(Note: This is originally appeared on my DISQUS channel, Pro-DCEU discussion. Figured I would share it here as well!)
Tired of DCEU bashers claiming that BvS lacks substance in terms of its basic story? Aggravated by their complaint of Zack Snyder as "not getting" Superman and Batman because the characters are framed within a grim backdrop and both violate the 'no-kill' rule in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Sick of haters' refrain that "Hack" Snyder is a vapid director who relies on visual style over substance? I.e., that Snyder is "great at visuals but a poor storyteller?" Well, in the following two posts I will gather material for you to refute those ridiculous claims.
In order to make the posts a little easier to digest, first I'll summarize the thesis of the first post that I've assembled evidence for below. (If it was an academic article this would be the abstract):
Zack Snyder's trilogy of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League tells a single story, and it it an epic saga that appears to be influenced by mythologist Joseph Campbell's model of "the hero's journey." In addition, Snyder continues the project that Alan Moore's Watchmen undertook of envisioning superhero mythology in terms of how society would react to superheroes if the characters really existed in the actual world we inhabit (and how that would affect the superheroes as well). Snyder uses Superman to represent superhero mythology in general. The same basic ideas that underpin Watchmen are applied to Superman, Batman, et al., in this trilogy. At the end of this epic journey Snyder wants us to feel great about our love of superhero mythology. But in order to set that up dramatically, first he deliberately shakes us up by challenging our assumptions about--in the real world--what defines heroism, how tremendous power should be morally used, and the practical reality that real world solutions to life's problems are not simple, neat, clean, and orderly.
MoS, BvS, and JL comprise an epic saga.
I think in order to grasp what Snyder is attempting as a director with his first three DCEU films it is essential to understand that MoS, BvS, and JL are indeed a film trilogy. BvS and JL script writer Chris Terrio stated in a Wall Street Journal interview that in his opinion MoS, BvS, and JL comprise a film trilogy that tell one saga:
Batman v Superman” is a bit of an “Empire Strikes Back” or “Two Towers” or any similar middle film in a trilogy. The middle film tends to be the darkest one. I do think from “Man of Steel” through “Justice League,” it is one saga really.
I expect “Justice League” will be tonally not quite as dark as “Batman v Superman.” From that point of view, I felt compelled to go back and try to lift us and myself into a different tonal place because I think when you write a darker film, sometimes you want to redeem it all a bit.
Mind you, this WSJ interview with Terrio was published on March 11, 2016, which was prior to BvS's March 20, 2016 theater release. At that time there was not yet a negative critical reaction to the film. And Terrio states there was a clear intention (presumably issuing from director and co-writer Zack Snyder) to make JL less tonally dark than BvS even when the film's script was being written.
Joseph Campbell is a strong influence upon the trilogy.
In a Forbes Magazine interview DCEU executive producer Deborah Snyder states something I believe is crucial to understanding what her husband Zack Snyder is attempting artistically with his trilogy of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League:
It's about these journeys. I mean, Zack really loves Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey. And these characters are just so mythic, and their journeys-- I always say they're journeys are what we can relate to. Because we can't relate to their powers, so what do you have?
That's the great thing about our Superman. He is more relatable. Someone said, "It's so dark," and I go, "Well, is it dark? He's going through real problems that we go through as people every day." To me that's not dark, that's life. We're complicated people. And we're making him in that way more relatable.
So I don't think that's dark, I think that's just who we are. People are complex, we're not strictly just the good Boy Scout trying to do good. He does want to do good, and I think all of the things Superman represents are who he is, but he also stumbles along the way and learns from it. To me, that's so much more interesting.
I think that Deborah basically reveals here that Zack is using Campbell's the "hero's journey" model as the framework for exploring what superheroes as psychological archetypes mean to us currently to us in present day society.
As further supporting evidence for this, please note that Zack included an Easter egg of a Kryptonian inscription across Superman's House of El insignia on his uniform, which BvS costume designer Michael Wilksonson advises is a quote from Joseph Campbell:
"Where we thought to stand alone, we will be with all the world."
Here is that line placed within the larger section in which it is found in Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces:
Furthermore, we have not even to risk the journey alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
So what is the hero's journey as mythologist Joseph Campbell identifies it? Here is a handy graphic courtesy of Wikipedia (see here for the article) that provides the basic outline:
This diagram can serve a basic frame of reference for this post. For now I will leave it up to the reader to use it to connect dots and fit together puzzle pieces from the two films we have see thus far, MoS and BvS, and eventually the conclusion of this trilogy's saga with Justice League when that film is released next fall.
The MoS/BvS/JL trilogy applies the same core ideas that Watchmen is based on, and uses Superman as a symbol for superhero mythology itself.
