Written by Charles Bowyer
“The single point at which everything we know and everything we question exists in one place; the ultimate crossroads in the journey of discovering the true meaning of ‘self;’ the collision point of science and religion, tangible and ethereal, physical and philosophical; the place where a question that may never truly have an answer can be embodied in a singular character – in many ways, that is the why of Superman.
Seventy-five years ago; Kandor and Kansas collided, giving birth to one of the most storied characters of all time – Superman – a single character who calls into question everything we believe. Whether it is the belief that we humans are the apex of an evolutionary process, the pinnacle of God’s creation, or anything else along the complex spectrum where science and theisms grapple for space, Superman challenges all of those ideas to their core. He forces us to look at ourselves as individuals, and mankind as a whole, through the filter of a being who looks very much like us but has the physical strength and abilities of a god. Yet, despite his corporeal strengths, he is not omniscient, and therefore must venture out into the world on his own journey of self-discovery. No more able to see the future than any of us, and in many ways much less aware of his past than most, he is, in essence, a lost god. A deity forced to walk the Earth alone, seeking his own personal truth while inadvertently calling into question the very truths the rest of mankind cling to so tightly.
[…] I was enthralled by the amazing opportunity to place this helplessly divine figure firmly in our imperfect world. It was a chance to tell the complicated story of a struggling savior, a reluctant messiah, in a modern way. An opportunity to carefully deconstruct the classical godlike character, who we have often perceived as aspirational but also distant and divine at times.” – Zack Snyder
“This has been the most rigorous intellectual exercise I’ve had in my writing life. For Batman v Superman I really want to dig into everything from ideas about American power to the structure of revenge tragedies to the huge canon of DC comics to Amazon mythology.[…]If you told me the most rigorous dramaturgical and intellectual product of my life would be superhero movies, I would 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.” – Chris Terrio, writer, Batman v Superman
Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is the most ambitious and original superhero film of the modern era. Not since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has any director working in this otherwise lifeless and stagnant genre elevated it to such thematic heights. Batman v Superman is multilayered in its thematic and symbolic depth, but at its core, it has one central ambition: casting the Superhero as modern mythological hero. This task alone provides more than enough thematic content for an entire film, but Snyder and Terrio decided to take things a step further, using the film to…
1. Comment on media-fueled xenophobia in post-9/11 America,
2. Restore Superman and Batman to their roles as genuine role models worth looking up to, rather than inhuman abstractions.
3. Explore, as Man of Steel did, the relationship between Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism (which advocates selfishness as a moral virtue) and Christianity.
4. Rehabilitate superheroes through the retelling of the comic book Watchmen.
However, above all else, the central theme of the film, in my opinion, is this: “Superheroes are modern gods and heroes, and their stories are modern mythology. Time to take them seriously.” The film does not deal exclusively with these themes (for instance, BvS draws heavily from John Boorman’s 1981 film “Excalibur”), but they are the primary ones, and as such will be my primary focus. It should go without saying that I am not certain my interpretation of the film is correct. In fact, I’m certain that some of what I think about BvS is wrong. But I’m quite confident that themes I am interpreting are present in the film.
Essays written about the thematic content of a particular film tend to be written independently of the narrative structure of the film they’re analyzing, but given the dense and sprawling nature of the film, I’ve decided the best way to lay out my interpretation is through a chronological, scene-by-scene analysis. This essay is designed to be read on its own: however, given the linear structure, it could be read as a companion piece while watching BvS.
Rather than spend time defending this film against common criticisms, I would rather lay out why it’s good than why it’s not bad: with a focus on the symbolic, religious and psychological content of the film. This film is too esoteric and complex to be judged on the basis of how fun it is, or the tightness of the narrative. But it’s become apparent to me that I have to mention the critical response to BvS has gotten, as this film receiving a 27% score is a crime against humanity.
I could write for pages and pages about this issue, and film criticism in general, but I’ll keep it brief. To some extent, I think it’s a waste of time to try to get into the psychology of the average film critic, as if their opinion matters. This is not 1982(the year At The Movies With Gene Siskel And Roger Ebert began airing.) The opinions of modern film critics are not worthy of a great deal more respect than those of any random casual movie fan on the internet. Let’s drop the pretension. With some notable exceptions, most film critics who appear on Rotten Tomatoes aren’t really film critics. They’re film reviewers, and their greatest failing is their inability to see beyond their expectations. Yeah, Batman v Superman was not what you expected. It’s a surprising film. It’s not fun, it’s not light, it’s not colorful, it doesn’t follow a Writing 101 3-act structure (it actually follows a 5-act structure,) Superman doesn’t change into his suit in a phone-booth, Lex Luthor is an edgy anti-theist, Batman commits vehicular manslaughter, and regular manslaughter, it’s dark, it’s depressing, etc. The problem I see at the core of the reaction to BvS is that people weren’t willing to let the film be what it was going to be, and judge it on that basis. They had their own ideas, partially based on the inept marketing the film had, about what they wanted the movie to be, and when they sat down and saw Bruce Wayne raised into the light like Jesus by a flock of bats, immediately followed by this location card
they crossed their arms and thought “well isn’t this self important,” instead of taking the film on it’s own terms and letting it tell you what it’s trying to tell you. Here’s a perfect example of the difference between a film reviewer and a film critic:
And Maltin has the audacity to bemoan the “dilution” of film criticism by the internet. One of these men saw something that didn’t fit with his expectations, and dismissed it out of hand. The other saw something that didn’t fit with his expectations, and he tried to understand it. You’ll notice, as well, that Beifuss doesn’t give the film a ringing endorsement. You don’t have to love BvS, but if you take it seriously, you’ll at least respect it.
There’s so much else I could talk about regarding this issue, like how the film media has had it out for Snyder for years, or how these people clearly don’t respect superheroes enough to give a positive review to a film like BvS that takes them incredibly seriously without also playing down the schlockier elements, but I’ll leave it at that.
The Time Before
There was a time above… a time before. There were perfect things… diamond absolutes. But things fall, things on Earth. And what falls… is fallen. In the dream, they took me to the light. A beautiful lie.
The entire film centers around this scene and these lines. In his Wall Street Journal interview, Chris Terrio had this to say:
“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. That brings up questions of Superman.”
Bruce’s monologue sets up his character at the start of the film perfectly. By using such language, (“time before,” “things fall,” “they took me to the light,”) Bruce is established as the archetypal tragic hero, in the vein of Hamlet, Orpheus, Oedipus, etc. He’s also identified with a fundamental theme of Western mythology: the fallen nature of mankind. This is derived, in a political and historical context, from the fall of the Roman Empire, but on a religious and spiritual level from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. Bruce’s monologue immediately establishes the tone and ambition of the film.
Note that the theatre is playing the the 1981 film Excalibur, mentioned earlier. Boorman’s Excalibur, an absolute masterpiece in it’s own right, is a retelling of the central Arthurian myth as described in the 15th century book Le Morte d’Arthur. It’s also a favorite film of Snyder’s, and influenced BvS heavily. BvS is, in part, a retelling of that film, with Batman and Superman playing the roles of Arthur and Lancelot. Lois Lane is the Lady of the Lake, Lex Luthor is Morgana, and Doomsday is Mordred. I will explain all of those connections when they become relevant. The central theme of Excalibur is this: “The King and the Land are one.” That motif permeates the film, and appears to be prominent in Justice League as well.
Snyder said that he wanted Bruce to have seen knights fighting on the most important day of his life. One has to keep in mind that everything Batman is, as a character, is a result of the death of his parents. That is Batman, at his core. His nightly escapades are a never-ending attempt to redeem the original sin of his parent’s death. Every detail of that night was etched into his brain. Him seeing Excalibur, or having seen a trailer for it, influenced his psychology regarding Superman.
Take care also to note the number on the building to their left, 1108. This corresponds to a verse from the Book of Revelation:
“And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.”
Credit to user “V” on Vimeo, who created this excellent video, “Batman v Superman: Allegory,” which I will reference again later.
You may think this is a coincidence, but given Snyder’s attention to detail, interest in Christianity and Christian imagery, the direct relationship of the verse to the scene, and the fact that he’s done this before, I would assume intent.
Thomas Wayne tries to fight back against Joe Chill, rather than talk him down or abide by his demands, as generally happens in Batman origin stories. In this universe, Bruce witnessed his father meet violence with violence, which influences him immensely.
It’s also, on a technical level, a beautiful scene, and one that recreates perfectly the same event depicted in The Dark Knight Returns. If you don’t think Snyder is one of the foremost visual directors working in mainstream cinema today, you’re not paying attention.
Bruce runs into the woods before falling into the cave. The woods, of course, has a psychological connotation. The unknown, dangerous chaos of nature. There is a tracking shot of Bruce before his fall, which will be visually referenced later in the film.
And, of course, Thomas Wayne calls out to Martha before his death. Aside from the obvious set up for the plot, as well as establishing Bruce’s Freudian psychology, this is a reference to Citizen Kane.
