The Pitfalls of Heroism in The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Batman v Superman
Good and evil in 3 superhero movies
These days, cinema is awash with a tidal flood of comic book inspired films. We as a movie-going culture have been inundated with so many superhero films, that for the casual viewer, it can be hard to tell them apart, especially if they deal with similar storylines, such as say, the end of the world at the hands of some power-mad alien tyrant. In the midst of this, it’s often hard to really stand out among these blockbusters. Over the last decade or so, there have been plenty of singular superhero films, films which challenged our preconceived notions and expectations of these icons and the worlds they inhabit and forced us to take a hard and sometimes brutally honest reexamination of just why we’re so drawn to these characters. Some of these films have already gone down as game-changing masterpieces of the genre, while others are still being fiercely debated between fans and haters, but the consistent theme of all of them is their ability to put these fictional characters up against real-world problems with real-world consequences in order to show the deep complexity and moral ambiguity which lurks beneath the surface of these seemingly one dimensional comic book superheroes.
Here I’ll be looking at three films I consider to be watershed films for the genre, three films which wrestle with very similar themes regarding the complex and often contradictory nature of heroism along with the very concepts of good and evil and how they coexist in our messy and complicated world. These three films are The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Although these films were received very differently, both critically and commercially, a side by side analysis of them reveals many core similarities which serve to unite them thematically. These three films take a deconstructionist look at their heroes, showing them not as simple, morally pure do-gooders, but rather as flawed and complex individuals with deeply personal and even twisted reasons for doing what they do, individuals who sometimes cross the moral line in pursuit of what they believe to be right.
The Dark Knight Trilogy was in many ways the first superhero film series to really explore its characters in a truly grounded and realistic fashion, one that set them in a world that bore remarkable similarities to our own. More than any previous Batman film, DKT dug down to the roots of what really makes Batman who he is, the driving forces behind putting on a cape and cowl and fighting crime. The film explores the idea that becoming Batman was a way for Bruce Wayne to take control and restore a sense of order to the life that was shattered the night his parents were randomly gunned down while he looked on helplessly. The film shows how being Batman is essentially an addiction for Bruce, something he can’t ever really quit because it’s the only time he truly feels in control and powerful against the forces of chaos and senseless violence running rampant in his world.
No villain is more synonymous with chaos and senseless violence than the Joker and in the Dark Knight Heath Ledger delivered not only arguably the greatest portrayal of the clown prince of crime, but one of the greatest and most memorable villains in cinematic history. His Joker was an unrelenting tornado of chaos and anarchy, an urban terrorist in smeared clown makeup who represented everything The Batman stands against. However, the film makes a point of showing that despite their radically different moralities, Batman and the Joker are in some ways two sides of the same coin (not unlike Harvey’s lucky coin); two insane men who’ve been driven to take extreme measures. Neither can be bought, bullied or negotiated with and both do whatever’s necessary to achieve their goals, the one exception being Batman’s no kill rule. However, even this isn’t entirely true because at the end of the film, Batman shoves Harvey Dent off a building, causing his neck to break upon impact. He did it to save Commissioner Gordon’s son, but it can be argued that the Joker wins a spiritual victory in the end because he not only broke Gotham’s White Knight, Harvey Dent, and helped turn him into the murderous Two-Face, but ultimately got Batman to break his one rule.
Trying to see if Batman will break his one rule is part of Joker’s plan throughout the film, despite his claim that he has no plan. He wants to show Batman that anyone, even the best among us, is capable of becoming a monster; all it can take is one bad day, one little shove over the edge. The Dark Knight serves as a warning that when confronted with such vile and uncontrollable evil, we risk unleashing the same demons, the same dark desires within ourselves, a sentiment foreshadowed perfectly in Harvey Dent’s line, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Such an extreme force of mayhem like the Joker requires an equally extreme force to counter it and throughout the film, Batman straddles the already razor-thin line between hero and ruthless vigilante, in the process forcing us to question what real heroism looks like without giving any solid answers. Instead, we grapple with complex concepts such as whether the ends always justify the means, a concept which is called into question more and more in our increasingly messy and morally murky world.
