The real-world battles that have constantly surrounded Zack Snyder's DC films are almost as dramatic as a movie script. Which makes it fitting that the real-world controversies were actually all presaged and built in to the movies themselves, and in each case Snyder's haters and critics have unwittingly sided with the movie's villains.1
MAN OF STEEL: Opposing the Freedom of Choice
The FilmKrypton is a doomed planet due to the unsustainable harvesting of non-renewable energy. But Kryptonians are also presented as a doomed culture because of their artificial breeding program and, most importantly, their overly-prescriptive roles for citizens. On Krypton, people are made based on a plan and a pre-defined destiny for each individual.
The film, through the characters of Zod and Jor-El, sets up that thematic dilemma between predetermination and choice. Kal-El / Superman then becomes the character who has to navigate the dilemma. He has to face several difficult choices throughout Man of Steel, such as when to reveal himself, whether to save his human father or trust in his judgment, whether to surrender himself to humanity, whether to save his birth planet or his adopted one, and whether to kill General Zod or run the risk of him destroying the entire planet.
These are all tough choices, with no clear answers, and we see through Clark Kent that part of the burden of having a free will is that you can second-guess yourself and have to live with guilt because you aren't sure that you made the right choice. We also see how important it is to seek counsel, as Clark does from Martha Kent, Lois Lane, and Father Leone.
Man of Steel is an origin film about the importance of choice, and for a superhero like Superman, just as for all of us, we become who we are by navigating those choices and learning to live with the consequences, which can include the fallout of others disagreeing with our decisions.
The Real-WorldThe loudest and most sustainable criticism of Man of Steel has been that it's "not my Superman." Many people rejected the serious tone that departed from the playful banter and gags from the Donner/Reeve Superman films of the 1970s and 1980s. Man of Steel was also a departure from the Reeves television show and the silver age of the comic books when a large part of the adventures was Superman's predilection for preserving his secret identity. In Man of Steel, Lois Lane uses her investigative skills to fairly quickly determine who Clark was, and then Clark was presented with the choice of whether to trust her or not. Other fans leveled more specific complaints about Man of Steel based on versions of the character in animation or other eras of the comic books (his specific power sets, his suit, the Kryptonian history, the reinterpretation of the Fortress of Solitude, etc.).
Many people also criticized specific choices that Superman made in Man of Steel. They said that he would never have let Jonathan Kent die in the tornado, or he would not have conducted the Metropolis fight in the way that he did, or he never would've killed General Zod at the end. They are missing the point that difficult choices, by definition, are going to lead to people disagreeing about what the correct course of action should have been.
What all of these criticisms have in common is that they are based in the idea that Superman should be a certain way. He should look a certain way and he should definitely behave a certain way.2 Thus, these critics and haters of Man of Steel are attempting to prescribe a certain existence for the character, and because this is what they think "my Superman" should be, they reject any changes and they think that any future iterations or different interpretations of the character are illegitimate. By wanting to pre-define Superman as either the Christopher Reeve version or the Animated Series version or whichever it may be, these Man of Steel haters are essentially taking General Zod's side by removing the freedom of choice from Kal-El, or from the film's creators as it were.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: Joining a Prejudiced Public Narrative
The FilmA contemporary version of Lex Luthor is the villain of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and rather than having henchmen hired to do his bidding or a nefarious business deal going on in the background, a large part of his plot in the film involves manipulation. He manipulates the information that is provided to Clark Kent, he manipulates Bruce Wayne's emotions, and he orchestrates multiple large-scale manipulations of the public narrative around Superman in particular and meta-humans in general. Lex understands that once a crack forms in a popular persona, or a conspiracy theory starts to take hold, media and person-to-person sharing can take over and gain unstoppable momentum. And negative stories, such as an out-of-line former darling like Superman, are especially potent among the masses.
A strong theme of the film is that it is dangerous to pre-judge others without all of the information, and especially if one has never considered the other's point of view. Yet, it is a part of human nature to rush to judgment and to fail to consider multiple perspectives. It takes real effort to fight against those fear-based, prejudicial urges. But we must do so. As Senator Finch says in the film, "How do we determine what's good? In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision."
Throughout the film, key characters illustrate this theme. Superman and Batman, for much of the film victims of tunnel-vision, eventually come to recognize the humanity and motivations of the other. Lois Lane sets an example for what it means to seek out complete information rather than rushing to judgment. Villains, on the other hand, do not learn these lessons. Lex Luthor stays stubbornly stuck in his ways, literally refusing to see things any other way but his own, pre-judged, misotheistic perspective. Wallace Keefe is a more tragic character but is also one who gets swallowed up in his negative perspective on Superman. Even Batman teeters on the edge of becoming a villain himself, precisely because he has pre-judged Superman, and is redeemed when he has his moment of realization that Superman has a humanity just like his own.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice makes the larger point that you can not only save yourself and improve your own experiences by considering others' perspectives, but by doing so you can also be part of efforts to save the world.
