Just about any good character is relatable in some way to the audience. Superheros are a form of escapism, that much is true, but stories of all kinds matter because they allow us to connect to other people. With Batman, it’s trying to reclaim some sense of control in a world where you feel powerless. With the X-Men, it’s the concept of being hated, not because of anything you’ve done, but what you are. With Superman, it’s the desire to do the right thing, the idea of lost culture, being a good person – it is and always has been an immigrant story. With DCEU Clark specifically, it’s all of that plus that feeling of isolation, of being alone.
The DCEU version of Superman reminds me a great deal of classic X-Men stories. After all, the idea of him being an immigrant is heavily highlighted. The X-Men represent persecuted minorities that do just what Clark did throughout all of Batman v Superman. He saves the world, but gets criticized and berated and treated as the other for it. The motto of the X-Men has always been to protect those that hate and fear them.
I saw a debate on Tumblr recently over the use of the word “uniform” vs “costume” to describe what the X-Men wear. One person took the fact Scott prefers “costume” as classist and lacking respect for blue collar workers that wear uniforms, but several other people pointed out that that’s not it at all, because Scott wasn’t raised at the school. He spent his childhood on the streets and in an orphanage, told no one would care about him. His preference for costume over uniform isn’t that he considers janitors or fast food workers beneath him. It’s ideological. It’s tied with his identity as a mutant. Being an X-Man isn’t a job for him. It’s not a choice. I’d argue that it’s even more than a calling, because Scott can’t stop being a mutant. It’s to be recognized as someone not dangerous, someone that can and will help.
Costuming is an interesting thing to consider. The X-Men movies are the codifier for the Movie Superheroes Wear Black trope, right? And I get why that’s how they were costumed. It served a purpose. The first X-Men movie was a new, darker take on the genre, and they figured that that would be a good way to distinguish them from previous superhero movies. The X-Men are a team, not just a single person, so it made a degree of sense to put them in matching suits that looked like they could offer some amount of protection, like a military unit. But that’s not what the X-Men are. They’re not a military organization. Sure, not everything they do is out in the open. But that’s for the safety of both them and their students. Their primary goal is to help mutants learn to control their powers, not fight anyone. They’re not supposed to scare people, they’re there to help. They’re there to be unashamedly mutants, to show people that the majority of mutants aren’t bad, aren’t there to hurt anyone. They stand as an example and a symbol of hope, to mutants and baselines alike.
From what I understand of a certain Justice League deleted scene, Clark looked past a black suit – pretty similar to what Jor El was wearing under his armour in the Man of Steel opening scene – and chose his traditional blue and red over it because that’s the symbol of hope. That suit and emblem are what people recognize. When he’s flying through the sky, too far for people to tell what he looks like, they first see movement and then they see colour. Zod was wearing black during their fight in Man of Steel. Choosing the blue and red suit gave the humans on the ground – including the ones who’d feared and hated him to the point of waving signs saying he didn’t belong on the planet – a clear way to recognize him and distinguish him from Zod and the other Kryptonians that invaded. Clark cared about the people that hated him enough to reassure them, and on a meta level, the fact that those people were reassured by that choice says a lot about the maliciousness of their attitude towards him in Batman v Superman. Most of them do recognize the difference between him and Zod. They were just being assholes, hating the different.
Bruce uses fear as a tool, unlike Clark or the X-Men. He can do that because he’s human with no special powers. He doesn’t want the innocent to be afraid of him – as the woman Clark spoke to in Batman v Superman said, “the only people scared of him are the people that got reason to be.” But he’s not afraid of being perceived as a soldier rather than a superhero, because a superhero isn’t what Gotham needs. Batman is a crusader in a war against crime. He doesn’t have powers, there are just rumours. He’s a threat to a corrupt institution, but innocents aren’t afraid of him.
Bruce Wayne can be reassuring. He can run through a disaster zone and tell a child he’s going to find her mom. He can act like a harmless rich guy with no day job at a party. But Batman has to be scary because fear helps him keep crime in check. It works because of the kind of place Gotham is – a corrupt cesspool that can’t be fixed with superpowers, because many of its problems are deep rooted, system issues involving people taking advantage of those that can’t protect themselves. Gotham doesn’t trust idealists. It’s a city that at times seems designed to chew people up and spit them back out. As Bruce himself said in Batman v Superman, “Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred; we’ve seen what promises are worth. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” Good guys die. They get corrupted and become villains. And because of that, the people of Gotham don’t so much want a symbol as they do an example. An example of a good guy that doesn’t give up on them, even when it’s hard and seems like a struggle that never ends. Yes, the bat is a symbol of hope to Gothamites, but what matters is why: Batman is trusted in Gotham because he’s still there. All these years, and he’s still fighting for the people that live there. That can also tie into the X-Men – because even if baseline humans don’t, mutants trust them for continuing to fight for them – even if you can look at it as the opposite of Superman’s idealism being what people respect and admire.