The idea of the ends justifying the means is never more apparent than in Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s cinematic tour-de-force based on the graphic novel of the same name. The heroes of Watchmen, both the original Minutemen of the forties and the second generation of heroes, are shown to be deeply flawed individuals, and in some cases, even sociopathic and morally reprehensible. Watchmen deconstructs its heroes in a revealing way, exposing the somewhat twisted reasons which compel a seemingly normal person to dress up in a costume and fight crime, whether for vain or egotistical reasons or simply the thrilling and dangerous power trip of beating people up. Even Watchmen’s more straight-laced characters such as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are shown to be deeply flawed individuals dragging around lots of personal baggage as they secretly pine for their costumed glory days.
Even Watchmen’s most popular character, the morally straight-laced Rorschach, has no problem brutally killing criminals whenever he feels like it. Dr. Manhattan, the only character with superhuman powers that render him virtually omnipotent, deals with increasing apathy towards humanity’s suffering as the world hurtles closer and closer to nuclear annihilation. Even after decades of these costumed heroes fighting crime, the world’s no safer or less violent, in fact precisely the opposite’s true; their presence has only escalated humanity’s tension. This effect is mirrored in The Dark Knight as well where Batman’s extreme handling of crime forces criminals to step up their game, leading to the rise of the Joker.
Watchmen shows that even with extraordinary beings among us, they can’t be counted upon to save us from our most persistent enemy, i.e. our own destructive and violent tendencies, tendencies which exist in everyone, especially our so-called heroes. All of these concepts come to a head at the close of the film when it’s revealed that one of these former heroes, Ozymandias, has masterminded a scheme to unite humanity by using Dr. Manhattan’s own energy (without his knowledge) to kill millions of innocent people around the world. Making Manhattan the scapegoat gives humanity a common enemy and results in a world suddenly united and at peace, but peace based on a lie, a great practical joke proving just what it takes to finally get people to stop trying to wipe each other out. Veidt’s plan is the ultimate example of whether the ends always justify the means given that his plan works but at the cost of millions of lives, forcing the other heroes and the audience to reconsider the very idea of heroism.
When it comes to our collective idea of heroes and heroism, perhaps no two loom quite as large as the world’s first two superheroes, Superman and Batman and in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder brought these two titans together for the first time onscreen. They’ve met countless times in the comics as friends and sometimes as foes given that they tend to have contrasting worldviews shaped by their different upbringings. BvS may indeed be the most savagely polarizing and fiercely debated comic book film in history, but there’s no denying that it forced us to look at these two cultural icons in a deeper and startlingly fresh way, one which explored the real ramifications of their existence.
In Man of Steel, we saw a big chunk of Metropolis in ruins after Superman’s battle with Zod, and BvS finds Superman trying to help everyone he can in a world that’s simultaneously wrapped up in awe, fear, and suspicion towards this alien with godlike powers. Although he saved the entire planet from Zod’s wrath, thousands of people died in the battle (mostly from the World Engine) and people, as they would be in our world, are naturally fearful of what Superman could do if he turned against us. One of those people is Bruce Wayne who was on the streets of Metropolis during the battle and saw the destruction firsthand. Since then, he’s filled with a sense of powerlessness in the face of this godlike being, powerlessness reminiscent of what he felt when his parents were murdered. It’s this sense of powerlessness and anger which Alfred warns can turn even good men “cruel” and lead them to do terrible things. After fighting crime as Batman for twenty years and seeing the worst humanity has to offer, Bruce is understandably suspicious of a being with so much power, power that not even Batman can do anything about.
What BvS explores in its depiction of Batman is what twenty years of crime fighting does to a person’s psyche. Whereas Bale’s Batman is relatively early in his career, BvS’s Batman has been through the wringer; he’s seen friends and allies brutally killed or, in the case of Dent, transformed into the very evil they swore to fight. These experiences have left deep scars in Bruce’s psyche and when we meet him at the start of BvS, he’s in many ways a broken man using increasingly brutal and unethical tactics to get the job done, blurring the line between hero and vigilante more than ever. One can hear the echo of Dent’s predictive words from The Dark Knight; after years of confronting humanity’s worst demons, some of those demons are starting to spring up in Bruce. Believing it’s almost certain that Superman will eventually turn against humanity, Bruce takes it upon himself to stop him, even if it means ending his life. In this way, despite the fact that Lex is behind everything, Superman’s main enemy through much of the film is Batman.