The Real-WorldSeveral levels of pre-judgment occurred around the release of BvS. One segment of the population had already formed opinions about Zack Snyder's work based on prior films or a general reputation. People assumed BvS would be exclusively visual, overblown with action, and reeking of toxic masculinity. Nevermind that it was penned by a master of literature and an Oscar winner, with deep themes and connections to Snyder's knowledge of art history, and includes a commentary on the dangers of misguided masculinity.
Others quickly based their judgment of the film on "critical consensus." Many critics were stuck in the perspective of superhero films having a certain tone and formula, and they marked down BvS for its serious subject matter and for it's deviation from the three-act structure. People also couldn't help but compare it to other cinematic universes and they judged it to be too soon for a team up, regardless of the facts about the DC universe's development and goals.
There also was a certain amount of cultural judgment that was taken-as-shared. In 2016 and 2017, BvS became the butt of jokes such as the "Martha moment" (based on a surface-level reading of a multi-layered scene) or the idea that Batman and Superman were fighting for no reason (even though there were practical and thematic reasons). One of the most frustrating things that I experienced was multiple people in person and online who poked fun at the movie, but when I said that I actually really liked BvS, they admitted that they actually hadn't seen it but just had heard that it wasn't good.
In these various ways, people pre-judged Batman v Superman or were unwilling to try to adopt a different perspective than they started with, failing to view the movie with the goal of receiving what the creators were putting forward. They also fell victim to a negative narrative that, once it took off, gained momentum through entertainment media, social media, and personal interactions. It's not that everyone, if they gave the film a chance, would necessarily love it. But if the don't give it a chance at all, then they're definitely not going to appreciate it. And for some of them, if they were willing to open themselves up to what the creators were trying to communicate, they may have found meaning and reward in the conversations that can follow.3
JUSTICE LEAGUE: Exploiting a Tragedy to Tear Down What's Built
The FilmIn Justice League, the iconic hero, Superman, has fallen in tragedy and the world is in a dark place. A vast array of ills has plagued the globe; turmoil abounds and optimism wanes. The fear mongering and violence that accompanies this downward turn has led to a great deal of disunity amongst humanity.
Recognizing the disunity as an opportunity, the invader, Steppenwolf of Apokolips, returns to Earth to try yet again to conquer it. He wishes to lay waste to everything that has been built on Earth and turn the planet into a hellscape like Apokolips, readying the terrain for his overlord, Darkseid.
The film explores the theme of disunity and fear leading to death and destruction, whereas collaboration and friendship can be a way to push forward and find rebirth even from a low point.
The Real-WorldThankfully there is a happy ending to this real-world story, but in the case of Justice League, the enemies of the Snyder's film were various executives at Warner Brothers. They saw a personal tragedy in the Snyder family as an opportunity to push for changes in the movie. In response to the negative narratives discussed above and guided in part by fear of what was to come with a buy-out from AT&T, they initiated a substantial change in the film, changing it from what the original creative team intended to something that was more light-hearted, more formulaic, and fitting within a tight time constraint.
Theses decisions to try to remake the film into something else entirely led to substantial disunity among the cast and crew, as well as disunity and despair among various fans. Even though the executives thought they were changing things for a more mass appeal, the loss of enthusiasm and the mixed visual results led to a disappointing box office performance.
However, the happy ending did come about, and it came from dedicated collaboration and positive efforts such as calls for creative integrity and support of worthy causes. In 2021, on HBO Max, there will be a rebirth, even from tragedy. As in the film, unity can defeat the villain.
Sam Otten is the host of the Justice League Universe Podcast, analyzing the DCEU films scene-by-scene. He previously spoke about the real-world connection to Man of Steel when he was a guest on the DC Cinematic Minute podcast.
1 This phenomenon also applies to Snyder's film Sucker Punch (2011) as many detractors of the film failed to realize that they were presuming an objectification of women that was precisely what the film was critiquing. See, for example, the Bottom Line article.
2 It wasn't just Superman. Critics of MoS also had things to say about the look and behavior of Lois Lane, the race of Perry White, and the behavior of Jonathan Kent.
3 Indeed, several people did find redemption, so to speak, by giving the film a second chance with the Ultimate Edition. And I am proud to say that more than a few also found new appreciation for the film by taking a new perspective via our analysis on the JLU podcast.