Of Gods and Men: In Defence of ‘Batman v Superman’
I’m going to tell you why you didn’t like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Over the past decade, we’ve been taught to expect one of two things from superhero movies.
The first is a hyper ‘realistic’ take, where the elements of the superheroism are toned down in order to ground the film in the world we live in.
The other is the exact opposite; a world that looks just like our own, but is populated with larger-than-life characters, sci-fi storytelling, and literal Gods from other dimensions.
This Superhero Dichotomy also comes with a shift in tone. Whereas Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was dark, serious and real, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or ‘MCU’), is lighthearted, hopeful and completely fantastical.
Batman v Superman (or Dawn of Justice, which I prefer), completely blindsided audiences by instead introducing a completely science fiction element, into what is presented as the real world we live in.
Whether or not you enjoyed the film really depends on how married you are to the above Dichotomy of Superhero films.
Many of the criticisms leveled at Dawn of Justice stem from the fact that elements of the film that are plausible in one side of the dichotomy, are implausible in the other.
The film inevitably invites comparisons to the MCU due to it’s unarguably hamfisted approach to pushing the Justice League, DC’s version of Marvel’s Avengers.
However, the comparisons are unfair, as what the MCU is selling, is completely different to what the audience of Dawn of Justice should be looking to buy.
Now, I love the Marvel movies, and I’ll admit that Dawn of Justice isn’t perfect. But this film attempts to ask some heavy, serious questions that the MCU hasn’t ever come close to addressing.
One of the popular criticisms I’ve heard is that people believe the reason that Batman decides to end his fight with Superman is ‘ludicrous.’
These same people, however, have no problem with the fact that Steve Rogers was somehow frozen alive and thawed out 75 years later.
‘Oh, but the Marvel movies are fun! They’re not supposed to be realistic!’
Well, neither is Dawn of Justice, but what people can’t seem to be able to do is reconcile their enjoyment of the film with the twisting of the Superhero Dichotomy.
The reason Batman stops fighting Superman is clear: Superman begs Batman to ‘Save Martha.’ Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent’s mothers have the same name. That’s the whole reason Batman decides to throw down the Kryptonite spear and spare the Man of Steel’s life, right? How sloppy!
Dawn of Justice asks a lot of very heavy questions. Most of these questions go unanswered, but that is not a fault of the film.
The philosophy of Dawn of Justice revolves around the existence of a God. That God is Superman, who only 18 months previous destroyed half of Metropolis and killed thousands of people. He did so in an attempt to stop Zod from destroying the entire world.
The global reaction to the existence of such a being is the overarching plot of Dawn of Justice.
God exists. He walks among us. And he can destroy us as easily as save us.
How do you react?
Bruce Wayne’s belief is quintessential ‘Batman.’ Never give up. Never stray from your path. In his eyes, Superman has strayed, and too far.
In the opening sequences of the film, we see the destruction of Metropilis in the penultimate scenes of Man of Steel, from Bruce Wayne’s perspective. We watch as he fails to save thousands of people. One of the few he does, is a young girl, presumably orphaned.
It doesn’t matter how you spin it; those people are dead because Superman is here.
In Batman’s eyes, that is a threat. A danger. One that must be eliminated. Superman is paraded as a God, and for the first time in his career, Batman feels legitimately threatened.
Jeremy Irons’ Alfred sums up Bruce’s reaction simply; ‘[It’s]the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.’
And as such, we see Batman descend into a nastier, darker version of himself than we ever have. Dawn of Justice’s Batman is hulking, twisted and truly frightening. As the saying goes; ‘this ain’t your grandpa’s Batman!’
Conversely, we see the same reaction to the arrival of The Superman in Lex Luthor.
Coveted as one of the biggest villains the DC Universe has to offer, Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Luthor is one of the most unique things about Dawn of Justice.
It’s in this version of Lex that we again see the scathing critiques that ride in on the Superhero Dichotomy: ‘This snively Mark-Zuckberg-with-autism isn’t what Lex Luthor is supposed to be! Lex Luthor is big! He’s mean! He’s handsome!’
No, he isn’t. If someone as intelligent as Lex Luthor is purported to be actually existed, there is no way he could function socially as a person. Eisenberg presents to us a Luthor we’ve never seen before; a young man,very likely to have Asperger’s, who for the first time is threatened in much the same way Bruce Wayne is.
‘The oldest lie in America, Senator, is that power can be innocent,’ Luthor tells Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch. He is seeking governmental approval to weaponize Kryptonite as a deterrent for future Kryptonian attacks.
Luthor’s proposal, probably the most right-wing, militaristic reaction to what could easily be perceived as an ‘act of terror’ perpetrated by Superman, is well within the prospect of belief.
