While watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, there was a moment that I found more disturbing than anything else in the two-plus hour runtime—it was the moment when Superman fully appears onscreen.
This moment occurred when Lois Lane was being held at gunpoint by General Amajagh, an African terrorist. There is a rumble and Superman crashes through the roof of Amajagh's hideout. He enters the movie like a wrecking ball, an unstoppable force of nature. Then, he slams Amajagh through the wall in order to save Lois' life.
What was most disturbing about this scene wasn't Superman's casual use of excessive violence (whatever happened to the Superman who would use his heat vision to disarm a gunman?). It was the impact of Superman's arrival.
As a comparison, look at the arrival of Superman in Richard Donner's seminal Superman: The Movie. Lois Lane is trying to take a helicopter to cover the President's arrival and it all goes wrong. The helicopter is teetering on the edge of the Daily Planet's roof, about to fall off. The door falls open and Lois slips out. She grabs hold of a seatbelt, but she loses her grip and falls.
Then Superman swoops in, catches her in his arms, and gives her a friendly smile and a comforting word: "Easy, Miss. I've got you." The helicopter falls next and Superman, with Lois held in one arm, catches it with his free hand. The John Williams' theme rises up and the crowd of bystanders below cheers.
It's an inspirational scene and in that moment, Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve told us everything we needed to know about Superman—he's extremely powerful, but his power is grounded in altruism and he's here to help us, to catch us when we fall.
The message Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill sends us in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman is almost entirely the opposite: the Superman is a godlike being, and heaven help any who incur his wrath.
Reeve's Superman is here to help, Cavill's Superman is here to punish.
Batman v Superman has reignited a debate that first began raging back in 2013 when Man of Steel was released. Proponents of Snyder's take on Superman make the claim that this is a Superman for the modern world, that as a society, we've become too cynical to believe in a man as optimistic and hopeful as Superman. That the very idea of this character is naïve.
To this, I respond: think of Superman's origins. And by his origins, I'm not referring to the destruction of Krypton or growing up in Smallville. I mean the origin of his creation.
Superman was created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but it wasn't until 1938 that the character first saw publication. During the height of the Great Depression when fascism was rising in Europe, two young Jewish creators gave birth to Superman. Their shared background as children of immigrants influenced their creation, a character who is the ultimate immigrant.
Now look at the world of today. We live in dark times of economic uncertainty. We have the dark specter of fascism not only in Europe but also in America as well. The climate of today is arguably just as dark as the climate in which Siegel and Shuster created.
Grant Morrison, who wrote All-Star Superman (one of the greatest Superman stories ever told), once said the following: "Somewhere, in our darkest night, we made up the story of a man who will never let us down."
This is the heart of what Superman should be. And it's more crucial now than ever before. A loudmouthed demagogue incites violence and stokes hatred. The richest 1% own half the world's wealth. People are working harder, longer hours for lower pay. We have lost faith in our politicians and our priests. If ever there was a time that we needed a hero who shows us to rise above, it's now.
But in our cynicism, we've cast Superman aside. We as a culture have sent a message to Warner Brothers that what we want is not a Superman who shines like a beacon in the darkness to guide our path, but we instead want a Superman who dives into the mud and tosses his principles out the window whenever they prove inconvenient.
In Man of Steel, Clark tells Lois that the symbol on his chest isn't an S but that on his world, it stands for hope. Unfortunately, both Superman and society have forgotten what hope looks like. And that is profoundly disturbing.