This film should not exist.
It is a three-hour relentlessly gloomy epic about a murderous, deranged Batman trying to kill a depressed Superman. It’s utterly bizarre the film exists in the form it came in. A $250 million US dollar budget went to a film about a pop culture figure, beloved by children worldwide, earnestly trying to murder the embodiment of “truth, justice, and the American way”. The film had tie-in toys, cereals, snacks, as if everything was normal, business as usual, as if the film wasn’t an absurdly intense, violent, and thorough breakdown and deconstruction of cherished children’s characters.
This film should not exist. But it does. And I love it, and think it’s a triumph.
I will talk about spoilers freely, and I’m only talking about the “Ultimate Cut” of the film.
Snyder and Terrio’s Approach
Whether because of the relative success of “Man of Steel”, Warner Bros’ eagerness to build a cinematic universe and once again cash in on the ever-profitable Batman, or some other combination of behind-the-scenes factors, director Zack Snyder was given unparallelled freedom here, unburdened from any and all shackles that held him back from indulging his personal fascinations with the superhero genre before. His 2009 cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s transcendent comic “Watchmen” certainly pushes boundaries, but it was all ones the comic already pushes in the 1980s, and all with original characters, not characters that were already soaked in cultural connotations. It certainly isn’t only because of the way Snyder radically reimagined Batman and Superman here that the film received such widespread critical panning, but it’s certainly a factor.
A lot of this comes down to personal feelings about adaptations. People who read certain books before they are adapted into cinema or television often complain about changes the adaptation makes. Public domain characters and stories (Shakespeare plays, Arthurian legends, etc.) are endlessly reimagined, and that seems to bother people less, but certain reimaginings still irritate certain people, who feel like it disrespects the original conception of the stories, or is just a plainly inferior version. Superheroes are far from public domain, but they’re such long-standing, oft-reimagined figures in the cultural consciousness, that they do feel similar. I personally couldn’t care less how radically adaptations change things, in fact I prefer adaptations to experiment with original texts rather than just produce shallow transposings of stories into a different medium.
It’s understandable how some would be disgusted by this film, but I personally find it enormously fascinating and compelling how deeply Snyder breaks down the titular characters, how far he pushes them, and the questions he (or rather, scriptwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer) asks through the film. I think any film deserves to be taken on its own terms, and when I take “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” on its own terms, I personally find an enormously compelling epic governed by a strong singular artistic vision, filled with great performances, awash in arresting visuals, and backed by an incredibly thought-out score full of unique leitmotifs.
Due to the strange and unique nature of this film, I think it’s interesting and important to look at the people who created it. While “Man of Steel” writer David S. Goyer wrote an early version of the script, frequent Ben Affleck collaborator (and Oscar winner) Chris Terrio was the main mind behind the final script. Zack Snyder, of course, was the director and main mind behind the film.
Terrio was not a comic book fan, but Ben Affleck insisted on bringing him over to the production after he was hired to play Batman. Terrio had written him the script for “Argo”, the 2012 film Afleck directed that won both Best Picture and Best (Adapted) Screenplay at the Oscars, and Affleck took the film seriously enough that he wanted it to have the best script possible. Well, through his research, Terrio quickly arrived at the very same conclusion about the genre that Snyder had maintained all his career; that superheroes, in modern society, serve as archetypal mythological figures in the fashion of the Greek gods, and thus through examining and exploring them, questions reflective of the society the superheroes are so popular in can be asked.
In Terrio’s own words, “It’s almost archetypal. In Batman’s origin [the murder of his parents], the primary thing I was thinking about is the fact he falls. It’s the primary metaphor for Western literature: There was a moment before and then everything fell….I began to think Batman and Superman occupy different parts of the mythic imagination. In superhero stories, Batman is Pluto, god of the underworld, and Superman is Apollo, god of the sky. That began to be really interesting to me—that their conflict is not just due to manipulation, but their very existence. In the end, there’s a common humanity which I think is discovered at a certain moment in the film….If you told me the most rigorous dramaturgical and intellectual product of my life would be superhero movies, I would say you were crazy. But I do think fans deserve that. I felt I owed the fan base all of my body and soul for two years because anything less wouldn’t have been appreciating the opportunity I had”.
