glib portrayal of urban carnage. It is fun to watch, exciting to engage with. It is spectacle in primary colours.

In contrast, the climax of Man of Steel takes that spectacle and plays it horrifically straight. The destruction at the climax of Man of Steel is brutal and violent. It consciously and repeatedly evokes the imagery of 9/11, something reinforced when the climax is replayed from street level in Batman vs. Superman. Unstoppable forces collide with buildings, heat vision melts support beams, dust hangs in the air. It is shocking and unsettling, and deeply uncomfortable. Particularly in the context of a superhero blockbuster that is evoking Superman II. Then again, that would seem to be the point.

9/11 imagery haunts the contemporary superhero genre. In particular, it saturates the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers features monsters flooding into New York through a hole in the sky, laying waste to an entire city. The Age of Ultron features a villain who drops a city on itself. Similiar, Thor: The Dark World combines a suicide attack on Asgard with the obligatory urban carnage, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier features hellicarriers turned into weapons. This is to say nothing of The Defenders and the its fixation on blowing up a skyscraper in The Defenders.

However, none of these films portray urban carnage as viciously and as brutally as Man of Steel. Instead, they treat the urban destruction as playful, as background for witty banter and fodder for computer-generated spectacle. In the world of The Avengers and Age of Ultron, this urban devastation is presented in the same vein as Superman II. It is “fun” and “enjoyable”, and largely without consequence. In contrast, Man of Steel is viscerally unpleasant, to the point that climax of Batman vs. Superman features repeated exposition about how empty its destroyed urban centre must be.

It should be noted that Zack Snyder is heavily influenced by the work of deconstructive comic book writers of the late eighties. This is most obvious in his well-intentioned and misguided attempt to adapt Alan Moore’s Watchmen for the big screen, but even in the smaller aspects of his work. Batman vs. Superman owes a great deal to the work of Frank Miller, down to quoting dialogue and borrowing the talking-head format. At one point in Batman vs. Superman, Snyder’s camera pans past graffiti reading “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, a visual nod to Watchmen.

While Moore and Miller are defining influences on contemporary comic books, for better and for worse, their influence on superhero movies has been minimal at best. In particular, Marvel Studios has largely made a point to avoid incorporating too many deconstructive elements into its work, happy to borrow some of the aesthetic touches of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s work on The Ultimates while avoiding any potentially provocative themes or narrative choices. The output of Marvel Studios is more in line with the aesthetic of the comics predating Moore and Miller than any of their work.

In particular, the climax of Man of Steel seems designed to consciously emulate Alan Moore and John Totleben’s work on Miracleman #15, which is a comic book issue focused on a marginal character that would radically change the entire industry. Moore and Totleben dared to ask what a superhero battle would really look like, if that urban carnage were given substance rather than treated as spectacle. The results are haunting and uncanny, and quite close to the horrors of the climax of Man of Steel.

Of course, Man of Steel doesn’t quite capture the visceral horrors of Miracleman #15. Metropolis seems curiously empty, even as the characters smash through buildings and construction sites. There are no mangled bodies and severed limbs. The only viewpoint characters are the thinly-sketched staff of the Daily Planet. The audience has to wait until the opening scenes of Batman vs. Superman to get a sense of the real human cost of this carnage, with the staff at Wayne Financial and Wally’s crushed limbs. Even then, these are all kept within a PG-13 budget.

However, there is enough there to make the audience viscerally uncomfortable; the shots of the Kryptonians from ground level, Jenna trapped under the concrete, Steve covered in dust. The climax of Man of Steel is unsettling and horrifying, but in a way that feels quite sane and pointed. “Do you really want this?” the film seems to ask of its audience, gesturing to the carnage wrought by superhero spectacle. “Of course not,” is the only sane and reasonable response, that revulsion feeling natural.

However, there is something rather cynical and hypocritical in wanting carnage more like that seen in The Avengers. Indeed, modern blockbuster cinema is populated with destruction on the scale of the climax of Man of Steel, but with the films keeping the audience at a distance from the horrors. Entire planets die in The Force Awakens, and populations are destroyed in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but it never feels uncomfortable or disconcerting. The flow of the film is never disrupted, the audience is never made to squirm in their seats.

The issue is not the visceral disgust at the carnage in Man of Steel, it is the awkward insistence that Man of Steel is doing it “wrong.” There is an unspoken assumption that these scenes of catastrophic devastation should be handled with the distance and the dispassion seen in movies like The Avengers or The Force Awakens, that the audience not be asked to feel the impact of these powers grappling with one another or think about the consequences as these buildings come crashing down. Somehow this violence is more comfortable if its results are less visceral and less evident.

