Guest Article by Andrew Edward.
I began this paper in the summer of 2017 during an internship where I had a lot of time to kill. I had intended to write it since the day Batman v Superman released domestically, March 25th, 2016. Unfortunately, I underwent something of a mental health crisis and subsequently ceased working on the paper. I picked it up again during the spring of 2018, and finally concluded it today, June 8, 2019. During the span of the creation of this paper I underwent counseling week to week, finished my Masters in Divinity, and got married to my lovely wife.
With that being said, please forgive any sudden changes in writing style throughout this paper. I have learned a lot, and my thought has evolved during that time. This paper has been edited, with various parts discarded and added throughout those two years, so it is by no means seamless. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it and I suspect if you are a true fan of BvS, you will.
Art is divisive because of its subjectivity. To call a creative endeavor “art” is not to imply that it is a masterpiece worthy of all praise and admiration, though certain projects deserve those things. No, to call a creative endeavor art is to point out that which already is: a creative project that has come about through the imagination of its creator(s). Therefore, art does not demand one’s respect or praise, rather, it demands your individual consideration. Judgment of art cannot be performed wholesale, it requires one’s whole attention, for the individual is the judge, jury, and executioner of each creative project placed before them.
Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is no exception to the above statements. All films are art, and this particular piece is perhaps the most divisive film of the past five years, perhaps the last 20 years if restricted to the comic book movie genre. However, the object of this paper is to not discredit critics’ opinions, rather, the object of this paper is to point towards what can be found in this film that is of true value. To be more precise, this paper will aim to discover and divulge what is of philosophical, religious, and ethical value in BvS. While some of the interpretations that will be made will certainly go beyond what Terrio or Snyder intended, I contend that they are of value when restricted properly within the narrative of the movie.
The First Hearing
The themes and subtleties of BvS hold references to the Gospels in the New Testament Canon as well as notions of justice as found in Plato’s Republic. These references can at times be heavy handed but others can be found only upon thoughtful analysis. Now, it should be stated that while these references can seem overt, they cannot be dismissed. One would be hard pressed to dismiss the writing of Chris Terrio as coincidental especially when he stated that the greatest intellectual exercise (reference) he ever performed was writing the Justice League Part One script (the original, that is). With that being said, this paper will attempt to avoid unnecessary plot summaries but will mention them when explicit context is needed.
The plot of BvS, particularly Superman’s thread, can be overlaid with a large portion of the Gospel of John. The film essentially begins at the outset of John 7:40 where a large crowd holds an open hearing concerning the person of Jesus. The crowd is divided as to how they must receive such a figure and the question they are posing is, “Who is He?” The crowd desires to know if he is the messianic figure they have been waiting for or if he is a false prophet sent to deceive the masses.
This passage is reflected in the first hearing concerning Superman led by Senator Finch. A public hearing is held to address Superman’s actions in Africa when he intervened to save Lois Lane, though Superman himself is not present at this trial. Superman is accused of having slaughtered an entire village, the truth being that it was a private mercenary group working for Lex Luthor that had killed the citizens of the village.
The question the crowd in the Gospel of John attempt to address is who is Jesus and how should we receive him? As a benevolent force or as a malevolent force? Similarly, Jesus is not present during this public hearing. However, just as Senator Finch calls for the presence of Superman in order to assess his character, the Pharisees ask officers to bring Jesus to them to address His actions in John 7:47-49.
Senator Finch poses a crucial issue, “The whole world has been caught up with what Superman can do that no one has asked what he should do.” A similar issue is put forward later on in the film where a television panel is addressing the idea of trying to control Superman. The essence of Senator Finch’s question is that Superman must be constrained and brought under a type of law in order to make him more human, and thus, less feared. The general population views Superman as a type of god which is expressed by the sole survivor of the village in Africa who states, “He’ll never answer to you. He answers to no one. Not even I think, to God.”
It is clear here that there is a divisive nature to Superman’s presence – he is either loved, or feared. The ambiguity lies in the fact that he never expressly states what his ideals are. In holding Superman responsible for his supposed actions, the Senatorial hearing desires to hear from Superman himself. Nicodemus calls for this as well in the case of Jesus when he states “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?”
A Reconsideration of Justice
Before continuing with the comparison of the Gospel of John and Superman’s storyline in BvS, I wish to introduce an interpretation of the theme of justice within the film. The introduction of Batman in the film presents the audience with an image that is contrary to what many believe Batman represents. However, not much analysis is needed to realize that Batman has become disillusioned throughout his 20 years of crime-fighting which has seen much tragedy and loss. The most recent loss is perceived to be the tipping point for Bruce Wayne: the destruction of a Wayne Enterprises building which contained within it many beloved employees.