The symbolism of Bruce in the cave is obvious. The identity of Batman is how Bruce saved himself from his fallen state. Bruce’s subconscious portrays this in Christ imagery. This is no pointless religious symbolism: this indicates that Bruce ascent into Batman, a god-like identity, is his salvation. Bruce is no longer a man. He is man-made-God. Or, to be more accurate, Bruce is the archetypal tragic hero, and Batman is a god. What separates, in pagan terms, a man from a god? Power. Bruce acquires power, takes on a supernatural form, and thereby ceases to be just a man. However, after being “introduced to the Superman,” Bruce views this as a “beautiful lie.” His method of escaping the psychological “underworld” he was was to obtain power. In the face of Superman, he is no longer powerful. A central theme in the film is “power,” but it’s deeper than simply “power corrupts.” In fact, in the film, the idea that power corrupts is portrayed as a result of psychological trauma. The relative loss of power, in the face of a greater power, also corrupts. This mimetic rivalry is present in both Bruce and Lex.
Mankind is Introduced to the Superman
“The” Superman, referring to him as an abstract metaphysical concept rather than an individual. The scene is Bruce Wayne’s memory/dream, recounted from his POV. Among others’, Bruce’s dehumanization of Superman is a recurring theme in the film.
In an impressive display of attention to detail, the Metropolis scene in the beginning of BvS corresponds perfectly to the Metropolis scene at the end of MoS(up to the point of Zod and Superman’s fist fight.) There’s no great symbolism in that, of course, but it’s indicative of the respect Snyder has for his work.
One of the absolute key concepts you need to grasp in order to understand this movie is that Batman is the villain of the film, in the same way that Harvey Dent is the villain of The Dark Knight. “Why does Batman kill people?” Because he’s the villain of the story. “Why does Batman brand people?” Because he’s the villain of the story. “Why does Batman want to kill Superman?” Because he’s the villain of the story. The film does not intend to show Superman and Batman as equals morally and philosophically, as Captain America: Civil War does.
When Wayne Enterprises employee Jack realizes his death is imminent, he begins praying. His prayer helps remind the audience that the entire film is grounded in religion, and it’s no coincidence that his prayers are “answered” with death. He prays to God, and in return he’s killed by another kind of god.
Here I would like to quote from the fantastic essay “Batman v Superman: The Modern Revenge Tragedy.” In many ways, the BvS community owes its existence to this essay.
This image was not created by me; it has gone around the BvS community for months. Bruce’s complex psychology is indicated beautifully purely through visuals. Anybody who tells you Zack Snyder is “style over substance” is fantastically misguided. Style is substance.
In Fruedian psychology, the father is the first enemy. Lex and Bruce, the antagonists of the film, project their fathers onto Superman. Lex does so by relating Superman to his abusive father and the archetypal sky-father(“Horus, Apollo, Jehovah.”) For Bruce, Snyder & Terrio took things in a more interesting direction. As I mentioned before, Thomas’ last act was to physically fight Joe Chill, in order to protect young Bruce. What Bruce sees in the battle of Metropolis is Superman failing to save his children. Superman, in Bruce’s eyes, is a failed Thomas Wayne, who lets his children – humanity – die. Thomas Wayne is a benevolent father, deified in Bruce’s mind, and as such Superman fails to live up to that standard.
This event is analogous to Watchmen. Batman is analogous to Rorschach, of course, which means that the events of Metropolis are analogous to the murder of the young child that happens prior to the events of Watchmen. In both cases, we have the obsessive, dark, but noble non-powered vigilante suffer a psychotic break after witnessing a tragedy(involving a little girl) which causes him to begin killing criminals. Rorschach, in the flashback to the beginning of the Watchmen, is far more psychologically stable. The same is true of Bruce.
We then cut to Lex’ team searching for Kryptonite.There’s no symbolism here, that I can see, I just think it’s a beautiful shot.
Men With Power Obey Neither Policy nor Principle
The desert scene opens with Jimmy Olsen drinking with his guide, who foreshadows the carnage which will follow Superman. “All that wind is bad luck. Blood in the sky.” One of the points of criticism this film received was Snyder’s decision to kill Jimmy Olsen, the light-hearted Superman sidekick. As Snyder has said, this was done to subvert audience expectations about what kind of film this would be, and its relationship to the comics.
In the discussion Lois Lane has with General Amajagh, one could view America as an analogy for Superman. Superman tries to be neutral, but that is an impossibility. He has power, and he has no choice – as a good natured person – to use his power for the sake of good. What that means, inevitably, is that he will have to de facto “take sides” in conflicts. He can’t not do it. “No one is different; no one is neutral.” Conversely, you could view Superman in the entire film as a metaphor for the US. You might, if you’re a comic book fan, be annoyed that Superman is taken through the ringer in this film, faced with choices and problems as difficult as he is. What Snyder believes is that Superman is strong enough, as a character, as an abstraction, to survive what is thrown at him in this film: “And it’s the only way to move forward with a hero, because otherwise the hero drowns in the mire of his own morality, in that he never can go forward, he never can evolve. He becomes an allegory, he’s a lesson, like, ‘This is the way to be, kids,’ not a real story. He becomes like one of the Ten Commandments. He’s not like an actual [person].”
If you don’t want Superman to be put into the position where has to decide between killing the only other surviving member of his species, or letting a family die right in front of him, you just don’t believe in the character. It’s that simple.
The general’s suspicions are right, of course, as Jimmy Olsen is indeed working for the CIA. The US is not neutral.
There’s some romanticism in this scene for the pre-drone era of US foreign policy, as the CIA agents on the ground, riding on horses (which indicates their nobility, by association with knights), tells the mission commander to “call off the goddamn drone.” The latter is all too willing to let Lois Lane die. It’s not a coincidence that Superman destroys a CIA drone in defense of innocents in an African village. Remember, Superman stands for “Truth, Justice, and the American way.” Snyder&Terrio are indicating that drone strikes on civilian-occupied villages are not the American way. You may disagree. That’s fine. Real art stirs the pot.
Of course, this entire event was organized by Lex in order to turn the public against Superman. This is plan A: turn the US government against Superman by manipulating public opinion. He has backups.
We then have the village woman Lex has bribed/intimidated, testifying that Superman is responsible for the destruction in Africa, when in reality Lex bears responsibility.
Remember the main theme of the film. Lex is an archetype, a god. Or he was, until Superman showed up. What do you call a person who is defined archetypally and acquires great power? A god.
He is a liar and a manipulator, like Satan or Pan. He inverts and distorts everything; that is his primary characteristic. It’s assumed that the point of BvS and MoS is to say “Superman is not a god,” but that’s a little simplistic. A mythological god is merely a superpowered person who represents, in most cases, abstractions. Superman is the god of Truth, Justice, Hope. Lex is the god of Lies. Where does that put Batman?
The End is Nigh
Then comes the Bat’s introduction. There is an easter egg for Watchmen, one of several: the Gotham City billboard has “The End is Nigh” graffitied onto it, a reference to Rorschach’s alter-ego as a wandering doomsayer.
Batman’s introduction is the most interesting of all the main characters’. The entire scene is filmed like a horror movie, not an action-adventure superhero film. It is genuinely tense, reminiscent more of Tim Burton’s Batman than Christopher Nolan’s.
The trafficking victims refer to Batman in interesting terms: “It saved us. A devil.” Remember Chris Terrio: Superman is Apollo, the god of the Sun and of Truth(he does, after all, derive his power from the Sun), and Batman is, god of the underworld and Death. You might think this film is about God vs Man; my interpretation is more subtle than that.
When the officers try to help them, the women close the gate. They’re afraid of Hades. This whole scene hammers in the idea that Batman is the bad guy, yet some people still didn’t get it.
Batman brands people in the same spot, left chest, where he has a prominent scar, as we see later in the film.
Batman takes his rage and pain out on criminals. When he runs, he crawls on the ceiling, in an inhuman way.
The trafficker is named Ceaser, which will become relevant later in the film.
The film cuts to Lois Lane’s apartment, opening with a nice panning establishing shot reminiscent of the dinner scene with Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II from Watchmen. Another indication of this film’s association with Watchmen.
Snyder is known for, among other things, macrophotography, which is utilized in this scene, allowing things to breathe. The camera lingers on her mailbox, mail, and twice on her faucet.
Compare that to other modern superhero films, which jump from wide-shot to wide-shot, not letting any one scene set in for too long, lest the audience start wondering when the next soulless action scene begins.
There is a motif in the film of characters drinking alcohol when they are lying or otherwise hiding from the truth. This isn’t a pointless detail; if you’re attentive enough to notice it, you will be privy to when characters are lying. This is first seen when Lois throws her bloody shirt aside, and turns to drink wine. Immediately after drinking, she hides the bullet from Clark.
Clark shows up holding flowers, which feature prominently in the film.