This is very much in keeping with the narrative style of both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Both films are deliberately provocative, designed around giving audiences something that they think that they want and revealing it to be something grotesque. The idea is clearly to spur the audience to engaging with the idea in a different manner, to step outside their comfort zone and their nostalgia to interrogate the tropes and conventions of the superhero story in a new way. The battle that links Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman is just one facet of that.

This is notable in how both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman approach the very concept of superheroes. These are films that are decidedly anxious about the fundamental idea of superheroes as figures that exist to make the world a simpler place, as icons of American exceptionalism cast into human (or human-like) form. Both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman engage with the uncomfortable subtext of superheroes as Randian ubermensch who impose their will upon the world. They problematicise the nostalgic ideal of superhero.

This is very important and timely. After all, the current President of the United States has carefully recruited a cult of personality around himself, arguing that he is effectively the only person who can save the country and must be allowed to do so unimpeded by due process. A worrying amount of voters in the last election in the United States skew authoritarian. With that in mind, it is worth interrogating the idea of the superhero as a nostalgic paragon of American exceptionalism, if only because the superhero is one of the most ubiquitous examples of this sort of tendency.

Most superhero stories tend towards verisimilitude, suggesting the the emergence of a group of superpowered heroes has not radically changed the world in which they live. There are multiple reasons for this, but one of them is pragmatic; people like to read stories set in a world that at least superficially resembles their own. As a result, Reed Richards cannot cure cancer and Tony Stark cannot stop war. The arrival of Thor does not fundamentally change mankind’s relationship to religion.

This is also very comforting, because it allows these stories to sidestep the enormity of the power fantasies that guide them by downplaying the significance of these characters as political actors. The existence of Captain America should be enough to branch the timeline from the end of the Second World War, and the return of Thor should be a game-changer. However, the movies sidestep these questions, because they lead to uncomfortable questions about the gulf that exists between the fantasy of power and the reality of its exercise.

Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman at least engage with the idea that arrival of Superman is a catastrophic earth-shattering event that radically alters mankind’s understanding of its place in the universe. Superman is a literal god, and his arrival on earth represents a paradigm shift. It is more comforting to imagine that life could continue on as normal in the wake of an event of this magnitude, with only minor ripples left in their wake. This sense of remove allows stories like this to avoid tough questions like the moral obligation that comes with such power.

Once again, the Marvel Cinematic Universe provides a telling contrast. For the most part, people seem quite comfortable with the existence of superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even after the events of The Avengers when the brother of one member of the team leads an alien invasion of New York. Even after Tony Stark and Bruce Banner invent a psychopathic genocidal artificial intelligence in Age of Ultron, the general public seem pretty okay with it. Tellingly, people seem more uncomfortable with Black Widow being on the team, with her own dark secrets.

To be fair, Captain America: Civil War tries to broach this topic, with a primary antagonist who lost his family in the attack at the end of Age of Ultron and debates about the legitimacy of unilateral intervention by superheroes on foreign soil. However, Civil War refused to commit to these broad questions, instead focusing on telling the story from the perspective of the heroes themselves. Civil War never quite captured the horror or the brutality of these catastrophic encounters, consciously avoiding any exploration the collateral damage caused by these throwdowns.

It is telling that so much of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman is coded in terms of horror movies rather than traditional superhero genres. Man of Steel blasts through a host of horror movie references in exploring Clark Kent’s legacy and history; the ship lost in the ice evokes The Thing, while the design of the Kryptonian technology evokes Alien. This is the milieu in which Snyder casts Superman. Similarly, the creation of Doomsday in Batman vs. Superman is contextualised in terms of the grotesque-male-only “abomination” imitation of reproduction from Frankenstein.

One of the most interesting things that Man of Steel does with the origin of Superman is to reject nostalgia and to contextualise him in the twenty-first century. Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman takes the basic building blocks of the Superman myth (the Kents, Krypton, Lex Luthor) and reworks them for the modern era. It does so in a manner that eschews nostalgia for something much more interesting, asking what these icons actually mean more than three-quarters of a century after they were created.

This is most obvious in the character of Superman himself, a character impossible to separate from American self-identity. After all, Superman fights for “truth, justice and the American Way.” A benevolent and all-powerful force, Superman has arguably always been a reflection of American self-image. It is telling that nostalgia for an idealised and old-fashioned portrayal of Superman overlaps significantly with a broader cultural nostalgia within American culture. Many Americans yearn for a return to the perceived simplicity of the fifties, and for Superman to return to that version of himself.

