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Motives and Means Mar Morals in “Batman V Superman”

Batman V Superman photo courtesy of
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“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

An alien ship hovers over the city. People panic, trapped in traffic and office buildings. Many try to run, jostling into each other before the threat from the sky unloads a deadly payload. One hero can stop the aliens. He arrives in the nick of time, slamming the baddies through skyscrapers. Bridges fall; cars plunge into the river. The alien commander is subdued and the ship explodes, taking Ground Zero with it. But justice is done. Never mind the collateral.

This could be a scene from any current superhero movie: lots of wanton destruction, little attention to the human cost.

Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: The Dawn of Justice attempts to bring a human face to those caught in the middle of a clash of titans. At the heart of the film is an extended debate over the consequences of heroic action. Can superheroes truly save the day? Are the villains the only ones hurt by their heroism? Do the ends justify the means? Does heroic action worsen a disaster or mitigate the damage? Could an alien from another world care for humanity’s best interest? These questions are central to Snyder’s film; unfortunately, the foundation cracks in the end.

The film opens with an emotional recap of the double-homicide that claimed the lives of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the parents of Bruce (Ben Affleck). Flash forward to the climactic battle between Superman and General Zod in Man of Steel (2013), and Bruce is trying to save lives on the ground. He rescues a young girl orphaned by the action, and loses an employee as a satellite office of Wayne Enterprises goes to ruin. It is an experience Bruce will never forget, and kindles a deep-seated resentment at what he perceives as Superman’s (Henry Cavill) reckless abuse of power.

Arms dealer and security contractor Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) also sees Superman as a threat and schemes to develop Kryptonite weapons as a deterrent against aliens. He tells a Congresswoman, “Do you know the oldest lie in America, Senator? Devils don’t come from hell beneath us. They come from the sky.”

Senator Finch and members of the Department of Defense have their own reservations about Superman: Finch is concerned about Superman’s power and the unintended consequences that result from it, while the DoD views Superman as a potential national-security threat. Superman himself carries out a rescue mission in Africa that triggered bloody reprisals from terrorists on innocent civilians. He justified his action as saving the love of his life, Lois Lane (Amy Adams).

All of these tensions combine to form a murky stew of intrigue. There were times when the film felt more like a spy thriller than a superhero flick, which is not at all a bad thing. The chessboard is mostly for show, as only the titular titans really change in their positions. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) steps in, seemingly from off the board entirely. She’s fun to watch in the climactic battles scene and is given an important role in the fight, but in a two-and-a-half-hour film, the audience doesn’t get a chance to really know her like they do Batman or Superman. Her motives for joining the fight aren’t entirely clear, but this will probably be revealed more clearly in the upcoming Wonder Woman film.

Wonder Woman isn’t the only late-game element that’s underdeveloped. The debate that threaded its way throughout the film doesn’t get a definitive answer, unless the early planning of a Justice League insinuates that superheroes need other superheroes for accountability. For a story that begins as a commentary on the reckless collateral in modern superhero films, the film ends predictably with a mega monster named Doomsday wrecking real estate as heroes try to bring it down. The difference? That Batman lures it to a supposedly abandoned warehouse district. The filmmakers didn’t need to brush any dust off the Superhero Movie Apocalypse Playbook™—it never returned to the shelf.

Batman V Superman fight scene

The trumpeted battle between Batman and Superman is surprisingly weak. “The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world,” Lex Luthor promises, “the son of Krypton versus the Bat of Gotham.” But the fight is brief and with little of the verbal sparring that made Frank Miller’s vision of a Batman v Superman battle so memorable in the classic graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Batman fights with a relentless, silent rage, bent on killing what he perceives as a threat to human existence. This runs counter to what made Miller’s conflict so memorable: after defeating Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, Batman says, “I want you to remember the one man who beat you.” Batman didn’t fight to kill in that story, and made his point.

All that being said, Ben Affleck’s Batman has one of the most exciting fight scenes in the movie. The scene is startlingly brutal; bones crack and men are shot and stabbed as Batman turns the weapons of his enemies against each other. The action is well-choreographed, but it’s all marred by a shaky camera. It’s a common issue in modern action films, but it’s still annoying when filmmakers try to “enhance” a fight with jarring camera shots when the classic action scenes from the 80s and 90s allowed the audience to follow the action with a clear picture.

Ben Affleck as Batman

When Ben Affleck was cast as Batman, the fan reaction was mostly negative. Critics and fans are divided, but Affleck delivered a believable Bruce Wayne, and he even looks like the current character as drawn in DC’s current run of comics. He doesn’t quite capture the same mysterious charisma as Michael Keaton for Tim Burton’s vision of Batman, but he delivers the brooding intensity of the source material. But this Batman is more ruthless. The original Batman in the 1940s carried a gun, but it has become a longtime tradition that Batman has his one rule of killing no one in his crusade against crime. Not so in Batman V Superman. Like in Tim Burton’s films, the Batmobile is equipped with military-grade firearms and he isn’t above using an enemy’s gun to ignite the gas tank of a flamethrower strapped to the back of another henchman. This more ruthless Batman makes an interesting comparison to Bruce Wayne’s temporary replacement, Jean Paul Valley, in the “Knightfall” comic arc from the 1990s. After Bane famously broke Batman’s back in that story (a scene that inspired Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Returns), Wayne appoints Valley, a reformed assassin he’d been grooming for crime fighting, to assume the cowl. Valley’s more aggressive and violent approach to the job ended up defeating Bane, but remained a source of contention between Bruce Wayne and his partner Dick Greyson, who was serving in the role of Robin at that time.

It’s disappointing that both Batman and Superman aren’t allowed more compelling motivations behind their actions. Batman is legitimately concerned at Superman’s ability to leave wreckage in the wake of his heroics, but jumping to the conclusion that he is Public Enemy #1 is a bit emotional for someone as cool-headed as Gotham’s Great Detective. Superman also jumps to the conclusion that Batman endangered human rights and must be shut down after learning that he interrogated and branded a sex trafficker. He objects to the idea of Gotham P.D. aiding and abetting Batman’s actions, when his own third-party action against General Zod was backed by the military. “The Daily Planet criticizing those who think they’re above the law feels hypocritical, wouldn’t you say?” Wayne says to Kent at a social event. “Considering every time your hero saves a cat out of a tree you write a puffed piece editorial about an alien that could burn the whole place down.”

Bad behavior from superheroes

Both behave unheroically in pursuit of their convictions. Batman is willing to murder Superman and despite his accusations of Superman’s trail of wreckage, he appears unfazed by his own body count. Superman shrugs off the consequences of his derring-do. Sexual deviancy is so common an event that it erodes the character of superheroes these days—even a supposed paragon of virtue like Superman. Bruce Wayne is famous for his playboy adventuring, but an unmarried Clark Kent jumps into a bathtub with Lois Lane. Wonder Woman steals intelligence that Bruce Wayne obtained while snooping around Lex Luthor’s home. She returns it to him but asks, “Is it stealing if you steal from another thief?” Characters—including heroes, curse sharply. The trio of heroes would do well to consider the words of John Adams: “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

In the end, Superman is given an almost messianic role in the film, and the timing for release on an Easter weekend was probably strategic. Yet unlike Jesus, Superman can save people’s bodies, but not their souls. Nor the soul of this movie, apparently.

For all its flaws, Batman V Superman is an enjoyable film that fell short of its potential. Here’s hoping that DC can finally stand tall with the Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, and Batman movies scheduled on the lineup.

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