From this moment onward, Batman’s modus operandi drastically changes. Batman begins branding, murdering, and torturing the criminals of Gotham city. Though they are criminals and aggressors, they subsequently become victims of Batman’s perverse sense of justice as well. Bruce Wayne has learned to treat his friends with good and his enemies with evil. This is justice by his definition which we can deduce from his actions after being disillusioned by grief, loss, anger, and the feeling of powerlessness.
The issue comes to a head when Bruce Wayne begins to falter in his identification of who is his friend, and who is his enemy. This misidentification is clearly pointed out by Alfred who definitively states that Superman is not their enemy. Bruce’s rage is further agitated by Lex Luthor who exploited Bruce’s weakness by poking and prodding him on to believe that Superman is his enemy over the course of two years. In typical fashion, however, Bruce does not listen to Alfred and continues on with his attempt to make Superman a victim of Batman’s justice.
Speaking of Alexander Luthor, he feels that an act of injustice has been performed against him in the form of Superman. For Lex, Superman has all of the power that he desires but he perceives that the latter wields that power without the proper ambition. Lex, as is evidenced in his speech at the charity gala, believes that knowledge must be accompanied by power, and without this joint-marriage, life is a bittersweet pain. If Lex believes that his knowledge has no power to accompany it, and that such a scenario is an injustice, he must then necessarily believe that his warped, evil knowledge coupled with the exercising of power over others is in fact, justice.
My contention is that, intentional or not, Snyder and Terrio have recreated some of the interlocutors of Plato’s dialogue The Republic through the characters of Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, and Superman.
In Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the planet Krypton and its system of predetermining its citizens’ roles in society is based on the society which Plato lays out in his Republic. This is especially true of the warrior class, which Zod is a part of, and the more scholarly class, to which Jor-El belongs. This template is given credence during the scene in the same film where an adolescent Kal-El is being bullied near his father’s workplace. He is ripped out of his father’s truck by his aggressors and subsequently drops the book he was reading: Plato’s Republic.
Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor, whose definitions of justice have been established, can be assigned to different roles in Plato’s dialogue. Bruce Wayne is Polemarchus who ascribes to the definition of justice put forward by the poet Simonides. To Polemarchus, justice “…gives benefits to friends and does harm to enemies.” As stated above, Bruce Wayne truly believes that harming, maiming, and murdering his enemies is a form of justice, for justice is doing harm to one’s enemy.
As for Alexander Luthor, I contend that he represents the form of justice which Thrasymachus presents, “I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the strong.” For context’s sake, Thrasymachus further elaborates by stating that justice is akin to a tyrant making rules that are in his favor, which, necessarily oppress the weak. This viewpoint aligns well with what we observe of Luthor in the film. He feels powerless because he believes he has the requisite knowledge but lacks the power to put himself in an advantageous position over others. Luthor perceives this to be an injustice and thus, he plots to position himself to make Superman subordinate to himself. For Superman should be the most just of all people according to Luthor’s definition of justice because Superman possesses the ultimate advantage: to be seemingly all-powerful.
However, we have yet to analyze how Kal-el defines justice. I wish not to take away from Kal-El’s journey in this movie, for this movie is after all, a sequel to Man of Steel. As such, Superman is at the core of the dialogue concerning justice within this movie. What greater character can Kal-el portray than the titular star of the majority of Plato’s dialogues: Socrates.
They Come From the Sky
Before we venture into Kal-El’s conception of justice, let us take a moment to consider what else Superman represents in this movie. As stated prior, Superman’s story overlaps with much of Jesus’ narrative in the Gospel of John. Kal-el takes up many roles in this movie which I contend is very intentional on Snyder and Terrio’s part. Kal-El is Socrates, he is the immigrant.
A man vandalizes a statue of Superman by spraying the words “FALSE GOD” across the statue’s chest. This changes the course of the film where citizens are no longer praising Superman, but rather questioning his motives and his supposed benevolence. Beginning at the first public hearing, the motives of Jesus in John 7 begin to be questioned. At the end of John 8 when Jesus states, “…before Abraham was, I AM,” the crowd attempts to stone Him but Jesus escapes. The crowd was unsure of Jesus’ intentions prior to this statement but once it becomes clear that he places himself above their beloved patriarch, they decide that he must die.
When Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne meet for the first time, two interesting paradigms are presented. Clark questions Bruce Wayne as to his opinion on “the bat vigilante,” and goes on to state that he believes this individual is trampling on civil liberties. Bruce Wayne responds with what can be considered the overall premise of this movie:
The Daily Planet criticizing those who think they’re above the laws. A little hypocritical, wouldn’t you say? Considering every time your hero saves a cat out of a tree, you write a puff piece editorial, about an alien who, if he wanted to, could burn the whole place down. There wouldn’t be a damn thing we can do to stop him.Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
In the present day, when individuals consider the idea of aliens arriving on earth or when such aliens are depicted in media, they are, in the majority of examples, represented as malevolent forces. Individuals often place their own fears on objects, persons, and/or ideas that they do not understand. The idea of fearing aliens because of their ambiguous moral compass is a common notion in society, and the way they are hypothetically represented in media makes that apparent.
Before moving back to the film, the origins of Superman and his relationship to the treatment of immigrants in America should be noted, as it is relevant to the quote above by Bruce Wayne. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the original creators of Superman were children of Jewish immigrants and created Superman during WWII when anti-Semitism was rampant in Nazi Germany and elsewhere. Though it was not explicitly stated by these two authors, many speculate that the character of Superman was influenced by the Jewish experience and in a larger scope, the immigrant experience in America.
The references to Judaism is apparent in Superman’s origin story: Kal-el means “voice of God” in Hebrew. Kal was sent to earth via a spaceship to avoid the destruction that was occurring on his home planet of Krypton similarly to how Moses was sent down the river by his sister to avoid slaughter. It should also be noted that both Kal and Moses were raised by individuals who were not their own people. Both stories portray a man existing and coping with living in a society that was not his own.
The representation of Superman as a strong immigrant who had the ability to save the world garnered the attention of the minister of Propaganda in Germany ,who denounced Superman because he was created by Jewish writers. Goebbels, the minister of propaganda stated, “[Siegel] advertised widely Superman’s sense of justice, well-suited for imitation by the American youth…Woe to the American youth, who must live in such a poison atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.” The representation of a seemingly American man, created by Jewish writers, who regularly humiliated Nazi Germany in comic strips infuriated the SS. They believed it to be a departure from reality, not only in the supernatural abilities of Superman, but also in the depictions of their own defeat.
When looking to the present day, America has notoriously been exclusionary of immigrants in relation to the patriotic vision that many Americans hold fast to. Immigrants are frequently blamed for domestic terrorist attacks though they are often committed by deranged white terrorists. They are often blamed for “taking American jobs” even though America considers itself the “land of opportunity.” President Trump uses these sentiments to his advantage by stirring in his constituents a fear of immigrants, or more simply, a fear of the unknown. Immigrants are seen as unknowable to the vast majority of white Americans. They simultaneously exoticize, fetishize, and fear immigrants because they do not understand “the other.” White Americans dream of visiting foreign countries but will in the next breath call these countries “shitholes.” They worship a statue, then spray FALSE GOD on it. While this section can be expanded into its own work, it cannot be done so here.
In relation to the quote above, Bruce Wayne represents what most, overly patriotic and racist Americans think of immigrants. “Syrian immigrants could, if they wanted to, burn America to the ground.” The question is less whether they have this ability, but that their moral compass is unknown. Do they have ill intentions or do they simply wish to live peaceable lives as we do? Superman, if he wanted to, could burn the world to the ground. It is impossible to say what he will do, so we must assume the worst. Bruce Wayne’s fear is more understandable than the patriot’s fear of the Syrian immigrant.
A common criticism of the film is its dark tone and representation of Superman as a dreary man who instills little hope in his viewers. Such criticisms are posited by individuals who can’t imagine what such a figure, if real, would represent for humanity. A living, breathing alien, who seemingly possesses the power of God, walking upon the earth. It induces a sense of mystery, wonder, fear, hope, and paranoia, all simultaneously. Given the world’s understandable fear of nuclear war, it is easy to imagine the fear that would be induced if an individual with an ambiguous moral compass who had the ability to kill anyone, destroy anything, fly anywhere, landed on earth.
