At first glance, the TV show Supergirl and the films Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman couldn’t seem more opposite. One is light, visually and morally, and the other’s dark. One is feminine, reveling in girl power and rarely passing the reverse Bechdel-Wallace Test, while the other is decidedly masculine, reveling in machismo and failing the Bechdel-Wallace Test despite the presence of several named female characters. One has been largely embraced by critics, and the other was mostly savaged. Yet, stark contrasts in quality and aesthetics aside, Supergirl and the DC movies complement each other surprisingly well as they take differing approaches to the same question: What does it mean to be a hero?
Western society’s conception of a hero hasn’t fundamentally changed all that much since civilization and myths first emerged. From Gilgamesh to Achilles and Odysseus to Beowulf, few figures seem to be as consistently venerated as the warrior. In fact, Merriam-Webster, that bastion of traditionalism, defines a hero as:
- A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
- An illustrious warrior
Our collective, enduring fascination with the warrior has found a modern-day vessel in the superhero. Film and TV in particular have yet to feature super-powered beings outside of the action genre, their stories always culminating in battle and displays of aggression. However, where most superhero stories affirm the “warrior as hero” ideal, both Supergirl and Man of Steel/BvS subvert the qualities embodied by this archetype—physical strength, bravery, steadfastness, ambition. The former questions and, for lack of a better term, “feminizes” them, and the latter exaggerates them until they become grotesque.
Though the characters are technically supposed to be related, Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl/Kara Danvers and Henry Cavill’s Superman/Clark Kent could hardly be more different. While Supergirl is a role model, exemplifying the decency and kindness to which humanity should aspire, the latest version of Superman is an anti-hero, not necessarily because he possesses unsavory traits, but because he’s a literal inversion of everything that Superman traditionally represents.
One of the phrases most often associated with Superman is “truth, justice and the American way.” Man of Steel/BvS director Zack Snyder adheres to at least the last part of that phrase, albeit with a twist. The U.S. likes to think of itself as humble, hard-working, and scrappy—the land of freedom and opportunity. Its self-image leans on romanticized notions of the small-town, Midwestern America where Clark Kent grew up. Instead of casting Clark as an idealistic boy scout, however, Snyder aligns him with American might and imperialism, surrounding him with almost propaganda-like militaristic imagery and positioning him as a Christ-like white savior.
The moment that best captures Snyder’s Superman comes about halfway through Man of Steel, when Supes allows himself to be detained by the U.S. Army not long after donning his red cape for the first time. When Lois bemusedly observes that he let himself be handcuffed, Clark explains that it was a symbolic gesture, a demonstration of his willingness to cooperate and forgo his own sense of comfort if it makes the people around him feel more secure. Later in that scene, General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) demands that Superman reveal his identity. In response, Clark breaks the handcuffs, exuding nonchalant coolness that verges on arrogance, and strides up to the one-way mirror shielding Swanwick and his Army compatriots.
He tells the general, “You’re scared of me because you can’t control me. You don’t, and you never will. But that doesn’t mean I’m your enemy.” It’s not a reassurance, but a threat, complete with an implied “though I could be” at the end. Far from earning humanity’s trust through good deeds or sensitivity to its concerns, this Superman has no apparent qualms with asserting his dominance and exploiting people’s fears and vulnerability. He’s compassionate and accommodating, but only when he wants to be, like the Greek gods who protected or tormented mortals on whims. Being Superman and helping people seems less like a moral responsibility than a hobby that Clark one day randomly decides to take up.
Supergirl also explores this not-so-benevolent overlord take on superheroes in the stellar episode “Falling.” After she gets exposed to red Kryptonite, Kara’s worst, most selfish thoughts and tendencies take over, turning the smiling do-gooder into a sneering sociopath. She pressures a reluctant James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) to dance with her when they meet up at a night club, lets a villainous alien escape because she deems him unworthy of her time and effort, and belittles Alex Danvers by picking at her older sister’s deepest insecurities and regrets. Most chillingly, Kara pushes her boss, Cat Grant, out of a high-rise office building only to catch her at the last second, departing the scene with an ominous quip: “True power is getting to decide who will live and who will die.”
I’m not the first person to note the parallels between “Falling” and Man of Steel/BvS. For the most part, I agree with Vulture’s Abraham Riesman, who lays out everything that makes the Supergirl episode a better showcase of superheroes’ appeal (hint: it’s not about the punching). Yet, the argument that superhero stories are inherently about the proper way to use power and that Superman in particular must always be a generous, uplifting character strikes me as limiting from a creative standpoint and simplistic from a political/moral one. After running through a list of some of Superman’s less-than-heroic acts in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, Riesman asks, “This is supposed to be our inspirational hero?”
The short answer is no. Though Snyder feints at an inspirational Superman in Man of Steel (the “S” stands for hope, Jor-El delivers a voiceover monologue telling his son to give the people of Earth an ideal to strive for), Batman v. Superman openly expresses skepticism, if not outright disdain, at the idolization of its eponymous characters. The movie may cast Lex Luthor as a bad guy, but it seems to share his credo that power can’t be innocent.