Terrio is a student of English literature, which bleeds through most clearly in Lex Luthor’s dialogue, and Snyder is a student of art history, which shows through the film’s many allusions to various paintings. Unlike “Man of Steel”, which attempted fusing a holistic Nolan-esque “realistic” approach (handheld camerawork, grounded characterisations and dialogue, etc.), “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is more of an epic in the vein of the classics Snyder and Terrio are fond of. Characters stand in for idealogical positions, intimate dialogues are spoken like grand orators, and everything is representational. It’s operatic, grand, it takes itself extremely seriously.
To really dig deep into the titular characters, the film had to be completely earnest. Unlike “Man of Steel”, which made a point of shunning the majority of Superman iconography, this film delves very deep into Batman and Superman iconography, symbols, conventions. It leans on assuming audiences already come into the film understanding cultural connotations associated with the characters. The Batmobile here is not a logical vehicle like in Nolan’s Batman movies with Christian Bale. It is not a repurposed military vehicle. It is a bat-themed car, designed by a middle-aged man obsessed with bats. There is no wink, no irony, behind how Snyder presents this. The character is taken deathly seriously. Why is Batman such a popular character? What sort of man would truly design batarangs, the Batmobile, the Batsuit, the Batcave, and so on? How deranged would such a man be? What could such a man be driven to do?
In one sense, Snyder is grounding the superhero characters to a level of reality more immediate than they’ve ever been positioned in in cinema before, and in another sense, he’s using them to tell stories about larger idealogical and social issues relevant to the modern world. Rather than placing superhero characters in a world superficially similar to our own, then telling escapist stories through that setting, he escalates the conflicts and issues inherent to the characters in an exaggerated, grander, magnified version of our world, to examine and break down these characters that remain so popular, then use that exploration to reflect issues of the society that holds them in such esteem back at us. Nolan’s Batman films, and most other modern superhero films, inject superficial realism into the genre. They construct pseudoscientific justifications for the comic-book nature of the characters, then get on with their actual stories.
This isn’t what Snyder is interested in. He presents the characters in their basest forms. He doesn’t try to “justify” them, he doesn’t try to tweak them to make them more palatable for modern audiences, he instead tries to examine why the characters have endured. He takes them at face value. Superman and Clark Kent look identical and no one notices. Snyder doesn’t justify this with some flimsy logic, he presents it as it is, because that’s the nature of the character. Batman dresses up as a bat to fight crime, rather than addressing it as Bruce Wayne from a socioeconomic business or political perspective. Snyder doesn’t handwave away these logical inconsistencies, he constructs an operatic reality where that’s the unquestioned of the nature of the characters, so he can reflect why those traits persist and remain popular.
In Snyder’s own words, “I was really profoundly affected by the 1985 and 1986 comic book years, and I still live with it now. I’m still working it out, the death of my parents, you know. I say my comic book heroes get shot down by ‘Watchmen’ and by ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, and that’s ringing in me still. And the deconstructivist nature and the sort of longing I have to make the mythology mean something comes from those experiences. Too often I think studios and filmmakers have a preconceived notion of what audiences’ expectations will be, based on a film’s genre. I believe this approach often sets a course that funnels many projects down a familiar pathway with comfortable choices and safe decisions. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes this actually works, creating cinematic ‘comfort food’ that delivers and satisfies. But more often that not, it leaves me as a viewer dissatisfied, wanting more and wishing I didn’t know what was waiting for me around every corner. That is why I like creating projects that are self aware. In my opinion, the trick is being self-aware without becoming self-conscious, having an awareness of a project’s roots, but not being stifled by the typical genre preconceptions”. While there was no intention to make “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” at the time of the development of “Man of Steel” (there are some Batman-related easter eggs, pictured below, but they weren’t intended as legitimate universe-building), it seems much more a fulfilment of Snyder’s vision as described there.
The Nolan films excuse and dismiss the sillier aspects of Batman so audiences can get on with enjoying his clever plots. Snyder centres the whole movie around the silly aspects, taking them deathly seriously, to examine why audiences want to see the character at all. He wants to deconstruct the character as hard as he can before reconstructing him, he wants to push and break the figure as far as he reasonably can, so that he can build him back up and thus provide a holistic justification for the character’s popularity that’s grounded in a story that’s truly questioned him – and thus allowed him to provide an answer. A story that dismisses and waves away the silly and strange aspects of the character can’t make a reasonable case for the character’s popularity, because it intentionally ignores it. It’s only through breaking and disfiguring the characters that Snyder can build them back up, and thus make a resonant statement for why the characters persist, peculiarities and all, in modern society.