After viewing the film a second time in May of 2016, a friend, who knows very little about DC comics, stated a concept that was very insightful. He stated that the introduction of an alien, let alone an all-powerful alien, to the world would set back ethical theory back by centuries. Humans discuss morals and ethics based on the assumption that humans are the only relevant living beings on this planet and/or universe. Humans have no evidence to challenge this premise. If an alien were to arrive and kill the first person it saw, humans cannot tell that alien “It is wrong to kill people.” The alien is not a human, nor is it from planet Earth. Humanity would have no grounds to apply our moral attitude on to such an alien no more than they would have it applied to a tiger in the mountains of India. What if such an alien responded, “On my planet, it is polite to kill the first person you see when arriving on a new planet?” What would humans say in response to this? While this sounds ridiculous, it points to a larger issue. Human moral constraints cannot be applied to Superman, no matter how human he may seem.
During a smaller Senate hearing, Finch asks the question, “How do we determine what’s good?” This question has been at the heart of ethical theory for the past 3,000 years. Although for the past 3,000 years, that question has been applied to humans only, as stated above. This is the dramatic tension of the film: Superman exists as an all-powerful being who seems to only be doing good but there also rumors of him doing evil. How do the characters determine his motives? If they are contrary to the interests of humanity, how does one stop him? Finch questions, “Does he act by our will, or by his own?”
After Clark and Bruce meet at Lex’s charity event, Bruce moves downstairs to hack Lex’s servers. Clark follows him but is distracted by a news story being told on a nearby TV which shows a fire occurring in Mexico. Clark quickly leaves to rescue the victims trapped in the burning building; the scene is overlaid with newscasters commenting on Superman’s place in the world. Vikram Gandhi states, “…every religion believes in some sort of messianic figure. And when this savior character actually comes to earth, we want to make him abide by our rules? We have to understand that this is a paradigm shift. We have to start thinking beyond politics.” The average movie-goer and the variety of critics cannot comprehend this concept. This is a paradigm shift. If Jesus Christ were to walk the earth today, it is very likely that humans would not be convinced of a higher being, rather, they would pick up stones to kill him with. They do so because they want him to abide by their own rules, but feel powerless when they realize they cannot force him to do so.
Glen Woodburn comments and states, “The fact is, maybe he’s not some sort of devil or Jesus character. Maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing.” Human beings inevitably project themselves onto figures of power in the hopes that those figures will accomplish their hopes and dreams. On the other end of the spectrum, humans also project their worst fears onto figures of power as well. When looking for an example, one need not look further than American politics.
Barack Obama was perceived as a crowning victory for black Americans and people of color in general. While on the other hand, some of my own family members called him the anti-Christ. Donald Trump is perceived by many to be the right hand of God, there are several paintings that display as much. On the other hand, Trump is perceived as the destroyer of the world due to his inclination towards war. Humans have a damning track record of projecting their hopes and fears onto figures of power. Therefore, in reference to the dark tone of the film, director Zack Snyder is clearly trying to convey the sense of dreariness that arises when inescapable, unknowable fears are ever present in human lives. It conveys a sense of depression and anxiety which is inescapable and makes one feel powerless.
Must there be a Superman?
The above subtitle is a question posed by Charlie Rose to Senator Finch. This question is rather abrupt and does not make sense when considering the previous comments in the conversation. However, more light can be shed on this question when looking earlier in the scene where Rose states, “Are you, as a United States Senator, personally comfortable saying to a grieving parent, ‘Superman could’ve saved your child, but on principle we did not want him to act.’?” This question functions on two levels: firstly, the goal of Senator Finch is to place restrictions on Superman so that he does not act unilaterally, secondly, it shows what is expected of a Superman, in whatever form he may come.
Removing Superman from this political conversation, it must be understood that if such a figure were to exist, his responsibility to the world would be torturous. If Superman sleeps at night it means that a woman was mugged without him being available to intervene. If Superman has dinner with Lois Lane, he would be unable, or it can be said, willingly neglecting the chance to stop a bombing in Cairo. Zack Snyder’s Superman is acutely aware of this reality, but the tension arises when he realizes that even when he desires to do the right thing, hatred is still heaped upon him, rather than praise. This is because there will always be something he could’ve done, but did not. Superman is not omnipresent, that much is apparent. However if one is to conceive of such a figure being present in reality, his actions can always be questioned. Why didn’t Superman save my wife from drowning in the ocean, but he was able to rescue that child from a burning building?
Senator Finch answers the subtitled question with, “There is.” Hypotheticals are not necessary for the characters in the film as they are for this paper, Superman does exist in their reality, and they must reckon with what that means.
