The Controversial ‘Martha’ Leitmotif in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
So, a few people I’ve talked to really hated this leitmotif. Well, I loved it.
To a lot of people, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice suffered heavily from a lousily-written screenplay with very little thought put into it. They dismiss this particular element of the story as ‘lazy’, ‘lame’ and ‘made no sense’. You’d only have to be on the internet to know that ‘Batman and Superman became best friends because both their moms are called Martha!’ kind of turned into a gag or meme. The responses weren’t pleasant at all. But I happen to think otherwise — Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder have crafted this meticulously-detailed screenplay and ‘Martha’ is the culmination of the entire arc of the character of Batman / Bruce Wayne.
Let’s start tracking Batman’s arc from the prologue of the movie. Obviously they bothered to show us the definitive origin story again, so we have to think why. Most interpretations of the Waynes’ demise, Martha Wayne’s presence is constantly underplayed. Her significance, really, is the fact that she wore pearls and they fell off when Joe Chill pulled that trigger, an imagery that eventually became iconic and immediately associated to the lore of Batman. I don’t have to raise many examples but one that we all are familiar with: in the Nolan trilogy, Martha Wayne’s influence to her son is almost non-existent. It is Thomas Wayne that featured heavily in Bruce’s childhood memories; it is Thomas Wayne who carried an injured Bruce from the well that connects to the Batcave; it is Thomas Wayne who used his dying breath to tell Bruce, ‘don’t be afraid’, which became the recurring theme of Batman Begins. While in BvS, Thomas Wayne is the one being overlooked. That (gorgeous) shot of the gun and the pearls lingered for a good few seconds — so his mother is what Bruce remembered the most from that fateful night. When present-day Bruce had a nightmare about it, it became apparent that his mother’s passing haunts him more than his father’s: it is Martha’s tombstone that is dripping with blood, it is Martha’s death that contains the demon (Zack Snyder is anything but subtle) — all while Thomas Wayne’s name is blocked by the bouquet of flowers (which made me laugh).
Let me put it this way: if Bruce Wayne is Hamlet, then Martha Wayne is his ghost. So Martha is important. Martha is the reason why Bruce does what he does, Martha is what he is avenging for — Martha is the lynchpin of Bruce Wayne’s existence, Martha is his purpose, Martha is (literally?) the mother to the idea of Batman. ‘Martha, Martha, Martha.’ If anything can wake him up from this state of confusion and anguish, that would be his mother, his ghost: Martha Wayne (or a mention of that name, as it turns out to be).
The next thing we need to understand is what place Bruce Wayne is in at the beginning of the movie. This is all very obvious from the many conversations between Bruce and Alfred. He is tired, adrift and disillusioned after realising twenty years of fighting crimes in Gotham has not changed a thing (interestingly, a situation that echoes with Superman’s as well). Adding atop on all that, he lost his Robin to his mortal enemy (see also: the theory that Jared Leto’s Joker IS Red Hood — which I actually like — because it makes the ‘How many good guys are left? How many stay that way?’ line so much more poignant). So, a man in pain has hardened to a brutal and unforgiving vigilante. He started using guns — the very weapon that took his parents’ lives. He brands criminals — an act that equates to a death sentence. Lex Luthor is not wrong — Batman is the judge, jury and executioner all at once. But that’s not Batman. Bruce Wayne is not himself anymore. He is in a dark place, treading on a path he has spent his whole life avoiding. He is one tiny step closer to completely discarding his ‘no killing’ rule. And that’s not okay, because that rule (and Alfred) is the sole tether to humanity that he had – the sole thing that prevents him from losing himself, the man beneath the cowl.
So Martha is the key to eliciting Bruce’s awakening. How does this play into his relationship with Clark Kent (or more fittingly, Superman, because Bruce never attempted to understand the man beneath the red cape)?
This quote from Alfred made it clear that Superman made Batman feel impotent:
That’s how it starts – the rage, the fever, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men…cruel.
Powerlessness — is a classic theme when scrutinising the relationship between the man and the divine. Powerlessness — is Bruce’s biggest fear. As a young boy, he watched his parents being murdered in front of his own eyes; and he stood there, unable to do anything. That’s why the movie begins with a retelling of that particular trauma, and the scene that immediately succeeds the prologue is the Metropolis destruction, from Bruce’s POV. You have to remember — Bruce Wayne might not be surrounded by friends, but there are people he cares about. His colleagues, employees, employees’ families, even an ordinary citizen — they all mean something to him. Bruce Wayne, behind that public persona and the cowl, is an incredibly compassionate person. Or else he wouldn’t do what he does. A man with as big a heart as Bruce Wayne does, you want to destroy him? Make him stay on a phone call with a dying friend. Make him save his already-amputated employee. Make him embrace a little girl who just lost her mother from the collapsing building. Make him look, make him witness, make him stand there and do nothing, because there is nothing for him to do. As Bruce Wayne looked to the falling debris in the sky, he experienced that same powerlessness that he felt all those years ago when his parents died in front of him. ‘You let your family die’, again — right there, on the streets of Metropolis, surrounded by lives he failed to protect.
