With the cinematic reboot of the DC Universe, with “Man of Steel” in 2013, and “Dawn of Justice” in 2016, many fans have had a hard time with the vision and direction Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer have taken with these characters and storylines.
As a fan of these characters myself, I walked into the theater to watch “Man of Steel” with excitement, but, like many others, walked out of the theater disappointed.
As you can see on the credits of any film, hundreds of individuals spend their time and effort to create the final product that we watch in our homes or in a theater; and while critiques can and have been made on everything from casting to color saturation, I’d like to consider one of the underlying questions that informs a large part of how this story plays out, and in turn, directs the course of the film as a whole and how it is made.
That question is, “Are Superman and Batman good?”
If they are, the story will inevitably move one way, and if they are not, naturally, the story will move in a significantly different direction.
If Batman and Superman’s nature and character are not grounded in goodness, truth, and justice, then it is easily plausible, and even probable, that these two figures would engage in an uninformed, fear driven, and emotionally manipulated fight. If they are not good, it makes sense that Batman would brand criminals, or anybody else, and that Superman would kill. If Batman and Superman are not guided and driven by goodness, it makes sense that their actions would be guided and driven by fear and manipulation, whether that be by Zod, Lex, or anyone else with the right tools of persuasion.
And it seems to me, that these are exactly the characters we see in “Man of Steel” and “Dawn of Justice.” At best they are morally confused, and at worst, are simply not good. In either case, they have no transcendent moral anchor to ground or guide them, and are easily swayed by the forces at work around them.
If, then, this is what characterizes Snyder and Goyer’s version of these superheroes, they aren’t really superheroes at all and do not deserve praise or admiration. There’s nothing significant about these two characters combatting each other because there is nothing in their nature that says they shouldn’t. So the city is left at the mercy of a confused and desperate Kryptonian, a vehement and troubled vigilante, and an emotionally and psychologically abused billionaire. And if these characters are the best this world has to offer, Lex is right: Power is not innocent, and God is not good. And the citizens of Gotham and Metropolis are lost without hope.
However, if these characters are good, and are motivated by goodness, truth, and justice rather than fear and manipulation, the characters, and in turn, the story, will be altogether different.
If they are grounded in goodness, Superman will not kneel before Zod or Lex, or any agent of evil in a moment of temptation because this goes against the nature of his character. Superman will not kill Zod because this is not what Goodness does; even the villains know that. Even when Snyder and Goyer’s version of Superman kills Zod, it is Zod who wins, because he has proven Superman to be lacking, and to be no greater than what he is fighting against. If they are good, Batman will not act with cathartic brutality, or seek to destroy Superman out of fear and lack of understanding, but will act with careful composure and investigation, rightfully donning the title, “World’s Greatest Detective.”
This isn’t to say those who are grounded and guided by Goodness do not struggle to do what is right. On the contrary, it is these characters who struggle the most. After all, the struggle to overcome temptation is instantly alleviated when the temptation is given in to. It is those who resist and refuse to give in until the temptation has passed that bear the full weight of it. Goodness does not allow for lack of imagination, giving in when the first, fifth, or fiftieth tactic has failed. Instead, Goodness demands the imagination to accomplish what is just while upholding what is good.
Defining a Hero
And this is what makes Superman and Batman superheroes. Their heroic quality isn’t their arsenal of resources and abilities; after all Lex and Zod share many of these resources and qualities as well. Rather, their heroic quality is that the nature of their character is founded in Goodness, and this informs how they use the resources and abilities they have.
It is their goodness that separates them from the Lexs and Zods of the world, preventing them from giving in to their enemies’ enticements to kill, steal, and destroy, and instead act to bring life and restoration.
If Superman and Batman are good, the question of who is physically stronger becomes far less relevant, and the event of a squabble between brutes can be replaced with a story of the testing and trying of the goodness of heroes in the midst of opposition and complex situations. Then the question of the story is no longer, “How strong are you?”, but becomes “How will you use your strength?” The story no longer asks, “How strong are your powers?”, but “How strong is your character?”
Watching Heroes Fall
Some may argue that incorruptible characters are unrelatable, and find satisfaction in watching heroes fall. But there is nothing inspiring or awesome in the corruption and failure of superheroes. Failing is easy. And if the greatest among us cannot succeed, what hope do we have?
The world does not need a hero who can relate with its corruption, it needs a hero who can save it from being corrupt.
Corruption may provide a common ground on which to relate, but does not have the greatness to encourage or inspire others, showing a way out of corruption.
Rather, it is when we see these heroes, the greatest among us, struggle just like we do, and overcome their struggles, then we have camaraderie in their struggle, but also have joy, inspiration, encouragement, and hope in their triumph over it.
Conclusion: A Reason for Hope
If Lex is right, and being all-good and all-powerful cannot be joined together in one person, Gotham and Metropolis have much to fear.
And so do we.
The world is corrupt. I need no reminder of that. The interactions I have with others and even myself as I attempt to navigate the complex route of relationships reminds me of this everyday.
And while a good story must be truthful in its telling of the reality of darkness, it is fractured and incomplete if it does not also tell us of the Light.
Darkness is easy to see. Light is difficult to look at.
If the stories we regularly consume only offer a regurgitated version of the brokenness we see and experience in our lives everyday, we will be all the worse for it. Broken people living in a broken world being told that everything is broken will not be made whole.
What I do need is to be reminded of the greatness of Goodness, and its enduring presence in the midst of a broken world.
And that’s why superheroes are so important. They provide a way for us to see the light so that our eyes can look upon it.
Lex is wrong. Superman shows and reminds us that being all-powerful and all-good can go together, that power is innocent, though people are not, and that God is still good.
Superheroes remind us that there is still good in a corrupt world, and that good still does overcome evil. When we see no way out, they possess the imagination to find or make a way and lead us through it. When our temptations and struggles overtake us, they remind us that we have camaraderie in the struggle as well as hope in their triumph. When everything around us appears bleak, they remain bright and show us the Way.
Regrettably, Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s version of Superman and Batman cannot do this, because with no moral anchor to guide the characters, they are also lost.
If the greatest among us, even in the stories we tell, are not grounded in Goodness, we are without hope. If, however, Batman and Superman are incorruptible, and are grounded in Goodness, Truth, and Justice, as over 75 years of tradition and legend tell us they are…
Then we have reason for joy.
Then we have reason for hope.
Then, Superman’s symbol means something.
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