This synthesis between grounded and operatic storytelling is what has long fascinated me about Snyder, and I think this film is the clearest, most singular achievement of that vision he’s achieved yet, perhaps due to the larger amount of freedom he received with the film, and due to the efforts of Terrio, who seems to mesh with his particular sensibilities better than other writers he’s worked with before.
As I see it, the film follows two main arcs, Batman’s and Superman’s, but other primary characters have their own stories that serve as comments on, and parallels reflecting, those two primary arcs.
Batman struggles with feeling powerless, weak, impotent, like he has made no difference and his life has had no meaning. He turns to fear and hatred as he sees the unrestrained and unquestioned might and power of Superman, who he thoroughly dehumanises as he works to rid the world of him. At the moment he can finally kill Superman, he empathises with him, as he comes to understand he’s become like the killer that threatened and killed his parents when he was a boy, and that Superman has loved ones as well, that even if he isn’t a human, he’s still a person, and that killing an innocent person would make Batman just like the man who killed his family. So Batman gets over his fear, feelings of inadequacy, and escalating brutality, and resolves to work in a more compassionate, forgiving way in future. Batman goes from feeling weak, to being strong enough to kill the one who’s made him feel weak, to realising that would make him just like the man who ruined his life as a child, so he resolves to not get hung up on fear in future, and to act with more grace and empathy instead.
As per Snyder’s approach of grounding absurd characters hard in reality before building them back up to their iconic status, Batman is somewhat disfigured in this film – he intentionally kills. This is confronting. Batman has killed in the previous Batman films, from Nolan’s to Tim Burton’s, but a big deal was never made of it, it was never grounded hard enough in reality to be examined with the seriousness it would be treated with in the real world. It would be impossible for a figure like the Batman, engaging in the type of crimefighting he iconically engages in, to never kill anyone and thus, even after he surmounts his issues of hyper-violence, men still die in his path (some of the thugs guarding Martha Kent at the warehouse by the dock).
Snyder presents incidental killing as an unavoidable aspect of a character like Batman if he is to be grounded, and thus reflects the question back at the audience, do we approve of this? Do we approve of someone killing outside the law? Perhaps we do…but we’re less inclined to approve of him taking it as far as branding and torturing criminals, then condemning them to be murdered in prison (something he’s willing to do to low-level thugs at the start of the film, but refrains from doing to even supervillain Lex Luthor at the end). We’ll accept Batman as a judge, but not as a jury and executioner as well. It’s only through pushing Batman this far, that Snyder could determine this. And it’s only a more deranged-than-usual Batman that would ever fight a figure like Superman, so Alfred’s comments on “everything’s changed” and “the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel” are very much on point.
Early shots of Batman show him making his way through untended fields, firstly in nightmares, then in cold reality, but at the end of the film, Batman is displayed walking on a sunny day with a clear path in front of him – he’s found his way.
Superman struggles with being rejected by so much of the world. While he’s just trying to do good as he sees it, the immense theological, social, cultural, and legal implications of his existence complicate and muddy matters to the point where Superman, along with much of the world, questions what good he is actually doing. He struggles with feeling useless, misunderstood, and unwelcome. Eventually he comes to understand that no matter how he’s treated, it’s worth trying to protect and help both the world and the woman he loves, and so he sacrifices his life to save a world that’s rejected him. In carrying out such a Christlike act of self-sacrifice, it’s implied he will undergo a similar resurrection in future (we literally see the sun can regenerate his cells and restore him to life from a corpse-like state just minutes before his “death”), but in a world that now appreciates him much more, as it’s seen how far he went for it.
While other characters (particularly Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman, and Lois Lane) are important, the titular characters are the active elements of the story that everything revolves around. Lex’s story is a parallel to, and reflection of, both Batman and Superman’s. Like Batman, Superman’s arrival has made him feel scared and powerless, so he attempts to rectify the situation, but his lack of baseline morality demonstrates that Batman isn’t an inherently evil person, even when led astray. Lex’s theological concerns regarding Superman also reflect how Superman, for all his power, cannot change the impact and implications (both positive and negative) he has on the world, and thus that for all his superpowers, in many ways he is powerless.
Lex draws power from his intelligence, resources, ruthlessness, family, and knowledge, but he lacks the mythic power and love of the people that superheroes have. He wishes to expose and undermine the idea that “power can be innocent”, that power can be earned by those (Superman) standing in for theological concepts incompatible with what he’s been through (that God can be good and powerful, yet let Lex be abused as a child). Rather than rise himself up, as Batman tries to, Lex wishes to bring others down. He orchestrates a feud between Batman and Superman, engineers a situation that Superman cannot likely emerge as both good and powerful from, and creates a monster capable of destroying Superman if all else fails. Of course, his arrogance ends up blinding him, and leads to that monster gunning for him too, yet even then, the monster killing Superman would still have vindicated Lex’s views. If power can be innocent, then that power has to be undermined and quashed.