In Christian art, flowers are symbols of rebirth, life, and resurrection. Superman, while associated with Sun-god Apollo, is also(obviously) a Christ figure. You might think this contradictory, but I think the multi-layered symbolism of Jesus is directly relevant to what the film is trying to dramatically represent: the lack of meaning that flows from the absence of religion.
Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Superman, in turn, represents “Truth, Justice, and the American way.” Apollo, again, is the god of the Sun and the god of Truth. Interesting, to say the least, that Superman’s antagonists in the film are Lex, who is a god of Lies, and Bruce, who is Hades, the god of Death.
That Bruce is a god of Death is made obvious in the film itself, with no added commentary necessary: his entire being is death. He dresses like a bat, a symbol of death. He “lives” underground. His entire psychological state is based on the death of his parents. He fully intends to die in his quest to kill Superman. Superheroes in Snyder&Terrio’s world are elevated to mythological archetype.
Lois informs Superman of the Senate panel surrounding his intervention to save Lois. Clark “doesn’t care.” Man of Steel was in part about the relationship between Objectivism and Christianity, philosophies that have both influenced Snyder heavily. That dynamic continues in BvS, wherein Superman is half-Jesus Christ and half-Howard Roark, the rationally self-interested hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead(a book which Snyder plans to adapt.) Clark, over the course of both films, grapples with the desire to live up to the role humanity has thrust upon him as modern Christ, without becoming a slave to the will of the masses.
Clark drops his glasses when enters the tub with Lois, a not-so-subtle indication that he’s comfortable with her; he doesn’t have to hide or pretend when he’s around Lois.
Lois plays a central role in the film(unlike other love interests in superhero films), both thematically and on a basic plot level. You are likely familiar with the pagan idea of woman as nature and man as culture, or civilization. The Christian worldview takes it in a slightly different direction. In the Christian worldview, women represent all earthly things, both civilization and nature, and men represent the divine or heavenly.
This might be considered sexist, but Christianity does not take the view of material world = bad and metaphysical world = good. The proper mode of being is the reconciliation of physical and metaphysical. This is what Christ is, and why the New Testament insists on a physical and literal, not (only) metaphysical or metaphorical, resurrection. The physical, which is to say Earth and the body, are exalted. This is why the relationship between Lois and Clark is central to the film. It is the union between the metaphysical and the physical.
There’s also the Excalibur connection. Lois is the Lady of the Lake, who appears in pools of water. The bathtub scene foreshadows her central role regarding the Spear in the last act of the film. Again, if you’re thinking “this is all a stretch,” remember that Chris Terrio said this was the most rigorous intellectual exercise in his life. This is Zack Snyder, without a doubt the most creative and ambitious director working in the genre today, working with an Oscar winning writer who has an academic background in Western literature.
The Gods Hurl Thunderbolts
The film cuts from a moment of elevation and happiness, in a bright white room, between Clark and Lois
To Bruce, wearing black and alone, descending into his underworld cavern, wherein he engages in hostile, dishonest, and sarcastic banter with Alfred.
In their conversation, Bruce lies about the potential of a dirty bomb. On a political level, Bruce represents the post-9/11 American, who is paranoid about “aliens” and their ill-intent. A common concern among American neo-conservatives is the potential of terrorist entities to detonate dirty bombs in major Western cities.
Alfred slams down a newspaper, headlining Bruce’s branding of Gotham’s criminals, asking “New rules?” Bruce is in denial. “We’re criminals, Alfred, we’ve always been criminals. Nothing’s changed.” To which Alfred replies, “Oh, yes, it has, sir. Everything’s changed.” Alfred is Bruce’s conscience, and as such is our conscience, and informs the audience that Batman’s violence is a recent phenomenon. Crime-fighting was once a noble pursuit for Batman, but his “fever, rage, the feeling of powerlessness” turned a “good man cruel.” Again, the theme of power. Power corrupts, indeed, but powerlessness corrupts as well.
Another interesting aspect is the way in which Bruce thinks of Superman and Zod as gods in a distant way, as though he’s not one of them.
Then we have the introduction of Lex, presenting a lie. Lex Luthor, in the original comics, was just a mad-scientist. It was only in the 1980s that he became a corrupt corporate mogul. Snyder and Terrio have reinvented him, to be a more modern type of corrupt businessman, a Mark Zuckerberg. I’ve heard several people say that the main problem with BvS is it’s portrayal of Lex Luthor. Nonsense. For one, it is not a flaw that a character in a film is different from a character with the same name in a comic. But set that aside: at their cores, comic Lex and BvS Lex are the same. Theirs is a difference of style, not substance.
Leaning into the god of lies role, his personality presented here is a lie. The entire thing is a facade. He tells a cute story about how his father lied to get money from investors, probably the only true thing he says in the entire scene. He references his father having to “wave flowers at tyrants,” which, in addition to being another flower reference, is an example of how Lex inverts and distorts everything(which we’ll see at Superman’s grave at the end of the film.) He also says he believes it to be “Providence” that his father’s son would be the one to resist the Tyrant that is Superman. Of course, Lex is an anti-theist, and as such doesn’t believe in Providence; at least, not as a good thing.
Lex lies about his intention. He wants to get the Kryptonite in order to kill Superman, but he misleads Senator Finch into thinking that Kryptonite could be used against other metahumans. Lex colludes with the other Senator present with Finch, who suggest they are “able to help each other:” a corporation colluding with a corrupt Senator. We also have a visual reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey
Snyder cuts from Lex’ manipulation of the government, to Lex’ manipulation of the media.
Snyder has stated that the media is a character in BvS, “as it’s a character in all of our lives.” Lex’, the malevolent god of Lies, uses the media to turn Batman and Superman, Arthur and Lancelot per Excalibur, against each other. The film satirizes the media, and the way it plays to people’s fears. This is the first instance of that theme in the film. In the first feature film Chris Terrio wrote, Argo, the role the media plays in politics was a central theme.
Kahina asks Superman how he decides which lives to save. Clark, being a good-natured person, wrestles with this question seriously.
As Clark contemplates the question of his own power, we see an individual he has failed, Wallace Keefe. Like Batman, he is consumed by his rage at Superman.
Perry White assigns Clark to a vapid and frivolous story about football, and mocks him as a nerd. At the beginning of the film, he is condescending and dismissive, and opportunistic, more than willing to turn against Superman for the sake of his dying newspaper. Again, we see Clark genuinely concerned, not distant or uncaring, as has been alleged.
As Clark investigates Batman, against the wishes of his boss, which is another manifestation of the Objectivist element of the character, Bruce investigates Lex Luthor. One does so for benevolent reasons, the other malevolent.
Clark talks to Perry about Batman’s violation of people’s civil liberties, who is dismissive and disinterested. When he assigns Clark to go Lex’ party, he again calls him a nerd. Like every character, Perry goes through his own character arc regarding Clark and Superman.
Devil’s Don’t Come From Hell Beneath Us
We then have the fascinating scene with Lex and Sen. Finch in his office. It opens with Lex offering her alcohol, another example of the alcohol = lies and deception motif. This is Lex; everything he says to Sen. Finch is deception. There is more horse imagery here: a statue of a horse head adorns a table, and Lex references Paul Revere.
The point of central symbolic importance is Lex’ painting, a depiction of the War in Heaven described in the Book of Revelation. Here Lex inverts and distorts, as the Trickster figure always does. St. Michael, who is symbolically associated with Superman, is flipped. The savior figure, Superman, is actually a devil, according to Lex. Batman, the death-God, is then logically the savior. This alludes to Lex’ intention to use Batman to kill Superman. ”Devils don’t come from hell beneath us. No, they come from the sky.”
You might, if you’re a film critic, think to yourself, “people don’t talk like that in real life.” No, they don’t. This is theatre, not real life, and Lex Luthor is the chorus.
A cut from Lex’ monologuing his psychological damage, to Bruce dreaming his.
This is one of the central scenes of the film. Every detail here is relevant. The scene opens with Bruce walking towards Martha’s grave, holding flowers, thus juxtaposing his relationship with women with Clark’s. This shot foreshadows the “God vs Man” fight.
This shot below is visually referenced later in the film, in the Knightmare sequence.
Martha’s mausoleum contains a stained glass painting of St. Michael the Archangel.
This is a modified reproduction of Guido Reni’s famous depiction of St. Michael, casting down Satan at the climax of the War in Heaven, like in Lex Luthor’s office. Among some Christian denominations, St. Michael is considered to be the pre-incarnate Christ. As in the Son, second of the Trinity, before he manifests physically as Jesus. He is also, in the Old Testament and in Revelation, the Angel of Israel and of battle.
Notice in the BvS version the red cape and blue suit, the sun or halo behind him(something not in the original,) and the fact that he is in a burning city. These are not pointless changes. This scene is something I puzzled over initially. My inclination was that Bruce thought himself a Christ figure, and Superman a Satanic figure. However, it now seems to me that this is Bruce’s subconscious(this is a dream, after all) telling him that Superman is a Christ figure. When he wakes up, he immediately takes a drink and swallows pills. As we know, alcohol is associated with lying and deception in the film. Bruce subconsciously knows that Superman is a Christ figure, but he suppresses that.