It is telling that the most iconic and popular iterations of Superman predate the Reagan era, harking back to a time when America unquestioningly perceived itself as a force for good in the world. However, the years since then have complicated the narrative. American popular culture turned introspective in the late eighties and into the nineties, asking bold questions about its foundational assumptions and moral certainties. During the nineties, cynicism crept into the national dialogue, as reflected in the work of artists like Oliver Stone and Chris Carter.

These anxieties simmered back to the surface during the War on Terror, when America found itself confronted by an existential threat rooted in response to its foreign policy. Indeed, a lot of superhero narratives of the twenty-first century are arguably rooted in trying to work through the uncomfortable questions of power and authority during the War on Terror, whether Mark Millar’s Civil War or Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts or Brian Bendis’ Siege. There are even shades of it in the Marvel Studios movies, whether the 9/11 imagery of The Avengers or the surveillance state themes of Civil War.

In Batman vs. Superman, the Man of Tomorrow is treated very much as a metaphor for American exceptionalism. His uncertainties about his place in the world reflect contemporary American anxieties. What had been moral certainty during the Second World War and the Cold War gives way to ambivalence. It is no coincidence that Batman vs. Superman gives so much time and space to Senate Committee hearings, which evoke any number of scandals and controversies that have marred American life and become associated with American self-doubt since the Reagan era.

Indeed, many of the more controversial aspects of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman can be traced back to a desire to update and tweak classic comic book concepts to reflect the modern world. This is particularly true of the Kents, presented as smalltown farmers in Kansas. When Superman was created, Kansas was a progressive state. It had just emerged from a long battle against the KKK. It was entirely plausible that an alien who had landed in Kansas during the twenties or thirties would have been instilled with the moral compass that guided the classic character of Superman.

However, one of the most interesting literary devices in Superman stories is to imagine what might have happened if Superman did not land when and where he did. In Red Son, Mark Millar wondered how things might have been different if the Man of Steel landed in Soviet Russia. In Mastermen, Grant Morrison wondered how things might have gone had Superman landed in Nazi Germany. In its own weird way, Man of Steel offers a slight twist on this concept, displacing Superman in time rather than space.

What if Superman landed in Kansas at the end of the twentieth century or the dawn of the twenty-first century? Kansas is radically different in 2017 than it was in 2018. In the 2016 election, Kansas voted for Donald Trump at two-to-one over Hillary Clinton. This margin increased significantly in the rural areas, which are where one might expect to find a family like the Kents. Kansas has changed from a rural state that fought long and hard to eject the KKK into a state that eagerly voted for a candidate that they endorsed for president. It makes sense that the Kents would change as well.

The Superman mythos insists that Jonathan and Martha Kent infused a set of rural values in Kal-El, infusing him with the spirit and idealism of the heartland. Historically, this has been an idealised and romanticised expression of heartland values, a conservativism that was compassionate and decent, built on concepts like moral responsibility and social obligation. Superman was an expression of these core values of community and decency, of people who took pride in their place in the world and placed value in their integrity. This was a fair observation in 1938.

However, as Perry White insists awkwardly in Batman vs. Superman, it is not 1938 anymore. Man of Steel strips away the nostalgia and suggests that Superman would likely learn a very different set of values from a rural family in modern Kansas. Jonathan Kent does not instill in his son a sense of moral responsibility. Instead, he instills a sort of self-centred individualism without any civic responsibility. Martha and Jonathan talk repeatedly in Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman about what Clark “owes” to the world, arguing that it is nothing, rather than what he can offer.

This attitude had been simmering in the background of American popular consciousness for a while before Donald Trump gave voice to it with his promise of “America First.” This is an expression of the values that Jonathan and Martha infuse in their son, their believe that Clark’s primary goal in life should be to look out for his own best interests rather than doing what he can to help other people. Jonathan and Martha probably don’t believe in welfare or redistribution either, and seem likely to have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016, many of the real life rural population of Kansas.

Indeed, this is far from the only aspect of the Superman mythos that has been consciously updated. Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman understand that Superman is fundamentally a story about immigrant experience, about what it is to arrive in a new world and to make something of one’s self. Batman vs. Superman reinforces this with an emphasis on immigrants in its own narrative; the women trafficked into Gotham and locked in a cage, the waiting staff at Luthor’s function who watch news in Spanish about Mexico, Diana Prince with her ambiguous accent and a theme that sounds like The Immigrant Song.

