For years comic book heroes have been portrayed as perfect individuals, possessing all the ideal virtues of bravery, valor, kindness, wisdom, and selflessness. These larger-than-life characters are incorruptible and serve justice to all people from all walks of life. For generations, fans have always loved to see these heroes because they show us the best of humanity and provide a euphoric sense of escapism.
In the late 80’s and 90’s a new movement for comic books emerged which sought to reimagine the idea of superheroes. These books actually humanized them and placed them in a real-world setting and were a departure from the comics seen in the decade prior. Some of the iconic comics from this era include Watchmen, The Death of Superman, The Dark Knight Returns and Kingdom Come. In today’s world of comic book films being released in mass, only a few films took inspiration from these two decades of comics. One of which was Zack Snyder.
In the majority of superhero films today, we see heroes in their most basic state of being. They are portrayed as individuals who have been gifted with extraordinary abilities and then use their abilities to protect the innocent from harm. This method of storytelling is special and many great films have come from it. Departing from this though, Snyder sought to portray heroes in a more mature and darker light. He began by directing the live-action adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, which focused on deconstructing the concept of the superhero. The graphic novel and the film essentially put superheroes in a real world context.
Watchmen is a perfect example of how Snyder showcases the idea of the hero’s burden. By showing how being superhero is not nearly as easy as people imagine it, it grounds them to an area where many don’t always feel comfortable to operate in. We don’t often think about the dire psychological effects of being a superhero, and the huge emotional turmoil it would cause an individual struggling to do the right thing in an amoral world. We see this struggle though the inner conflict of Rorschach, who has a cynical view of what he sees as a corrupt world, and Dr Manhattan, whose apathy towards humanity can be interpreted as the direct result of losing faith in society as a whole. Snyder’s cinematic adaptation of Watchmen explores these conundrums in-depth while also challenging society’s long-held preconception of what being a superhero really means. They are portrayed as flawed human beings, in a way that had few precedents in the genre up to this point.
The hero’s burden continues to be a trending theme in his films. Revamping the most iconic character in comic history was a tall task and Snyder embraced the prospect. With Man of Steel, Snyder sought to carry on with the themes of superhero realism first explored in Watchmen by placing the Last Son of Krypton in a world which strongly resembles our own. Here we see a more real and humanized Superman who not only struggles with his identity but with his purpose in a world where his abilities would make him either worshipped or demonized. Upon learning about his Kryptonian heritage fate, Superman must face the last remnants of his race, who seek to re-establish Krypton on Earth through the genocide of humankind. Superman faces the burden of carrying the fate of the entire planet on his shoulders even if it means he has to go against his people.
Zack Snyder succeeds in creating a Superman tale with meaningful emotional weight by showcasing just how far Earth’s greatest champion is willing to go to save the only world he’s ever called home. The hero’s burden arc is established with Superman art the forefront. The greatest demonstration of this is the climactic scene where Kal-El is faced with the cruel choice of killing Genral Zod in order to save innocent civilians – a direct contradiction of the character’s nature. Tragic though it is, it highlights the theme of meaningful sacrifice and real world consequences.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a true sequel to Man of Steel as it retains the distinct tone and themes of Snyder’s comic book realism. Consequence is one of the biggest themes of this film, as we all know that in the real world actions with good intentions can still have a negative impact. Once again, the hero’s burden continues to come into play with Superman but also Batman. At the beginning of the film we see that the battle against the Kryptonians from Man of Steel had a devastating effect on the city of Metropolis. Even though everything Superman did was to save the planet from total destruction, he is still viewed through a lens of fear as a dangerous alien who’s very presence challenges humanity’s existence in the universe. This in turn affects Batman and puts him on his own arc of redemption. One of the most iconic scenes later in the film that perfectly captures Snyder’s take on superheroes is the “Must there be a Superman?” sequence. In a beautiful montage humanity questions what Superman’s existence means and what role he should have in a world lacking mechanisms to deal with a being of such epic, godlike abilities.
Dawn of Justice showcases the darkest aspects of society when it allows fear, especially fear of the unknown, to guide its decisions. Fear becomes a corrupting force which can push even decent people to do horrible things as an act of preservation. In the film, Batman allows thoughts of fear, helplessness, and vengeance to corrupt him and drive him to kill a being that he deems as a danger to society – without realizing that said being is actually a good man who’s intentions are simply misunderstood.
Zack Snyder’s distinct style of superhero realism puts him in a unique place. No other director uses his style or his lens for these characters, thus making his works divisive. Still, he utilizes these iconic characters and explores them in a novel way; showing that being a hero is not simply a lofty ideal, but something that should be looked at in a more meaningful way. His films take the heroes we all grew up with and portray them characters just as realistically flawed and emotionally fragile as we are, challenging the audience to be more introspective about the world we live in.
To conclude, that is exactly why I love Zack Snyder’s films: they give me hope but also keep me in blend of escapism and realism. I am able to see myself in these flawed heroes while striving to also be like them.