Guest Contribution by : Sheraz Farooqi
The Social, Political, & Cultural Significance of DCEU’s Superman
Superheroes have always represented what the best of humanity can be. Compassion, selflessness, courage, determination and leadership. Superheroes resonate with human society because they represent the ideals we can all strive towards. As a Muslim American, coming from a family of immigrants, there is one superhero that resonates with me most of all, and that’s Superman. While I have been a lifelong Superman fan and reader, there is one iteration of the character that truly captures and emulates this “ultimate immigrant” experience and that is Zack Snyder’s Superman.
In today’s world, superheroes have become a multi-billion-dollar industry, Marvel and DC Comics have translated their heroes from the comic page to screen in beautiful, gripping and inspiring ways. Both brands amaze us as well as make us think about society at large. In 2017, superheroes not only provide entertainment for all ages, they also provide a much-needed escape. In this area, Marvel and their juggernaut of the MCU thrive in providing a fun, colorful experience that leave you feeling better and happier than how you arrived. While this is crucial to experience in our current flawed, divided and broken society, it isn’t all that we need. Sometimes, we need to see our greatest heroes, these utopian, mythological figures, go through what many of us feel in real life. In this area, DC & their DCEU films excel.
In today’s society, following an election that further divided this country, race relations that are crumbling deeper and many minorities feeling vitriol every day, America is at a crucial crossroads. Just in the last few days, we have seen Charlottesville, VA literally up in flames as bigoted men march, torches in hand, to instill more fear in minorities and PoC and to further make a stand against immigration. They spew hateful rhetoric against black Americans, Hispanics and Muslims. To capture the experience of the immigrant struggle in a macro sense is impossible. On a micro level, on a personal level, and as a comic book fan, I feel superheroes can be that bridge to try to capture this picture and give us a mirror into our world. In today’s society, maybe we need a mirror looking into ourselves more than we do an escape to block that image out. In this area, Zack Snyder has shown to be truly masterful at. From beautifully adapting Moore’s Watchmen, to directing two socially significant Superman movies in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder gave me, a Muslim American, a son of immigrants, a Superman that truly reflects the struggle I see my people face.
My love for Superman came before Snyder’s Man of Steel. In fact, Superman was my role model since I was a little kid. Throughout my 23 years, I’ve read countless Superman comics across all eras. As a kid, the best stories were the fun action-packed ones. As I’ve matured into a man, the Superman stories I’ve come to cherish most are the ones that speak to society as a whole. The ones that challenge issues, challenge stereotypes and break ground into making a better tomorrow. In terms of Superman films, we did not get that socially relevant Superman until 2013’s Man of Steel.
Man of Steel-The immigrant’s struggle of identity
Zack Snyder reintroduced Superman into a more realistic world and society that has light and darkness. At his core, Superman’s story is one of the immigrant, the story of discovering and finding himself in a world that rejects him. That journey to self-discovery is one many immigrants face in this country. Fear of the unknown, rampant xenophobia and disdain for those unlike you exist in a world where Superman, an alien trying to balance two distinct cultures, must reveal himself to save humanity. This humanity, much like our own, is not happily ready for an “alien” to be among them. Man of Steel provided a lifelong Superman fan like me something I never experienced before, a Superman that represents the Muslim American experience in American. Emotionally, mentally and psychologically, Kal-El goes through many of the trials and tribulations that a Muslim immigrant would face in a post 9/11, heavily flawed American society. This is a story about a child that was sent to Earth after his parents sacrificed themselves to give him a chance to survive. Few Superman stories explore this idea further and in detail. What Man of Steel did, was introduce Kal-El into a flawed society, our society. Like many immigrants, all Superman wants to do is to do the right thing with the gifts he was given while also finding a balance in being caught within two worlds. For immigrants, that might mean struggling to balance multiple cultures, languages, or lives. For Superman, it was balancing unlimited power, discovering his birth culture and trying to find his place in humanity. Man of Steel was criticized for having Superman exist in a world where he struggles to exist. What many of these people don’t understand is Zack Snyder only pointed a mirror at ourselves. In Man of Steel, Superman is forced to find the better angels of his nature and be a shining example while the worst of his people try to take over the earth. Man of Steel is about an immigrant finding himself through life becoming the bridge between two people. For immigrants, this is a struggle that is common but has not been explored in other superhero films.
Batman v Superman-The Muslim American Experience
Moving to an experience that rings closer to home is the American Muslim experience. I am a proud Muslim and it’s no secret that the current climate under the Trump Administration has emboldened many islamophobic bigots to spread their hate and vitriol against Muslims. We recently felt the Syrian refugee debate make waves across the country, many being forced to take a side. Do you care about the safety of the country? You had both politicians and media use fear mongering to scare the American people of a “looming threat.” Even one “bad refugee” can cause huge destruction for our country. Letting hate, fear, mistrust, xenophobia and blind media belief dictate our society has only further escalated the islamophobia Muslim Americans face every day. This is where Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman shines above all.
