Before going into the actual analysis, I want to make an important disclaimer:
- Of most importance to properly digesting this analysis, I want to make sure it is clear as to what I mean when I use the term deconstruction because the term is thrown around a lot and has many iterations and contexts in literature and other mediums. When I say deconstruction, I mean the generally accepted definition that is associated with the term within contemporary pop culture criticism and entertainment. That is, I’m going to use the definition as quoted from a youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBuo4vi_A0s) that I found more than fitting: “Generas are built off of the tropes, archetypes, writing styles, story structures, common themes, etc. shared by a particular group of works- A deconstruction then takes the genera and breaks it down into individual ideas, before applying them with a real world perspective, seeing how these characters and tropes would behave without their fictional backbone to prop them up; it’s about boiling a genera down to its most essential elements and taking them to their most logical conclusions, exposing whether they would work or not and ultimately commenting on the genera itself.”
By bringing superman into our world, Snyder deconstructs the Man of Steel in a way that is much more obvious and direct compared to how Nolan deconstructed some elements of the batman mythology in his Dark Knight trilogy. I believe, whereas Nolan inadvertently deconstructed some of the mythology of the caped crusader just by making the character as realistic as possible, Snyder and Terrio fully and intentionally went with the route of deconstruction for Superman in BvS. When asked about the critical reception of BvS, Deborah Snyder (wife of Zach Snyder and executive producer of BvS) said “The main thing we learned, I think: People don’t like to see their heroes deconstructed.” BvS takes a hard look at what makes the Man of Steel tick and whether those characteristics and tropes hold up under the scrutiny of reality.
Alas, like any other deconstruction, there will be fans of the genre who feel betrayed and ask: what is the point of tearing down the conventions and traditions of a genre if those conventions are well loved? Well, I’ll respond by saying this: through deconstructing the many tropes of a character, one can analyze the tropes themselves and may also find the qualities, traits, and conventions associated with a character or genre that still holds up under heavy scrutiny and analysis. See, it’s easy for a creator to hide behind certain tropes because they’re crowd pleasers and nostalgic- but if you only rely on them you never have a chance to get to other and deeper aspects of the character by digging through the tropes that can become overused to the point of staleness. (alas, what happened to the superman character in the 90’s that led to his death).
I’m fully aware that deconstructions aren’t for everyone and especially traditionalists who hold up the tropes and conventions as the gold metric of a genera but at the same time, the contemporary blooming Comic Book Movie scene has never done a deconstruction to this extent with such a well-known established superhero (so excluding films like Watchmen- where the characters don’t have their own established franchise and also films like Kick Ass with smaller budgets and a relatively unknown IP). When I say “to this extent” I mean that BvS is as extensive as piece of deconstructive work as TDK is a crime drama or Deadpool to be a genera satire- that is to say a relatively basic deconstruction. Just as TDK isn’t the departed or Godfather and Deadpool isn’t Shaun of the dead, BvS can hardly be described as a deep, thorough or profound example of a deconstruction (in fact, fans of deconstruction and connoisseurs of this type of narrative may not consider BvS to be remotely deconstructive in the same vein that fans of the Italian job or ocean’s 11 wouldn’t consider Ant Man or Fast 5 to be a “real” heist movie), but like I said, the fact that it even attempts to go down this lane with such a famous superhero (as a matter of fact the most famous superhero) should be noted, discussed, and even appreciated. Even if it goes against your sensibilities as a fan, it is a unique take that deserves a closer look. More familiar and conventional versions of the character will always exist and no matter how subversive BvS is, it is only a momentary diversion in the grand history of Superman’s nearly century old legacy. So with that out of the way, let’s move on to viewing just exactly how and how well Snyder deconstructed the well-known traditions and aspects of the Superman character.
- Saving the damsel in distress: One of the most used and most iconic tropes in superman history is the Man of Steel coming in at the last second to scoop away Lois Lane from imminent danger. The trope itself is used so much because of just how seemingly benign it is- using a superpower to make sure an innocent or loved one doesn’t die- there’s nothing controversial about that, is there? Also it empowers the most basic superhero fantasy in the reader/viewer- if one did have superpowers- wouldn’t it be amazing to use it to save a person’s life from a viscerally exhilarating scene of danger especially if that person is someone who you are romantically attracted to? Of course Snyder and Terrio proceeds to question this idea if it were to really play out in real life.
