Does Batman kill people? Dissecting Zack Snyder's heated defense of his controversial DC movies
Not everyone likes Zack Snyder’s DC superhero movies, like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but some who do have quite a passionate attachment to the director’s controversial vision. In fact, some fans been calling for the release of “the Snyder Cut” of Justice League almost since the day Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon to oversee post-production and reshoots. At a recent screening of his director’s cut of Batman v Superman, Snyder did not address the topic of his potential secret Justice League edit, but he did offer a characteristically energetic defense of his previous two efforts.
“Someone says to me like, ‘Oh! Batman killed a guy!’ I’m like, ‘F—, really?’ I’m like, ‘Wake the f— up!’” Snyder said in a Q&A session, as captured on video. “That’s what I’m saying about once you’ve lost your virginity to this f—ing movie and then you come and say to me something about like, ‘Oh, my superhero wouldn’t do that,’ I’m like, ‘Are you serious? I’m like down the f—ing road on that.’ You know what I mean?”
Snyder continued, “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t lie to America. My heroes didn’t embezzle money. My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ I’m like, ‘That’s cool, but you’re living in a f—ing dream world.’ The cool thing is like mythologically speaking, I’m 100 percent fine — and by the way I love more than anything Superman and Batman — but in the same way that Alan Moore was fed up with the f—ing like, ‘Okay no, they do this,’ clearly this is a response. Watchmen talks about comic books in the same way that this movie talks about comic book movies, but it talked about comic books at their most — they were broken, so he was just addressing that. The thing with comic book movies is — and you know I’m a fan, I go and see them, I love ’em…”
Let’s examine this one piece at a time, shall we?
Snyder’s comments about Batman as a killer have gone the most viral here, specifically his admonishment that anyone who doesn’t think Batman kills should “wake the f— up.” It’s funny that Snyder derides critics of his violent Batman as “living in a f—ing dream world,” when everyone involved is really just debating different kinds of made-up fantasy worlds. On the one hand, many fans’ conception of the Dark Knight is heavily influenced by Batman: The Animated Series, which stated over and over again how much Batman hates guns — let alone killing. Snyder’s Batman loves both, which is quite jarring for some viewers. But on the other hand, Christian Bale’s Batman racked up a bit of a body count in Christopher Nolan’s beloved Dark Knight trilogy — tackling Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) off a building, abandoning Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) to die in a crashing train that probably caused all kinds of collateral damage, and so on.
Even before Nolan, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film ended with its Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) killing the Joker (Jack Nicholson). That movie hit theaters just a few years after Frank Miller’s seminal comic The Dark Knight Returns was published, popularizing a conception of Batman that was grim and gritty rather than colorful and campy. The Dark Knight Returns was also a huge influence on Snyder’s films: At one point in Batman v Superman, Ben Affleck’s Batman jumps off a wall while lightning flashes behind him in a clear homage to Miller’s iconic first issue cover.
But those adaptations mostly just show that Burton, Snyder, and their many collaborators may have missed the whole point of The Dark Knight Returns. Although Miller’s Batman is jaded and violent, he still goes out of his way to avoid killing. During his final face-off with the Joker, with his archenemy’s neck in his hands, Batman still refuses to go through with it — leaving the Joker to break his own neck and taunt the hero with one last laugh as he dies. Much like Batman v Superman, The Dark Knight Returns climaxes with an epic duel between Batman and Superman. But rather than stab his frenemy with a gigantic Kryptonite spear, Miller’s Batman again stops short of killing. Instead, he tells the most iconic superhero of all time, “I want you to remember the one man who beat you.”
In any case, the weirdest element of Snyder’s DC work is not even his murderous Batman, but rather that his Superman kills people. Snyder’s first DC film, Man of Steel, ends with the titular hero (played by Henry Cavill) taking the life of his nemesis (Zod, played by Michael Shannon), and though he’s distressed to kill his fellow Kryptonian, it’s not enough to stop Superman from resuming his heroic duties shortly thereafter. Snyder said in these new comments, “The cool thing is like mythologically speaking, I’m 100 percent fine,” and he’s right in the sense that Superman has occasionally killed people on the comic page before. But such moments are often treated as horrendous departures for the character — not the crowning achievement of his origin story.
Funnily enough, considering Snyder’s reference pool, the best rendition of Superman killing someone comes from the iconic comic writer Alan Moore. Moore is often celebrated for his work alongside artist Dave Gibbons on Watchmen, which Snyder adapted into a film in 2009 (with Gibbons’ support, but not Moore’s). Watchmen, which will soon be adapted once more as a TV series on HBO, is famous for furthering the “grim and gritty” conception of superheroes around the same time as The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder often references it, as he did at this latest event, as a north star for his conception of superheroes.
But Watchmen was far from the only DC comic Moore ever wrote. Before embarking on that project, he wrote a Superman story called “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Intended as a send-off to the first four decades of Superman comics ahead of John Byrne’s mid-’80s reboot, Moore took the original superhero to his farthest extremes. At the story’s climax, after Superman has endured unimaginable loss over and over, he makes the fateful choice to kill an enemy. Although Lois Lane tries to assuage him by saying that he had no choice, Superman knows otherwise: “Nobody has the right to kill… especially not Superman.” He doesn’t just talk the talk. After saying that, the Man of Steel makes another fateful choice that prevents him from being Superman ever again.
The point is, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can have Superman kill people, but there have to be corresponding consequences, or else you start to drift away from the character’s storied history and iconography. No comic book adaptation is required to perfectly replicate the source material, and Snyder’s vision has definitely found a devoted audience. But a big reason his films didn’t mesh with viewers as a whole is that they embrace shocking violence without reckoning with the toll on the characters perpetrating it. It’s one thing to replicate iconic drawings or lines from comic book history, and another thing to deploy them in a way that makes sense.
Outside of these new Snyder comments, it’s already quite a big week to be a Batman fan. Those interested in further exploring the character’s history and relationship with violence can pick up the super-sized 1,000th issue of Detective Comics when it hits stores this week. One of the short stories contained within the anniversary comic, by longtime collaborators Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, can be read in full exclusively at EW.
[Ed. note: This article has been updated to more accurately characterize the ending of Man of Steel.]
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice