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A familiar refrain for comic book fans of a certain age is: “Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!” — a promise traditionally made on covers to reassure cynical readers that the image seen “counts” in some way and is therefore worthy of close attention. I mention this because my first thought upon seeing the new tease for next year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was, essentially, “Oh, that’s not real.”
It’s not the sight of a grimacing Henry Cavill as Superman, ripping off the mask of Batman (Ben Affleck, who, of course, scowls back), that made me doubt the validity of the scene. Man of Steel demonstrated a willingness to play with the public’s perception of Superman as everyone’s well-mannered superhero dad to such a degree that, years later, a large swath of comic book fandom has yet to forgive director Zack Snyder, so seeing a silent, furious Superman do a walk of menace up to confront Batman might have seemed out of character, but not impossible.
Similarly, Affleck’s Batman was … unexpected, but not entirely “wrong.” Sure, seeing a Batman wearing an overcoat makes for a funny visual — although at least he’s not wearing a hat on top of his cowl — and the very idea that Batman can be captured in the first place is anathema for a number of Dark Knight fans who’d like to imagine that he’s someone who always wins. But that, still, wasn’t what made the new scene seem so jarring. Instead, the fault lies in … everything else.
It’s one thing to show a quiet, angry Superman — or even a Superman who, as in the climax of Man of Steel, ends up killing his enemy in a moment of weakness — but it’s another altogether to show a Superman who doesn’t react in any way to the sight of men bowing to him or to imagine a Superman who’s apparently OK with keeping prisoners chained up by their wrists (Batman, you can see, isn’t the only prisoner in the room, so it’s not as if this is a special occasion). The confluence of those two things read as so outside what we expect from Superman — from any superhero, really, but especially Superman — that the immediate response is that something is wrong.
The question then becomes whether or not this is intentional or whether (as the Man of Steel skeptics would have people believe) the filmmakers simply don’t understand the inherent decency that Superman, a character who traditionally stands for “truth, justice and the American way,” remember, is supposed to embody. Or, to put it another way: Is Superman wrong, or is the movie itself flawed?
Rewatching the movie’s Comic-Con trailer offers some potential context for what’s actually going on and argues for the former interpretation. How do we go from the Superman who shows up to a congressional hearing on the events of Man of Steel, a man so pained by his mother telling him that he owes the world nothing, to the one we see unmasking Batman in the new scene? Perhaps we don’t, in any organic sense. Instead, let’s blame Lex Luthor — a man who, at the 1:52 mark, is seemingly in control of a Superman who resembles the silent, angry version of the new scene and would be rich enough to fund a private army (see the scene at 2:38, with soldiers attacking Batman, all with Superman’s “S” shields on their shoulders) if necessary.
Is Superman being controlled by Luthor? Is the Superman in the new scene even Superman, as opposed to some kind of clone? Perhaps Wednesday’s new trailer will reveal more, or maybe audiences will have to wait until the movie’s release in March to get the answers. One thing’s for sure: What fans saw in the new clip might end up not being a hoax, dream or imaginary story (although, as Alan Moore famously noted, they’re all imaginary stories), but it’s also not telling us everything just yet.
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