Justice League (2017) promotion poster (IMDB)

Zack Snyder, Matthew Arnold, and Ancient Stories in Comic Book Films

Does it make sense for contemporary Superman to stand beside ancient Zeus in comic book films? Filmmaker Zack Snyder and 19th century poet and critic Matthew Arnold think so.

Applying Arnold’s Ideas to “Dark” Films

There’s a tendency among some critics to lump all support for Snyder’s DC universe films into the convenient dustbin of “Toxic Fandom”. A recent article in Polygon (citation forthcoming) does precisely this. Sure, the Internet is full of trolls from every conceivable walk of life; why would comic fandom be any different? What these critics overlook, however, is how films like Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013), Batman v. Superman (Schroeder, 2016), and Justice League (Snyder, 2017) might resonate with some viewers for reasons other than a bloodthirsty love of carnage. There is something beyond the basic appeal of “dark” storylines. In other words, and toxic fans are not the only admirers of these films. Let’s consider how Arnold’s ideas about the past might account for the power they hold for these viewers. 

In general, the DC universe of comics lends itself to the mythological and the Christological more than Marvel Comics’ does. There are obviously going to be exceptions to this, but the natures of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman synthesize nicely with ancient stories. They are all, after all, figures from one mythology or another, and Batman’s appeal has always been deeply elemental and even psychological, making a reading of his character consistent with those of the ancient heroes.

Marvel, of course, incorporates these types of figures as well, but to a lesser degree. For every Thor, there are ten accidents of science like Spider-man or the Hulk. The DC characters lend themselves to ancient notions of storytelling. Even the name of their collective, “The Justice League, ” asserts a commitment to Greek philosophy’s fundamental interest. In short, these stories embrace the mythic at their very heart, and Snyder recognizes this. 

It can be justifiably argued that Snyder’s cinematic approach to these characters is consistent with their natures; he has locked into their essences as “the eternal objects of Poetry”, to use Arnold’s phrase. To extend Arnold’s analysis to these comic book movies, Snyder, like Arnold, emphasizes these ancient heroes’ noble actions. The much-maligned Snyder color palette makes more sense from this perspective. By draining his film’s colors of some of their vibrancy, he also removes from them some of their immediacies. They feel less photo-realistic than one might expect. Certainly, the “darkness” of the colors serves to match the darkness of these films’ tones thematically, but the technique also removes them from our present moment. Many critics will count that as a flaw – they become less “relatable”, to be sure. But what they replace relatability with is an overall impression of the eternal and mythological. 

Let me briefly take the critical position of a contemporary reviewer to further my point. There are elements of these films that are so out of step with modern storytelling that they draw a harsh eye-roll from the modern critic. Take Man of Steel, for instance, and the moment when Superman’s adopted father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), stops the still-undiscovered hero from saving him from a tornado, sacrificing his life to keep Clark’s abilities secret.

From a purely modern perspective, this indeed feels contrived and might read as a “sloppy” way to push the story forward. Yet from Arnold’s perspective, the grace of the screenwriting is less significant than the nobility of the action. From this perspective, Kent’s actions make at least as much sense as those of Oedipus when he blinded himself and fled Thebes. His action, had it been written today, would have struck modern critics as similarly false. 

Speaking of Oedipus, let’s talk about the “Martha” moment. I’m a late convert and didn’t initially appreciate Snyder’s approach to this material. The moment when my dismissal reached its peak was his interruption of the fight-to-the-death between Superman and Batman based on “oh, your mom’s named Martha too? Excellent.” I’m not alone in my reaction to this moment. However, adopting a different perspective from which to view these films, this Arnoldian one, I have a new appreciation for what Snyder is trying to do.

Oedipus’ relationship with his mother is a foundation myth for Western theater, philosophy, and art and one that Freud draws heavily from in the construction of modern psychoanalysis. At that psycho-mythic level, the common aspect of the lost mother between Batman and Superman is an almost irresistible way to bring not only the warring heroes together, but also the universal metaphors they represent: Batman, object in which we explore a fractured human psyche; and Superman, the Greek/Christian hybrid god, come to life. These ancient actions are the register that Snyder is aiming for, and he continues to bewilder and frustrate modern critics along the way.

There are better and worse ways to plow ancient soil. Arnold himself acknowledges this in his own “Preface”. He begins the piece by explaining the exclusion of his poem, Empedocles on Etna, from the collection. He goes out of his way to explain that the decision was decidedly not an act of kowtowing to contemporary critical tastes; he excluded it as it felt too modern to him and not ancient enough. To his judgment, it lacked the noble action appropriate to his subject. Likewise, this essay is not meant to suggest a free pass to Snyder or any other filmmaker who fixates on mythological ideas of storytelling.

Though I appreciate it more now, the whole Martha thing still feels a little ham-fisted.  Also, I don’t wish to suggest that modern subjects are less interesting than ancient ones, nor would Arnold. In the same essay, reflecting on what constitutes an “excellent action”, Arnold writes, “The modernness or antiquity of an action, therefore, has nothing to do with its fitness for poetical representation; this depends on its inherent qualities” (188). Modern stories and modern interests are also vital, and the world would be poorer without them. I love Derrickson’s Dr. Strange (2016) alongside Scorsese’s The Irishman. (2019). Arnold simply pushed back on a broad critical tendency, a de facto dismissal of ancient stories as a suitable material.

So, as you carve out four hours to watch the resurrected Superman stand beside an Amazon and an Atlantean king (as well as Zeus!) in a battle for the ages against Darkseid, an eternal god of death, think about how the mythological can still serve us. The past is often seen as only a burden, a shackle from which to break free. But the old stories can also be a guide, and they can serve as a valuable launching point from which to tell new stories.

Work Cited: Arnold, Matthew. The Portable Matthew Arnold. Ed. Lionel Trilling. The Viking Press. 1949.

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