By Stephen Garner
***A version of this article previously appeared in Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice,23, no. 2 (2016): 43-45., and is used here with permission from the author and the journal.
If you like superheroes, then it doesn’t get much better than current cinema and television. Not only are there the current television series of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Gotham from DC Comics and Marvel’s Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Agent Carter, but also there is a new superhero movie at the cinema on an almost monthly basis. Marvel’s stable of The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and X-Men films seek to create an interlocking cosmology that ties all these films together. DC Comics latest films, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad (2016) are part of their attempt to emulate that and establish a cinematic universe for their various characters and properties.
Of the two, Marvel has been the most successful at doing this, partly due to the relatively light-hearted approach they’ve taken to their films, where humour and humanness tend to ground their superheroes in the everyday world, whilst DC’s films, such as director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Batman films (2005, 2008 & 2012) and Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel (2013), have not had that lighthearted element in their films, concentrating more on darker aspects of the human condition. That said, one area where DC have excelled is in their animated direct-to-video films for mature audiences, which bring together the lighter and darker aspects in a more balanced way.
For those unfamiliar with the film’s plot, the world is dealing with the aftermath of the Kryptonian “invasion” in Man of Steel, and in particular with whether Superman (Henry Cavill) is a threat to humanity. Into this situation, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) manages to manipulate Batman (Ben Affleck) into a conflict with Superman. When that fails to achieve his aims (which are somewhat vague), he unleashes a mindless killing machine, Doomsday; cloned from a Kryptonian killed in the previous film. Batman and Superman come to an understanding to deal with Luthor’s threats, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) makes a cameo appearance, and Superman “dies” saving the world. Cavill, Affleck and Gadot do what is required of them in their roles, though Luthor seemed overplayed by Eisenberg, bringing back memories of Gene Hackman’s 1979 portayal of Lex Luthor.
The plot itself serves mostly as an hommage to past Superman and Batman stories with a view to setting up further DC films. The clash between Superman and Batman closely reflects the similar clash between the two in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), though for different reasons. Similarly, Dan Jurgens’ series The Death and Return of Superman (1992) where Doomsday kills Superman is writ large here on the big screen, though that battle had already been portrayed well on the small screen in Superman: Doomsday (2007). Finally, the development of the ensemble lineup Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman reflects much of the recent animated film Justice League: War (2014). What the plot does not do is draw upon those sources beyond cosmetic and stylistic elements to basically put a series of fight scenes into a linear narrative.
Towards the end of the film, there is a scene set in the desolation of the victory over Doomsday. In the midst of the smoke and rubble, in the depths of the night, stand Batman and Wonder Woman beside the fallen figure of Superman, over whom Lois Lane weeps. On the horizon to the left of the scene, twisted iron forms two silhouetted crosses standing out against the city’s orange glow. The tableau could not be less subtle – here lies the savior, Superman, who gave his life that all might live. We might argue the point whether Batman is the Beloved Disciple, Lois Lane Mary Magdalene, and Wonder Woman as Mary, Jesus’ mother, but the film continues a tradition of both subtle and not-so-subtle portrayals of Superman in religious or spiritual motifs.
This kind of dramatization can be described as a form of religion-in-popular culture where religious themes, language, imagery and subject matter appear in an expression of popular culture. This may be either explicit, using religious characters or settings, or implicit, where religious allegory, themes or plot structures occur in the “text” being read, watched, or listened to. In the case of this film it tends to be the latter, whereas in the Richard Donner directed Superman (1978) Marlon Brando’s monologue as Superman’s father, Jor-El, talks of Superman (Christopher Reeve) as his only son, sent to Earth to dwell amongst us and to inspire them to a greater, fuller life. Bryan Singer takes this further in Superman Returns (2006), where Superman (Brandon Routh) hangs cruciform surveying the world while Brando’s voice intones the same speech given eighteen years earlier. Echoes of John 1 abound.
Previous Superman movies typically followed what Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence call the “American Monomyth”; the use of the central messianic narrative of Christianity as a template for popular culture. In this structure, a community (e.g. Metropolis or Gotham City) is imperiled by evil, and the normal human institutions of the day (e.g. the police or army) are unable or unwilling to deal with that threat. Into this situation a selfless (super)hero emerges to provide initial resistance before being cast down by the evil powers. Then, when all hope seems lost, the hero – typically through an act of extreme violence – decisively overcomes the evil forces, restores peace to the community, and then ‘rides off into the sunset.’ It is the formula not only for superheroes, but also for westerns and other popular culture narratives with more mundane heroes.
Batman v Superman plays with this formulaic approach to a certain extent, though the main components are there. In part, the variation comes from having three superheroes present, with the initial conflict being between Batman and Superman, and of the three protagonists, only Superman really appearing to be under threat of losing his life when Luthor introduces Doomsday. When that last plot point happens the familiar monomyth narrative can be played out with Superman sacrificing himself to defeat evil, the cities of Gotham and Metropolis are saved, and the “resurrection” is set up for later films.
This film, and its predecessor, Man of Steel, continues a trajectory of superhero films made in the shadow of September 11. This is a film set in a world where the classic Superman tagline of “Look up in the sky!” is not looking expectantly up in hope for “salvation” but rather with apprehension and fear. Man of Steel, with its “Twin Towers style” skyscraper destruction is revisited here in graphic detail, providing the emotional triggers for Luthor to manipulate not only Batman, but also the wider American government and public. When his manipulations do not have the desired outcomes, he resorts to releasing his own agent of agent of terror, ironically derived from Superman’s own “solution” to the terrorism present in Man of Steel.
Those looking to Superman or Batman in this film for an answer to this atmosphere of pessimism and terror will be disappointed. Both characters as they are written here don’t offer solutions beyond more violence, and the opportunity for Wonder Woman to play her sometimes role of peacemaker and ambassador is lost by dropping her into the end of the film as a fellow combatant to set up the forthcoming Justice League film with other DC stalwarts such as the Flash and Aquaman. Indeed, both Snyder’s Superman and Batman trample on their legacies in many ways – from Superman killing the Kryptonian villains and Doomsday in the previous and current films respectively to Batman’s use of guns and killing of criminals. Good superhero stories are defined by the origin stories of their characters, and neither Superman’s upbringing in Smallville nor Bruce Wayne’s orphaning from criminal violence seem to shape their respective moral frameworks. Indeed, Superman’s killing of General Zod previously provides the materials for Luthor’s new terror – violence begetting violence.
This is indeed a shame, because many Superman and Batman narratives in recent years have dealt thoughtfully with issues of not only terrorism, but also religious extremism and capital punishment. For example, Joe Kelly’s 2001 Superman story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?”, later remade as Superman vs. The Elite (2012), deals with Superman wrestling with how to deal with terrorism when the world cries out for increasingly violent responses.
So, in Batman v Superman we have a pastiche of various Superman and Batman stories from the past, a lost opportunity for a stronger Wonder Woman, a lack of any real reason for Luthor’s enmity, various extended fight sequences, and an “end justifies the means” morality that leads, inevitably, to more violence. Splicing a religious savior narrative does little to “redeem” the film, which could have been so much more.
STEPHEN GARNERis Academic Dean at Laidlaw College. A longtime comic book fan, his various research and teaching interests include ethics and theology and popular culture, and he is currently working on projects on angels, warrior nuns, and transhumanism in contemporary popular culture.