- In the first scene of the film, after the opening credits and prologue, superman arrives in a 3rd world country to rescue Lois away from the leader of the local rebel guerrillas as well as a US drone strike. Any sense of romanticism or empowerment is immediately obliterated from this rescue as we see the consequences of such a seemingly innocent act. Superman goes on to explain that he was just there to make sure the “woman who he loves wasn’t blown up or shot”. However the ramifications of this act would lead to consequences that would ripple throughout the rest of the film: the CIA is now antagonized toward our hero as he has just ruined what was potentially months of black ops work to establish American interests in a war torn region, tons of people were slaughtered by the government after superman left, and Lex Luthor now knows he can manipulate the strongest man in the world by threatening a high profile reporter (leading to the helipad scene). Indeed, in this one scene, Snyder goes to great length to show the audience how the most basic of superhero fantasies- saving the damsel in distress- may have damning consequences in a realistic setting.
- If you were a superhero and you did always rush in to prioritize the safety of your crush, spouse, significant other- at what lengths would you go? Because while you’re saving them- there are others in the world who are also in danger. Would you save them and inadvertently let the bad guys escape (KGBeast) so they can go on to hurt other people? Would you save them and let the bad guys know they can manipulate you to do evil through your loved one? Would you save them even if it meant going against the political and rational greater good? Further consider what happens to Lois after the event: in this day and age women are more and more seen as equals to men in certainly every professional field but also on every social level. Would your loved one feel guilty for needing you to be there for them? Would they feel useless or have survivors guilt knowing that if they weren’t favored by you they would’ve likely ended up dead too? Or how about if they felt like they were a burden to you and your responsibility to the world as a superhero? These are all questions Lois struggles with (when she is seen returning home and taking a bath) and what drives her to unravel Luthor’s plan throughout the rest of the film.
- Truth, Justice, and the American Way: During the world war era superman could have been seen in cartoons and comics fighting Germans on the frontline. While this is an extreme example of the character’s nationalism, it can’t be denied that superman throughout his history has always been first and foremost an American- an idea that was partially challenged in 2013’s Man of Steel that portrayed the hero as first and foremost a literal alien. In BvS, this is another trope subjected to deconstruction through reality. How can one character represent the ideas and infrastructure of an entire nation, much less one of the most diverse, controversial, and powerful nations of them all? Indeed, the films seems to answer on one level: he can’t.
- See in the comics and cartoons, superman could always perfectly represent and align with America’s values because the writers romanticized America by portraying the nation as a do-no-wrong, always justifiable entity within the narrative. At one time, as mentioned earlier, this aspect of the character was used to make comic books that doubled as war propaganda. However, even without going to such extremes, the Big Blue Boy Scout has always been a metaphor for the United States. Always knowing what to do, policing the globe, having that quintessential small country town charm, wearing the colors of the flag, and not to mention being a literal superpower- the superman is the ideal embodiment and a romanticized metaphor of the USA. The reason for the popularity of this convention is that through reading comics or watching cartoons the audience wants to feel good about both their hero and their country. People feel good when they ingest media that suggests to them that on a whole, their nation is still good and as optimistic, morally rigid, and shiny clean as superman himself. It speaks to this sense of patriotic pride and nostalgia within the hearts and minds of many Americans. However, Snyder and Terrio chose to not depict the hero nor the country in this way, instead opting to explore the many quandaries and imperfections of both the hero and his country.
- As a superman- what would you do if the people of your country were afraid of you because the media told them to be? No matter how loud your voice may be as the most physically powerful man on earth, you still only have one voice; the media has millions of “experts”, it never turns off, and its backed by billionaires with their own biased agendas. What if the government of your country wanted to use you as a scapegoat because you interfered as a rouge combatant in an important CIA operation? As an idealistic superhero, you would no doubt have reservations about black ops, DARPA black boxes, and other shady procedures that are done in the name of national security. What choice do you leave your government when you cross geographic boundaries while ignoring sanctions to intervene in highly publicized acts especially when you have 1/3 of the U.S. initials on your chest and 2/3 of the colors of the flag? Even though you take full responsibility for your actions when you intervene in other countries, what if those other countries always associate you with your country’s government? What if they saw your interventions as a new extreme level of world policing by the U.S.? This is the disturbing question that keeps Senator Finch on edge throughout BvS. Also, how should your military respond to you knowing that simultaneously you have the power to save everybody and enslave everybody? These are all questions that are asked in the film and answered appropriately in a troubling and unclear manner: the CIA, Senator Finch, and the president ultimately see Superman as a liability more than a national hero, ally, or poster child for America (the way he is seen by his country traditionally in other media). While they know better than not to actively antagonize him, they also know his potential for generating huge logistical problems. While the CIA isn’t actively trying to take down Kal-El, they don’t release the truth to the public about Nairomi even though they know that Lex Luthor played a large part in the incident. While the president doesn’t declare war on superman, he also shoots a nuke at him during an emergency situation and accepts the loss as collateral damage. While Finch doesn’t persecute Clark like the rest of the media, she still holds him responsible for the unintended consequences he causes and holds hearings against him.
