Were Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to be considered a fourth part to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy it would pick up a bit over a decade after Batman faked his death and ran off with Selina Kyle. BvS doesn’t appear to be set in the same continuity, but there is a connection between the themes of Nolan’s trilogy discussed in Part 1 of this review. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Frankenbabies and the New World Order
BvS is a direct continuation of Man of Steel and I found it helpful to rewatch Man of Steel before viewing BvS. Man of Steel retells Superman’s origins on his home planet of Kyrpton.
Jor-El, Superman’s father, is a great scientist among a technological alien race. But he and his wife see that the technological advancement of their society has laid waste to not only the Kryptonian’s planet, but their character. All Kryptonians in the dread latter days of Krypton are conceived artificially and grown in large vats with numerous embryos attached to a vertical scaffold resembling a large sea plant. Through artificial breeding only the best genetic traits will be passed on to future generations of Kryptonians. These Kryptonians are physically perfected, but still they are doomed. Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori.
Jor-El and his wife conceive Superman, born Kal-El, naturally and send him to earth, a planet that Kryponian scouts visited millennia ago. Kal-El is sent to earth at the same time that another Kryptonian, also weary of the degradation of his people, has orchestrated a coupe. He is the warrior Zod, and with his small group of revolutionaries he intends to bring martial greatness to the Kryptonian people. Jor-El protects his fleeing son from Zod and, in so doing, is killed. Zod’s rebellion is quashed, he is captured by the Krypotonians and exiled into the phantom zone.
Upon the predicted demise of Krypton, Zod and his coterie are released from the phantom zone. They begin visiting planets previously colonized by the Kryptonians in search of a revenant civilization. They find none of their race, but they do discover a ship capable of terraforming. Zod could use Kryptonian technology to rebuild the race if he has the genetic history of his people, sent away by Jor-El with his son who has now grown into a man on earth.
The conflict in Man of Steel is twofold: (1) Superman coming into an understanding of who he is, his powers and his similarities with and differences from humans and (2) Superman against the revenant Kryptonians who want to use their technology to destroy the human race and repopulate Earth with Kryptonian Frankenbabies.
Superman learns what it means to be a good man from his human father, who names him Clark Kent. This wisdom is presented in the film in three pivotal scenes. In one, his father discusses with him the importance of choosing to be virtuous. In electing not to hurt a bully (whom Clark knows can’t hurt him), Clark learns mercy and the ability to control his passions. In another scene, his father suggests to him that (notwithstanding the fact that his father has taught him to be a good man) he should allow a bus full of children to drown rather than save them and expose his powers. In the third scene the ambiguous second is put into context when Clark’s father sacrifices himself when Clark could have saved him. The middle scene is not pedagogical in the sense that Clark should learn to let children die. It’s an expression of his father’s deep love. This good man could almost wish death upon innocents if it would save his son.
This is the central lesson Superman has learned about his adoptive race. In spite of their violence, ignorance and various hatreds, they are a people capable of great virtue. A virtue for which he would be willing to sacrifice himself. Zod has Superman’s powers but none of his human father’s training. He is a monster and has no love for humanity. He wishes to destroy it. These two gods battle and, to save humanity, Superman rejects his biological race in favor of humanity and kills Zod.
The Cross Presented as a New Myth
In spite of the many parallels that can be drawn between Superman and Christ I don’t suggest that Superman is a direct allegory of Christ. Obviously he is not. In Man of Steel he kills Zod because he is not omnipotent. In BvS he and Lois Lane live in sin. But still, Snyder does not shy away from Christological symbolism. The almost naïve goodness of Clark Kent, Superman’s preternatural powers and his desire to save humanity. And both Man of Steel and BvS are filled with visual signifiers of Christianity. I suspect that Snyder is interested in the creation of myth. Myths that tell us something about the human condition. Snyder, and Nolan, understand the mythic power of comic books. So they don’t craft allegories to Christian truths, they create myths. Like J.R.R. Tolkien or George MacDonald, they craft stories that illuminate aspects of the human condition and, insofar as those stories are truthfully human, are necessarily Christian. But they are not presenting an explicitly Christian soteriology. This, in part, explains the lack of interest Snyder has in politics. He’s painting with a broader brush than Nolan.
