Beautiful Lies and False Gods in 'Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice'
Zack Snyder's film interrogates two 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).
The reaction to Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was fierce. The cinematic take on the DC cornerstone characters of Batman and Superman limped to a 28 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where it's accused of “smother[ing] a potentially powerful story -- and some of America’s most iconic super heroes in a grim whirlwind of effects driven action.” Critics were put off by the film’s darkness and the moral ambiguity of the heroic characters. This Batman doesn’t seem to agonize over the “no killing” rule like Nolan’s Dark Knight does in facing the Joker. In saving Metropolis and quite possibly the world in his battle with Zod, Superman is responsible for collateral damage entailing massive loss of life. One reviewer, flatly accuses Snyder of “holding nothing but contempt for the character (of Superman).” The Saturday morning adventures of the Super Friends, it's not.
At the opening of Batman v Superman , we are brought once again into the childhood trauma that marks the origin of Batman. Fans of Batman know what’s going to happen. We know that it is a necessary part of the story. So we watch helplessly as Thomas and Martha Wayne are sacrificed again in a retelling of their senseless murder so that, narratively, the hero Batman can rise from the ashes of this primal wound and bring justice to Gotham. Ben Affleck’s voice-over narrative to these events points to their mythic significance, “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.”
Right away we are told that this is not just the Wayne’s story. This is America's story. A story where the idyllic is an act of imagination and never a perpetual state. Affleck’s ruminations on falling accompany the vision of a young, traumatized Bruce Wayne running aimlessly from his parent’s funeral through the fields until he falls headlong into an underground cave. Batman fans know that this is the bat cave and that the winged creatures young Bruce will inevitably encounter mark the beginning of his transformation into the Dark Knight. It's a fall that is a new beginning, a story of origins. Like the biblical character of Jacob and his nighttime struggle with an anonymous stranger, young Bruce emerges from these events both wounded and with a new identity.
Snyder’s flourish to this familiar tale has young Bruce Wayne at the bottom of this cave surrounded by hundreds of bats whirling around him, creating a vortex that lifts him up out of the dark hole towards the sunny meadow. The voice-over frames the scene and the movie by hinting that this origin is perhaps less of a straightforward statement about “diamond absolutes” and more of a necessary questioning of identity of the hero and what he might represent. “In the dream,” Affleck comments on this lifting of the protagonist from traumatic darkness to new identity. “they took me to the light… a beautiful lie.”
Snyder’s Batman and Superman each embody a manifestation of American self-consciousness in the 21st century. In Batman we see our obsession with fear; an overconfidence in the power of striking fear as a deterrent along with the persistent fear of the threat of the other. In this movie as well as in the comics, Batman’s “cautiousness” borders on paranoid fear as he keeps a contingency plan on Superman and the other members of the Justice League because trust in the goodness of others is a sucker bet. Snyder’s Superman raises the questions of the morality of our worship of unfettered power. Superman’s cultural mythos has always coincided with the belief that such raw power exercised in the pursuit of justice is good. Batman v Superman asks us to consider the Man of Steel as a “weapon of mass destruction” whose intervention, even if benevolent in its intentions, creates destructive after effects.
While critics and fans hashed out whether the plot was overly ambitious or whether Snyder assumed too much familiarity among his viewers with the deep structures of the DC canon, I think an argument can be made that the film functions effectively as contemporary myth inviting us to wrestle with the issues of the exercise of power, the nature of humanity and our proper place in the cosmos. If myth can be understood as “an imaginative narrative that gives [a community] inspiration” and that “novels and films present us with mythic stories about ourselves” then I would argue that this film is an invitation to examine ourselves and imagine ourselves differently. Mythology, as Luc Parry claims is “a response to our questions, as mortals, concerning the good life.” Thus it is worth exploring the mythic elements in Snyder’s re-telling of the Batman and Superman story for modern audiences. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice utilizes the cultural ubiquitousness of Greek mythology, the Christian narrative mythos, and these understandings of myth as imaginative narratives about ourselves to draw viewers into a sustained critique of American power and hubris in a postmodern world.
The influence of myth connects with our imagination in provocative ways. That has certainly been the case for me. The small, Southern Baptist elementary school I attended in the '70s housed a modest library in a converted room. This room was, as the cliché goes, truly a window into worlds beyond the classroom and, no doubt unintentionally, beyond the religious worldview of evangelical Christianity in the Southeastern United States. The only book I can remember checking out, repeatedly, was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Here I discovered the pantheon of gods with their fantastical powers and epic clashes played out beyond the realm of human experience. Ensconced in the spiritual womb of the Bible Belt, mythology had been firmly linked in common understanding with fiction. Given such an orientation then, I imagine it was considered “safe” to have such a book available in an evangelical enclave.