The original Superman stories were written by two Jewish creators who were watching the horrors unfolding in Europe during the late thirties. These writers and artists understood the plight of the refugee who came to America to reinvent themselves. It is a variation of the tale filtered and reiterated through popular culture, from the promise on the Statue of Liberty to the flashbacks of The Godfather, Part II. Superman was created at a time when people still believed that it was possible for a foreigner to come to America and to make a difference.

This context exists in Man of Steel. Krypton is quite consciously designed to evoke the old world, to capture the sense of a decadent and decaying Europe. Its ruling council evoke the ruling dynasties of Europe, sitting in thrones with ceremonial headdresses. In the busy over-active opening scenes of Man of Steel, the audience sees the first half of twentieth century European history play out as science-fiction spectacle, with Zod staging a fascist coup and promising to “sever the degenerative bloodlines” which solidify a sense of the Council’s dynastic rule and also renders explicit Zod’s genocidal tendencies.

Man of Steel consciously frames Superman’s journey to Earth in terms of this archetypal immigrant’s journey. The world of Krypton is defined by its rigid class structures, evoking the popular contrast between Europe and the United States. Every child on Krypton is born to a specific purpose and destiny, their life predetermined from the moment of conception through to their eventual demise. In contrast, Jor-El dreams of sending his child to a world where his life is not set in stone from the moment of his birth, where he has freedom and choice to forge his own identity.

In doing so, Man of Steel recognises that the story of Superman is and always has been the story of immigrant. Indeed, Superman is a character who has always derived his power from his adopted home of Earth. His home planet is toxic to him, as demonstrated when exposed to the atmosphere in Man of Steel and when attacked with the Kryptonite in Batman vs. Superman. As such, Superman is a character who leaves the old world for the new, and becomes something truly extraordinary that he never could have been under his old sun.

However, both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman understand that the immigrant experience is radically different in the twenty-first century than it was in the twentieth. In particular, ethno-nationalism has emerged as one of the dominant themes of twenty-first century political discourse. Both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman touch on this idea, suggesting that Superman is the victim of the same hatred and fear that drives a lot of resurgent white supremacism. One prominent protester at the Senate even wears the fashionable modern neo-nazi hairstyle.

There is more to it than this. Batman vs. Superman ties this racial and immigration anxiety to fears about masculinity and virility. Both Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor are challenged by Superman because he upsets their perceived sense of masculinity. “You’re not a god,” Bruce protests. “You were barely even a man.” Similarly, before attempting to impale Superman on a gigantic spear after having a knockdown brawl in a men’s room, Bruce warns Superman, “You’re not brave. Men are brave.”

All of this exists in a context where resurgent white supremacist is frequently ties to issues of white male anxiety. This anxiety is at once subtle and obvious, apparent in anxiety over demographic shifts and the racists chants of “you will not replace us”, but also in the movement’s connections to “men’s rights activists” and nationalists’ preferred insult of “cuck.” Again, Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman deconstruct and chip away at the underlying assumptions of the superhero narrative, most notably the assumption that an alien refugee would be welcomed with open arms.

Similarly, Batman vs. Superman makes a point to update Lex Luthor for the modern day rather than trapping the character in nostalgic amber. Interestingly, the popular depiction of Lex Luthor as a successful businessman only really solidified in the late eighties; the character had taken a variety of other guises before that point, from mad scientist to red-haired crook. However, John Byrne imagined Luthor as a villain very much in step with the late eighties era, a successful and powerful businessman who was up to no good.

This ideal of Lex Luthor solidified during the nineties, whether through Clancy Brown’s turn as Luthor in Superman: The Animated Series or John Shea’s iteration of the character in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. However, Batman vs. Superman once again resists the pull of that nostalgia and tweaks Luthor for the modern era, turning the character into a CEO quite overtly modeled on Mark Zuckerberg, right down to the casting of Jesse Eisenberg in the role.

This version of Luthor is invented from the ground up as an awkward passive-aggressive tech billionaire, one who asserts his intelligence by rambling stream of consciousness references to Lolita and A Streetcar Named Desire. He is skewering a specific (and modern) form of masculine entitlement, the culture of bullied nerds who have inherited the world and treat those around them with contempt and barely concealed rage. Indeed, it’s telling how much of Luthor’s aggression is directed at female characters like Senator Finch and Lois Lane, and how his engagement with male characters is coded in sexual submission.