In my opinion, Batman v Superman carries the strongest level of social commentary we’ve seen in a comic book film outside of Watchmen, which happens to be another Zack Snyder film. What makes BvS stand out is that all the problems Muslim American go through in this Post-9/11 society is thoroughly explored through the eyes of the most “American” hero of all, Superman. Where Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel explored the beginning of Superman’s “Ultimate Immigrant” story, showing him as an outcast of both Kryptonian and Earth cultures while trying to form a bridge between them, Batman v Superman looks at the socio-political aspect of this experience. Media xenophobia and paranoia loom over this movie as Superman, while only trying to do good with his gifts, is under constant scrutiny by the people, the media and the government. Once again taking the notion of being scared of your foreign or “alien” neighbor, the world looks at Superman as a stranger and the threat, close to what many, including Muslims, African Americans and Latinos, feel on a daily basis in our current political climate. What Zack Snyder achieves in BvS is to effectively hold two mirrors. One to mirror the many minorities, immigrants and Muslims through the experience of Superman and another at the very bigots themselves through Batman.
In many ways, Batman mirrors the fear you see from the other side of this debate. In Snyder’s Batman v Superman, you see Bruce Wayne’s regression and literal fall from grace as he gives himself up to the hate and xenophobia many Americans willingly and unwillingly give in to. This was a bold move by Snyder as he took arguable the most popular and marketable Superhero in our society with Batman and flipped him on his head. What this leads to is seeing a mirror of what hatred, xenophobia, paranoia has done to the best of us. Batman’s fears of Superman are off from what many Americans feel about immigrants and you see first-hand what Zack Snyder regressed Batman into, someone who dictates every action through fear and mistrust. The key quote to capture this sentiment; “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even one percent chance he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty…and we have to destroy him.” Bruce’s quote here closely mirrors the sentiment many Americans, media members politicians adopted to validate their hate for another human being. Bruce’s 1% about Superman can be paralleled with a bigot’s thoughts on immigration, their views on refugees and Muslims as a whole. Zack Snyder used Bruce as a mirror to show our society what we have become. In today’s climate of neo-Nazi and KKK sympathizers marching with torches in their hands against immigration, this proverbial mirror only reflects the ugly truth clearer. Zack couldn’t leave Bruce in this state because the theme of Batman v Superman is to overcome the darkness inside of you and find the hope you can bring to others. He gave Batman a path to redemption. A path many of us can follow to be better people.
When Bruce opened his eyes and got to see Superman past his black and white mentality, he found change. When he found out that this man, despite being an alien, is no different than him, he realizes how demented his mentality was. The Martha scene of Batman v Superman is a figurative and metaphorical moment. The idea of having the same mother’s name doesn’t even scratch the surface. The scene represented Bruce realizing he has become exactly what he painted Superman to be.
At the end of the day, Clark and Bruce wanted the same thing, to protect their mothers from death. A task that young, helpless Bruce could not accomplish and a task Superman was moments away from failing if Batman killed him. Imagine if we applied this lesson to our society. Here we have the ultimate immigrant, despite having all power, is still subject and victim to the same hatred, xenophobia, fear that many Muslim Americans face every day. On the other side, we have a hero that has given into his fears and hatred and misunderstanding to become a shell of himself, much like many Americans have become giving into the rhetoric media and politicians spew. The way they reconciled their differences is realizing how similar they both are. How “human” they are. If we took the time to reach across the race lines, the religious lines, we wouldn’t have the same level of fear we do now. What Zack Snyder tells us is to look at our neighboring cultures, religions and races and find that deep down we all want the same things in life. There is a true beauty in Zack Snyder’s message in Batman v Superman.
As a Muslim, myself, I can tell you first hand that Superman’s experience in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman deeply resonated with me. Today’s socio-political climate is difficult for many groups. Many, including African Americans, Hispanics and Muslims feel the hatred that this country can produce. The current political climate and the horrors occurring both domestic and internationally make our experiences that much more powerful. Superheroes have always been there to tackle these problems in the comic books. Superman arrived in 1938 right when the American public needed him in War time. Wonder Woman became a symbol for Women’s rights. Professor X and the X-Men gave a parallel to heavily divided Civil Rights movement. Multiple heroes from all races, orientations, religions are starting to be represented in the comics and hopefully soon on film. While it is always a needed reprieve to escape into a Marvel movie where the looming threats of our real society don’t interfere with the pure joy and happiness of their film experiences, we also need films that use these heroes to give us a direct mirror into our society. For that, we all need to give an applause to what Zack Snyder has been able to accomplish. We don’t always want to see our heroes fall from grace to show us the ugliness of our society, but the reward when they find the better angels of their nature is that much better. As a lifelong Superman fan, I’ve read, watched and experienced countless stories and epic moments from the character. Superman speaks very much to who I am and how I’ve matured. What Zack Snyder provided to a lifelong fan who also happens to be a Muslim American in this era is unmeasurable. I have a Superman on screen that has suffered many of the things I’ve suffered and climb through many of the trials and tribulations I see immigrants and fellow Muslims struggle through. Zack Snyder’s Superman is the most universally relatable version of the character and his social, political and cultural significance will hopefully be appreciated over time. As Jor-El prophesized the quote below for Superman, maybe our society can take something from it.
“You’ll give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you.
They will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun.
In time you will help them accomplish wonders.