The above panel is pulled from a Superman comic from the 1970’s. The context of the panel is Superman visiting Jimmy Olsen in order to take a break from crime fighting. Jimmy quickly scolds Superman and tells him of some type of disaster that he saw on TV that he believes Superman must attend to. Superman states that he simply wanted to take a short break as he flies away to the disaster in tears, stating what is shown in the above panel. Critics have said Zack Snyder’s iteration of Superman is too “mopey” and “emotional,” they are ignorantly unaware of what a Superman represents, and what he would be held culpable for. Snyder’s Superman perfectly represents these realities.
One more point is to be made concerning the responsibilities of Superman. There is no need for hypotheticals in actuality. Superman represents what a grounded messianic figure would be like on earth. Naturally, humans would perceive him as God; however, it becomes quickly apparent why humans would come to hate such a God.
If one is to look to the fairly standard reasons as to why individuals do not believe in God, it often relates to one of the following: they do not like organized religion, they were raised in a strict religious household, they lost a loved one suddenly and inexplicably, and/or the problem of evil which relates to the previous reason. The second reason is the one which is germane to this discussion because it can be directly applied to both Superman and God as we understand Him. To use an earlier example, when a bomb explodes in Cairo, killing 120 people and injuring 200 more, people will question, how could God allow such a thing to happen? If the same catastrophe were to occur in the DC universe the same question would be asked with a different subject: how could Superman allow such a thing to happen?
It is very easy to understand how quickly one could go to being infatuated with Superman, to hating him. In fact, there is a grounded example in the film itself. The former Wayne Enterprise employee injured during Superman’s fight with General Zod in Man of Steel hates Superman because he is now disabled and cannot work. However, Superman saved the world because of his fight with Zod. One would think that the man would understand that his situation is a small price to pay for the salvation of the world. However, he does not, and instead sees Superman as a false god. He believes Superman should’ve saved him and the world. There is a Superman, and people expect everything of him.
The First Prayer
Superman meets with his earthly mother from whom he receives advice. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus retreats twice in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray to God in order to receive wisdom. On both occasions, Jesus asks God that the cup of his death and suffering would be taken away from him.
Superman first seeks out his mother and discusses his role as Superman in an increasingly hostile world. Martha Kent states, “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.” Martha Kent relinquishes Superman of his responsibility because she realizes, unlike Kal, that he never stated that he was willing to be the world’s savior. Yet, the world wants him to be their savior who abides by their rules.
Critics have understood this piece of dialogue as a horrible representation of who they believe Superman is. However, the dialogue is true in every sense. Superman is not of this world, and does not owe the world anything. The world has treated him cruelly and without forgiveness. They desire him to be their savior but if he falls short, even in the slightest, he will be crucified.
In a more recent comic book issue, Batman #36 written by Tom King, Batman, Catwoman, Superman, and Lois Lane meet each other by chance in a hotel hallway. Batman and Catwoman were recently engaged but Batman neglected to tell Superman of his good fortune. Superman is aware of his engagement and pretends to not be upset at Batman for having not told him. Batman on the other hand gives excuses as to why he does not have to tell Superman. Catwoman and Lois Lane give their advice and criticize the male social etiquette between the two superheroes.
In the panels leading up to the meeting, Batman and Superman reflect on each other’s lives with their significant others. Tom King masterfully produces a very sobering view of Batman and Superman’s experiences. What is germane to this paper is Batman’s reflection on Superman:
“His whole planet was destroyed. He’s the last of a holocaust. He grew up in the dirt. Finding out slowly how different he was. A stranger discovering every day how strange he was. He has the power to tear the world apart. And he could. With a pinkie. It’s not his world. We’re not his people. We should be ants to him. Imagine that. Always being on the outside. The pain that would come from always being on the outside. And yet, he took that pain and became the symbol of hope. I’m just a rich kid from the city. I knew my parents, I knew who I was, what I had to be. I didn’t have any choice but to be who I am. He had every choice–and he became who he is. every kid is inspired by him. He is a better man than I am.”Batman #36, Tom King
What is seen here is not only Batman’s immense respect for Superman, but how very differently Superman could have reacted to his life experiences. Superman, particularly in the DCEU, is thought to be the last of his kind. He has had to hide his identity and powers from a young age, moving from state to state, while being constantly ridiculed and bullied all along the way. His fellow Kryptonians have been exterminated and he is not readily welcomed by his earthly neighbors. The only thing preventing Kal-el from exterminating planet earth is his inherent sense of justice. So, while Kal-el is good, he does not owe Earth and its people anything.