And what does Bruce Wayne do? He blames all that on Superman – the ‘false God’. Bruce’s thinking is actually aligned with that of Lex Luthor in here:
…if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful.
Other than that, Bruce (and Lex, too) projected all of his personal insecurities, anxieties and childhood demons onto this blank canvas that is Superman. (Poor Clark!) He can no longer differentiate between justice and vendetta. The Batman that went into that BvS fight is blinded by fear and a lifetime of pain.
Then, on the verge of his victory, Bruce heard Clark using his final breath and muttered these words:
Immediately, the notion that they have been puppeteer-ed by Lex Luthor the whole time dawned on the world’s greatest detective. But more importantly:
…it is not his own life Clark is asking Bruce to spare, but his mother’s. It is a dying plea of a desperate son. It is the very moment when Bruce finally discovers Superman’s humanity: he is Superman, but also Clark Joseph Kent, a young farmer from Smallville, Kansas City; an employee at the Daily Planet; a loving son, an affectionate boyfriend (as Lois came to Clark’s ‘rescue’). He is a God, but also a man. He is as human as a human can ever be. Like Bruce, Clark also had people he wanted to protect. Bruce Wayne quickly realises in that split second – he has misjudged Superman. As Batman tries to strip Superman down, to ‘make him feel what it’s like to be a man’, he discovers his humanity and thus rendering him unable to kill a God. (Irony much? But a beautiful one.)
There is also a wonderful parallel between a dying Thomas Wayne and a dying Clark Kent saying ‘Martha’ in their final moments. This is exactly Bruce’s wake-up call. If he kills Superman with that Kryptonian spear of his, then he is no different than Joe Chill, the murderer of his parents. Murderer, is an identity Bruce spent his whole life not to succumb to. As I have said before, he is only one tiny step closer to losing his dignity as Batman. The distance between the tip of the spear and Clark’s chest is that tiny step. He didn’t take it.
Instead, he made a promise to Clark that ‘Martha will not die tonight’. Because he couldn’t save his own mother, but he can save another mother.
That’s who Bruce Wayne truly is. A man who always rises above his traumas and emotional hardship. That’s what separates him from Lex and his entire Rogues Gallery. That’s what makes him a hero. The bats (= being Batman) raised him up (literally!) after losing his parents; and in the most beautiful way, Superman raised him up after losing his Robin (and all the hard-hitting realisations of human nature that comes with it). He fought a person whom he thought is no human, but it is that very person’s humanity that helped him rediscover his own. Clark’s subsequent sacrifice in the Doomsday fight has awaken something within Bruce Wayne, because Bruce sees this alien and monster that he once thought he was, picked up that spear and flew towards Doomsday, taking that fatal blow from Lex’s monster, giving his life to protect mankind. From Clark’s pure, unadulterated kindness and his undying conviction to do good despite the entire world turning their backs on him, Bruce found a purpose again – or more accurately, he found the version of himself when he started out as Batman.
That’s why he refuses to brand Lex Luthor. That’s why he is assembling the Justice League in Clark’s honour. That’s why he started believing again.
It’s not a “S”. On my world, it means hope.
That’s what Clark Kent gave Bruce Wayne: hope.
(Also: Bruce’s violent reaction to ‘Martha’ could seem funny or even ridiculous to some, but I was told it is an absolutely accurate depiction of a triggered PTSD patient. That word and the circumstance he is in brings him back to that murderous night (this is shown on screen!), a nightmare that never went away. I think Ben Affleck, being the smart guy that he is, is completely aware of this aspect of his character.)
I loved how the main character’s entire journey is condensed into one name. They used a name to hold this spiderweb of subplots together. To me, that is masterful storytelling. Do you still think Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder just phoned it in for BvS? Maybe it didn’t work for you, but they definitely thought this through.
And I loved how essential mother-son relationships are in this movie. It is really refreshing for someone interested in female representation (and tired of ‘daddy issues’) in this genre. Isn’t it great that ‘Martha’ – motherly love – is what bridged Batman and Superman? Their love for their mothers (and vice versa) became their common ground. It’s what allowed them conversations, collaborations and finally, a friendship (‘I am a friend of your son’s.’) based on respect (‘I failed him in life, I won’t fail him in death.’).
Women, especially mothers, had never been portrayed in this way in superhero films (with that one exception of Aunt May). It’s always about the dads: Tony and Howard Stark; Bruce and Thomas Wayne in the Nolan trilogy; Thor, Loki and Odin; Clark and Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel, you name it. Martha Kent is honestly the first important mother figure in this genre: they either forget about them or fridge them. And I am forever grateful for them to show a mother as the hero’s tether to humanity, and a figure the hero comes for moral guidance.
Finally: have a look at this heartfelt interpretation of this leitmotif from the perspective of a fan whose life is very much influenced by the characters of Batman and Superman. You will cry.
Note: Thank you for spending the time to read this. I could never write something like this for Marvel, I’d break down mid-way through and cry. (Very telling of the Marvel/DC difference. But that’s something for another time…)