There are two other points of interest in this scene: it’s foreshadowing of the Martha scene by blood being associated with Martha’s name, before Bruce is “woken up,” in this scene literally, with Superman metaphorically.
He sees blood, then the name “Martha,” and is then violently awoken by his inner Bat. The sound of the World Engine from Man of Steel also accompanies his nightmare, indicating the traumatic “haunting” nature of the event. He is also, obviously, waking up from a night spent with some faceless woman, another indication of his unhealthy relationship with women.
This entire scene is a testament to Snyder’s audacity and skill as a filmmaker.
We see in the morning after the state of Bruce’s relationships. His conversations with his closest ally, Alfred, are tense and full of resentment and deception. Bruce is broken, on every level.
The library is adorned with Classical sculptures, including what appears to be the Greek pantheon.
Alfred also refers to Batman as “The Bat,” grounding Bruce as a mythological character. Here’s one way to think about it: Bruce is a man, “The Bat” is a god.
Bruce glares at the Robin suit. The meaning here is simple: Bruce has failed to keep the only people who matter to him alive.
The main theme of Excalibur, “The King and the Land are one,” is a motif in this film. The entire property of Wayne Manor is decrepit, desolate, and barren, as Bruce (symbolically) is.
Knowledge Without Power
This a multi-faceted scene. In addition to being the first confrontation between Bruce and Clark, and the introduction of Wonder Woman to the film, this is deeply revelatory of Lex Luthor’s nature. There are also several points of some symbolic significance.
Lex casts himself as a Promethean figure. That is how he presents himself. However, at the exact moment where Lex mentions Prometheus, Bruce is center-frame. A coincidence, perhaps, or indicative of Lex’ self-deception.
Lex suddenly switches from deception to honesty. He is baffled by the Superman question. “What am I? What was I saying? […] The bittersweet pain among men is having knowledge without power, because that is paradoxical.” Here is the core of his character. He is like Bruce, he escaped the horror of a malevolent childhood through the acquisition of knowledge, which is power. But, in the face of Superman, he is powerless.
Lex pretends, perhaps even to himself, that he is Prometheus, saving the world from the tyrannical sky-father. But his actual motivations are psychological, not humanitarian.
Immediately after accidentally revealing his true nature, he urges his audience to “Drink, drink!” I don’t think I need to explain that.
There’s an interesting comment which I overlooked previously from Alfred, who tells Bruce to go and socialized. “Some young lady from Metropolis will make you honest.” This is more foreshadowing of the “Martha” scene, and an example of the theme of truth in the film.
In his conversation with Bruce, Clark is honest. “Civil liberties are being trampled on. Good people living in fear. He thinks he’s above the law” Again, this is not Civil War. Superman and Batman aren’t on equal moral footing. Clark’s objections are entirely correct. Bruce responds with paranoia. “An alien, who, if he wanted to, could burn the whole place down. Not a damn thing we could do to stop him.” Clark is clearly phased by this. Like a good person in his situation would, he doesn’t ignore criticisms levelled against him. People have accused this version of Superman of being aloof or uncaring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, he is dealing with the loss of humanity that accompanies his god-hood. But unlike Dr. Manhattan, he is deeply concerned about the fate of humanity.
Hanging behind them is the painting “A Balance of Terror,” showing black figures brutalizing white figures.
Clark intends to follow Bruce, realizing that this point that he is Batman, but is distracted by more important things. Bruce’s device is stolen by Diana, and when he chases her he runs into a cake modeled after the Parthenon, which was a temple to Athena. Wonder Woman has long been associated with Athena in comic books.
Maybe He’s Just A Guy Trying To Do The Right Thing
This is one of the most fascinating scenes in the entire film. It’s an incredibly accurate portrayal of how the world would actually react to Superman. That kind of grounded, “magical realism” is exactly what Snyder&co have portrayed in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman.
There are a couple points that need to be fleshed out here, but the scene is mostly self-explanatory, and beautiful, so I will post it in full here.
An unnoticed detail here is how Superman’s goes from smiling to somber after the locals begin to worship him. Beyond the obvious, someone who views himself as a man bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, the scene is referential of Superman being surrounded by the dead in his “dream” sequence in Man of Steel.
Indeed, from Clark’s perspective, he is, as Vikram Gandhi says, “not a Devil or Jesus character, maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing.” Again from Gandhi, “When this savior character actually comes to Earth, we want to make him abide by our rules?” This a manifestation of the Objectivist theme in the film; Superman as literal Superman, Ubermensch, beyond our judgement, creating his own meaning. Or Superman as literal god, again beyond our judgement. Maybe both.
There are many ways to interpret this scene. I believe that’s the point. “What we’ve done is projected ourselves onto him.” My interpretation is this: whether Clark likes it or not, he is a god. BvS and MoS are not about man becoming god; they are about god becoming man.
Superman carrying the ship is symbolic of Christ bearing the Cross.
This scene is highly reminiscent of the montage in Watchmen of Dr. Manhattan on Mars. In BvS, Superman goes about his business with care. Dr. Manhattan does not.
As I said, this scene is mostly self-explanatory. This is what a world with Superman in it looks like. I have heard objections that Superman doesn’t smile enough when saving people. This is among the dumbest things ever said by a human. You don’t smile while bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders. Do you want a fairytale Superman, or do you want a real Superman?
I absolutely adore this shot. That is Superman: not a glib, childish, Superman; Superman made real.
Clark, troubled as any human would be, calls his mother, looking for guidance. His question about why Pa Kent never left Kansas is a tentative inquiry into whether it’s possible for him to escape the burden being Superman places on him; wishful thinking at best. “Nothing was ever simple.” This ties into the “Lost God” theme Snyder wrote about. The following scenes are mostly plot, showing the various manifestations of Lex’ plan.
As he did in Man of Steel, Clark pursues a greater purpose in defiance of other’s expectation. The Objectivist theme permeates all of Clark’s actions. Despite being told by Perry White to follow something frivolous(football), he investigates Batman. One of the articles Clark reads contains the line, quoted from a “Harvey,” who could be Harvey Dent or Harvey Bullock, “Who watches the Watchmen?” Remember, Batman is Rorschach.
Wallace Keefe asks Lex who he is, to which he replies “Just a man,” contrasting himself with Superman.
The entire film is grounded in Classicism. Aesthetically, narratively, symbolically, this film is akin to a work of Greek or Roman literature. One of the manifestations of that is Caeser, the man Batman brands earlier in the film. He is led into a courtyard and stabbed by his associates, who are, of course, paid by Lex. To my knowledge, this has no grand symbolic or narrative association with the rest of the film, but does affirm the film’s classical aesthetic.
General Swanwick advises Lois to not invent a conspiracy theory to “put back his halo – or yours.” In the “Must there be a Superman” scene, Superman does have a “halo” of sorts, with the sun shining directly behind him. Religious language like this is constant in the film. Swanwick’s line also indicates that Lois plays, or will play, a divine purpose in the film, as Superman does. Confronting him about his pursuit of “the Gotham Bat,” Perry says “You don’t get to decide what the right thing is,” not knowing that any time any individual, Superman especially, decides to do something, they are deciding what the right thing is. Clark says the Daily Planet used to stand for something, to which Perry responds “so could you, if it was 1938.” 1938 is the year Superman comics were first published. The world around Clark has grown cynical and amoral since his birth.
A Psychopathic Killer
This scene opens with employees at the museum watching Jon Stewart, deriding Superman for his nationalism. The media shapes everyone’s opinions of the alien.
The camera lingers on a tray of champagne for a moment, indicating some deception before the Kissinger-esque fellow shows Diana the apocryphal Sword of Alexander, used to cut the Gordian knot. For those who are unfamiliar, here is the story of the Gordian knot, from Wikipedia:
“The Phrygians were without a king, but an oracle at Telmissus (the ancient capital of Lycia) decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox-cart and was immediately declared king. Out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios (whom the Greeks identified with Zeus) and tied it to a post with an intricate knot of cornel bark.
The knot was later described by Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus as comprising ‘several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.’ The ox-cart still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BCE when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrap or province of the Persian Empire. An oracle had declared that any man who could unravel its elaborate knots was destined to become ruler of all of Asia. Alexander wanted to untie the knot but struggled to do so without success. He then reasoned that it would make no difference how the knot was loosed, so he drew his sword and sliced it in half with a single stroke.“
“Cutting the Gordian knot” has become shorthand for a simple or direct solution to a complex problem. Bruce reveals that the blade is a fake; the scene was a lie, if you will. Obviously, this scene is about Alexander “Lex” Luthor, the tyrannical killer who is (later) called psychopathic. Here it is revealed what role Lex plays in this Watchmen redux: Ozymandias, who relates himself to Alexander the Great in Watchmen. What is the Gordian knot, then? Superman. How does he cut it? Doomsday.
Adding to the Classical motif (discussion of Alexander), we have a marble statue of what looks to be a Greek hero in the background.