Lex being an orphan, and his father having been abusive, parallels with Batman, also an orphan, but whose father was a loving protector. Lex mocks his childhood idea that if he kept the family house (specifically his father’s room) the exact same, somehow his father would return. Batman leaves Wayne Manor untouched, to the point it degrades and looks terrible.
Lois’ story comments on Superman’s, demonstrating (like Lex’s story) that it’s out of Superman’s control what people project onto mythic figures, but also reinforces the notion so prevalent in “Man of Steel”, that it’s worth pursuing ideals regardless of whether they can realistically be reciprocated or fulfilled.
Lois’ pursuit for truth does will out, as it culminates in Lex’s arrest, showing her pursuing a positive narrative about Superman in a world so otherwise inclined was worth it in the end. It’s interesting how Superman is framed the same in his first entrance in the early Africa scene with Lois, as he is when entering the kryptonian ship with Lex towards the end of the film – perhaps an indicator of Lex being the drive behind that Africa subplot from the beginning.
Wonder Woman’s story is a parallel with Batman’s – they’re both disillusioned figures refraining from actively helping humanity in the ways best suited to the morals they once held as their guiding principles -, but she is also a reflection of Superman, as she is a godly mythic figure whose presence “rewards” characters who endured suffering but kept faith. Just as the residents of Metropolis suffered immense death and devastation in Superman’s metaphorical birth as a superhero, but were rewarded with an angelic figure who ended up saving many beyond the numbers that died in that event, Wonder Woman appears like a cosmic reward for Batman and Superman empathising with each other, getting over their issues, and working together for common good. Her presence in the narrative allows Superman to see himself externally, to see how and why others project onto him in the manners that they do, as she is a stunning godly figure that, in keeping with the religious undertones of the film, acts as a cosmic affirmation of why acting in accordance to moral principles, no matter how difficult, is the right thing to do.
She embodies Snyder’s preoccupation with duality between a mythological and grounded approach perhaps best out of all the characters in the film – in cosmic terms, she’s a godly figure rewarding Batman and Superman’s faith and eventual re-commitment to moral principles, but in psychological terms, she’s a woman utterly disillusioned with the moral depravity of the world, who is inspired to try and defend the Earth again by the seemingly hopeless fight of two superheroes. It’s fascinating that the film starts with superheroes inspiring fear, hatred, and feelings of powerlessness to other superheroes (Superman to Batman), and ends with superheroes inspiring empathy, courage, and hope to other superheroes (Batman and Superman to Wonder Woman, then Superman to Batman and Wonder Woman). This serves as a moral affirmation that while it’s worth striving to do good even if it’s not reciprocated, good ultimately begets good, and also demonstrates Snyder’s technique of bringing down these characters as low as he can before building them back up, so their embracing of their bizarre comic-book traits feels earned within the narrative.
The film isn’t paced like a regular superhero blockbuster, not just in terms of its length, but its structure as well. The first two hours are nearly entirely free of action, with nearly all action setpieces compressed at the end. Many expressed issues around a very lengthy “second act”. I don’t think the film follows the typical three act structure, but rather the five act dramatic structure more common in revenge tragedies, as in Shakespeare plays. Terrio himself said he dug deep into “the structure of revenge tragedies” in writing the film. The five stages are exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
Act 1: Exposition: Characters and setting are established. Through Batman’s dream of his childhood, and experiences the day Superman fought Zod in Metropolis, we see his feelings of disillusionment and powerlessness grow, and the root of his fear and resentment of Superman. The Metropolis sequence also establishes why so much of the world rejects Superman.
Act 2: Rising action, anticipation, complications: Dramatic tensions and conflicts are established, and illustrated through an escalating series of events. Superman’s desire for acceptance in society, and Batman’s desire to have some level of power and make a difference in Gotham for the better, are explored through escalating events often engineered by Lex Luthor to drive tension between the two characters for his own ends. On a more metatextual level, the idea of Batman and Superman as unworthy figures needing to prove themselves is established, as audiences are confronted with more distasteful, contorted versions of the heroes in contexts where they are much less appealing than conventionally portrayed.
