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[Warning: Spoilers ahead from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.]
The climactic moment in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is at once a logical development considering what had come before, and a piece of breathtaking hubris, considering the release date of the movie. For all the talk in BvS of gods and other deities, to release a movie on Good Friday in which your hero dies for humanity, and then returns to life, displays what can only be described as the utmost confidence in your work.
Of course, there’s comic book mythology to back up this development. When the first battle between Doomsday and Superman ended in 1992’s Superman No. 75, both characters were pronounced dead, even though both had reversed that particular decision within a number of years. Put bluntly, Doomsday’s story is that he kills Superman; that’s literally what he was created to do.
(Doomsday was revealed to have survived as quickly as Superman No.78, whereas the real Superman didn’t return for another couple of months, in Action Comics No. 689, with his “death” revealed to be essentially an advanced form of hibernation to allow him to recover from his injuries.)
But whereas the comic book storyline was following a set of preexisting guidelines — Superman was neither the first superhero to return from beyond the grave, nor would he be the last; at this point, it’s almost easier to make a list of major superheroes who haven’t be resurrected — what does death and rebirth mean for the cinematic Man of Steel?
(Before we go any further: Yes, pedants, his rebirth doesn’t officially happen in BvS, but certainly begins, with that final shot of the earth moving on top of his coffin in the same way that it shifted before Superman flew for the first time in Man of Steel. It’s clearly on its way.)
For one thing, it continues the trend of Snyder painting DC characters as mythological figures. While part of this is baked into the Superman concept — he is, after all, a son with unearthly powers sent by his father to save humanity; you’d have to squint hard to miss the Jesus allusion in that description — Snyder has certainly leaned into the curve, first in Man of Steel (in one sequence, Superman floats above the Earth in a crucifixion pose before heading into the action; the character is also established to be 33, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified) and even moreso in BvS.
In this new movie, a statue of Superman is defaced with the words “False God,” while Lex Luthor speaks of the hero as a devil coming from above. Batman refers to him as a god, although interestingly, Wonder Woman doesn’t (she does, after all, have experience with real deities, albeit in the Greek pantheon not the Christian one). And then, of course, there’s the whole “becoming a figure of inspiration to the entire world after his death” thing, with vigils and graffiti that begs humanity to learn from his example. (Apparently, public opinion in the DC movie universe is a fickle thing, going from hatred to devotion in just a few large explosions.)
Superman, it’s clear, is not just a superhero in these movies, he’s the most special, most beloved superhero of them all. In terms of trying to break the character from the preexisting glut of movie heroes in costumes, it’s definitely a novel approach that is unlikely to be repeated by another character (Doctor Strange, bless him, may have a direct line to the Ancient One, but that’s hardly the same thing). At the same time, however, it’s something that could become limiting to future developments. Ignoring the basic storytelling issue of, “How can you create narrative tension when your hero has survived both a nuclear explosion and death itself?” there are certain story avenues that become closed off when you have essentially stated that your guy just happens to be Jesus.
All of this raises the question of where the movies will go next. When Superman returns (another movie that enjoyed comparing the Man of Steel to Jesus), will Snyder continue to pursue parallels with Christ, or even take them further? Can the allegory expand beyond where it already is, and if so, can it do so without damaging or subsuming the idea of Superman as an action hero?
Justice League is scheduled for a November 2017 release, which means that the Man of Steel’s actual resurrection will sadly avoid Easter. If we’re lucky, perhaps we can hope for some Thanksgiving content to make up for it.
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