Here is one of the more controversial scenes in the film. What it represents is deliberately vague: it could be a dream, it could be speed-force induced vision of the future, it could be an alternate reality. It was, so I hear, added after Snyder determined that the film was too linear in its narrative structure. On it’s own, it serves a narrative purpose; reinforcing Bruce’s fear of Superman. It is a reference to one of Snyder’s favorite films, Mad Max 2, there being a military compound in the middle of a desert protected by school buses. The scene also references another dream sequence in the film:
And we will this scene referenced in Justice League, with a renewed Bruce Wayne
Bruce awakens to find himself tied up with two other “criminals.” This is a reference to Christ on the Cross with the Penitent and Impenitent thieves.
This is a manifestation of Bruce’s worst fear: Batman as Christ, failing to save the world from Superman. Clark’s dialogue is of importance: “She is my world, and you took her from me.” That specific phrasing will be relevant later.
He is woken from one level of the dream by the Flash, who you could conceptualize as an angel, appearing with blinding white light to warn someone of impending events of worldly significance, as is typical in Abrahamic religions
Clark, meanwhile, is sent photographs of the dead Caeser, by Lex Luthor, showing Batman’s brutality, and violation of civil liberties
We’ve Seen What Promises Are Worth
We see the depths of Bruce’s deception is his dialogue with Alfred, who, as I said, represents Bruce’s conscience.
Bruce says to Alfred “If we believe there is an even 1% chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” The political motif is at play here: this is a reference to Dick Cheney’s infamous 1% Doctrine. In his own words:
“If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”
Zack Snyder and Chris Terrio are geniuses. Bruce is the post-9/11 American man: paranoid of “aliens” who are our enemies, set out to destroy America.
Why does Bruce think this? Because of his own fallen nature. As with all the other characters, Bruce tears down Superman because of his own psychological failure. “20 years in Gotham, Alfred, we’ve seen what promises are worth. How many good guys are left. How many stayed that way.” The use of the word promise is interesting, given the motif of honesty and lies in the film.
Many thought this dialogue to be in reference to Harvey Dent or Jason Todd. Nonsense. It’s in reference to Bruce himself. This goes to the core of the character: he fears Superman because of his own fallen nature. If he can’t stay good, Superman can’t stay good. But when Superman goes bad, the whole planet is at risk.
If you’d like to read more about this specific area of Batman v Superman, read The Ultimate Immigrant Story, written by the EIC of this site, Sheraz Farooqi.
When Clark goes to investigate the killing of Caeser, we see on the police car the number 204.
This corresponds to a passage from the Book of Revelation, 20:4, a book which was referenced in the opening scene. “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”
The dialogue in this scene cements the connection: she refers to the Bat brand as a “mark,” and that the guards don’t care, because the Bat, or the Beast, is “the judge. One man decides who lives. How is that justice?”
“A man like that, words don’t stop him. You know what stops him? A fist.” She will be proven wrong. Clark, the Lost God, nevertheless believes her, and endeavors to stop Batman with a fist. As we see in the Batmobile chase scene, that will only fuel Bruce’s psychopathy. Violence begets violence. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.
The following is an action scene, and as such I don’t have any meaningful commentary on it. It’s a good action scene, though. This shot of Superman is stunning:
Good Is A Conversation
Sen Finch’s line could be read in a number of ways. It’s not clear whether the film endorses her views or refutes them. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. Superman, like Jesus, submits to the authorities in some cases, and defies them in others. He is powerful, but not omniscient, so he has to find some balance between government stooge and Howard Roark. One of the messages of the film is “In real life, being Superman is really hard, man,” as we can see in Clark’s face.
As Snyder says, if Superman is not confronted and challenged, his purpose is lost.
Clark is pulled in two different directions by older female figures. Sen. Finch tells him to submit to the US government, and Martha Kent tells him to submit to no one. This scene is where the Objectivist influence is strongest. “I never wanted this world to have you. Be their hero, Clark. Be their monument, be their angel, be anything they need you to be. Or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” She uses a religious word, angel. Superman is presented as Jesus, Apollo, Horus, an angel – and a Devil by Lex. As such, though his connection is strongest with Jesus from a narrative perspective, Superman could be seen as representative of religion in general. Where does that put Lex and Bruce? If they’re in opposition to a figure who is the benevolent sky-father, the primary deity archetype, that puts them in opposition to religious substructures in general. The sentiment Martha expresses here is deeply controversial. Good. BvS is considered one of the most disappointing films of all time. Also good. As David Fincher says, films should wound. We have enough safe, predictable trash in this genre already. You should be disappointed, surprised, and confused by films you see.
Martha’s line “People hate what they don’t understand” has taken on its own meaning in the context of the negative reception to BvS. As I said earlier, you don’t have to love BvS, but if you understand it, you won’t hate it. Though you should probably love it anyway.
The Oldest Lie In America
Again, the media is prominent in this scene, warping Bruce and pathologizing his view of Superman.
Keefe uses the phrase “wake up,” and it cuts to Bruce, who has had 3 dream sequences up to this point.
Keefe says “He has a delivered a war here,” only a few minutes earlier Bruce said to Alfred “that son of a bitch brought the war to us.” Keefe is in the employ of Lex. The audience here is Bruce, not the people sitting at home watching CNN. You might ask how Lex knows about this. He’s the chorus, and the Trickster figure, and as such operates in slightly supernatural ways. Lex knows what the real world audience knows.
There’s obviously the political component to this: a lying billionaire manipulates the media and the US government to turn America against a benevolent immigrant. But it works on a basic narrative level, as the Norse poems about Thor and Loki “work,” or Christ and Satan “work” in the Bible, or Zeus and Hades in Greek literature “work.” The masculine hero vs. the satanic trickster is the story.
It’s been said that Man of Steel is about fathers, and Batman v Superman is about mothers. Superman’s relationship with women is healthy; Lex’ and Bruce’s pathological. Lex manipulates and abuses every woman he encounters, including Mercy Graves, his loyal assistant. Lex is a dark mirror, a malevolent distortion of everything good in Superman and Batman. Lex says to Sen. Finch that the oldest lie in America is that “power can be innocent.” Lex is powerful, and is not innocent, so how could Superman be powerful and innocent?
Snyder’s superhero trilogy is a layered, self-referential tapestry, as we see in the Capitol scene.
These are both instances of Superman submitting to authority; the military in MoS, the civilian leadership in BvS.
One sign in the crowd, “You can’t be Christian and pro-alien,” is of particular interest, given the Snyder&Terrio’s decision to relate Superman to Christ. As we know from Man of Steel, Snyder is not saying that Superman is Jesus like Aslan is Jesus in the Chronicle of Narnia. What he is doing is showing Superman follow in the example of Jesus, in order to embody the “best of both worlds,” in the words of Jor-El.
Why is Superman constantly portrayed in Christ imagery? Because he has consciously decided to live out the Christ archetype.
I appreciate the scene of Superman entering the hearing room. Absent the media’s exploitative glare, we see Superman for the gentle, mild-mannered person he is.
Sen Finch says “Shadow interventions will not be tolerated by this committee. Neither will lies. Because today is a day for truth.” Another one of Lex’ opponents who is defined by a commitment to Truth.
Lex Luthor should drink more water.
What we see with Bruce should be clear to you at this point: he sees an event he doesn’t understand, through the eyes of the media, orchestrated by Satan, for all intents and purposes, which exploits his psychological damage – “you let your family die” – to turn him murderous against the god of Truth and Life. This is heavy stuff.
As I said, Superman is analogous narratively to Dr. Manhattan. As such, this scene parallels the interview Dr. Manhattan gives just prior to fleeing to Mars. Superman goes through the same trials Dr. Manhattan does, but unlike Dr. Manhattan, he cares for humanity.
(I really do enjoy the way Snyder allows scenes to breathe, like when Alfred chops wood. There’s no Joss Whedon quips here, just atmosphere.)
The media’s deceit and exploitation is seen with Alfred, who watches a CNN report that says Superman’s disappearance “raises questions.” This is exactly the type of weasel-word language the media uses to push a narrative.
Clark’s conversation with Lois is a meta one. “Superman was never real.” Clark is the modern, cynical audience, believing the our world to be too complex for someone like Superman to have any value. Lois grabs the House of El crest, saying “This means something.”
She’s right, of course. The Superman symbol is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world, and Superman himself is a character as deep and as meaningful to modern Americans as Hercules was to the ancient Greeks.
Superman responds by saying that Earth is not his world, before stepping away from Lois. Lois is Earth, Earth is Lois; the King and the Land are one. When Superman steps away from Lois, he steps away from himself.
As with Man of Steel, Kryptonian technology is sexually suggestive. Snyder has matured as a filmmaker. In earlier films, 300 in particular, sex was used purely for titillation. Now it serves narrative and symbolic importance. The ship is yonic and womb-like, but cold and corrupted, suggesting that there will be a malignant “birth” here.
