The most extraordinary image in any movie this century appears in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It depicts the moment when Superman flies to rescue a child caught in an urban disaster in Mexico. The native folk crowd around Superman, reaching out to him, their faces expressing thanks beneath the makeup of their interrupted Day of the Dead celebration. Superman looks startled. He is surprised by the vast display of gratitude and humbled (as I was) by the unexpected spectacle of worship.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t necessarily a religious film—but that scene reminds us of the awe that Hollywood religious movies used to provide long ago, when we (or our parents) were children. The sincerity of that scene counters the snark and nihilism that overwhelm contemporary movies and popular culture. Director Zack Snyder puts modern audiences back in touch with the wonder and trepidation formerly associated with biblical films, though he is working through the less vaunted text of comic book mythology. Snyder’s Superman (played by Henry Cavill) appears troubled by the adoring throng’s absolute gratitude and emotional hunger. Those Day of the Dead visages are no coincidence; as signs of mystical cultural ritual (used for frivolity in the Pixar cartoon Coco), they express a modern sense of indigence and mortality—humanity seeking a lofty desire. It is a reminder of what most current movies have lost.
Mythology has a bad reputation in today’s culture. Movies based on comic books, the last bastion of imaginative projection and emotional need, have so normalized the superhero ideal that the stories have become more about opportunities for conflict and violent revenge (facile political allegories born of the era’s fractious temperament) than about anything like divinity.
The most financially successful comic book movies are those derived from the Marvel Comics franchise. The Marvel films have become routine summer release diversions—blockbusters that defy belief in the supernatural through characters who simply represent the extremes of human physical exertion. The Marvel films (Iron Man, Captain America, X-Men, The Avengers) are decidedly secular items, and are preferred as such in high numbers. Marvel makes astonishment banal and miracles unmiraculous. In this, it differs from the movies derived from the D.C. comic book brand that Zack Snyder oversees.
The Snyder-D.C. films Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League are serious (as opposed to Marvel’s hipster playfulness) without opposing the idea of comic book fantasy and wonder. If you dismiss them as kid stuff, you’ll miss the last remaining expression of skillful, thoughtful, even spiritual popular culture. Like the early Christians who recognized each other by the sign of the fish, defenders of the Snyder-D.C. films have faced down reproach by fanboys who hate everything but Marvel-brand cynicism. These cultural philistines reject what Snyder and D.C. have made unexpectedly beautiful and weighty out of our adolescent fantasies.
Snyder’s films return us to the emotionally open anticipation of Sunday school lessons, catechism, and homily. His films countenance tragedy, yet uplift is earned dramatically. He seems inspired by the belief that popular art can serve as edification rather than distraction—a belief that endows his films with a unique gravitas and sincerity of purpose.
Snyder’s overall comic book movie design (the “D.C. Universe”) expands the interconnected films beyond their continuous developments in periodic serials. After the introduction of Superman in Man of Steel (an origin story with unconcealed Old Testament parallels), the Batman v Superman sequel explores credulity, testing the possibility of divinity and faith in the contrast between alter egos: Bruce Wayne, the worldly vigilante; and Clark Kent, whose origin on the planet Krypton makes him otherworldly and nearly invulnerable.
The film’s thesis-like title suggests a philosophical exposition, and Snyder seizes this opportunity to enlarge the comic book fantasy’s moral potential. The conflict between two superhero figures also symbolizes the modern theological struggle, a battle between belief and non-belief in which the superheroes ultimately unite to combat the evil mastermind Lex Luthor and an ogre he creates. The fight reveals their shared values (touching on a way of thinking that evokes Mariology), and the film concludes with Superman’s apparent death.
The plot of the follow-up, Justice League, involves Superman’s resurrection—a metaphor for the fundamental Christian belief that is Snyder’s boldest-yet proposition. This narrative turn is built upon the century’s second-most extraordinary movie image: At the end of Batman v Superman, Snyder showed a close-up of Superman’s coffin lowered into a just-dug grave, and the soil freshly tossed upon the casket rolled and levitated as the scene faded out.
The immanence suggested by this shot has united the D.C. and Marvel sects. They all ponder its meaning. No other contemporary film has dared to imply the possibility of renewal, restoration, immortality, or Second Coming. The idea is resonant, and not just for Western culture; it’s thrilling beyond any special-effects sinking of the Titanic or destruction of the Death Star. Resurrection reveals the essential vitality in Snyder’s vision, while also confirming his thematic interest in desire, fulfillment, and edification. That trembling soil (la terra trema) is the most surprising movie climax since the end of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), where the protagonist’s symbolic significance is authenticated when God’s rainbow sign streaks across the night sky.
Spielberg, once Hollywood’s most ecumenical filmmaker, has recently turned explicitly political. But Snyder continues a serious interest in pop-culture mythology. His emphasis on superheroes, particularly their expressive physicality, harkens to the vivid sensuality of Renaissance painting, recalling Michelangelo and Caravaggio’s dramatic gestures and Tiepolo’s ecstasy. Snyder’s religious pop-art marks a significant, lonely pursuit of the mass audience and what should bring it together. The cultural continuity in his films redefines movies as more than entertainment, as a medium for bearing witness to forgotten emotion.
Armond White is film critic for National Review and Out Magazine and author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.