Act 3: Climax, confrontation: The turning point in the story. Batman and Superman meet in the flesh and solidify their positions as enemies. At the Capitol building, Superman is robbed of his chance to gain acceptance in the world, by Lex neutering any chance of Superman openly sharing his side of the story, and garnering such mistrust and negative associations around him to permanently (so it would seem) damage his reputation. Superman gives up being a superhero. Batman commits to killing Superman.
Act 4: Falling action: The conflict between protagonist and antagonist comes to a head, the greatest moments of suspense occur, the great reversal or twist of a story occurs. Batman and Superman’s idealogical differences and psychological issues, along with Lex’s manipulations, crystallise as they finally fight. But before Batman kills Superman, he relates to his position of fear and powerlessness underneath an armed assailant, as he cries out in fear for his mother’s life. Batman snaps out of his new dehumanising, ultra-violent streak, and reorients himself to become the best Batman he can be, one saving innocent lives. Superman becoming accepted by the one who seemed to hate him most shows him that acceptance is possible.
Act 5: Denouement, catastrophe: The ultimate conflicts of the story are resolved. Batman fulfils his hero role, he saves “Martha”, not his mother, but a mother, and thus asserts the legitimacy and good nature of his superheroic role. The closest thing the story has to an objectively evil antagonist presents itself, the abomination Doomsday created by Lex (a kryptonian creature causing mass devastation, echoing the Metropolis sequence at the beginning of the film), and a renewed Batman and Superman fight it. They’re even aided by Wonder Woman, a symbol of cosmic approval for the two superheroes asserting their fundamentally good natures and capacity for empathy. Their issues of powerlessness persist however, as they are unable to kill the monster conventionally. Superman fulfils his hero role, and the religious imagery surrounding him the whole movie, by sacrificing himself to save the world, and in doing so he achieves in death what he sought throughout the movie – acceptance and love from the world. The film ends with the implication that his overcoming of his flaws will lead him to become even more of a messiah figure, and be resurrected in the future.
The story of the film is so visually told that it very much allows for multiple readings, even moreso than similar films, but in my reading, there are three that stand out. All three of the themes relate to how power and perception are two-way relationships, as much a part of the onlooker as the one in focus.
Empathy over Dehumanisation
Perhaps more prevalent than any other theme in the film, the idea that empathy should triumph over dehumanisation is a constant concern throughout it. Ever since he first sees him in the devastating Metropolis sequence, Batman clearly identifies Superman as an other, an alien. That specific word, “alien”, is so everpresent throughout the film, and in some contexts recalls how foreigners are treated in certain countries – protest signs telling Superman to effectively “go back where [he] came from” do the same.
The Africa sequence at the start of the film also sees a special forces team, “Python”, express disgust at the usage of drones by the U.S. military. Drones are a dehumanising weapon of warfare, utterly lacking any human touch, and the Python team make their displeasure with the government resorting to some methods very clear.
While there are very real and reasonable concerns about Superman, characters constantly project and displace personal issues and concerns onto him, dehumanising him in the process, and positioning him as a representation of something they’re more concerned about than he is.
The resolution of the titular promise of the film, the fight between Batman and Superman, comes when Batman empathises with Superman, after hearing him cry out for “Martha” when close to death, just as his father did. Batman has been beset by dreams revolving around the death of his mother throughout the film, and hearing Superman cry out the same name in pain snapped him out of his deranged murderous rage.
This moment brought home that Superman too is a person with a family, and that in standing threateningly over a defenceless (in that moment) person, brandishing a weapon, Batman had become what he hated most, the very genesis of his Batman identity in the first place, the murderer that killed his parents.
In his dreams, Batman carries flowers to Martha’s grave to honour her in death, and respect her life. In his waking reality, Batman carries a spear to impale Superman, when he’s forgotten the immediate pain of his mother’s death and is wrapped up in fear and rage. Once back to his senses, and able to empathetically connect with others again, Batman discards the spear. It’s interesting how similarly composed the shots of Bruce carrying the flowers and the spear are, and both scenes even end shortly after blood being drawn (emanating from the crypt in the dream, and from Superman’s face in reality). In discarding the spear, perhaps Batman prevented the emergence of the demon, the monstrous bat shaped like a man in his nightmare, perhaps a foretelling of what Batman would become if he’s succumbed to his murderous intent.