BvS presents the uneasy relationship between Nolan’s imperfect but virtuous man and Snyder’s god-like hero. At the end of Man of Steel, Superman, in his attempt to protect humanity from Zod and prevent the terraforming of Earth, inflicts massive destruction on Metropolis. Innocents are killed and buildings and property are destroyed. But, as is common in a comic book film, the action is presented as action, not destruction. It’s entertainment and special effects and Superman is doing what Superman needs to do. BvS opens with Bruce Wayne observing this action as destruction and attempting to reduce the number of lives lost in the fight between gods. Wayne is a practical man. He is not a spiritual man. Still, in Nolan’s trilogy he was a practical man with hope. In BvS, he is a practical man who has lost faith in his ability to save the city.
The City and Man
Nolan’s trilogy is a story of man and his connection to the city. The necessity of overcoming fear to act sacrificially for the greater good of the community. This may be why Batman is a more popular hero than Superman, at least to a modern audience. He is cool and brave and just and us. Modern readers are interested in a man with no enhanced abilities who simply uses his brawn and his mind (and the minds of others, given his heavy reliance on technology) to defeat evil.
Snyder highlights the attributes of Batman as a man even more heavily than Nolan. Snyder’s Batman is less technologically dependent than Nolan’s. While technology is important, it’s only a tool utilized on his behalf mostly by Alfred, his butler. The film also makes a point of showing Batman’s very low-tech training; free weights, sled, pull ups and tractor tire. His regimen might be something like this cross-fit thing the skinny people speak of. In his suit Batman looks thick, brutish and strong (visuals that closely track Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns). Prior to Zack Snyder’s films men born in the 80s were unaware of how action heroes should look. Men of my generation (children of the 70s) watched Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme blow things up and deliver well-deserved round house kicks to the faces of villains. Younger men are misled to believe they might want someone like Matt Damon, Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves to have their back in a fight.
But sometimes being a man isn’t enough. While we view Batman as a hero for his sacrifice for the city, his sacrifice is imperfect, in both Nolan’s films and BvS. Batman’s sacrifices for Gotham have not healed the city. Man’s most heroic efforts to preserve civilization will always fall short.
In BvS that failure eats at Batman. He views his last 20 years of vigilante justice as an empty gesture. The Batman needs to do more. The Batman needs to secure man permanently. Batman has become a utopian. He is like Ra’s Al Ghul and seeks to save Gotham (and Metropolis) permanently with a grand gesture: Death to the alien man-god, Superman. The enemy of man. Because Batman cannot, in his despair, recognize that he also is an alien, traversing a strange cosmos to which he does not belong. When we forsake God we put hope in ourselves, and that’s a misplaced hope that can never right all of the wrongs of a fallen world.
In an effort to salve Wayne’s despair Alfred argues that not only has Batman performed admirably and assisted the city, but that Wayne himself has done much and could do more. Wayne, in fact, may be more effective than the Batman. He encourages him to hang up his tights and serve the city in the manner all men are called to serve the city. As a citizen, as a worker, and a husband and a father. Superman makes the same suggestion to Batman. He should hang it up, there’s a new supernatural sheriff in town.
The City and God
Batman’s hatred of a supernatural being who will provide for man when man cannot provide for himself is shared by Lex Luthor. Luthor also hates Superman. But his hatred is more philosophical. Luthor’s atheism motivates his hatred of Superman. I have read other critics dismiss this most recent incarnation of Luthor as lacking motivation but Luthor in BvS makes the genesis of his doubt and the root of his disdain for Superman perfectly clear. His is the problem of pain. He does not believe any being can be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Superman seems god-like so, in Luthor’s mind, he cannot exist. He is logically impossible. If he is all-powerful, he must not be all-good. Luthor, in an experiment in situational ethics, requires that Superman kill Batman in order to achieve the utilitarian good of saving Superman’s mother, Martha Kent.
