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Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture - © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC / IMDB)

Beautiful Lies and False Gods in ‘Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice’

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice ‘interrogates two primal drives in American culture: fear and its trauma (Batman) and naked power and its ambiguities (Superman).

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Zack Snyder
Warner Bros.
25 March 2016

Coming to Terms With America’s Postmodern Ambivalence

Similarly, in Batman v Superman such heavy-handed imagery is repeated. Rushing to Mexico to rescue a young girl trapped in a burning building, Superman descends from the sky, bringing her to safety where he is surrounded by a throng in Day of the Dead makeup lifting their hands towards him in an act of adoration. As a scene, it’s hardly subtle and seeks to underscore the connection between the character and notions of divine power as an interventionist rescue.

In fact, theology emerges throughout the film. CNN panels discussing the role of Superman refer to our desire for messianic figures who, nonetheless, remain under our control. Lex Luthor explicitly raises the classic dilemma of theodicy: Can an all-powerful being be considered all good? The inability to reconcile these two fuels the quests of both Luthor and Batman to stop Superman.

Superman is our unquestioning faith in the goodness of America’s exercise of raw power with little awareness of the collateral damage. Batman embodies the perversion of justice into a brutish force that deems any means necessary if we decide the threat warrants the suspension of the rules.

Given these heavy theological overtones, it may have been no accident, as my son pointed out to me at the theater, that a film involving the death of Superman opened on Good Friday. On that note, in what would seem to be an ironic twist or a flat out marketing snafu, the latest cinematic expression of American evangelical Christianity’s persecution complex, Harold Cronk’s God’s Not Dead 2, opened on April Fools Day; an unintentional hint as to which of these two films more honestly wrestled with questions of theological ambiguity. In a sense, both are expressions of certain forms of uneasiness in American culture.

God’s Not Dead 2 is a reaction to the perceived cultural marginalization of predominately white, mostly southern, evangelical Christians in American life, a marginalization that is received as an accusation of God’s impotence. Rather than such insecurity being met by a quiet, but firm, trust, it gives birth to fevered defenses of superiority ironically dependent on human efforts to affirm the divine.

Films in the mode of the God’s Not Dead franchise ignore grappling with the reflection and re-imagination provoked by such cultural shifts. Instead, they align the legitimacy of their perception of the divine with the triumph of a particular subset of the world’s population. And, given the explicit religious overtones in American patriotism, it’s a small step to collapsing expressions of American power into theological mandates.

The PureFlix films like God’s Not Dead 2 are utterly unconcerned about interrogating this connection. Instead, their role is to affirm it. In contrast, this worship of unfettered power in the hands of a subset of the world’s population is precisely what seems to be interrogated in Batman v Superman, making it theologically the more serious and important film.

Dawn of Justice interrogates two of the primal drives in American culture through the top characters of the DC pantheon: fear and its trauma (Batman) and naked power and its ambiguities (Superman). One can close one’s eyes and imagine that it’s Dick Cheney rather than Bruce Wayne explaining to Alfred that if there’s even a one-percent chance that Superman could turn against the rest of us, he must be treated as an enemy and taken out.

While his role in Detective Comics might focus on his heightened rationality, the Dark Knight of Snyder’s film prefers the realpolitik of torture and surveillance. Superman is a red and blue-clad weapon of mass destruction. He’s the embodiment of pure American force and power that American culture worships. While he has been read through the messianic story of Christianity’s lone savior sacrificed for the world, so too has Christianity in American been re-read through the lens of a superhero. There’s little patience for the suffering servant in the shadow of the conquering hero.

In America, this power is seen as an unqualified good only within the caveat that it’s wielded by and on behalf of America. This myth is maintained by ignorance of any after-effects of such exercise. In their song “Waiting for a Superman”, the Flaming Lips ask with intentional irony, “Is it overwhelming to use a crane to crush a fly?” Such questions are suppressed as the exercise of raw power needs ignorance for its continued practice. However, as the warlord (or, as he might self-identify outside Western hegemony, freedom fighter) tells Lois Lane, “Ignorance is not the same thing as innocence.” In this way, Batman v Superman directly confronts the mythology of American exceptionalism and its presumptions of innocence and benevolent power.

Snyder’s vision of these DC characters comes in the wake of this faithful 2009 rendering of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ epic deconstruction of the superhero in Watchmen. That work interrogated “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” as it is yoked to Superman and, by extension, to the rest of the leotard-clad pantheon. Watchmen ripped off the mask to expose the underside of its “heroic” myths. In Watchmen the Comedian is basically a stand-in for American covert ops, working outside of the Geneva convention or democratic oversight and intervening with impunity and ruthlessness. The book’s only superhuman, Dr. Manhattan, raises the issue of the unquestioned raw power of nuclear weapons and, not accidentally, is the character most detached from humanity.

Similarly, in Snyder’s latest film, Lois Lane confesses to Clark/Superman that she has doubts as to whether he can be himself (as pure power) and love her. Where Watchmen wrestled with philosophical questions raised by human progress and hubris, Batman v Superman expands that exploration by weighing the theological freight inherent in American cultural mythology.