- Snyder/Terrio seem to arise to this simple idea: that the superhero fantasy is incompatible with nationalism on a certain logical level. The Superhero as a concept is supposed to be the empowerment of the individual and that certainly clashes with the empowerment of the masses, the government, and the nation as a whole. It’s an endless tug a war- the more superman intervenes and acts- seemingly on a whim, the more it stokes the fears of the government and the public as they start to feel powerless. On the other hand, when the public and the government starts a smear campaign against superman, it demoralizes him and he is less likely to intervene and save lives. This is played out visually when superman the individual clashes with the varied ideas and opinions presented on TV in the day of the dead scene. An empowered individual would naturally disagree with certain ideals and qualities of a collective country and vice versa. The ultimate irony of all of this is that both the needs of the many (the public and the government) align with the needs of the individual (superman). Both sides want the same thing- a better and safer tomorrow, but the issue is that both are competing for the power to build that better tomorrow ultimately leaving that goal unaccomplished.
- As globalization continues with the advent of technology and trade, and politics become more and more divisive, how can one man, even if he is a superman, represent all of us? Perhaps he could have when the country was united under world war or when it was a simpler time and ideals in America were more universal, but “apples no longer cost a nickel”. Even if superman would represent America in the real world, wouldn’t he also have to embody all of the mistakes that are associated with the U.S. and not just its virtues?
- This Looks like a Job for superman: In the comics, superman is often seen fighting a giant robot, aliens, and various other fantastical super villains. Or, he is often depicted tangling with earthquakes, meteors, or tsunamis. But are those really the threats that constantly plague our world- the real world? What if superman had to fight an unrelenting news media pushing a false narrative with an agenda? What if he had to take on a domestic suicide bombing perpetrated by someone who can be seen as just as much of a victim as he is a terrorist? What if for over half of the movie, superman’s biggest enemy, in his eyes, was the injustice, systemic racism, and poverty plaguing a beaten down city which the media simply ignores (“crime wave in gotham, in other news, water- wet”)? These aren’t issues that the Last Son of Krypton can simply punch, or fly through, or melt down with his heat vision. As much as he cares about these issues and as much as he wants to help, either through the superman persona or the Clark Kent reporter persona, he simply isn’t equipped to do so. As a matter of fact, his powers not only can’t solve these issues but actually makes them worse. The fear that comes from people suspecting him of ulterior devious motives only creates and exacerbates the fear mongering and the feeling of powerlessness already rampant in society. Ultimately, Lois and her passion of pursuing true journalism solved more of these real world problems than Clark ever could with his powers. What’s more is that one of the only times in the film where superman’s powers are seen as effective is during the Doomsday fight. A threat that exists only in fiction, who is a purely CGI character being fought in a CGI environment that is in stark contrast to the more grounded environments and textures seen in the rest of the film. Choosing to depict Superman in this manner in BvS fundamentally breaks the superhero empowerment fantasy altogether- this beautiful lie that lies at the crux of the entire genre- that having extraordinary physical abilities would allow one to make and mold a better world.
- Metropolis’s favorite Son: One of the most gratifying tropes in any story about a hero is his/her admiring fandom. It plays to one of the primal truths about us as humans. On one level when we do something exceptionally well or morally outstanding, we want to be recognized; so much so that greatness is often achieved with the primary motivation being the praise of the public. On a second level, when we see others achieve something profound or perform a morally good deed we get upset when that person doesn’t get recognition as this disparity offends our belief system and we start to see this as an injustice not to just the person who didn’t get praise and deserved it but also to ourselves. Thus, this is why we feel vindicated when our heroes finally get the praise we feel they deserve. As opposed to a hero like Spiderman, Superman is often beloved by the public in his narratives. As a reader/viewer, it sells us on this idea of Superman being the ultimate good and even during the instances in the comics where the reader/viewer might question superman on his actions (not telling the truth of his identity to Lois, throwing a bad guy through buildings)- any doubt is immediately blocked out by the adoration that the people of metropolis show to their favorite hero. We use this fallacy of: “if they don’t care about superman making a hole through the building then why should we as a reader”. In BvS and Man of Steel it is seen that without this obvious in-narrative public support, the audience is more likely to question Superman’s actions- something that Snyder wants to encourage and is incredibly uncomfortable for many fans.