Projection onto Icons
Batman projects his feelings of powerlessness, uselessness, and impotency onto Superman. Superman becomes his potential “legacy”. The film opens with Batman referring to his career as Batman, the idea that through mantling that superheroic role he could save others and thus in some way atone and “fix” the death of his parents, as a “beautiful lie”. He tells Alfred that the twenty or so years they’ve spent fighting criminals is meaningless, because “Criminals are like weeds Alfred – pull one up, another grows in its place”. There is nobody else like Superman. There are understandable security concerns about Superman, but Batman doesn’t operate just from those concerns, he operates from displacing his own feels of inadequacy onto Superman. Superman to Batman isn’t just a potential security threat, he’s “my legacy”, Batman’s chance to make his life mean something, be worthwhile. Some project their own theological and social concerns onto Superman, framing him as an angelic saviour, while others like Batman project their own fears and hatred onto him, framing him as a devil figure. Certain shots are even composed in parallel ways, positioning Superman in the same part of the frame, showing how he’s the same figure, and it’s the framing of the onlooker that defines him.
Lex also projects his own complicated issues onto Superman. Superman becomes the representation Lex can displace onto all his tortured feelings and theological grapplings he’s suffered since being abused as a child. Lex outright tells Superman that he’s the personification of the problem of evil for him – “I figured it out way back – if God is all powerful, he cannot be all good, and if he’s all good, then he cannot be all powerful. And neither can you be. They need to see the fraud you are. With their eyes. The blood on your hands”. Lex is literally telling Superman he is treating him as the representation of a theological issue, not as a person (human or otherwise) in his own right. It’s interesting that for all of Lex’s projections about his abusive childhood and his ensuing complicated mentality on God, Superman ends up acting as the godly saviour figure even to him, sometimes in very pointed ways.
The film is quite explicit about this theme in a sombre montage of Superman saving people, where audio and video of various real-world media figures (Anderson Cooper, Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson, amongst others). Lines range from “We as a population on this planet have been looking for a saviour, 90% of people believe in a higher power, and every religion believes in some sort of messianic figure, and when this saviour character actually comes to Earth, we want to make him abide by our own rules? We have to understand that this is a paradigm shift. We have to start thinking beyond politics”, to “Human beings have a horrible track record of following people with great power down paths that lead to huge human monstrosities”, to “We’re talking about a being whose very existence challenges our own sense of priority in the universe. If you back to Copernicus, where he restored the sun and centre of the known universe, displacing Earth. And you get to Darwinian evolution, and you find out we’re not special on this Earth, we’re just one among other life forms. And now we learn, that we’re not even special in the entire universe, because there is Superman”.
However, there is one line in that montage that explicitly spells out what I believe the film is saying on this matter – “We have always created icons in our own image. What we’ve done is we project ourselves onto him. The fact is, maybe he’s not some sort of devil or Jesus character. Maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing”. That character is, of course, correct.
It’s interesting to compare similarly composed shots from “Man of Steel” to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” as an extension of this theme. Below, in “Man of Steel”, weapons were pointed at Superman, and he’s marched in handcuffs through a military base, and he mainly contended with the military. But in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, cameras are pointed at him, he marches freely in the Capitol building while professionals look on, and he mainly contends with the media.
Both Superman’s mother, Martha Kent, and his partner, Lois Lane, don’t necessarily view people projecting onto Superman as a bad thing. Martha tells Superman “Be their hero Clark, be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be. Or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing”, and Lois, speaking about the idea of Superman the superhero, tells him “That…dream is all some people have. It’s all that gives them hope. This [Superman’s symbol] means something”. Like Lex, they both coach their thoughts in something of a theological framework, but their conclusions are entirely different. Where Lex sees Superman as a chance to resolve his own theological issues, Martha and Lois see Superman as a chance for others to empower themselves, through him.
Power is an Ongoing Relationship
The film presents the idea that power, in a holistic sense, isn’t an inherent, singular trait that can exist in a vacuum, but instead the product of living, breathing relationships (whether they be between institutions, individuals, gods, etc.) where the level and nature of power is determining through ongoing dialogue, relationships, and action.
If everybody in Gotham hated Batman, he would not be able to perform his crimefighting duties. If the police didn’t cooperate with him to some degree, he’d be unable to help and save as many people as he does. If the citizenry had no desire to be helped or saved by him, he’d struggle immensely to gain a foothold in helping them. If his iconography didn’t particularly land with any of Gotham, he’d be forgotten and unable to strike fear into criminals. That is to say, for all of Batman’s wealth, resources, and individual might, his power is not derived from his alone, but from his ongoing relationship with Gotham. The police do largely approve of him, and thus facilitate him. The citizens, at least those in the lower classes, do approve of him, and thus enable him. Gotham is indeed taken by his iconography. It’s through these ongoing dialogues that Batman derives his power. When Batman activates the Batsignal to summon Superman to fight, it’s comical in a way to see Batman activate his own call sign, but on some level it’s almost like he’s cashing in the chips earned from his ongoing relationship with Gotham, he’s utilising his own iconography and power base to be as strong as he can.