Batman v Superman is not a Christian film, of course, but it does employ the narrative mythos of the Christian story as well as the cultural memory of Greek mythology and American civil religion to lead us into an examination of whether Americans’ blind worship of its power does not breed the fear that constantly justifies its use, as well as the indifference to its effects. Just as Snyder describes Watchmen as a challenge to our icons, morality, and our theology, so too, Batman v Superman is a continuation of that challenge. When the Wayne Financial security guard who lost his legs in the collateral damage of Superman’s battle with Zod hoists himself onto the bronze statue of the Man of Steel and tags the monument with the spray-painted indictment, “False God”, Snyder’s film has thrown down the gauntlet.

In the Metropolis alien, Batman recognizes the existential threat of Superman’s apocalyptic powers and, similar to the knight in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, seeks to give his life meaning with one final significant act. This act is not simply the elimination of a threat. It’s arguably deicide, for Superman is not only god-like, but he’s also a totem for our worship of the myth of benevolent power.

There’s a scene during the semi-climatic battle between the two titans in which Superman, weakened and pummeled by an armor-clad Batman and his kryptonite-tipped “Excalibur” finds himself laying, cruciform, on a stack of wood. Arms outstretched horizontally, ankles crossed or touching, and his cape regally flowing up from his seemingly lifeless body, emerging from his broad shoulders and crowning his head. As the camera pans back, the scene evokes the atmosphere of a Catholic cathedral.

Like a religious icon, the man of steel’s body is surrounded by Roman columns and illuminated in bluish light from a massive window that could have been at home at either Grand Central Station or St. Patrick’s. With a cable wrapped around Superman’s ankles, the Dark Knight yanks him from his iconic position and swings him, hammer-like, bludgeoning the quasi-religious artifice that had just a moment ago framed the red and blue-clad warrior in worshipful repose.

The scene is not a random outlier in an otherwise straight-up comic book story. It’s a metaphor for the death of a certain form of hero-worship.

While there are obvious issues with the film (its plot is bloated, it assumes depth knowledge of the “canon”, and it tries to tell a story while setting up a franchise), much of the negativity miss its importance. Snyder asks us to gaze at what we value and the objects we worship. American civil religion is a potent amalgam of the Christian narrative structure, a belief in the benevolence of America’s colonialist tendencies and unreflective worship of American power.

Superman is our unquestioning faith in the goodness of America’s exercise of raw power with little awareness of the collateral damage. Batman embodies the perversion of justice into a brutish force that deems any means necessary if we decide the threat warrants the suspension of the rules.

Ironically, it is Lex Luthor who declares himself a philanthropist, a lover of humanity. Is it love for the whole that drives his orchestration of this clash of titans? None of us is ever motivated by unmixed motives as his hatred of Superman reveals, not a critique of power, but a reaction to a threat to access to power.

If there is hope, it perhaps lies in the words of Holly Hunter’s Sen. Finch, “In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision.” The mythology of Batman v Superman draws us into this conversation precisely by helping us see the wreckage we have wrought and our idolatry of power.

Is it too late for us? Or, as the Flash muses when he appears vision -like to deliver a warning to Bruce Wayne about Superman, have the messenger and the message come too soon, much like Nietzsche’s raving fictional prophet Zarathustra in declaring the “death of God”? Are we not ready to bear the loss of our innocence and the unveiling of our ignorance?

By recognizing the theological weight of these cultural issues, Snyder’s film is the more important cinematic effort of coming to terms with American postmodern ambivalence than its lighter and more entertaining Marvel counterpart, Captain America: Civil War. Both deal with ambiguities of raw American power, but Marvel’s iteration lacks the awareness of the quasi-religious weight these issues carry in American culture. It would be a potential loss if poor reviews and market forces result in the removal of Snyder from unfolding this vision (and hopefully sharpening it) in subsequent films.

The film closes with concurrent funerals, one for Clark Kent and one for Superman. In the background of Kent’s casket being laid to rest, Bruce Wayne muses on what must die. Raw power is being mourned in a “circus” in DC over an “empty box”. His Amazon compatriot replies that we (America) don’t know any other way to honor him but as a soldier, deified a hero solely by virtue of symbolic proximity to raw force. Soldier and hero are collapsed together in the public consciousness. Ironically, this honor comes at the cost of considering him human, potentially courageous, or callous.

Back in Smallville, the handful of dirt scattered on the pine coffin begins to levitate. We know there will be a return, a resurrection of sorts. But the conversation Snyder invokes revolves around the questions of what, precisely has died, and what will re-emerge to live.

Perhaps it’s past time for America to grieve the death wrought by the messianic belief in unchecked power. Perhaps then America’s dominant religion can let go of its need to transform its founder into a superhero.

Works Cited

D’Aulaires, Ingri and Edgar Parin. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Penguin Random House. March 1992 (reprint).

Faraci, Devin. “Superman and the Damage Done“. BirthMoviesDeath.com. 30 March 2016.

Ferry, Luc. The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life. Harper Perennial. 2014.

Gruenberg, Sidonie. “The Comics as Social Force“. Journal of Educational Psychology. Georgia State University. 2007.

Jensen, Jeff. “‘Watchmen‘: A chat with director Zack Snyder”. EntertainmentWeekly.com. 17 July 2008.

Morrison, Grant. Supergods. Random House. 2012.

Rotten Tomatoes. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice“.

(uncredited) “Get literate in myth, religion and theology“. TheConversation.com. 19 March 2016.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published 14 July 2016.

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