Before the Superman we’ve known for 78 years debuted in 1938 wearing a red cape and briefs outside his trousers, co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a villain five years earlier with the same name. In 1933’s “The Reign of the Superman,” an impoverished everyman is granted telepathic powers and sets out to take over the world.
The villain who originally had Siegel and Shuster’s Superman moniker could not be further from the Clark Kent/Kal-El hero with the globally recognized “S” logo -- and Kryptonian coat of arms, as we now think of it. Superman is the original superhero, the archetype whence all comic supers emerged (no disrespect to Ogon Bat, Mandrake the Magician or Phantom Magician).
But what if director Zack Snyder has been crafting, perhaps unintentionally at first, then intentionally, a villain’s origin story over the course of 2013’s Man of Steel and last month's Batman v Superman? After viewing BvS twice, I am left thinking a new reign of Superman is forthcoming, and the beloved Big Blue Boy Scout will break very bad with the iconic, uber-nasty foe Darkseid in the first Justice League movie, due 2017.
Let’s break it down.
Snyder has stated he looks to the comic book origins to guide his decision for Superman to kill Zod in Man of Steel. He has said he is a big fan of canon, and told Hero Complex in 2013, for MoS, that he “needed to pay homage” to it, even if everything else between those canonical touchstones was “fair game.” In a 2014 interview with Forbes, he pointed to the “comic book rules” which supported Superman killing. And in a February 2016 podcast with “Hall of Justice,” he said, “If you’re a comic book fan, you know I didn’t change Superman … I’m a bit of a comic book fan, and I always default to the true canon.”
Now, while Siegel and Shuster’s earlier story is not canon, it is certainly part of Superman’s history. Thus, I think it makes it fair game for Snyder to look at.
Super shades of gray
Snyder prefers the son of Jor-El to be complicated. In the same Hero Complex interview, he said he tried to make Superman not “predictably morally black and white,” but with shades of gray – even if his “inherent goodness” is still there.
Snyder’s wife, and MoS producer Debbie, added that, “He’s not super-perfect, and he might not always make the right decision, especially as he’s growing up and trying to find himself...he’s struggling to find out what is the right thing to do.”
This characterization has certainly been conveyed in both MoS and BvS. The universe’s Clark Kent has been raised to be fearful of humanity, and not intervene.
In Man of Steel, Jonathan Kent warns young Clark to hide his powers to prevent exposure to the world -- even if not using them will lead to the death of others. And in BvS, Jonathan’s “ghost” tells Clark that his own acts of bravery during a flood caused the destruction of a nearby farm. The “damned if you do” story was followed up by Martha Kent telling her son he doesn’t owe this world anything.
And when Superman does intervene, he is frequently punished. He tries to stop Zod, but wreaks havoc on Metropolis in the process, earning the ire of many. He saves Lois in the desert from mercenaries shooting up a village, but is accused of actually somehow being behind the attack. He answers Senator Finch’s call to appear before Congress, but falls right into Luthor’s trap – and is then held responsible for that bomb.
Superman’s heroics in Snyder’s universe appear so often to be counterbalanced by more destruction. The director also chooses to booster the idea that Superman’s arrival on Earth, and his ensuing actions, necessarily have ramifications.
In a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Snyder said, “you can’t just have superheroes knock around and have there be no consequences.”
“There are other superhero movies where they joke about how basically no one’s getting hurt. That’s not us. What is that message? That’s it’s okay that there’s this massive destruction with zero consequence for anyone?”
There’s a scene in BvS where Supes arrives in a flooded town and finds the family awaiting rescue on their roof. Upon second viewing, I wondered if Jonathan Kent’s own flood story was going through Clark’s mind at that moment, as he hovered above the family. Did he hesitate?
This version of Superman has an entire upbringing and recent history to suggest maybe he should.
There is also a rage inside him that threatens to emerge given the right scenario, and without the need of any pesky Red Kryptonite.
Remember that scene in Man of Steel in which Clark is getting bullied by the trucker in a bar? He steps in to protect a server getting harassed, and ends up with beer poured all over him. Clark opts out of incinerating the guy with his heat vision, and instead quits and walks out of the joint. Shortly thereafter we discover Clark shish-kabobbed the guy’s truck with lumber.
Whether you think it’s funny or kind of a d*** move, it shows a Superman who can be pushed over the edge. He may pull a lot of punches, but piss him off enough, and he might snap.
Snyder wants audiences to have that uncertainty about his Superman. The director said his hero has a code, but can break away from it at any moment if the chips are down. In a 2013 Empire podcast, Snyder said, “You don’t know 100 percent what he’s going to do.”
Referring to the decision to have Kal-El kill Zod in MoS, Snyder went on to say, “When you really put in stone the concept that he won’t kill and it’s totally in stone, it really erases an option in the viewer’s mind...you’ll always have in the back of your mind this little of like, 'Well, like how far can you push him?'”