These changes are not merely superficial. In Batman vs. Superman, Luthor’s power does not seem to be rooted in money or science, like previous iterations of the character. Instead, this version of Luthor deals in information. He manipulates the flow of information and disrupts lines of communication in order to cause mayhem. He prevents Bruce Wayne’s compensation cheques from reaching Wallace Keefe, manipulates a senate hearing, repeatedly frames Superman. Luthor never engages the characters directly, instead exploiting their perspectives and their access to information for his own benefit.

Again, there is a sense that Batman vs. Superman is updating the fundamental concept of Luthor for the modern era rather than harking back to earlier interpretations. This is an era in which individuals live within social media bubbles, when it is impossible to ascertain the truth about anything. Subjective experience is preferenced over objective reality. Luthor exploits this modern fragmented reality, manipulating Bruce Wayne’s perception of events and his own cognitive biases to achieve his desired outcome. He hides a bomb from Superman. In an era where social media decides elections, this is very timely.

These are all ideas that are not necessarily rooted in the public memory of these characters, in the interpretations preferred by fans. Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman are not nostalgic celebrations of these characters, but instead attempts to explore these archetypes and ideas by updating the concepts for the twenty-first century. The results are jarring and disorienting, with a minimal amount of fan service and winking. Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman exist very much as a rejection of a culture of nostalgic indulgence.

It is interesting to wonder if this aggressive rejection of nostalgia, if a stubborn refusal to pander to fan expectations, in some way contributed to the exaggerated response to these films online. After all, as deeply flawed as these films might be, it seems ridiculous to insist that they are worse than other nostalgic treats like CHiPs or Baywatch or Independence Day: Resurgence. However, these films are quickly forgotten and brushed aside. They are not relegislated over half a decade, as if the wounds are still fresh.

In contrast, the mere mention of Man of Steel or Batman vs. Superman is enough to turn any conversation vicious. These films are not disliked by the internet, they are hated. It might be because these films are still an on-going concern, the cornerstone of a share universe that is still unfolding. However, there is no similar outrage over other perceived comic book flops like X-Men: Origins – Wolverine or Iron Man II. It is a unique situation, to the point that it can often seem like Man of Steel ran over the internet’s dog and then Batman vs. Superman reversed over it.

It is interesting to wonder if this anger is rooted in the fact that both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were designed to make fans uncomfortable, because they made a conscious decision to avoid pandering to fandom’s idealised and nostalgic visions of these characters. There is a sense that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman betrayed audience trust, perhaps by seeming to offer the audience something that they wanted and then subverting that by playing those ideas out to horrific and unsettling ends.

As flawed as they might be, and they are deeply flawed, Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman remain two of the most interesting and ambitious blockbusters of the twenty-first century, provocative and challenging in a way that seems to have gotten under the audience’s skin.

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4 Responses

  1. “…that was intended as a soft reboot oft eh franchise…”

  2. Great article. Brilliant read. Would be interesting to see how JL continues this exploration or if it doesnt, and your thoughts on it.

  3. You raise some interesting points, but what I didn’t notice you dealing with (admittedly I didn’t read it all, it’s quite a bit) is not only if anyone asked for the way Snyder and company treated Batman and Superman, but if such treatment was at all warranted.

    Nostalgia is only a starting point, it’s not enough to sustain a movie though it is an acknowledgment of what has came before, and is important.

    Warner Bros–for reasons literally beyond my comprehension–ignored this, and paid for it (all of their movies–with the exception of Wonder Woman, which hewed to a more logical and traditional approach–underwhelmed financially and tanked critically).

  4. Fascinating analysis. As always, you bring a unique perspective to the pop culture debate.

    That said, I do wonder if these films were the right place for a deconstruction of the superhero genre. After all, you can’t blame people for going into a Batman or Superman film and expecting to see the Batman/Superman characters they know and love. A franchise is supposed to feel familiar, at least to some extent. The point of a franchise is to give audiences some expectation of what’s going to be in the film so they know if it’s worth their time. People like Star Trek because it has a certain set of ideas and storytelling patterns. If a writer/director wants to deviate too much from the franchise model, then it might make more sense to just set the story in a different franchise, or even an original intellectual property.

    For me, Watchmen is the ideal form of franchise deconstruction. It’s clearly addressing problems with franchises like Marvel and Superman, but it also tells its own story. It leaves the existing franchises to do their own thing for fans who enjoy those stories, but also raises those issues for viewers who want something more challenging. To put it another way, I love Star Wars and I think Spaceballs is hilarious, but I wouldn’t want Episode IX to be anything like Spaceballs.

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