Below is an interview with Zack Snyder about Man of Steel in which he discusses how he views Superman, and how his treatment of Superman flows directly from his experience with making Watchmen. The video below is set to begin where Zack shares this:
There is a lot to digest from this interview, but for my purposes here key points include the following:
1) Watchmen is essentially an experiment to envision how society would react to the existence of superheroes if they actually inhabited our real world. But in re-envisioning superhero mythology in such a way, Watchmen is very cynical and leaves us with a sense of emptiness about the subject, and the relationship of our fantasies about superheroes and what they mean to us, and the harsh realities and complexities of the real world:
And then you finish Watchmen... and because I was a fan of comic books--also, it's sort of the "evolved" version of comic books... "Watchmen." Right? It's the "I'm like an intellectual who likes comic books, so I like Watchmen." So I'm going to make that into a movie to justify my love of comic books or whatever. And then once that's out of your system, though, I gotta say... there's a hollowness to the end of Watchmen, right? Especially in geekdom. You know? You finish Watchmen and you're like "ough!" There's no hope! Like, is there a way to like--isn't there a way to love--is it okay to love this [i.e., comic books and superhero mythology]? And I think that's the relationship I had to Superman in making the film. I really wanted to love Superman. I want Superman to be "okay." Because he represents so much.
Note that in Watchmen superheroes are outlawed as criminal vigilantes by the government. Also the government co-opts at least two of them (Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian) to use them towards their own 'might makes right' political ends. Ozymandias is portrayed as a symbol to demonstrate the human frailty that some superheroes would fall prey to their own egos and rationalize to themselves that they should essentially become dictators (in Adrian's case he seeks to establish himself a living god as his personal hero Alexander the Great attempted in the ancient world).
Snyder said in a WSJ interview shortly after the release of BvS that he viewed the film as his own application of the concepts that Watchmen uses, except of course that it uses Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al.:
Snyder sees his new movie as “a little bit” of a continuation of themes and concepts he explored in “Watchmen,” his 2009 adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel by Alan Moore which deconstructed the notion of superheroes. “It’s all about the ‘why’ of superheroes: the political why, the religious why, the philosophical why,” Snyder says.
But now he can play with those ideas using actual iconic characters instead of ones such as Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, which represent archetypes of iconic characters. “Once you’ve absorbed that material, there’s no way it doesn’t resonate with you, especially when you’re dealing with characters like Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, who are basically the trinity,” Snyder says. “In some ways, this will be, I hope at it’s really best, the impossible version of ‘Watchmen’.”
2) Snyder is using the character of Superman as a symbol to represent all of superhero mythology itself. As such his trilogy is organized around Superman:
[Superman] is the first. He's the greatest superhero. He's the top of the pyramid. Especially in the DC universe. In my opinion in all of comics. He's certainly the first. And I would argue that he's the Godfather in every genre of comic book. To make him work is to make that whole world--to legitimize that whole world... Make him work, and you're justifying the "why" of comic books, or the "why" of graphic storytelling.
3) Snyder, as a film "auteur" (film director as artist) working in the CBM genre, is bringing Superman the character or archetype into our modern contemporary real world, and seeing what sort of synergy takes place when the two meet:
I never felt like a [superhero] movie should exist in the real world before, but I feel like Superman should. All the Superman movies that have been made exist in some weird stylized world where everyone's, like, apple pie and Chevrolet and it's like the American Dream in a weird way. [T]he thing I find interesting is being able to release the character from that world, where he's been stuck and shackled, and bring him to our world and see what he does.
Man of Steel uses a physical childbirth symbolic motif to denote the "rebirth" of the Superman character into our modern day, postmodern real world.
In light of all that I have presented above I invite the reader to consider the brilliant "Thesis on a Man of Steel" video, in which the author inspects MoS as consciously and very purposefully using a physical childbirth metaphor throughout the film. When grasped in this way it is clear that the archetype of Superman is indeed undergoing a transformation of death and rebirth. I think that what Snyder is getting at with the rebirth theme is to show the character--or actually the archetype--being reborn... harshly and violently, as actual physical childbirth is in reality... into our real modern day consciousness.
I will stop here and let this be Part 1 of a longer thesis. In Part 2 I will argue that I expect Snyder to wrap up this saga in Justice League with a restoration and redemption of our faith in superhero mythology in the modern real world. Superheroes, as psychological archetypes, are our modern day equivalents of the ancient gods. BvS very intentionally challenges us by showing that if superheroes existed in reality, it would have some terrible downsides for society, as well as for the superheroes themselves personally and individually. BvS raises doubt as to whether superheroes existing would actually be a good thing. But I think that in JL the project will be to restore that faith, and show that we need these archetypes psychologically--provided that they also keep us in touch with the real world, and their existence does not deny the more bitter realities of the cold, hard, real world.