Bruce’s training/preparation scene is just fantastic, one of the best scenes in any of Snyder’s films. It’s just pure testosterone, a compelling aesthetic display of Bruce’s rage and determination. A point of interest, as I mentioned before, is that Bruce has a scar in the exact same place that he branded Caeser.
In the creation of Doomsday, Lex is participating in what amounts to an uholy pagan blood ritual. In the Excalibur comparison, Lex’ creation of Doomsday is akin to Morgana’s rape of her brother Arthur, in a similar setting, in order to create Mordred. Doomsday is related to Superman in a way, as he is the product of another Kryptonian. Both Doomsday and Mordred are essentially monsters; neither have “character” or “motivation” in the conventional sense. Instead, they are the tools of complex malevolent actors, Morgana and Lex Luthor. Morgana gives birth to Mordred as Lex “gives birth” to Doomsday.
Lex’ line to Zod’s body, “you flew too close to the sun,” is of interest. Lex’ pretension of being a Promethean humanitarian is at best a half-truth. His actual motivations are made clear when he confronts Superman directly.
At the Daily Planet, Jenny reads aloud her piece on the Capitol bombing, saying “his disappearance raises questions.” Less than a second later, anchor Dana Bash says “there are so many unanswered questions.” This is an accurate portrayal of how the media imitates each other in creation of stories – something the DC fanbase is all too familiar with. Bash questions whether Superman “was involved in the planning of the attack,” there being no basis at all to believe this. The media’s hysterics fuel public hysterics.
Make no mistake: this film is criticises the media heavily. Ironically, Snyder&Terrio use unwitting real news anchors – Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Soledad O’Brien – in their condemnation of the media.
Men of Kansas
Ascension of a mountain is archetypally significant. For one, Oracles are generally portrayed as living on top of mountains(as we see in Snyder’s 300.) They are places of solitude and reflection.
Clark’s self-exile is analogous to Dr. Manhattan on Mars, as I said earlier, and Jesus in the wilderness. As such, it represents a temptation: For Clark to abandon his role as savior. Jesus was tempted with power; Clark is tempted with the lack of power.
Like Jesus, Clark encounters something supernatural atop the mountain. In the latter’s case, it is a vision of his father.
There are two points of central significance in this scene; one, Jonathan Kent reveals the importance of Lois Lane for Clark. Jonathan’s nightmares only ceased after he married Martha. Jonathan says of Martha “she was my world.” Remember the Christian worldview: women are Earth, men are heaven. The king and the land are one.
Jonathan’s description of drowning horses(more horse imagery) may be brutal, but he does not say he did the wrong thing. This is a discussion Clark is having with his subconscious father, who is telling him that despite the negative consequences, you must follow your own moral compass and act. No, he cannot be neutral, and he cannot be innocent. All action is moral judgement, but when you have power, you have no choice but to act.
They Were Hunters
The juxtaposition of Clark and Bruce is fascinating. They both have “conversations” with their “fathers.” Clark leaves his affirmed, if only temporarily, in the noble goal of self-sacrifice; Bruce leaves his affirmed in the ignoble goal of murder. Bruce standing in front of his fireplace is a reference to Lex standing in front of his. In both scenes, they are talking about their fathers. The relationship between Bruce, Clark, and Lex is a complex interweaving tapestry.
Alfred says Bruce’s mission is “suicide.” Bruce doesn’t disagree. Batman is a god of death. The decrepit Wayne Manor is a physical representation of Bruce’s psychological state. There’s not much of thematic significance here that isn’t obvious, his dehumanizing of Superman by deciding to “hunt” him is interesting, but the dialogue and cinematography is a work of art on its own.
There’s more of the media motif when Martha is kidnapped, Nancy Grace is like everyone else asserting what she thinks Superman should be doing, based on nothing.
Batman constructs a spear to use against Superman;
This is an allusion to the Spear of Longinus, which was used at the Cross to pierce Christ’s side. As we’ll see later, it also has a connection to Excalibur.
These two shots below are perfect. As I’ve said before, the BvS aesthetic is half Renaissance painting and half comic book splash page .
Lex Luthor says “the knight is here.” Beyond the obvious play on words, night/knight, this indicative of the fact that Batman and Superman’s fight will be analogous to the fight between the knights Arthur and Lancelot in Excalibur. Now, the connection is not perfect: at different points in the film, Superman can represent either Lancelot or Arthur.
Chris Terrio deserved a second Oscar for Lex’ dialogue in this scene. Some bits of interest: Lois Lane refers to Lex as psychotic. Earlier, the museum curator referred to Alexander the Great as psychopathic. Lex’ violent outbursts – “wrong, boy” – indicate the severity of his psychological damage at the hands of his father. He also refers to Euclid’s triangle, another Classic reference.
Superman’s return to save Lois from Lex parallels Dr. Manhattan’s return to save Silk Spectre from nuclear war(in reality, Ozymandias.)
If God is all Powerful, He Cannot be all Good
Many take Lex Luthor’s comments literally, as if he believes that Superman is God in the way the Abrahamic God is God. That’s a valid interpretation, but I think Lex understands, as the audience does, that Superman is not literally God. Rather, Lex is using a Classical argument as an analogy of the problem with Superman. The Problem of Evil, sometimes described as the Problem of Pain, originates with Epicurus, and is thus formulated:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
As with the theistic Cosmological Argument, the Problem of Pain has been left essentially unchanged since it was first formulated in ancient Greece.
Lex relates Superman to “Horus, Apollo, Jehovah, Kal-El.” “What we call god depends upon our tribe.” Apollo and Horus, and Jehovah among secular Biblical scholars, are polytheistic gods, not the Abrahamic monotheistic God. “God is tribal, god takes sides. No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from Daddy’s fists and abominations.” This might be the only scene in which Lex is honest in the entire film. He puts it all out on the table: there cannot be a benevolent god, because a god by definition has to choose and take sides. Superman is a fraud, because he is(practically, for the sake of thematic depth) all-powerful, and thus has to make moral compromises. “They need to see the fraud you are. With their eyes. The blood on your hands.”
Lex endeavors to demonstrate this by manipulating Superman into fighting Batman. Lex Luthor refers the fight as God vs. Man. As we’ve established, what separates a god from a man is power. In an interview with Mark Hughes at Forbes, Snyder said this about Lex
“He doesn’t think we’re capable of rising, so he has to bring the god down, right? And look, Luthor’s a humanitarian on some level. But in that moment it was about leveling the playing field, and what seems like a vast difference between our perceived ‘god’ and our perceived ‘man’ are really just labels and sort of ways of looking.”
If Superman is a god, then Batman is a god. If Batman is a man, then Superman is a man. In some way, the path of Batman and Superman moves in opposite: Batman strives to be a god, and Superman strives to be a man.
Lex, subverting and lying, calls Superman a flying demon, and his mother a witch, who must be burned by fire.
Interestingly enough, Superman’s actual mother did die by fire:
Lex says “And now god bends to my will.” This is revealing. Though Lex is a humanitarian on “some” level, his real motivations for tearing down Superman are malevolent. “You above all.” Why does Lex hate Superman? Because Superman has usurped Lex, by being more powerful than him.
And, I’m sorry, but I have to say it again: the dialogue in this scene is perfect, and the fact that Terrio and Snyder don’t get credit for it is a travesty.
The inclusion of the Justice League clips in Diana’s computer does nothing to help the film, but I will say the League will end up becoming the Olympians of Greek mythology. Superman is Apollo, Batman is Hades, Aquaman is Poseidon, Wonder Woman is Athena, The Flash is Hermes, and Cyborg is Hephaestus.
The framing of this shot is referential to several other scenes of importance:
Does this mean Batman views killing Superman as is his salvation, or is this an unconscious representation of the fact that Superman is his salvation?
Both of these images are popular in the BvS fanbase, with unknown creators
BvS is reminiscent of Watchmen in the way it overlaps and references itself visually.
As I said earlier, this is allegorical of the fight between Arthur and Lancelot in Excalibur. The two switch roles at different points in the film: here, Bruce is Arthur, the once-great knight in black armor who fights the shining and noble knight Lancelot, due to the former’s arrogance, jealousy, and lust for power.
Superman implores Bruce to listen to him. “You don’t understand.” To which Batman replies, with complete assurance, “I understand.” Of course he doesn’t. His entire perception of Superman, literally every single thing he knows about him, is based on what the media and Lex Luthor have presented him.
Does this scene seem to you like a man interacting with a god? Batman has ascended to godhood; furthermore, he has brought god down to manhood.
“Breathe it in. That’s fear. You’re not brave. Men are brave.” As we saw with Lex, Bruce’s true motivations come out when he actually confronts Superman. Clark is a vessel for Bruce’s psychological damage.
This sequence of events parallels Bruce’s initial descent – remember Terrio; Bruce’s fall is his defining characteristic. As Bruce ran towards his fall at his parents funeral, he runs towards his fall here.