Xavier had an enormous influence on Scott’s worldview, and Scott was devoted to his dream. Even when everyone accused him of straying away from it, he was still fighting with the same end goal in mind: building a world where mutants can be safe. The X-Men fight to protect those that hate and fear them, both because that’s the right thing to do and because of their goal of peaceful coexistence. In recent years, Scott has become known as a mutant revolutionary. Before his death, he drew a line in the sand and refused to not fight back when humans tried to harm mutant children. But even then, his defence of himself and his people had nothing to do with stopping defending humans. Helping people is not a zero sum game.
Even if Scott’s power was something less destructive, something he could control, he’s still been doing this for so long, it’s not an option for him anymore. He was a child soldier. He became a teacher. Caring for, teaching, and protecting young mutants is what he does. It’s pretty much his entire identity. He’s a crusader, dedicating to protecting mutantkind, because someone has to, and no one else is good at it. He’s lost everything that matters to him because of what it means to be a mutant and what it means to be a mutant leader. Jean, multiple times. Madelyne. His relationship with his friends and family. His life. He keeps at it because he has to. Because he’s a good guy that can’t not help people.
In that regard, Clark is very much like Scott. As Lois said in Man of Steel, not helping just isn’t an option for him. He can’t sit back and not do anything when there are people that need him, when he can see and hear so much that he can prevent. Both Superman and the X-Men are torn between a feeling of responsibility to protect other people and a need to take care of themselves.
Clark blocks out some of the stuff he could hear and see. He has to, because otherwise, he would probably be unable to help anyone. In Man of Steel, we saw a younger version of him in a flashback, overwhelmed by his senses and terrified about the world being too big. What that scene really reminded me of is a scene from X-Men: Evolution, when Rogue was overwhelmed by all the personalities she’d absorbed. Both these scenes are a sobering reminder that saving people isn’t easy. And we don’t have a right to demand it of anyone. It’s easy to say that people who can help others should be obligated to, that we all have responsibility towards our fellow man. And to an extent, it’s true – humans are social creatures, we’re in this together, and we’ve survived this long because we help each other. Doing that is the right thing to do. But in practice, it’s not that easy. It’s one thing to help someone up when they fall or give the homeless guy on the corner a few bucks, but having to constantly be aware of everything, every bit of suffering? That’s a horrifying thought. Even people that work with amazing organizations like Doctors Without Borders can’t spend all their time and energy on other people. It’s unsustainable at best.
Even if Superman dedicated every minute of every day to saving people, he still wouldn’t be able to save everyone. If there were two people drowning on opposite sides of the world, he’d have to pick one. And knowing that would destroy him. He’s just a guy that wants to do the right thing. He’s not a god. He’s not omnipotent. Clark does help people. He’s even glad to. He’s willing to give his life for others, as he demonstrated in Batman v Superman. He’s willing to come testify before Congress to justify his actions even though none of the deaths were his doing. But asking him to give up his relationships with other people, any semblance of a life, his very sanity? That’s asking too much. Of anyone. No one is obligated to set themselves on fire to keep you warm.
There is a scene in, I think, Civil War, where Cyclops confronts Iron Man. Tony tells Scott that the government wants the X-Men registered, and Scott counters by pointing out that being a mutant isn’t what they do or a choice, it’s what they are, and that what he’s asking is for them to register for being born.
He disbands the X-Men, leaving all the former members as just citizens with no secret identity. He limits their ability to help people for the sake of keeping them safe and free. And that’s not a particularly difficult choice for him, because it’s not just about him. He has to make decisions with his entire species in mind. That’s something a member of any minority can understand – we get judged as a group. We’re treated as a monolith, not as individuals.
At the end of Man of Steel, Clark destroys a drone, saying that while he wants to help, it has to be on his own terms. That’s not an option for the X-Men, because they don’t work alone. They do what they do to protect people, yes…but it’s about more than that. It’s about mutant children. It’s an interesting contrast – Clark doesn’t have the same support or sense of security of knowing there are other people like him out there. His abilities isolate him. But to an extent, it’s also freeing. His decisions are simpler than those of the X-Men. He doesn’t have to think what doing one thing could mean for all the people like him around the world. Knowing what the right thing to do is isn’t easy…but it’s easier when you don’t have to consider the political ramifications of it and what acting would mean for your people.
