The earliest I’ve known of superheroes in fiction was through two TV shows that couldn’t be more different from each other if they tried. The afternoons I’d spend on most days would be divided between “Superman: The Animated Series,” created by Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm, and—of all things—”Shaktimaan” (Eng.: “Powerful Entity”), an Indian live-action series that may as well have been any Indian millennial kid’s absolute favorite. While I never actively despised either, my relationship with the very concept of superbeings was complicated enough never entirely to buy into the hype.
The feelings don’t come from a place of flippant pooh-poohing, of course. Having lived under the shadow of my birth-giver for two decades — during which I’d be abused and, along with my father, gaslit—my relationship with positions of power has always been complicated at best and a disaster at worst. If you’re a parent, you have some influence over your kids, and if you aren’t — as Uncle Ben in Spider-Man would say — responsible with that power, you’re abusing it. I’d never have been able to put two and two together for almost my entire life, until the moment I watched director Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” for the third time in 2017.
Released a year prior to a deluge of brutal critical reception, Snyder’s sequel to “Man of Steel” may have been a disappointing payoff to the Fight Night everybody and their dog was anticipating. If you look closer and read between the lines, however, the face-off between the Son of Krypton and the Bat of Gotham was nothing more than a red herring. Of the many, many things the narrative explored, “Batman v Superman” stuck its guns to two sharply subversive talking points, one of which, as writer Kaleem Aftab rightly noted in his review for VICE, was “[the state of] America amid bitter infighting and divisions.”
The part of the film that called out to me, however, didn’t involve either protagonist. It was Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor—the billionaire self-centered MuskErberg type whose hunger for power came from an inherently vulnerable place. In a pivotal scene, when all bets are off, Luthor bitterly tells Superman, “No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy’s fist and abominations!” Earlier in the film, as we’re still exploring his motive, he’s asked to address the audience at a charity gala, where cracks appear on his mask of extroversion. At the risk of betraying himself, he claims, “The bittersweet pain among men is having knowledge with no power because that is paradoxical.”
Luthor’s distrust for superheroes didn’t just make me realize why I’ve always been highly stressed out by superhero fiction. It also brought me to a place where I knew why I connected to every single chapter of what’s lovingly now been dubbed the SnyderVerse. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League“—a four-hour superhero epic that’s only been out a week now — is no different. Superpowers that come from tragedy or being a fish-outta-water (pun unintended) are rarely explored through the lens of how it affects the people who possess them on a purely psychological level. Sure, they’re strong, but if their upbringing has been human despite the unusual circumstances they’ve found themselves in, they’re not going to end up walking into the fortress of solitude and zoom out a changed man.
Snyder and his co-writer make an earnest attempt to explore that journey they make in between and the things they’ve learned along the way. Flash is coded as socially anxious, Aquaman a frustrated third-culture guy, and Cyborg’s an unsubtle depiction of physical determination and mental illness. The Bruce Wayne viewers see in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has stepped away from the bitter reactionary he used to be and makes active attempts to undo the harm he caused in the previous film. Diana, whose relationship with “the Land of Men” has been very complicated, is coming to terms with the good she can do with her strength and knowledge.
And then there’s Superman, the controversial pop-culture icon who’s been on the wildest side of gatekeeping by fans of the many comic book and film adaptations of Siegel and Schuster’s creation. Clark Kent is coded immigrant right from the beginning of his post-2010s cinematic journey. He has always had to make the hard choice between saving lives and keeping his head down (at the possible cost of significant harm to others) to not attract attention. His—and by proxy, Pa Kent’s—fears are proven correct when an act of virtue creates a domino effect, lives are lost, and he’s treated with distrust by a world that’s only processing the implications of his existence.
It takes two movies, death and resurrection, for Clark to be at peace with the fact that he can be both. His arrival in Snyder’s latest is shot and colored in lavish, warm yellows and greens. Bathed in the warm glow of the sun behind him, Superman has wholly accepted the person he grew up to be and the person he identifies as culturally. What we see of him in the final battle isn’t someone who’s going through something—on the contrary, he swoops in, cracks a goofy one-liner or two, and engages in the kind of teamwork the movie was already building toward.
There has been—and will be—a lot of chatter on how the film is surprisingly a lot more uplifting than the preceding two installments. But if you look at the trajectory, the emotional impact of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” isn’t created in a vacuum; the gravitas and existential dread explored in “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” were vital to how satisfying the film feels through and through. The superbeings here always look out for each other, and their strength comes from their acceptance of vulnerability and the empathy they exhibit. Snyder’s stylistic choice has always fallen on the side of magical realism, with both the magic and realism dialed up to eleven, complementing each other to form a message that in a world of darkness, there will always be hope and goodness to find if you look hard enough.
It’s been the running theme in most of his movies and all of his DCEU-centric work. And it’s quite a beautiful thing to take away from a movie that may as well have been—and already was, four years ago—about beings with powers slicing and dicing the bad guys and doing the hahas.