I propose that Kal-el’s definition of justice is less a definition, but rather a choice to live his life in a particular way that he believes is just. If we review Plato’s Republic once again, we find that Socrates’ interlocutors present him with a challenge. To demonstrate unequivocally that the life of the just man is better in terms of virtue and happiness than that of the unjust man. Socrates is additionally asked to prove that the just man is truly happier than the unjust man even when everyone perceives the latter to be truly unjust. Without the excessive verbiage, the dialogue condenses down to this very simple question: will the just man truly be happy and remain just even when everyone believes he is unjust?
The Second Hearing
Superman is called to the Capitol to face Wallace O’Kiefe, who represents the collateral damage that Superman causes. Moving back to the Passion week of Jesus, this hearing is representative of Jesus being examined by Pontius Pilate. Jesus does not respond to Pilate’s questions or comments, similar to how Superman acts in the courtroom, only offering silence in response to Finch’s proclamations. Senator Finch realizes something is amiss when she realizes the jar of urine on her desk and the absence of Luthor from the audience. The scene quickly descends into destruction as Wallace’s wheelchair explodes, much to the horror of Lois Lane, Martha Kent, and Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne’s anger is only further fueled by this seemingly Superman caused disaster.
This text is meant to be a prime example of what responsibility looks like for Superman. Superman states to Lois Lane concerning the incident, “I’m afraid I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking.” To viewers of the film, Superman is clearly not responsible for the atrocity constructed by Lex Luthor. However, Superman clearly holds himself responsible because he believes he should have seen the bomb planted in the bottom of O’Kiefe’s wheelchair. This brings up the question: if Superman could have prevented a tragedy, should he be held responsible for it? Superman makes a startling statement, “Superman was never real. It’s just a dream of a farmer from Kansas.” Much in the same way that society’s idea of a Messiah didn’t match reality, Kal-el’s own ideas of himself did not match reality. He cannot be all-good and all-powerful.
The Second Prayer
This idea is carried into the next sequence including Kal-el. Kal is seen ascending a mountain where he finds Jonathan Kent stacking a pile of stones. This is once again a reference to the one of two times Jesus retreats to pray to his Father in heaven in the Gospels. Jonathan Kent immediately begins to speak a type of parable when Kal sees him, which is worth quoting in full here:
“Something, isn’t it? One minute in Kansas, livin’ on a pancake so we come to the mountains. All downhill from here. Down to the flood plain. The farm is at the bottom of the world. I remember one season, water came bad. I couldn’t’ve been 12. Dad had out the shovels and we went at it all night. We worked until I think I fainted. But we managed to stop the water. We saved the farm. Your grandma baked me a cake. She said I was a hero. Later that day we found out. We blocked the water, alright, we sent it upstream. A whole Lang farm washed away. While eating my hero cake, their horses were drowning. I used to hear them wailing in my sleep.”Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
Just like any other parable, there is a moral lesson to be extracted. In this particular parable by Jonathan Kent, the moral teaching concerns unintended consequences of actions. Superman is consistently doing the right thing, but he is consistently treated as a harbinger of evil and injustice. This is the case because as stated above, there will always have been something Superman could have done, but was unable to. There will always be fallout to Superman’s actions, whether it be a cat stuck in a tree because Superman was helping an elderly woman across the street, or a man’s legs being crushed by a steel beam because Superman was fighting General Zod in order to save the planet. Though Superman perceives himself to be doing the right thing, though he goes home to Lois Lane with flowers and plans for dinner, there will always be horses drowning on the farm downstream.
Lex Luthor & Thrasymachus
I wish now to move ahead to Kal-el’s conversation with Lex Luthor atop a skyscraper. This conversation offers us much insight into Lex’s enmity towards Kal. Just as Bruce Wayne and Kal-el were immensely affected by their parents (two sets of parents in Kal’s case), Lex makes mention of his father having an effect on him. When Kal flies up to Lex after having safely placed Lois on the ground below, Lex makes a very insightful statement: “Boy, do we have problems up here! The problem of, of evil in the world. The problem of absolute virtue…The problem of you on top of everything else.”