Instead of backing off the heavily criticized, numbing destructiveness of Man of Steel’s finale, Snyder doubles down with a sequel that replays that Superman/General Zod battle before introducing apocalyptic dream sequences, a gun-toting, bone-breaking Batman who tortures and kills without any apparent hesitation or regret, and a villain named Doomsday who literally flattens downtown Gotham City. None of this is enjoyable, especially not the title bout, but it’s not really meant to be; where most superhero and action movies offset carnage with levity or likable characters, here, the brutality is just exhausting. The result is a compelling meta-narrative on our cultural obsession with glorified macho excess, one where audiences alternately adopt the role of the groveling yet powerless masses and the bitter, bloodthirsty Luthor. Batman v. Superman pushes standard, PG-13 blockbuster violence to the point of parody, rendering masculinity itself absurd in its toxic, melodramatic grandstanding.
So, the problem with Batman v. Superman isn’t its cynicism or its disinterest in catering to our superhero worship; superheroes don’t have to be peppy and admirable any more than fictional cops have to be cool or soldiers honorable. The problem, aside from the weak execution, is that it never finds the people behind the symbols, its striking iconography diluted by the absence of any emotional resonance. After all, what does the downfall of a hero mean if he never really was a hero in the first place? The film offers no insight into why Clark or Bruce Wayne initially took up their respective mantles of Superman and Batman or how they captivated the public’s imagination, as they must’ve once, before disillusionment set in. Snyder never shows what they’re like outside their costumes or how they interact with ordinary people. When a mob burns Superman in effigy on the news, for example, it feels superficial, unearned.
By contrast, in “Falling,” National City’s rejection of Supergirl—relayed in montage with voiceover by disappointed Supergirl champion Cat Grant—hits like a punch to the gut. The sight of a girl Kara had previously defended from bullies throwing away her Supergirl costume is especially heartbreaking, because both that particular episode and the show as a whole so effectively establish her identity as a person as well as a hero. If Batman v Superman upends traditional notions of heroism by perverting them, then Supergirl upends them by offering an alternative, one that values emotional strength over physical prowess, kindness over aggression, teamwork over individualism, and reconciliation over punishment.
Kara/Supergirl is hope and goodness personified, driven to save people by little more than the stubborn belief that they’re worth saving. According to the always image-conscious Cat, this means that Supergirl must be perfect and, by extension, can’t be human, but Kara’s humanity, so to speak, is ultimately what makes her a hero. Where her big-screen counterparts are defined and limited by their powers, Kara is defined—and freed—by her restraint. As exemplified by her encounter with a would-be robber in the episode “Human for a Day,” she doesn’t need to resort to violence or even to use her super-strength, freeze breath, or any of her other exceptional abilities to save the day. She proves herself not by winning battles and defeating enemies, but by helping people.
That doesn’t mean Kara is flawless. Rebutting the idea that decent people are inherently boring or simplistic and upbeat stories can’t explore moral ambiguities, Supergirl allows its heroine failures, mistakes, and regrets. She can be angry, shortsighted, petty, and most importantly, wrong. In an episode tellingly titled “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” James confronts Kara about her alliance with the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO), specifically her cooperation with their extrajudicial detainment of dodgy tech businessman Maxwell Lord:
Jimmy: Is this the kind of hero you want to be? When you have more power than any human army on Earth, you have to be better than this. It’s never going to come down as just a battle of strength or smarts or even wills with you. Ultimately, it’s going to be a battle of values. Your values versus your enemy’s. And if you’re willing to abandon those values, what makes you better than Max Lord?
Director Lexi Alexander makes this scene even more powerful by shooting it in an armory, guns looming in the background. Kara later concedes that Jimmy was right, saying that he makes her a better hero, a dynamic that further separates Supergirl from Snyder’s films. In addition to benefitting from TV’s longer running time and more intimate, less CGI-heavy focus, Supergirl and producer Greg Berlanti’s other superhero shows excel because they surround their leads with teams, colleagues, and friends who can support or criticize the protagonists when needed. The heroes of DC’s movies, meanwhile, work alone, alienated from the world they supposedly want to save.
But the DC cinematic universe can still be salvaged. Batman v. Superman concludes with a conversation between Bruce and Diana Prince, newly returned to man’s world as Wonder Woman, that opens the door for redemption. After Diana laments that people don’t know how to honor a (temporarily) dead Superman except as a soldier, Bruce suggests a way forward, positing that meta-humans should work together to build a better world. Perhaps Snyder and co. will follow through on this promise. Perhaps they will figure out how to honor their superheroes other than as tormented warriors. All they have to do is look up to Supergirl.
Angela Woolsey is a reporter for the Fairfax County Times. A recent college graduate, she spends her free time dissecting and obsessing over movies, TV shows and books, as evidenced by her Twitter account and the sporadically updated blog, Lovingly Derivative. During the summer, you can find her engaged in a torrid relationship with baseball, specifically the Washington Nationals.
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