Appreciation should be given for how brutal this fight is. It’s honestly hilarious to me. We have two years of marketing, countless trailers and interviews and TV spots hyping up the actual fight, celebrities talking about which superhero is their favorite, and it’s THIS
Batman smashing Superman in the skull with a sink in a public bathroom. There’s nothing fun about this: it’s genuinely unpleasant, brutal, and serious. The determination of Snyder to take the titular fight, the toy-selling one, in a $250 million dollar film ostensibly about children’s characters, and have Superman be tortured by Batman is a stunning commitment to artistic vision.
Bruce has dragged the savior down into the Underworld with him
This is a deeply archetypal event: the descent of the hero into the Underworld. It’s given due visual gravity. Bruce’s line here, “I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re here for a reason.” There’s a lot packed into this. First, it’s taken directly from The Dark Knight Returns. Second, it’s actually accurate. In Man of Steel, Jonathan Kent says to Clark “I have to believe that you were… That you were sent here for a reason.” The subtext in Man of Steel is, in my interpretation, that Jonathan does believe that Clark’s arrival was an act of divine intervention.
Bruce takes Clark down at his core, the core value his father instilled in him. This is as much, more in fact, a moral fight as it is a physical one.
Bruce continues: “My parents taught me a different lesson. Lying in the gutter, for no reason at all. They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.” This is revelatory; like Lex, Bruce’s true motivations only come out when he faces Superman. Bruce cannot comprehend a world in which a benevolent God exists, because then his parents wouldn’t have died. So he has to kill Superman, because otherwise his world doesn’t make sense. Lex spelled out the Problem of Evil explicitly, Bruce acts it out.
As is made clear in the video I linked earlier, “”Batman v Superman: Allegory,” the spear and flowers are linked.
This indicates that the Spear will be used for resurrection and life, as that is the symbolic meaning of flowers.
We then come to one of the most controversial moments in modern film history. As I said at the outset, I am not particularly interested in refuting the bullshit criticisms this film receives. The idea that they stop fighting because their moms have the same name is an almost pathological misunderstanding of what happens here. But given the centrality of this scene to the narrative of the film, I do have to walk through it.
First, it’s entirely reasonable for Superman to say the name “Martha,” not “my mother.” “My mother” gives Batman no information to go on whatsoever. The first name is at least a start.
When Batman hears Superman say the name “Martha,” his PTSD is triggered, and he is transported back to the moment of his parents’ death. What dawns on Bruce is he wasn’t some noble hero saving humanity from a demon, he was Joe Chill, about to kill a mother. Or, put it this way: Bruce thought he was his father, fighting Joe Chill, and that Superman was a malevolent father, failing to protect his “children.” In reality, Bruce was about to become Joe Chill, and Superman is young Bruce Wayne. Instead of fighting Bruce, Superman accepts his death and tries to get Bruce to save his mother. In this moment, he becomes humanized in Bruce’s mind – Bruce, not Batman, as his mask was torn off. Superman is in the exact same position a young Bruce Wayne was in. All of Bruce’s lies and deceptions and attempts to separate himself from Superman, turning him into an alien or a god that Batman isn’t, are torn down. Absent all the media lies and Lex’ manipulations, Bruce encounters himself in the divine. Man sees himself in god.
It’s a beautiful moment, and the fact that it’s been completely misunderstood and maligned is indicative of how idiotic and cynical modern nerd culture has become.
Another parallel: earlier in the film, Alfred says to Bruce that “some young lady from Metropolis will make you honest.”
That ends up being true: Lois Lane, by revealing that Martha is Clark’s mother, breaks Bruce out of his lie.
Bruce, disgusted with himself, casts aside the Spear of Longinus, paralleling Excalibur, in which Arthur cast aside the (green-glowing) sword Excalibur after becoming disgusted with himself and reconciling with Lancelot.
Snyder cuts from the Spear, a weapon, to a camera. Maybe nothing, maybe something.
When Bruce says to Clark, “I’ll make you a promise: Martha won’t die tonight,” he’s talking to himself. The warehouse fight scene is cool and everything, but the choreography is second to the symbolic meaning: Bruce’s redemption.
Bruce’s “beautiful lie” was that, and obviously it’s multilayered, the identity of Batman was his salvation. Becoming Batman was a way to rescue himself from the death of his parents. In the face of Superman, after 20 years of fighting crime without progress, Bruce believed that to be a lie. But now he’s given an opportunity to redeem his original sin: save Martha. It’s not a lie, it’s not a mistake. Being Batman is worth it, it’s a noble pursuit, because Martha won’t die tonight. At his most fundamental level, the very center of his existence, Bruce is able to redeem himself, and thus redeem the identity of Batman, as it is through Batman that he is able to save Martha. BvS is one of the best Batman stories ever written.
I Hate The Sin, and Yours is Existing
We then come to Lex and Doomsday, and there are several points of interest. First, the scene directly parallels the earlier museum scene regarding the Sword of Alexander, as can be seen in this image:
Superman is the Gordian knot: a living contradiction for “Alexander.” Both good and powerful, he’s a puzzle, a “knot” to be untangled. He tried to solve this problem with Batman and Martha: if Superman doesn’t kill Batman, he allows his mother to die, thus proving he is not all good. For Superman to save his mother, he has to kill Batman, again proving he is not all good. And if Batman kills Superman, he was not powerful, because he was killed by a man(in Lex’ view. Like Snyder said, Lex is in some way wrong to separate “Man” from “God.”)
By appealing to Bruce’s humanity – “A man like that, words don’t stop him. You know what does? A fist” – Clark defeats Batman without killing him, and saves Martha, proving he is both powerful and good. And so the Gordian knot remains tied. Lex says “I cannot let you win. I gave the Bat a fighting chance to do it, but he was not strong enough.” Lex created Doomsday, as a back-up plan. Doomsday is Alexander’s sword, a solution to the problem of Superman. He’ll just cut him. Lex describes Doomsday as the devil; as Jesse Eisenberg has said, Doomsday is almost his son. “If man won’t kill god, the devil will do it.” Doomsday is like Jormungand in Norse Mythology, the Midgard Serpent, the demonic creation of Loki, another trickster figure.
Earlier, Lex said to Superman “No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from Daddy’s fists and abominations.” But a man in the sky does intervene to deliver him from his “son’s” fists.
The next 10 minutes is basically an action scene, with little in the way of narrative depth. There are a few points of interest. Doomsday throws a cross at the military helicopters.
When it’s suggested that a nuke be launched at Superman and Doomsday, the President says “God have mercy on us all,” and Major Harris crosses herself. Religious language and action dominates the entire film.
This shot, like so many others, is beautiful. BvS is the greatest looking comic book movie of all time.
After Superman is nuked, Bruce looks up, saying “Oh, God.” In any other film, this would be meaningless, but my guess is it was conscious.
Superman reaching out to Earth is an allusion to the Creation of Adam This is Superman taking on the role of god, and humanity his children.
Soon after, Superman, Sun-God Apollo, is rejuvenated by the Sun. Snyder is recreating religious icons, fusing pop-art with the grand tradition of Western mythology and religion to create images like this:
Even without knowing any of the symbolism and philosophy at play in this film, this is a stunning image. In the theatre I was filled – despite not even liking the film initially – with a sense of almost religious awe, like one gets from the iconic moments in Star Wars. Snyder is the modern Lucas: mixing low-art with high to create pop-cinema of mythological significance.
Is there any doubt left that superheroes should be handled as mythological figures?
Wonder Woman, or Athena, is given a similarly appropriate sense of grandeur.
You Are My World
Lois then goes to retrieve the Spear from a well, guarded by what appears to be a crucifix or angel:
The film has been heavily criticized because of Lois’ actions: taking the spear and throwing it into a pool of water, only to retrieve it later. On the surface, this is pointless. So why was it included?
Because it is of central symbolic importance. As I said in the beginning, Lois is the Lady of the Lake, who in Arthurian myth appears in a lake to give Excalibur to Arthur.
In the film Excalibur, after Arthur throws Excalibur (broken in the fight with Lancelot) into a river, the Lady of the Lake miraculously appears, presenting a restored Excalibur. Excalibur, which is an interesting mix of the pagan and the Christian, presents this as a baptism. The sword had to be baptized before it could become a holy weapon, just as priests, particularly Orthodox priests, have blessed various weapons throughout Christian history. In Man of Steel, Clark undergoes three baptisms before his eventual ascension at the end of the film. Continuing that theme, the Spear, which was made for a malevolent purpose – killing Jesus for all intents and purposes – has to be baptized by Lois, who represents Earth itself, before it can be used for the divine purpose of killing Doomsday, who is the archetypal dragon of world religion. So no, Lois didn’t need to throw the spear aside for the basic plot of the film, but we’re dealing with a higher purpose here.
Lois, as a symbol of Earth, must be rescued by Superman before he can rescue Earth itself.
At this point, Superman takes the role of Arthur in the Excalibur analogy.