As stated above, Lex perceives that Superman having the advantage of being strong is an injustice. The irony becomes apparent when it is in fact Lex who has been making strong, advantageous, manipulative moves throughout the film and it is he who has performed great injustice towards others. Perhaps Lex’s contradictory mindset is indicative of a mental illness, but I digress. This mindset does support my previous contention that Lex holds the view of justice that Thrasymachus subscribes too, namely that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Yet, it is only considered justice when Lex himself is the one with the advantage, otherwise, it is injustice.
It is very much apparent the predicament which Lex is placing Kal in: Superman must kill Batman, thus making him a killer as well as proving that he is not all-good, or, let Batman live which will result in the death of Martha, which will prove that Superman is not all-powerful. This scene is very self-explanatory but what it ultimately conveys is that Lex has made every strategic move necessary to bring himself to this point. Instead of Superman above everyone else, Lex now stands above a kneeling Superman, the former having finally attained the advantage of the stronger. Lex is now able to create laws (kill Batman or Martha dies) that work solely for his benefit and oppress others, the others in this particular case being Superman and Batman. Lex’s definition of justice has finally been realized.
A Comment on Bravery
During Batman and Superman’s tussle, Batman states something concerning bravery that relates to an earlier section where ethical principles in application to Superman were discussed. Batman states after shooting Superman with vaporized kryptonite, “You’re not brave. Men are brave.” Though no one has explicitly called Superman brave in this movie, one can assume that is what the general populace thinks of Superman. However Batman, in his feverish rage, thinks otherwise. Since Superman is not human, can the same human definition of bravery apply to him? Rather, if he has no fear of being harmed and has no need to gather the mental fortitude to overcome that fear, can he really be called brave?
As discussed above, ethical theory and simple ideas such as bravery must be reconstrued if the world is shared with individuals like Superman who are either not human, or do not succumb to the same weaknesses as other humans do. If one were to once again equate Superman with God, would one call God brave? Should Jesus Christ be considered brave even though he possessed the knowledge that He would rise from the dead on the third day following his crucifixion? This is a paradigm shift, we must think beyond worldly definitions if we are to take this movie and its message seriously. Batman, as jaded as he may be, has posed for us a troublesome ethical dilemma.
Batman slings Superman over his shoulders and while unconscious, the latter’s arms and legs clearly splay out in the shape of a crucifix. This is perhaps a reference to Jesus carrying his cross and his command to his disciples to carry their own. A common lay interpretation of this passage is that Christians must carry their daily burdens, no matter how miniscule. I contend that this verse is a clear command to bear the εὐαγγέλιον daily. The question then remains, why does Jesus refer to this concept as “your cross”? When lay Christians refer to their daily burdens as their “cross”, they misinterpret the fundamental heart of this passage. The method of execution known as crucifixion was a torturous, painful, and gruesome way to die; it was purely an instrument of death. This can inform our interpretation accordingly by stating that one’s own cross must be an idea that one believes in wholeheartedly, so much so that one is willing to die for it, or by it.
Batman’s burden in life has been to make a better world by ridding it of evil, and as he stated to Alfred, “This may be the only thing I do that matters.” This is his burden, this is his cross, for the instrument of death and torture has always been his never ending war on crime. Bruce now believes he carries his cross physically on his shoulders in the person of Superman.
Batman stands over Superman with a kryptonite spear, having carried him, tossing him, and cutting him. Superman implores Batman to “save Martha”. Without going too much into detail concerning the mockery this scene has undergone, I will state that never have I seen a scene with such obvious meaning and callbacks that were so easily missed by viewers. After hearing the name “Martha,” Bruce Wayne has a serious PTSD episode where he experiences flashbacks of his parents’ deaths. The last word uttered by Thomas Wayne was the name of his wife, Martha, which Bruce heard while simultaneously watching the life leave his mother’s eyes. Bruce continues to shout, “Why did you say that name?!” as Lois Lane intervenes and informs Bruce that Martha is the name of Kal’s mother.
Recalling the time I saw this film for a second time with my comic book lore oblivious friend, he once again stated something insightful, further proving that philosophical knowledge lends one slightly more insight into this film. My friend stated that in that moment of revelation, when Lois Lane states that Martha is the name of Kal’s mother, Bruce receives back to himself his own humanity. This is not Superman and Batman becoming friends, this is rather Batman, being Batman once again.