In that same interview, Snyder even practically sets the stage for BvS, and telegraphs the catalyst for the big fight between our heroes:
“If he sees Lois get hurt or he sees his mother get killed or something, you just made a really mad Superman that we know is capable of some really horrible stuff.”
Sure enough, that happens multiple times in the new movie.
Lois is held hostage by the warlord, and Superman shows up and throws the guy through several walls. He most definitely killed the guy, but also likely racked up a lot of collateral damage and inflicted potential injury or death on anyone unlucky enough to be in the path of the human missile. After Lex tosses Lois off the LexCorp skyscraper, Supes looks ready to end the twitchy genius – and almost does when his mom’s life appears threatened.
What happens next? Superman turns assassin for Lex and flies into battle with the Bat. Granted, he initially attempts to talk with Batman but Martha Kent’s life is on a ticking clock, and he quickly abandons the notion of discourse. As Snyder intends, we see a really mad Superman, and I personally thought he’d be willing in those moments to liberate Bruce’s head from its body. Look at the rage in those glowing eyes, and tell me you see a Superman who won’t kill for his mother’s survival. Really horrible stuff, indeed.
Which brings me to another point, and the way Snyder is setting up Superman to become a bad guy.
As Snyder has reinforced time and again, Lois Lane is Superman’s Kryptonite. In BvS, she is frequently in peril, and Clark stops everything to save her. Lex Luthor places her in peril to set up a trap for Supes, and her survival becomes paramount even in a battle with a doomsday device like, well, Doomsday. In fact, Superman is so tuned in to her life he can sense her struggling underwater during the no-doubt noisy and distracting duke-out between Doomsday, Batman, Wonder Woman, and himself. Meanwhile, he still somehow doesn’t hear, or see via X-Ray vision, the bomb placed in Keefe’s wheelchair in Congress.
What happens if he fails to save her in time? Again: really horrible stuff.
In BvS, the cinematic version of The Flash, like a character straight out the comic book "Flashpoint" arc, bursts through the timestream to warn Batman he wasn’t wrong to be worried about Superman (assuming the "him" below refers to Clark). After Bruce wakes up from his bat-nap, Flash tells him:
“Bruce! Listen to me right now! It’s Lois! Lois Lane! She’s the key! Am I too soon!? I'm too soon! You were right about him! You were always right about him! Fear him! Fear him and find us. You have to come find us, Bruce!”
In case you missed it, the Injustice: Gods Among Us comic book series and video game presents a corner of the DC multi-verse where Superman – under the influence of Scarecrow fear toxin -- accidentally kills a pregnant Lois due to some trickery courtesy of The Joker. Oh, and a nuclear bomb connected to Lois’ heart detonates, wiping out Metropolis.
Supes kind of loses his crap, punches his fist through Joker, and becomes ruler of the world, with a totalitarian regime. In the series, Superman is willing to kill to enforce his law, and also utilizes his own military. Meanwhile, Batman leads his own rebel alliance against Superman.
Snyder very much alludes to the Injustice storyline in Batman’s “Knightmare” sequence. We have a decimated city, the Super-military, Batman (in a cool Gotham By Gaslight inspired costume) leading a resistance force, and Bats getting a fist through the chest a la Joker.
Lois’ death would most certainly drive this cinematic Superman to this extreme. Snyder has already warned us that we don’t know 100 percent what he is capable of doing. And even in a far more lighthearted franchise, Lois’ death in the Christopher Reeve/ Richard Donner movie made him recklessly reverse time to save her regardless of repercussions.
But the BvS Knightmare did more than show us a future where a Lois-less Superman may go bad, as The Flash seemed to warn, but also teased the arrival of a DC Comics heavy hitter.
Bruce’s Knightmare – which we can reasonably assume was more vision than dream – featured the omega symbol burned into the ground outside the destroyed city.
That, along with the insectoid creatures, known as Parademons, joining Superman’s army, and those blazing firepits, are calling cards of the New God Darkseid from the planet Apokolips.
Similarly, a “Mother Box,” an extremely powerful sentient device also associated with Darkseid’s species, was spotted in the footage from Silas Stone’s lab (which teases the origin of the hero Cyborg). And in a recently released deleted scene from BvS, Lex is interacting with a hologram of a creature – Yuga Khan? Steppenwolf? -- wielding mother boxes. That may explain why, at the end of the film, Lex warns that “He” is coming and is hungry. Also, Lex’s insane repetition of “ding, ding, ding” (also mentioned in a statement by Luthor in last Thursday’s LexCorp Instagram post, which also teases a development in 2017 -- when The Justice League Part One opens. Boomtube, anyone? Braniac?) could easily be mistaken for a “ping,” the sound a mother box is known to make.
If Darkseid is on the way, how does that connect to Lois’s demise? Oh, and how does it solve the little problem of Superman dying?
