Since, even before, the official trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted to us in April of this year, fans and critics have been studying the kind of Superman Zack Snyder is going to represent in his Man of Steel sequel. This dispute originates from Snyder’s decision to cast Superman as a sulk, Dark Knight-like character, who cares more about beating up bad guys than saving people. The casting split has proved schismatic among Superman fans. Some tend to love the new incarnation, praising him as becoming edgier, realistic and a more hot-blooded character.
But Snyder’s is a fresh Superman than the one fans grew up with, and many have no problem expressing their resentment over it. Even Mark Waid, the author of Superman: Birthright (one of the comics the original film is based on), voiced his concern about Man of Steel’s turn toward bleakness when it came out in 2013:
With the exception of the first-flight beat—the smile Superman gets when he first takes to the air—it’s utterly joyless. From start to finish. Utterly. Joyless. And I just have no interest in relentless joyless from a guy who can fly.
But what many fans don’t realize is that Superman hasn’t always been the Big, Blue Boy Scout they’ve come to know and love. In fact, in the very early stages of the character’s development, he wasn’t a hero at all, but a villain. And even after Superman became an enforcer of good in his earlier years, his brand of justice was as gray, morally speaking, as the color palette Snyder’s films embrace. In other words, the newest incarnation of Superman isn’t so much a betrayal of the character’s origins as it is a perhaps unwitting return to them.
When the comic book was still an emergent medium in the late 1930s and early 40s, Superman was more of an soldier of peace on behalf of the poor and defenseless. He rallied against the social injustices created by the corporate and political gluttony that led to the Great Depression. In the beginning, Shuster and Siegel’s Superman was very much presented in real-world problems facing many Americans: debt, inadequate housing circumstances, gangster violence, and corporate and political exploitation. In his book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Mobsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, Gerard Jones describes the early Superman in this way, “This was a grim, almost cruel Superman. His feats had no flamboyance ... The whole strip had the metallic odor of the early Depression.”
Judging from the trailer for Batman v Superman, it looks as if Snyder is playing off the dissension the first film has caused: Superman’s forever-long fight with Zod and his vicious death at the hands of the Man of Steel, along with the obliteration of Metropolis, and Superman’s utter lack of endeavor to try to save everyone. Even the first line of narration addresses it directly: Is it really surprising that the most powerful man in the world is a figure of controversy?
For decades, Superman has been a much-needed source of hope and inspiration. From the John Williams score to the character’s trademark “S” to the bright red, blue, and yellow of his costume, Superman has become the symbol of our better selves. As for the hero Snyder will be delivering in the 2016 Man of Steel sequel, the question arises: What kind of Superman will we be seeing? The Batman v Superman trailer shows a much more skeptical world than the Donner films. The people of Metropolis don’t seem to be as trusting of a powerful stranger from another planet. If Snyder is mirroring contemporary society in the Man of Steel sequel, then let’s hope the dark days of Superman are only temporary.