Watchmen is retold in Batman v Superman, but with a fundamentally different ending: Clark succeeding where Dr. Manhattan failed. At the end of Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan abandons humanity, abandons Earth, abandons Laurie. Clark doesn’t. He saves humanity, saves Earth, and saves Lois. Dr. Manhattan refused his role as savior, and Superman embraces his.
Clark turns to Lois, saying “This is my world. You are my world.“ The King and the Land are one. Clark decides to become Arthur, to become the Savior, to become Superman. Ultimately, that is the story of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Clark becoming Superman. He does so willingly, of his own volition. Not because people told him he had to, but because he determined it was the right thing to do. This is how Objectivism and Christianity fit together in this film: by emphasizing that Superman, like Jesus, decides to become the Savior because he decided to, not because society told him to.
By willingly dying to save Earth, Clark accepts both his humanity, by embracing mortality, and his role as allegorical Christ.
You might say “well isn’t it muddled for Superman to represent all these things,” but that’s the point. Superman isn’t just the modern Hercules, he’s the modern everything. Superman, as the first superhero, represents all superheroes, and so his allegorical association with Jesus and Apollo and Arthur is to say that superheroes as a whole are mythological heroes. The symbolic associations of these characters with the universally respected heroes of mythology is an assertion that Superman and Batman be treated with the same reverence we treat Apollo or Hades.
Two important things happen in the embrace of Clark and Doomsday: first, it is a visual reference to the iconic scene at the end of Excalibur, when Arthur and Mordred impale each other.
The religious imagery following Clark’s death is stunning. Those who think that the point of the film is to say that Superman is not a god, or not a Christ figure, have to explain these images. Snyder portrays Superman with Jesus imagery, with absolute sincerity, not hint of irony, or even the use of the subjective camera.
First, we have his “descent from the cross,” described in Christ’s life in the Gospel of John.
Thereafter, we have an allusion to the Pieta, famously depicted in one of the greatest works of art in Western history by Michelangelo.
The landscape around his body is covered with crosses.
This is not pointless symbolism, as has been alleged. Religious symbolism is not a bad thing; it just has to be earned. If you’re going to compare someone to Jesus, the character has to be worthy of the comparison. It’s only after having seen Clark struggle, torn down, tortured, and face moral dilemmas that no other writers have had the audacity to put him through, that he is able to ascend to his role as Jesus-figure. Snyder and Terrio have earned the right to use this symbolism, because they’ve made Superman real, and his ascension to man and savior real. What I said before about the thing separating gods from men being power isn’t entirely accurate: it’s also mortality. Clark can’t be human if he’s not mortal, and so he becomes human at his death. One could also interpret it this way: by dying he becomes man, and by saving humanity through his death, he becomes god.
One final image, again that’s been circulating in the community for a while, before moving onto the final scenes of the film:
The three key moments in Superman’s life-cycle are all referential to each other. The foreshadowing, parallels and folding tapestry of the Snyder Superman films are profound.
Men Are Still Good
If you have not already watched the “Batman v Superman: Allegory” video, now’s the time, as many of the remaining parallels were brought to my attention by that video. The funeral of Superman/Clark Kent is paralleled, with stunning clarity and vision, with the murder and funeral of Bruce’s parents.
As Batman was born from the sacrifice of the Wayne’s, Batman is reborn from the sacrifice of Superman.
The passage the Priest quotes at Clark’s funeral, from the Book of Isaiah, should be read in full: “The dead shall live. My slain shall rise again. Awake, and sing, ye that dwell in dust. For thy dew is like the dew of the morning. And the earth shall give birth to her dead.” Man of Steel used “birth” as its primary metaphor: Clark’s “birth” as Superman was conveyed in physical birth imagery. In that film, Earth gives birth to Superman. The priest here is almost prophesying that, as Earth gave birth to Superman, it will give rebirth to Superman.
It simply unimaginable that another modern superhero film would have the integrity to portray anything with the gravity and sincerity that BvS treats the death of Superman.
Bruce, like Clark, succeeded where his counterpart in Watchmen failed. Rorschach died because he was unwilling to change, unwilling to compromise. But Bruce is given new life because of his willingness to let go of his hatred and rage.
His dialogue with Diana is poignant, to say the least.
“I failed him in life. I won’t fail him in death. Help me find the others like you.”
Bruce is St. Paul the Apostle, formerly Saul of Tarsus, a zealot who persecuted Jesus until converted by a miracle. St. Paul, like Bruce, had visions, or dreams, of Jesus before his conversion, just as Bruce had visions of the Superman’s ultimate messianic nature prior to his “conversion.” Like Paul, Bruce has decided to go out into the world and proclaim the “good news” of Superman’s life, by gathering the League, which is analogous to the early Church. Sorry, but that’s amazing.
Diana responds that “men have made a world where standing together is impossible.” To which Bruce replies, with some of the greatest dialogue seen ever in a superhero film:
“Men are still good. We fight. We kill. We betray one another. But we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to.”
This is an refutation of Bruce’s monologue from the opening of the film. Yes, things on earth fall. But what falls is not necessarily fallen; we can rebuild. Superman, who was a demon and “alien,”, has redeemed man through his willing sacrifice.
This image is multi-referential. First, it refers to Martha’s comment from earlier: “Be their hero, Clark. Be their monument.” Second, it refers to Lex’ statement that his father had to “wave flowers at tyrants” in East Germany. In reality, those Superman has saved willing place flowers around the grave of the man who could be a tyrant and decided not to be. The wording itself is taken from the grave of famed English architect Christopher Wren, whose tomb reads “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.” It’s a hell of a line.
The God Is Dead
Lex, playing the role of chorus, having knowledge he shouldn’t, inverts Jor-El’s prophetic statement about Kal-El from Man of Steel
Batman demonstrates his redemption, rather than just saying it, with one simple gesture:
Lex’ painting of the War in Heaven has been flipped: not only is Darkseid/Steppenwolf coming from the sky, but implicitly, the savior will come from the ground.
Then we have one final stroke of brilliance, portrayed purely through visuals. A physical representation of Bruce’s redemption:
Bruce, lost and in the wilderness since the death of his parents, now has a clear path forward: spreading the “good news” by assembling the Justice League. Almost every event of consequence in BvS is foreshadowed earlier in the film, or in Man of Steel. There’s a Peter Jackson-esque attention to detail and passion for the source material that accompanies these films. The religious symbolism alone indicates the respect Snyder and Terrio have for these figures, and that respect has lead them to do nothing short of stunning with BvS.
There is something about this film that really has an impact on people. I don’t think it’s coincidence that BvS has quite seriously helped people with depression. The story of the redemption of the broken tragic hero, the god of Death, through the willing sacrifice of the god of Truth, Justice, and Hope, has affected people in a way that I don’t think is properly appreciated. I don’t mean to say the film is good because people like it a lot. I mean to say that the story and themes expressed in this film are of such archetypal significance, that if they are properly told, they are literally redemptive. BvS has been described as pessimistic. Nothing could be further from the truth. BvS is realistic, and it’s brutal, but at the end of it all we have a fundamentally optimistic message. Not just for the characters in the film, but for superheroes as a concept; it tends to be difficult to take seriously superhero stories that don’t take a cynical and pessimistic view of the concept after you read Watchmen. By going through the story of Watchmen, and giving us an entirely different but just as plausible ending, the point of Watchmen is no longer inevitable or inescapable. There’s another answer. The superhero is redeemed. And if superheroes are going to be such a prominent part of our pop culture as they are, they have to be redeemed. They have to mean something more than escapism. If nothing else, Batman v Superman makes superheroes mean something more.
I trust that the claims I laid out at the beginning of this essay no longer seem so hyperbolic. Virtually every scene in this film is filled with such thematic and symbolic depth that it’s actually incredible. And it’s not just random ideas and symbols thrown in for fun. Everything has a point, and these themes are distinct but connected. And the thing is, while this film is complicated, it’s not like it wasn’t obvious that this film was about politics, or Christianity, or mythology. The themes are on full-display. As I’ve laid out a case that I think is compelling for Batman v Superman being a masterpiece in its genre, I remembered that this film is actually considered bad by most people. Not just bad, but laughably bad. I think it’s a damning indictment of how cynical, insincere, and frankly childish modern pop-film and film media have become that this film is viewed with such smug disdain. But I digress.
Rather than sum up the entirety of this film, which I feel would be redundant for those who have had the fortitude to pay attention to over 15,000 words about a movie they probably didn’t even like, I’d like to end with what I find to be a fascinating and revealing fact. It’s a minor detail of costume design, literally imperceptible, but it’s one that has, let’s say, symbolic significance.
When making Man of Steel, Zack Snyder decided to inscribe Superman’s suit with a quote from the mythologist Joseph Campbell. It is Campbell’s summary of the Hero’s Journey, from his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, explaining the relevance of the constantly repeating, insuppressible archetype of mythological narrative to an individual’s life. That narrative is directly relevant to the story of Superman in these films. On the actual Superman suits that appear in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, on the crest of House of El, which is the symbol of Hope, this is written:
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”