Remember the old joke about the Superman comics and how no one would be surprised if it turned out nobody died on Krypton but Jor El, because of all the Kryptonians that kept showing up alive? Well, seeing as that’s not really the case in the DCEU, Clark being alone is arguably the primary difference between his story and that of the mutants. Kara isn’t around in the DCEU yet – maybe never, what with the whole scout ship thing – and neither is Kon, so Clark doesn’t have to worry about them in the same way the X-Men have to worry about their students. But you know who in the DCEU did have that same worry? Clark’s parents. Jonathan and Martha may be human with no special powers, but they faced the same primary concern Scott and other adult mutants did: fear for their child. Fear of what would happen if people found out about his powers. It was the same fear Lara had before launching baby Kal into space. He’ll be an outcast. A freak. They’ll kill him. The mutants have additional concerns, like registration and having to find children with the X-gene and train them before they can get hurt.
In BvS, Clark is hated for being an alien, for being different, but he’s not the one that brought Doomsday into the world. He’s not the one that wreaked havoc while trying to kill an innocent man. Lex is a human that decided he didn’t like Clark’s power and that he needed to die so that his world would make sense to him again. Bruce is the one who appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner. Clark? He’s just the one that saved people from fires, aliens invaders, oil rig explosions, and more. One of the single most poignant scenes in Batman v Superman was Clark landing in front of the Capitol and turning to see a mob waving signs telling him to go home, despite all he’d done to help people. It reminds me of that one storyline in X-Men: Evolution, where the existence of mutants was revealed to the world. They wound up with the police and the military trying to arrest them. Even after they’d stopped Juggernaut, they were still regarded with suspicion.
Threats don’t come from people that look different. Nightcrawler is blue. He has a tail and fangs. He’s a hero. Mystique can look like anyone under the sun. She’s a villain. The Morlocks are feared and forced to live underground, not because they’ve done anything, or even because they’re powerful mutants, but because people don’t accept them since they look different. Lex and Bruce have no powers whatsoever, but still caused huge amounts of damage in Batman v Superman. The most dangerous people among us are not the ones that look different, that are obviously unlike he supposedly “normal” people. Anyone can be dangerous. It’s not something you can identify from appearance or abilities. It’s actions that matter.
If Clark is analogous to the X-Men, that makes Zod and the like analogous to the Brotherhood. They believe that might makes right. They may have noble goals, but they’ve been twisted and distorted. Zod wanted to rebuild Krypton on Earth and didn’t care how many humans he had to kill to do it. Magneto – sometimes, anyway – wants to protect mutantkind from persecution, but goes so far that he believes baselines should all be wiped out and does more to increase fear of mutants than he does to help them. It’s not a question of appearance. Magneto and Zod look just as human as Clark does. And it’s not a question of abilities. Zod has the same abilities as Clark. Magneto is less powerful than some X-Men, more powerful than others. It’s a matter of what they do with their powers. It’s a choice.
One of the things I have to appreciate about movies based on comic books over the comics themselves is that there can be an end. A happy ending isn’t just until the next terrible thing in the next instalment. Comics can get kind of depressing after a while because of how rarely there are major changes to the status quo. Like, the X-Men have spent the past, what, sixty years fighting oppression? And they never get a victory that lasts because if they ever got to a point where mutants weren’t facing constant existential crises and weren’t feared by a significant chunk of the population, the entire premise of the X-Men comics would have to change. The same holds true for Batman – Gotham City must remain a crime ridden terrible place to live, otherwise Batman no longer needs to exist. But people can change. People can improve. That’s present in both the DCEU and, on a smaller scale, the X-Men comics. Clark inspired Bruce to get back to being a hero in Batman v Superman. In the comics, Senator Kelly eventually started supporting mutant rights after the X-Men saved him a bunch of times, up to the point of seeking legal action against the Sentinel program.
Clark becomes reminiscent of the mutants not because of his powers, and not because of how he’s ostracized because of them – at least, not entirely – but because he’s a good guy. He goes out and saves people, regardless of how they feel about him. He does good and eventually, that inspires other people to do the same, to stop regarding him as a threat. Superman and the X-Men both resonate with minorities because of that sense of ostracization. Superman and the X-Men are two sides of the same coin and demonstrate different aspects of being a minority. As we saw from the reaction to DCEU Clark, this may make their stories seem “gloomy” or “no fun” to a lot of people, but to a lot of immigrants and other minorities, it’s instead instantly recognizable and beautifully relatable.