The world changed that day.
People looked up, hopeless and helpless as they watched buildings topple and towers fall. Street corners, blocks, and boroughs were destroyed under the weight of changing gravity. Metropolis was being destroyed by the world engine, and there was nothing the world could do to stop it. Then Superman – a guardian from the sky – came to save them from one of his own people. The two, Kal-El and Zod, fought while the world watched in terrifying wonder.
The battle was over. Superman won. Zod was dead. The people mourned their losses and rejoiced in their Man of Steel, their Superman. The destruction between the battle of New York in Avengers and the battle for Metropolis is similar in scope and in scale, yet one took the time to show the effects of the chaos and destruction. What happens after the dust settles and the rubble remains? We weren’t used to this on film. There was no stopping, no reflecting in previous films on the weight of destruction, on the toll it took not only on the citizens below, but also on the heroes – just a few quips and on to the next big set piece.
The first four films of the DCEU, and Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition in particular, force us to dwell on the destruction, on the loss of life and on the despair the destruction brought to the everyday people who inhabit this world.
But first, the films do something that previous superhero films haven’t: they allow their heroes to mourn.
Superman mourned the death of his enemy he killed by his own hands. Similar to when he killed Zod in issue #22 of Superman, he mourns death. In Man of Steel he immediately mourns; in the comic books it takes him longer, but he still does mourn the loss of life, even if it was justifiable. We see that poignant moment on film, displayed in full by the gut wrenching yell made by the beacon of hope as he falls to the floor, the weight of his burden; killing the last of his race in order to save a race not his own. In that scene all music stopped, everything surrounding him was quiet until his mourning yell pierced the silence and the Man of Steel wept over the dead. Superman displays the decidedly human emotion of lament across his face as he looked at what his hands had done, even if it was done in order to save. We are given that moment for a reason. It shows us although it is a fantastical comic book world where Greek gods are “real,” and gods hurl thunderbolts from the sky, these heroes are not so removed from the world so as not to react to the death and destruction; they still mourn death.
Similar to Superman, Wonder Woman mourns and questions the goodness of humanity (as anyone who has studied any portion of history could and rightly should. We are a messed up, sin-stained people – and history proves it, no matter how many times Joel Osteen or any other prosperity preachers or talking heads say we are “basically good”) when she sees the wanton destruction in the bloody and poisonous battles of World War I. She is confused, heartbroken, and angry when she walks upon the town destroyed by gas. People, livestock, dead simply by breathing in the wrong air, and all for a test; no more than an experiment by Ludendorff to showcase his latest creation.
Batman mourns differently. Of course he does, right? He’s Batman. In BvS it is shown instead of mourning, he uses the grief of losing his parents, grief of losing a Robin (presumably Jason Todd, for obvious reasons), as fuel for his hatred of criminals. It then warps into his hatred of Superman. Like Jesse Ventura from Predator, Batman, “Ain’t got time to grieve.” No, instead it turns to hatred. And drinking. And women. Alfred laments that the next generation of Wayne’s will inherit an empty wine cellar, “Not that there will be a next generation,” he said in hushed tone. And Alfred is always on the lookout for a good woman for Bruce to make him honest, straighten him up. Batman’s grief has turned to cruelty. He’s a mirror of real life cops or vigilantes who take justice into their own hands. Who have seen one-too-many innocents gunned down and decide to take matters into their own hands outside the law. Bruce Wayne slowly fades as the Bat of Gotham rises, inflicting pain and death on all who do ill in this world. But that’s not enough for a man who can’t grieve. Even the potential for evil must be punished. And in Superman, he sees great potential for evil, death, and destruction. In Bruce’s mind, the Man of Steel is only one changed mind away from becoming the next Zod. In order to keep that from happening, he must strike first, even if it is only a one percent possibility of Superman turning evil.
Bruce, and former Wayne Enterprises employee, Wallace Keefe, are similar. They both cannot grieve their loss. Bruce has shut everyone out emotionally, and Keefe’s wife left him to grieve his loss alone, reminding him “I’m half the man I once was.” Their stories are tragically similar. Instead of learning how to grieve, they turn their sadness into anger, and turn their anger into hatred of the one who destroyed Metropolis, and their lives. But since he’s dead, they deflect it to the one who saved them instead. We are shown throughout the film the two brooding in their anger. Through them we see the overwhelmingly negative aspects of what happens when people do not learn how to mourn well.
Sadly, Keefe’s story does not end well. His ends as he unwittingly plays the sacrificial pawn in Lex Luthor’s deadly game to ensnare Superman to do his bidding in order to show the world Superman is not the beacon of hope they think he is.
But thankfully, Batman’s story doesn’t end in a likewise dire manner. During one of the most beautiful scenes of the film he’s shown that no, Superman isn’t this evil being who wants to rule the whole world; he’s just a kid who’s trying to save his mom. Bruce is able to fully grieve the loss of his parents finally through the cathartic experience of ”Saving Martha” after all these years. And Superman’s sacrificial death, he now is able to use his grief as fuel to fulfill a promise he made to the Man of Steel to not fail him in death as he did in life.
People mourn death. In BvS and Suicide Squad, people are mourning their loved ones lost in the Battle of Metropolis and the death of Superman. Candlelight vigils for the great one lost, memorials to remember the lost, t-shirts to keep close to their chest, keepsakes and photos to remember loved ones by. All these are common examples, and we are shown the wide range of human emotions as they respond to their fellow humans perishing, and to their Superman as well.
Much like in real life examples after terrorist attacks and the deaths of world leaders held so dear, the people in the DCEU are confused, angry, and weary in the face of such death and destruction. Governments concoct radical plans and take preemptive measures to stop more destruction, which often leads to a cycle of more violence. We see our endless wars repeated, only in different forms in the DCEU. Here we witness preemptive attacks on other sovereign nations to stop terror; there we watch the government agree to a plan to wield captured villains as a weapon against other villains. And the cycle continues.
Lastly, we are shown most-clearly the emotions of rejoicing and lamenting through watching Lois Lane. She is the lens through which we see much destruction and grace. She is the one who uses her journalistic skills to find the man behind the suit and cape, and she’s the one to tell Batman he’s about to kill a man who’s just trying to save his mom. She is filled with wonder at Superman, and faces her fears when confronted with his powerful enemies. Through her we the audience are brought in to witness some of the most poignant moments in the DCEU thus far. She was there to comfort Superman when he took a life to save the world, and mourned over his dead body when he sacrificed his life to save the world. And in the latest trailer for the upcoming Justice League, we are given a glimpse of her living without him. She is given time to mourn the loss of her coworker and would-be husband, her hero and friend.
Death touches and affects us all. It elicits one of the most basic and common of human emotions: sorrow. In reflecting our own society, Directors Zack Snyder, David Ayer, Patty Jenkins, and (hopefully) Joss Whedon, have shown and will continue to show the weight of being superheroes in a fallen world that distrusts those who do good because it is so foreign to them. We are shown explosions and great and massive set pieces full of grandiose, exciting, exhilarating battle; and still we are shown the rubble of what remains, the after-effects of destruction. We are given the ability to watch our heroes, and citizens, mourn over loss, learn from their mistakes, and strive to be better.
Not only that, we are shown what comes at the end of grief and mourning. What comes after the darkest part of the DCEU, the Death of Superman. We are given the Dawn of Justice, the gift Superman gave to the DCEU. In a word; we are given Hope.
If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy our argument as to who really is to blame for the destruction of Metropolis.
Also, our series covering when the big three get weary in the comics and the DCEU.
Last but not least, you may also enjoy these in-depth articles as to who Superman is in the DCEU.