At the same time, I was drawn into the world of superheroes by the magic of television. Immune to the ironic camp of Adam West’s Batman from the '60s, I was captivated by the “caped crusader” (West’s Batman lived in a world too DayGlo to be anything remotely resembling today's Dark Knight) and his exploits were fueled more by duty than the original trauma that is central to current renderings of the Batman mythos. Likewise, Superman was an unflappable embodiment of Truth, Justice, and the American Way (which I uncritically assumed were all synonyms) mediated by the barrel chested actor George Reeves in black and white, a mirror of his moral world. Christopher Reeve emerged as the definitive embodiment for my generation of the man of steel in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, giving color to the portrait and capturing the ache of Superman’s fundamental displacement as in, but not of, planet Earth.
With time and age, I came to understand mythology as a form of cultural storytelling that allows us to wrestle with the big questions of life through the heroic journeys of others, be they divine beings or costumed characters with secret identities. In her 1944 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled, “The Comics as Social Force” Sidonie Gruenberg claimed that popular comics are reflections of “…what millions are thinking about, what they want, what they fear, and how they feel about matters of social significance.” In engaging these stories, we learn something about ourselves and our communities in the particularities of our historical context.
Superman’s debut in 1938 spoke to the nation’s fears in the post-depression period about the rapid changes wrought by scientific advancement and technology. As prolific comics writer, Grant Morrison described in his 2011 psychological and philosophical history of comics, Supergods, the early blue and red clad strongman was an embodiment of the hope of individual agency under threat from rapid technological progress. It was probably no accident that many early villains (including Lex Luthor) were mad scientists whose technological manipulations were threats to the common man’s autonomy and place in the world. Superman’s adventures expressed the hope in the resilience of the average American in taming a rapidly changing world.
While Superman expressed hope for the future, Batman revealed to us the ambivalence of our fears in a chaotic world where darkness is present within our human psyches and our neighborhoods. This has always been a core feature of the Batman narrative but, as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, Americans view of the future had grown ambivalent. The Batman comics have given expression to the cultural anxiety that things are “falling apart” that we see expressed within much of the current political campaigning. An example would be the Cataclysm and No Man’s Land story arcs from the late 90’s where a 7.5 magnitude earthquake decimates Gotham City and leaves it cut off and abandoned by the rest of the country. This survivalist arc was an invitation to consider the cultural anxieties at the end of the 20th century. We engage these stories of superbeings and suprahumans as ways of wrestling with our realities and their attendant anxieties. In so doing we are drawn to consider that the pursuit of truth takes us beyond a simple binary of fact or fiction, as presented to a child such as myself
I carried all this as background into the theater, cautiously optimistic about Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While ostensibly a comic book film, it lacks the sheer fun of mindless escapism that one saw in the depiction of DC’s cornerstone heroes in the late '50s where, in the wake of Frederic Wertham’s critique of comics as damaging to children, Batman and Superman gained “families” including cape and cowl clad pets, engaged in light hearted adventures on other planets, and dealt with the irritation of impish intra-dimensional beings “pranking” them. Such escapism continued in campy film iterations like 1983’s Superman III with Richard Pryor or 1997’s Batman and Robin that nearly killed the Batman cinematic franchise.
Instead, Snyder's Batman v Superman is comics as modern mythology in that entertainment seems secondary to crafting a story that engages questions of the human condition, good and evil, and the exercise of power within the clash of heroes with superhuman abilities. From the very opening the particularity of this story is framed in a story of origins, not the origins of the particular characters but of the loss of “diamond absolutes”, a fall, and the longing for return that marks a tragic vision of human reality. Superman and Batman within Snyder’s story are ciphers through which we are invited to wrestle with ourselves, our desires, our gods and idols in order to discern a path forward in our world.
The messianic mythology of Christianity is certainly woven into the film, having been established in Snyder’s earlier Superman story, Man of Steel. The story of Superman lends itself easily to comparisons with readings of the Christian messianic story with its tale of a god like man who walks among us . In Man of Steel, Snyder seems to self-consciously invoke this comparison. The movie evokes the messianic thrust of the Christian religion while reading it through the mode of superhero. While struggling with the decision of confronting Zod, Clark visits a small church in Smallville. As he talks with the priest in the empty sanctuary about his struggle with the decision ahead of him, the camera moves in for a close up where Clark’s anxiety worn face is framed by a stained glass window depicting Christ in the garden of Gethsamane. Clark’s moments of doubt are narratively inscribed within the story of Christian messianic narrative.