Senator Finch frames democracy, the power of the country of the United States of America itself, in similar terms. She says “In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision”. She constantly stresses the importance of people, of everyone, in democracy, not just the rich, or the superheroic, or the politicians, or anyone else – instead, everyone. She identifies the root of democracy, the people, as the basis of its power and legitimacy.
Lex is less concerned with politics than theology, but holds the similar idea that legitimacy is derived from the eyes of the people. This is part of why he’s so insistent on Superman fighting Batman – if Superman wins, he’s murdered another (caught on film, no less), and thus is sullied and reduced in the public eye. If Batman wins, Superman is robbed of his godly, angelic status, and thus his theological position is also diminished in the eye of the public. In either case, Lex, like Senator Finch, has identified the common people as the source from which superheroes derive their power and status.
Metropolis does not support Superman to the extent Gotham supports Batman, so Superman finds himself both personally depressed and unable to make the sort of positive impact he’d like to. For all his heroic actions displayed in the saviour montage he has around a third through the film, many citizens have not gotten over the destruction he and General Zod caused fighting in Metropolis, or the implications his very existence brings. Not helping matters is Lex constantly trying to undercut any public support (whether potential or existing) for Superman, to the point where he managed to completely neuter Superman’s chance to make a case for himself, by exploding the Capitol building before Superman can say his piece. Lex is extremely skilled at manipulating the media to either undercut or bolster the power of others, but he’s eventually undercut himself, as Superman inadvertently massively approves public opinion of himself (thus granting him far greater power, when he is resurrected sometime in the future and returns to Metropolis) by sacrificing himself even for a world that doesn’t accept or love him. The film suggests here that sticking to one’s principles, whether in politics or superheroics or anything else, is a more important quality of a leader, of one ostensibly in power, than chasing popularity and approval for its own sake.
Allusions and Imagery
Perhaps as a metatextual comment on how superhero stories are constructed from the scraps of other stories, perhaps as an effort to infuse a superhero film with a literary aesthetic and quality, or perhaps just because Snyder is a huge fan of certain artworks, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is full of references, both explicit and implied, to various works of art.
One of Snyder’s favourite films is the 1981 rendition of Arthurian legend, “Excalibur”. At the very beginning of the film, we see signs for the film displayed at the cinema the Waynes are shot outside of.
Potential references to the film, and Arthurian legend in general, are Lois Lane retrieving a weapon from a pool of water (the lady of the lake and Excalibur), and Lex’s monster Doomsday being a deformity of forbidden genetics the same way Mordred was born of forbidden incestuous union. There is one reference much clearer though. Near the very ending of the film, there is a direct visual and story parallel to Arthurian legend, and a particular staging used in “Excalibur”. Mordred stabs King Arthur, then King Arthur pulls himself down the length of the weapon, and stabs Mordred in kind. The same happens between Doomsday and Superman. This is another affirmation of Snyder and Terrio’s fascination with melding superhero storytelling with mythology and classicism.
Most obvious are the Christian references surrounding Superman. Superman sacrifices himself to save humanity, and the film was released on Good Friday. When he dies, cross imagery can be seen all around him, and two shots in particular seem to be composed to directly mirror famous portrayals of Christ, “Descent from the Cross” and “the Lamentation of Christ”.
Much of the imagery and story material for the film draws from the seminal 1986 comic “The Dark Knight Returns”, by Frank Miller. An older, depressed Batman, and a climactic fight between Batman and Superman originate in that comic, and imagery like Batman grappling in front of lightning, and Martha Wayne’s pearls catching on the assailant’s gun also come from there.
The dream sequence that opens the film, showing Batman’s parent’s deaths is interesting in being a dream rather than a flashback. Bruce is beset by dreams and visions throughout the film, which demonstrate his deteriorating mental state (and, in terms of the apocalyptic Knightmare sequence, actively contribute to it), but also set up the resolution of his conflict with Superman, as Batman’s obsession with his inability to protect his mother from death is reinforced.