In addition to taking a deeper look at Batman, BvS also continues the exploration of Superman begun in Man of Steel. Although Superman is still trying to do right by everyone, he grapples with not knowing how best to help a world that naturally feels ambivalent towards him. Much like our world, the world of the film views him as both a savior of mankind as well as a possible threat, depending on who you ask. As is human nature, we always project our own fears and insecurities onto our icons when the reality is that they’re just people too, wrestling with the same doubts and fears. What the public doesn’t see is that Superman is just a guy trying his best to do the right thing, but in BvS he learns that every action he takes, regardless of intent or how many people he saves, yields real-world consequences. He learns that it’s impossible to do good simply for good’s sake in a world where every action is politicized and scrutinized. In this way, Superman is viewed through the realistic prism of the Watchmen world where even a godlike being isn’t immune to the slings and arrows which accompany trying to do the right thing by everyone.
Despite the film’s initial seriousness, I believe that BvS is ultimately the most optimistic of the three films discussed here. While BvS’s Superman and Batman both grapple with many of the same moral dilemmas facing the characters in the other films, one can argue that both men emerge from their dark night of the soul with renewed resolve and moral strength. This moment of redemption occurs in the film’s most controversial scene when Batman, having bested Superman with Kryptonite, stands over him with a foot on his throat, ready to deliver a killing blow courtesy of a Kryptonite spear. This scene is Bruce’s supreme moment of choice, a choice between giving into his paranoid mistrust of this alien or instead, seeing him for the good person he truly is.
The highly criticized “Martha” moment represents much more than their mothers sharing the same name. As anyone who’s seen the film can attest, hearing Superman utter the name Martha only makes Bruce angrier until Lois shows up and explains that Martha is Clark’s earth mother and she’s going to die at the hands of the real villain, Lex. Suddenly Bruce sees that this supreme being he’s been regarding as a threat, calling a “freak”, is, in his final moments, nothing more than a boy powerless to stop his mother from dying just like Bruce once was, only now the roles are reversed and Bruce is the one with the power, power to either perpetuate the cycle of violence or stop the same thing from happening.
At this moment, Bruce goes right up to the edge of that thin moral line, but in the final moment, he pulls back from the edge, the same edge that The Joker kept trying to push him over in The Dark Knight, the edge that uncontrolled fear and anger can drive us over. Afterwards, Batman and Superman come to understand they have more in common than each initially thought and put aside their initial distrust of each other to take down Doomsday (with tremendous help from Wonder Woman). Superman’s courageous sacrifice affirms beyond all doubt his willingness to lay down his life for a world that had previously turned against him.
This is where, at least thematically, BvS differs from The Dark Knight and Watchmen. Both of those films end with the heroes covering up a horrible truth to help lead society to a better place. In Watchmen, the remaining heroes reluctantly go along with Ozymandias’s great lie to preserve the peace so many died for. In The Dark Knight, Batman takes the fall for Two Face’s crimes and his death in order to preserve the faith people had in Dent, even though the truth is that the Joker’s plan for Dent succeeded. In both cases, neither hero truly won a decisive victory, but rather just delayed the inevitable return of the same old problems, such as we see in The Dark Knight Rises.
These three films are certainly linked by a shared sense of the real pitfalls that would accompany any individual who tries to change the world around them for the better. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and in these films, the intervention of these costumed heroes is bound to create equal forces to counteract them, often with destructive results. Whether it’s the Joker’s reign of horrific chaos or the worldwide fear and violent hatred that would accompany the arrival of a godlike alien among us, these films demonstrate that even with the noblest of intentions, the actions of these beloved heroes often yield unintended consequences which bring them face to face with the worst demons of humanity, both in others and within themselves. How they navigate these morally murky realms and still do what they believe to be right without sacrificing their core values is the challenge which makes their stories so compelling. By bringing these iconic characters into a world similar to our own and imbuing them with characteristics we recognize, we get a more personal understanding of who they really are, what they would really be like, and in the end, it makes us appreciate and love them all the more.
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