Before we get there, let me turn your attention to “Legacy,” a two-part series finale of Superman: The Animated Series from 2000. Heavily inspired by the Elseworlds comic Superman: The Dark Side, the episodes show Kal-El as a brainwashed super soldier of Apokolips. Darkseid uses his “son” to invade alien worlds, and eventually turns his attention towards Earth. The swiss-cheesed mind of Superman sees Darkseid as a benevolent ruler who wishes to restore order to our planet, instead of a mad tyrant. Supes goes along with the plan and begins laying waste. He also nearly beats Supergirl to death before being stopped by Luthor’s Kryptonite missile. Eventually, with his memories and sanity restored, he takes the fight to Darkseid on the planet Apokolips, and saves the day. But, back on Earth, he loses the trust of the people (a mistrust aided by Luthor’s fearmongering about the Man of Steel).
This strikes me as precisely the kind of narrative Snyder may wish to pursue in his Justice League movies. He likes his Superman inherently good, but appears to be more fascinated with the hero on the outs with the world.
Reign of the Superman
Wild speculation time.
Kal-El is coming back to life, but I don’t think he’ll be a Superman we recognize. He won’t have all his memories or be a complete person. It is possible that he could be blank slate, great power without great responsibility, to borrow from that other universe. He could even be a brute, almost Bizarro-like, in raw, untempered aggression.
Much like in the 1993 “Reign of the Supermen!” comic arc (which followed “The Death of Superman” storyline involving Doomsday), I am guessing Supes will find himself in a regeneration matrix chamber. But instead of at the Fortress of Solitude (which thus far doesn’t exist in this DC Cinematic Universe), the matrix will involve mother boxes, Apokoliptian tech, and Darkseid.
Maybe Darkseid brainwashes Kal-El, or simply manipulates him. He is no dim villain, and can play to Superman’s weakness for Lois, or pounce on the fact that Earth has never accepted him. After all, this is another alien who likely knows a thing or three about Krypton. In a weakened state, Superman may well be ready to listen to the New God formerly known as Uxas. Darkseid would prefer the Kryptonian to be his knight, but will settle for him as a pawn.
And, of course, Lois has to die. Perhaps she is accidentally killed at his own hands, or he believes Batman is to blame, but Lois’ death might make Superman amenable to Darkseid’s goal to tame our little backworld planet (Snyder has already bumped off Jimmy Olsen, and while he's not as integral a linchpin in the Superman story as Lois, it shows the director is willing to kill darlings as he sees fit.)
Enter Snyder’s “really mad Superman.” The director loves comparing comic books to modern mythology, and Darkseid is actually a god in the DC universe. In mythology, gods are constantly playing one another, with a superior deity screwing around with a lesser one. They team up and fight, and a lot of collateral damage occurs in the process. I can’t imagine Snyder refusing to take that tasty bait.
Of course, a bad guy Supes basically affirms Batman’s philosophy early in BvS that, "He has the power to wipe out the entire human race...if we believe there's even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty."
Then again, that message is already supported by The Flash’s appearance and warning, and the Knightmare vision. Batman was right, and I believe that will play out in Justice League.
Moreover, Snyder recently told Collider he wanted Batman to be the samurai assembling the super squad:
“One of the big things I wanted to make sure of was that as we went into Justice League, Bruce Wayne was the one who was gathering the Justice League. I thought it was really important to have Bruce Wayne be the samurai who goes and finds the other samurai, that to me was important. And with Superman around it’s kinda hard, because Superman’s Superman so it’s kinda hard for Bruce to be like, ‘Yeah I wanna put a Justice League together’. It’s like, ‘Okay, but maybe Superman should be doing that. You’re just a guy. You’re a cool guy, don’t get me wrong, but you’re just a guy.’”
Know what might bring these warriors of Earth, who may be reluctant to listen to “cool guy” Bruce Wayne, together in a team? A world-ending adversary, whether it’s Starro in 1960, or Darkseid in 2011 in The New 52 relaunch – or both Superman and Darkseid in 2017 with Snyder’s The Justice League Part One. Side note: This apocalyptic threat would also most certainly demand the attention of the Green Lantern Corps. Just sayin'.
But not to worry; Superman won’t remain a villain (And it also may mean it will be revealed Lois wasn’t actually dead, or Batman recalls his vision/Flash warning, and saves her at a pivotal moment, turning Superman back to the side of good.) As Zack Snyder told Hero Complex in 2013, he views the character as a “fallen king.” Although he was speaking in terms of resurrecting the character on screen, he said wanted to resurrect him from the shadows and remind audiences he’s the granddaddy of all superheroes. He added, “Superman is a thing that must be taken seriously and embraced and understood.”
Perhaps all along Snyder’s mission has been to make Superman a hero by giving him an origin story as a bad guy first. Regardless of whether this is a good idea or not, I think that’s where we are headed. Kal-El is on the path to the dark side, and to Darkseid, and before he emerges a redeemed hero, we will see a cinematic reign of a villainous Superman.