With the recent announcement that Zach Snyder will return to finish his version of Justice League and Deadline’s report that Henry Cavill will once again don the red cape–albeit not in a full Man of Steel sequel–I thought it would be a good time to share my brief thoughts on Zach Snyder’s Superman and the so-called DC Extended Universe movies. Not a full review of the movies, more of an op-ed.
In 2006 Superman Returns failed to get the support at Warner Brothers it needed for a sequel. It felt like it took my entire life to get Superman Returns (I was born in 1983 same year as Superman III making Superman IV the first Superman movie I remembering being new). I was not confident in seeing Superman on the big screen for a long time.
When Man of Steel was announced I had seen two Zach Snyder films. The Dawn of the Dead remake, which I thought was a fun fast zombie movie, and Watchmen. Watchmen of course divided fans and I won’t go heavy into that. But I will say: the change to the ending said to me Snyder only understood the superficial aspects of Watchmen. It did not show an understanding of what Alan Moore was actually saying in the book. This didn’t fill me with a ton of confidence, but a new Superman movie was still exciting. I especially loved Man of Steel as a title. First Superman Returns echoing the title Batman Returns then Man of Steel with The Dark Knight.
The first image of Superman released was of him standing in front of a bank vault taken from the Smallville fight scene. There was no doubt Cavill looked fantastic in the role, but I was immediately filled with concern. Would he have a New 52 style suit? The trunks area was covered in shadow, likely purposefully. It looked like they took the Superman Returns costume to the next level with the muted colors and textured suit.
The first teaser trailer piqued my curiosity. I assumed the kid with the cape wasn’t going to be part of the movie. Just part of the teaser. To show us the feel of the thing. Besides, who would he be imitating if there wasn’t a Superman yet? This should have been my first indication that not all was right. The brief glimpse of flight at the end was exciting. I enjoyed the further trailers as well. I thought Martha and Jonathan Kent were really well cast and lines in the trailers really tugged at the heartstrings. Living with Smallville for the previous ten years really built out the Ma and Pa Kent relationships and it seemed like Snyder got it. “You are my son” is still a standout line.
Man of Steel was released into US theaters June 2013. For live-action superhero context Smallville had ended in the summer of 2011–right around the release of the first image. Arrow had just wrapped up it’s first season. Iron Man 3 was released the month before as the first post Avengers Marvel movie. The Dark Knight Rises ending Nolan’s trilogy was the year before and there was sentiment that the Nolan team could do no wrong. Putting Goyer and Nolan on Superman was pretty logical for Warner Brothers. Definitely a feeling that DC was way behind in getting a cinematic universe together despite the aforementioned success of the Batman films.
My first viewing of the movie I was stunned. The dreary tone never lifted from this film. It seemed like Warners saw The Dark Knight trilogy and though the “realistic” grim tone was what set their movies apart from the Marvel films. Though that was a little strange as it seems like the opposite of how people always described the differences between Marvel and DC comics. My biggest problem was the choices the characters made throughout the film. Some of them were baffling to me. They wrote these characters into these corners and had them get out of the corner with a decision made to do nothing but shock us. I recognize there is debate on Superman killing. This isn’t about the specific act. It’s about what got him there in the first place. It’s about Pa Kent’s decision to die for nothing. This wasn’t good film making. This wasn’t the Superman movie that I wanted.
Batman v. Superman was announced with some quotes from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns at Comic-Con in 2013 soon after Man of Steel debuted. This was an initial sign of concern. While Dark Knight Returns is a well regarded, and frankly legendary, Batman story, I don’t like it’s depiction of Superman. Frank Miller and Superman aren’t two names that have ever sit well together for me besides his covers for Superman The Secret Years. When the full title was revealed to be Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice it was clear we were getting the backdoor pilot to a Justice League movie rather than a Man of Steel sequel. The movie depicting Bruce Wayne watching YouTube videos of the other Justice League members is a low point in this series. Plus the “knightmare” dream within a dream featuring the murderous dictator Superman. Imagine thinking that smashing Dark Knight Returns and Death of Superman into one movie while also introducing Wonder Woman was a cohesive idea.
Bringing us to Justice League. At this point I knew that I wasn’t going to love any further installments in this cinematic universe. They weren’t making these movies for me, but I’ve got 80 years of Superman to make me happy. Joss Whedon took over the movie late in production after the tragic death of Snyder’s daughter. I don’t personally love Whedon, but if one of things I disliked most about the movies so far was the tone, bringing in the director of Avengers seemed like a good choice. At this point we all know the film we got. Being brought in so late in the production, it’s clear Whedon didn’t have a vision for what the Justice League should be. He chopped up Snyder’s movie with some moustache reshoots and made a movie that is largely forgettable. I left the theater thinking Whedon made an attempt to get Superman right, but there was nothing about the movie that was exciting or redeeming. I think he made the best movie he could from what he was given, but for the first cinematic pairing of some of the most iconic characters in American literature it’s a disappointment.
Snyder, for all his faults, did have an overall vision for the arc of these films. Allowing him to finish this movie will help him complete that arc and vision. He’ll at least be able to pay off the “knightmare”. I just don’t care for his vision. I’m not interested in seeing Superman in the black suit. I’m not invested and don’t care about the world he has built and am not chomping at the bit for more.
The toxic fandom that supported the release of this version cannot be ignored. I think storyboard artist for the DC CW Arrowverse shows put it really well in a recent tweet: “The Snyder Cult once threatened me with physical violence and doxxing and they threatened to ‘get me fired’ from my work on the CW shows.” I hate they are being rewarded, but I can’t fault Snyder for wanting to finish a film he obviously cares about.
I’ll try to have Henry Cavill’s outlook on this: “we all get to have more Justice League now, it’s a win win.” Henry continues to be by far the best part of all of this and a complete class act. It seems like he cares more about this character than all of Warner Brothers corporate. I look forward to seeing him on screen again.