Batman has, up until this point, treated Superman as a nihilistic, unemotional, evil alien. Batman would have no remorse having killed Superman, but, the second that Lois Lane humanizes Kal, interweaving this paradigm shift with Bruce’s PTSD, he comes to a startling realization. Bruce’s feverish rage, his greedy lust for revenge, has made him no better than Joe Chill. Chill was a man who senselessly killed a young boy’s parents in front of him, scarring him for life, having gained nothing. Bruce, in this singular moment, has seen himself in Kal, a young boy feeling hopeless, unable to save his dying mother. In seeing himself in the other, the alien, the immigrant, Bruce receives back his own humanity while simultaneously recognizing Kal’s. This is cannot be stressed enough: this scene has little to do with Bruce and Kal’s mothers having the same name.
John 19:34 & Republic 361e2-6
At long last, we arrive at the death scene of Kal-el. There are very blatant callbacks to Christ imagery, such as the crosses in the background during the pieta, Superman being stabbed, and the pieta itself. However, before we reach the end, there is more to be said concerning Superman and the justice that Plato puts forward in his Republic. As stated above, Socrates’ interlocutors challenge him to prove that the life of the just man, specifically the just man who appears unjust is superior and happier than the life of the man who appears just but is in fact unjust.
The roles have been established above but I feel need to be reiterated as we approach the climax of the movie: Alexander Luthor is the unjust man who appears just as well as taking up the definition of justice which Thrasymachus subscribes too, Superman is the just man who appears unjust and takes the definition of justice which Socrates subscribes to, and lastly, Batman takes up the definition of justice which Polemarchus subscribes to.
All of these individuals have been exposed and their definitions of justice have been revealed. Lois Lane has exposed Lex as a deeply maniacal man with wishes to oppress others with power. Batman, upon recognizing Superman not as an enemy, but as a friend, immediately provides him with benefit in the form of saving Martha Kent. However, upon identifying Lex and Doomsday as enemies, he immediately proceeds to harm them. And of course, Superman has embraced the fact though he is seen as unjust by the world, it is still his world, and he must save it; for that is what the truly just man does.
Superman is pierced through the chest by the bony growth on Doomsday’s arm. Superman also pierces Doomsday through the chest with the kryptonite spear created with the express purpose of killing the former. Doomsday dies with a loud shout while Superman screams out in agony. At last it is seen what is the outcome of the just man.
In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon somewhat predicts this outcome: “…it shouldn’t be difficult to complete the account of the kind of life that awaits each of them …They’ll say that a just person in such circumstances will be whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with fire, and, at the end, when he has suffered every kind of evil, he’ll be impaled….” It is unknown whether Terrio and Snyder had this passage in mind when writing the scene, however in application it eerily fits. The unjust man has made the world hate the just man, but the just man nevertheless bears this burden on his shoulders and continues to be just unto death. Superman dies with a smile on his face while Luthor ends up in prison, having gone insane after learning that “he’s coming”. Perhaps this is proof then, that it is truly the just man who is happier than the unjust man.
Superman’s death spurs a sense of hope in Batman that is evident at the end of the film, even though Bruce was beating Superman to a pulp mere moments before the latter’s death. Bruce Wayne has become the Roman centurion who stabbed the crucified Christ and later became a convert to Christianity. Just as Bruce believes in Harvey Dent, he now believes in Superman.
As it can be seen in BvS, imagery abounds. However, it is not without substance. Rather, it is filled with so much substance that I cannot hope to contain it within this paper. Substance is found under the canvas; one need only take the time to observe. BvS has roots in the Gospels of the New Testament, Plato Republic, and intriguing ethical theory. These attributes should not be overlooked, rather they should be explored, learned, and appreciated, for there are many other directors and writers including them in their movies as well. I am not sure how to conclude this paper, so I will repeat my opening line and amend it: Art is divisive because of its subjectivity and Batman v Superman is divisive because of its complexity.
I had a particular thought about an overarching theme of this movie as it pertains to weaponized knowledge. Lex Luthor rants about knowledge, Bruce Wayne’s knowledge is corrupted, and Superman is consistently looking for knowledge. Bruce Wayne, in his corrupted knowledge, produced a weapon intended to kill a just man. However in the end, that same weapon was used to kill an abomination. Batman knew that the spear would kill Doomsday only after his corruption left him. The weapon designed to kill God, was used to kill the Devil. It only took the correct form of knowledge to steer the tip of the spear into the appropriate target.
I believe that knowledge with power is a potent combination, but only if tamed by a sound mind. Every individual possesses the kryptonite spear, the holy lance, the silver bullet, and the smoking gun. We all have the power to kill God or the Devil. It only takes knowledge tempered by a sound mind, or a corrupt mind, to kill its target. “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.”
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