The problem of suffering and evil in the world is a near intractable difficulty to both suffering Christians and those who reject the Faith. And it isn’t just a theological problem, but also a political problem of living in a fallen world. Luthor believes that sometimes good men are forced to make bad choices, that they necessarily become utilitarian in living out their lives. Martin Luther similarly viewed evil, not as a privation, but a thing to be overcome by God’s omnipotence; God causes evil because he causes evil men to act. Luther writes that evil men are like lame horses. All men are moved to action by God and when God rides the lame horse the lame horse will run lamely, and such it is that evil men will be caused by God to act and will act pursuant to their evil deficiencies. It’s the nature of the beast. Luthor takes Luther to his logical extension, if an omnipotent God will intentionally cause the lame horse to run lamely, then he can act directly to cause evil and show himself not to be all-good (and to not be God).
While Luthor’s test seems half-hearted (an omnipotent being could presumably save Martha pretty easily), it exposes a seriousness in the story and a desire on the part of the film’s creators to at least tangentially engage the dilemma. This is borne out in Superman’s reaction to the test. He has no intention of killing Batman. For the good of his mother and for Batman’s own good he will go to Batman and convince him to assist in the battle against Luthor.
The Struggle Against God
The fight between man and God symbolized in the battle between Batman and Superman is an important turning point in the story. Man struggles with God because he is religious by nature. We are all Jacob, determined to comprehend a Mystery that surpasses understanding. This lack of understanding promotes fear in Batman. But not a fear to be overcome by the proper ordering of the passions, as observed in Nolan’s trilogy (although that human development is important). It’s a fear that will ultimately be soothed with Grace. When Batman has almost defeated Superman he discovers that Superman’s mother is in peril. He stops his struggle because Superman has been presented to him by his human mother, who shares the same name as Wayne’s deceased mother; Martha, the sister of Mary.
Batman’s sudden turn has been mocked as unconvincing. But Faith is a lightening bolt. The scales fall from your eyes. You are convinced and convicted.
Embracing the Cross
Fighting together, Batman and Superman turn to Lex Luthor. Their battle gave Luthor time to execute his primary plan, to let loose a devil to fight God. Doomsday, a genetic mutant borne of the genetic material of Zod and Luthor’s blood and hatred. Batman and Superman fight this demon. Some chick shows up too. To destroy Doomsday Superman embraces the wood of the Kryptonite spear Batman fashioned to destroy him. Superman sacrifices himself to kill Doomsday.
Is it any wonder the critics hate BvS? It’s a story of a man of the world who has failed the city, who struggles with God, is brought to a personal relationship with Him through God’s mother, berates himself at the tomb for having denied him and resolves to accept his commission to serve mankind. Unquestionably it is a bit silly to tell this story with men in unitards and capes. But less silly than telling any other story with men in unitards and capes. And those other stories are told to critical acclaim.
To an extent, perhaps, Nolan and Snyder are esoteric artists. We live in an era where religion needs to be hidden. Religion is not just a private matter. For cultural elites, Christianity is a secret faith to be practiced in the catacombs. By crafting myth rather than allegory the message becomes less clear. The myth’s relationship to truth is attenuated. This is the problem with mythology. In this vein, Nolan is a better artist than Snyder. His message is sufficiently opaque that critics will enjoy the script, the costumes and the drama. Snyder is insufficiently esoteric and so the critics see religion at the margins. Perhaps they’re not sure what they’re experiencing, but they know they don’t like it it. But the film’s perceived limitations are actually its strengths. They present a true picture of man, his struggle to understand God, the Grace of conversion and the obligation and mission of the converted in the World.