- The trope of superman being idolized by the general public is torn wide open in BvS. After the incredible events at the end of Man of Steel, the people of metropolis immediately build a statue of superman. In the real world, after a catastrophic event occurs, we immediately look for narratives and rhetoric that comfort us because we honestly either don’t know what to think or are uncomfortable with our thoughts about our own grief, fears, and resentment. We don’t experience mass scaled tragedies on a day to day basis so when they do occur, we look for and buy the narrative that brings us comfort and allows us to return to normalcy the fastest. That is why the Superman Statue is built; the narrative that the public wants to believe in the most after such a devastating event is that superman will always be there to protect the public from such large scale threats and hence people can move on with their lives with relative normalcy. However, just like our world, the world in BvS is one in which general public opinion is superficial at best and usually founded on emotions rather than intellectual analysis of the larger issue at hand. Information proliferates and is pelted at us at an insanely high rate: new news becomes old fast, controversial or taboo issues become the norm, and sadly, heroes either die or live long enough to become the villain. In the real world, contemporary heroes (celebrities, public figures, etc.) rarely last long before being torn apart by the very same fame that led to their public status in the first place. The lie will become the truth if it’s more interesting and provocative. Also, in the public eye, it’s always “what have you done for me lately”. All of these elements of being in the limelight are faced by superman in the film. He is cherished at first and perhaps held to a level he could have never realistically lived up to. Then after Nairomi, doubt inevitably led to fear mongering, and finally the public consensus became viscous rhetoric and all empathy was lost for the Man of Steel.
So now, after all that, a superman fan might be thinking: after Snyder deconstructed some of the most sacred conventions of superman, what was left- was it all a futile exercise? The man didn’t give us any epic fights where Superman dominates a giant opponent, shots of superman heroically saving people where he does so in a carefree way with the American flag in the background, or superman having great public relations moments with the people of metropolis. You know, the kind of stuff people think of when it comes to superman. What’s more is that has Snyder just insinuated that Superman holds little to no value in the modern day real world and would cause more problems that he would solve if he did leap off the pages into our world? But hold the pitchforks for one second if you were offended by this portrayal and hear me out fore there are important things about the character that Snyder uncovered through this deconstruction. At the same time that Snyder shows you how ridiculous certain tropes about the character may appear under the scrutiny of reality, he also wants to show you the importance of what does still hold up when you break apart the character: the things that will continually hold up no matter how times and society change. So what are the character traits and conventions that were impervious to the deconstruction; what was standing up after the scrutiny of putting the character through lens of reality?
- You are my world: While yes as I have mentioned before, the problems that the Lois and Clark relationship may cause are shown clearly in the film, Snyder and Terrio also show the important positives. They seem to understand the connection to Lois is something sacred because if a superman did exist in the real world, what would keep him motivated to continually to do the impossible- to try to be a superhero despite all of the obstacles that were shown in the film. In many previous other mediums and films, we usually take it for granted that superman serves mankind because he’s superman. In BvS, it’s Lois. Lois Lane. She’s the key.
- In a realistic world where you can’t bribe or coerce or tempt superman with many of the same materialistic objects, vices, accolades and favors that motivate normal people to do difficult jobs- what would keep him going while he is faced with some of the most morally grey, ambiguous, and tough issues facing contemporary America? Due to his peculiar upbringing , the only answer to this question that makes sense would have to be the human experience- the one thing he has longed for and have been deprived of all his life. For Clark, someone who grew up wanting to be normal, wanting a steady career and a significant other he can trust, and more importantly wanting the ideals he believes in to be adopted by the human race- is Lois not representative of all of that? She can be someone he can cook dinner for, she helped him get his job at the daily planet, and she was the one in the film who continually sought justice and truth and never bought into Luthor’s manipulations or was intimidated by him. What’s more, just like Clark after the senate bombing, Lois initially feels guilty for the deaths that she inadvertently caused by trying to interview the rebel leader in Nairomi but she wastes little time in using her skills as a reporter to find out the truth in order to redeem herself and seek justice for all of the victims of Lex Luthor’s machinations.