In Luthor, we have a man who, due to his intelligence, has always wielded a lot of power. The presence of Superman can undo that, and threatens to destroy LexCorp as easily as Wayne Finacial.
Presumably Lex Luthor wasn’t always an off-the-charts ‘villain.’ Indeed, all the ‘villainous’ acts committed by him in Dawn of Justice are directly linked to his fear of Superman.
When the government reject’s Luthor’s bill to weaponise the Kryptonite, in his mind, he has not choice but to do so illegally.
The feeling of powerlessness has turned Luthor cruel.
That’s not without it’s caveats. In the brief glimpses we are given into Luthor’s psyche, we are shown a man who’s morality has always been based on existence of good versus omnipotence, and how the two cannot go hand-in-hand.
With the discussions in his Father’s study (as well as an admittedly cheap throw-away line hinting at domestic violence), it is easy to see that it wouldn’t have taken much to twist Luthor into the maniacal villain he becomes by the end of the film.
He see’s in Superman a power that is not his to control. A God cannot exist to the scientist.
So, if Luthor cannot defeat The Superman, he must vilify him.
His first attempt to do so is to pit Batman and Superman against one another.
Luthor’s decision to kidnap Superman’s Mother in order to manipulate him, serves as the only real difference between Luthor and Batman’s otherwise identical philosophies.
While others refer to Superman as a God, Luthor flaunts him as a Demon, coming not from ‘Hell beneath us’ but ‘from the sky.’
‘The Mother of a Demon must be a witch,’ Luthor tells Superman, before threatening to burn her alive should the Man of Steel not bring him Batman’s head.
And so we come back to the titular battle that very much is Man versus God.
In his rage, Batman has acquired and weaponised the Kryptonite all of his own accord. He responds to Superman’s attempts at reason with beautiful violence.
‘You’re not brave,’ Batman says, ‘Men are brave.’
Batman’s motivation to destroy the threat to the human race -God- is pushed to it’s limits.
Beneath him, weakened, scarred by the Kryptonite Spear Batman has forged, Superman practically weeps, begs for Batman to ‘Save Martha.’
It’s at this point we see the flinch in Batman’s eyes. He screams at Superman, demands he explain why he’s saying that name- The name of Bruce Wayne’s own Mother.
It’s not until Lois Lane arrives, with mere seconds to spare, that she explains to Bruce that Martha is Superman’s Mother.
And in that instant, Superman, in Bruce Wayne’s eyes, is humanised.
‘You’re no God,’ he had uttered only moments before. And now it’s true.
It took something so close to Bruce’s own heart to realise that the person he was about to murder was a man just like himself.
This is something that is extremely difficult for many people to reconcile in their personal lives. We all have people who we hate, who have hurt us. People who we’d rather believe have nothing but hate in their hearts. But the reality is those people are still human. Those people are still capable of love.
Those people still have Mothers.
Often times, the only highlighted relationship is that of Bruce and his Father. I’ll forever love this film if for nothing else, than for finally making Bruce Wayne’s Mother important.
Despite the victory in finding common ground, Luthor was prepared for all outcomes, as someone of his intelligence would be.
The creation of Doomsday is yet another metaphor for Luthor’s obsession with his own power, and how that power is threatened. He states simply; ‘If Man will not kill God, then the Devil will do it.’
And so the Devil does. In the visually stunning climactic battle of Dawn of Justice, Clark Kent martyr’s himself to kill Doomsday. While we’re not quite daft enough to believe that Superman will no doubt return to the cinematic universe, his death proves to quell the concerns of his God-like appearance.
Upon his memorial, the same place where once stood the statue blazoned with the ‘False God’ graffiti, we see the words ‘If you seek his monument, look around you.’
Not only does this imply that Superman was mortal, it also pushes the idea that everyone can hold true to the ideals of hope and justice as he did.
In the final moments of the film, we come back to the once-identical philosophies of Luthor and Batman, which are now at war with each other.
Bruce Wayne has reconciled his feelings toward Superman, while Luthor now harbours even greater terrors (presumably gleaned from the archives on the Kryptonian shuttle).
Truly gone insane, he shouts from his prison cell that the bell has been rung. ‘Ding, ding,’ he mutters. ‘Ding, ding.’ And we pan back to his Father’s study, where he has reversed the oil painting so the demons are descending from the sky.
Dawn of Justice is a film about what would happen when our reality is twisted by something we don’t understand. Would we feel threatened, as both Luthor and Bruce did? Would we parade it as heroism, or slander it as terrorism?
Superman fans tell me that the world presented in Dawn of Justice is too dark for the bright, hopeful Superman of the comics.
I fear that what is really being said, is that our world, our reality, is too dark for any God.
And the hubris of Man will always find a way to kill it.