The dream imagery of the vortex of bats lifting young Bruce Wayne up from the pit both serves as an explanation for how his obsession with bats originated, and a representation of how Bruce thought the Batman persona could raise his from the depths the absurd tragedy that the death of his family plunged him into. Bruce rising in the vortex of bats represents the “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger” philosophy, that through utilising the emotions and experiences brought on by tragedy, we can rise above it. As he rises higher and higher, young Bruce’s silhouette is dimmed and framed in such a way he seems like a bat himself.
The film begins and ends with a funeral. It begins with the birth of Batman, and ends with the rebirth of Batman. There are multiple directly paralleled shots.
Snyder, along with director of photography Larry Fong, often usage visual parallels and repeated imagery to communicate story elements. The film opens with Batman calling the idea of being a superhero a “beautiful lie”, and ends with Batman declaring “men are still good”, “I failed [Superman] in life, I won’t fail him in death”, and vowing to gather the other superheroes of the world – clearly, his opinion on superheroics has completely changed between the two funerals.
Lex Luthor’s painting of angels and demons that recurs through the film was clearly inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustrations for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, the epic poem about the fall of man, told from the perspective of Satan. Lex uses the painting at multiple points to comment on his theological interpretations of Superman.
It is not the only visual representations of demons in the film. The first scene where we see Batman in-costume is staged like a horror film, and Batman scuttling around the ceiling in the dark looks demonic and unsettling.
Around a third through the film, Batman seems to fall asleep at the Batcomputer. There are no real visual cues to indicate to the audience that we’ve entered a dream sequence, but the muffled sound of the kryptonian world engine that damaged Metropolis can be heard at the start of the sequence. That same noise was heard at the start of the dream sequence where Batman visited the crypt of his parents, so it’s clearly a sound that’s been on his mind, a recurring representation of his fears brought on from the kryptonian attack on Metropolis.
In the apparent dream sequence, Batman is in a hellish wasteland. A Wayne Manor in even greater disrepair than it is in reality can be glimpsed. Batman’s issues are externalised in the most outlandish, masculine, violent ways in this sequence – he’s still chasing kryptonian to kill Superman, but in its an actual hellish wasteland rather than Gotham and Metropolis, and there are fascist-seeming soldiers serving Superman that he must fight, and he does so in relentless, unconstrained fashion. The sequence escalates to the point where what seem to be literal demons descend from the sky and attack Batman.
For all his energy, all the power he’s amassed, there is always more evil. The demons seem to be externalisations of his insecurities of never being able to actually defeat, or even make a significant impact on, the evils of the world. Just as the whole film is an externalisation and operatic rendering of real issues and themes, this sequence is an externalisation and in-story operatic rendering of Batman’s issues. The sequence ends with the demons winning, and what appears to be a dictator-like Superman killing Batman. Suddenly, Batman wakes up, and The Flash of all people appears, a superhero that hasn’t appeared in cinema before. He is reminiscent, both in a visual and story sense, of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger god able to move freely between worlds both mortal and divine, and perhaps signifies the sequence was more vision than nightmare. Eventually empathy prevails over anything else, and Batman dismisses the sequence, but it’s not the end of demonic imagery in the film.
After Superman’s death, Lois’ evidence gathered against Lex seems to will out, and forces capture him at the kryptonian ship, where he’s seen consorting with what appears to be a sort of hologram of a truly horrifying demonic figure. Throughout the film, Lex had been learning secrets of the cosmos from the ship, and Lex’s monologue in prison to Batman at the end of the movie reveals that he contacted that demonic-looking figure, who is now coming for Earth. “Devil’s don’t come from hell beneath us, no…they come from the sky” indeed.
This brings Lex’s theological journey in the film full circle, sets up story elements for the sequel “Justice League” (where Batman and Wonder Woman will recruit the three “metahumans” figures glimpsed in Lex’s computer files, to fight the incoming alien forces), but also works perfectly well in the context of the film without any implied sequel, as the strongly implied resurrection of Superman at the end of the film would see a Superman now truly mantling his godly nature, as well as being friends with fellow superheroes Batman and Wonder Woman, and thus able to triumph over any demonic figures. The triumph of empathy over dehumanisations, and actual de-humans, indeed.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is understandably an extremely divisive film, but Snyder and Fong’s particular visual aesthetics, Zimmer and Holkenborg’s musical score, and Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer’s story, were all extraordinarily compelling for me personally. I give it four and a half pearls, and a jar of Granny’s peach tea.