- While yes, just like previous iterations, superman’s loyalty to mankind does have a huge amount to do with his parents (which is seen in the film when Clark calls his mother at night for advice and tires to remember his father’s advice on the mountaintop), Martha and Jonathan are both farmers who have never left Kansas and there are certain large societal issues they have never had to deal with that Clark has to face now at this point in his life. This is why they are so protective of him and his secret because they know they won’t be able to protect him from the bigger world once he is exposed to it due to their limited life experience in small town Kansas. So while his parents may have taught him the fundamentals of being a good person, Lois is actually facing literally the same issues Clark is dealing with in BvS. She would even be the source of Clark’s inspiration for his return after realizing she was his world just like Martha was Jonathen’s world on the mountain top. Of course, there is the fact that he literally says “you are my world” to her before sacrificing himself. This all points to the fact that Terrio and Snyder believe that the Lois and Clark trope is one part of the character that actually makes a lot of intellectual sense even when analyzed in a real world setting because she could be a realistic reason for why superman wouldn’t just give up being a superhero when dealing with a more grounded world.
- At this point, you may be saying, well here comes Zack -the Hack- Snyder again ripping off better works depicting darker superheroes- isn’t this the same character arc of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen (considered Alan Moore’s great deconstruction piece on the superhero genre)? Well, No… Dr. Manhattan is a character who lived through a normal life and after gaining superpowers became increasing more disillusioned with the human experience. Superman is a character who was born with superpowers and has never really had a normal life thus he has this great appreciation for normalcy and the simple tenants of the human experience. Dr. Manhattan is the man who became more and more alien as his powers grew to the point where he left humanity because it bored him and he no longer cared. Superman is the alien who, due to his upbringing, wanted to be human more then anything and he left humanity because he cared too much. Dr. Manhattan returns to help humanity because his love interest turned out to be an anomaly/outlier who managed to surprise the man who saw time and space in 4 dimensions and proved him wrong just by existing as the way she was. Superman returns to help humanity because his love interest represented all of the parts of the human race that he believed in and thus she proved him right just by existing as the way she was (“she reminded me that there was still good in this world”).
- This isn’t a S: Despite how seemingly cynical of a deconstruction Snyder pursued, another one of the tropes of the character that was insinuated would work in the real world was this convention of superman being a symbol for hope and the moral message associated with the character. In the film’s epilogue after the death of superman Snyder seems to state that the hope and ideals that come along with Superman turn out to be something that is absolutely needed in this more grounded BvS world that represents our world. Through this deconstruction Snyder shows that while many of the physical aspects of the character (the super part of the superman) were shown to cause more problems than solutions in the film, the idea of spreading hope to others through example- something that made up the mental and spiritual part of the character (the man part of the superman) proved to be the part of superman that would allow him to truly make a difference in the grounded world in BvS. In MoS, he may have saved the world physically, but in BvS, he saved it physically but also spiritually, mentally, and emotionally by inspiring others. Just like in the real world where superman can’t physically save us because he is a fictional character, he does still save us by inspiring us when we read or watch his stories of self-sacrifice. Thus, we are motivated to do better and be better, treat others in a more compassionate way, and be more of a hero like him. This real world form of heroism is performed by this fictional character on an everyday basis whenever fans new and old alike embrace superman stories through various mediums. This exact chain of events is represented and mirrored at the end of BvS. In the epilogue when superman can no longer physically save people because he is dead, he manages to inspire all those who either read/heard about his story of heroism (the general public when they read the daily planet or watched the news) or saw it firsthand (batman and wonder woman), motivating all of them to do better and be better, to treat others in a more compassionate way (not branding Lex) and be more of a hero like him (the dawn of the justice league). This idea is what is apparent when you deconstruct the Man of Steel and distill him down to his very essence- that what you will find at the character’s core that is impervious to deconstruction will not be how powerful he is or which country he favors or how much he is beloved or accepted but instead this very fundamental moral message about using power for selfless good and inspiring hope in others and teaching them to do the same.
Indeed the classic superman tropes like saving Lois from danger are more and more rare these days when women are seen to be just as capable as men (in fact, Lois in the film saves Superman in other ways that are just as, if not more important as the physical way you can save a person- i.e. saving his legacy and clearing his name. But she also does save him physically as well when she drags him out of the water at the end). Tropes like superman being always able to fix things no matter what via some overpowered ability (i.e. turning back time via flying backwards around the globe or some other over the top fantastical means) seem less and less relevant when we look at just how complex the world’s problems has gotten since the advent of globalization, technological/scientific breakthroughs, and dawn of the age of information overload. The superman of the 40’s and 50’s has never had to relate to an audience who has debates over stem cell research and religious bigotry. But even then, no matter how superman himself has and will change (new suits, powers, back stories) and how the real world has and will change around him, what Snyder found in this deconstruction was something so simple yet so timeless: this optimistic message about inspiring hope in others and always having a Lois Lane by his side. These tropes are what will remain timeless and be at the core of the character long after Snyder, Terrio, and the rest of us are gone.