Henry Cavill, apparently, is the Man. The Man of Steel. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And now, the Man of Steel again (and again and again, in upcoming films). As DC plays catch-up with Marvel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice serves a dual role: it’s a sequel to Man of Steel as well as the origin story for the soon-to-hatch Justice League of America franchise (with spinoffs galore).
BvS answers a question that nagged at me at the end of Man of Steel — didn’t anybody have a problem with Superman destroying half of Metropolis? True, it was either that or let General Zod have his way. But some scenes were eerily reminiscent of the iconic images from 9/11. Someone had to object to all the collateral damage.
And indeed, in BvS, a Senate committee has been convened, led by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), who would like to see Superman be more accountable to the public for his actions. Batman’s grudge against the Supes, however, is more personal. A Wayne Financial office tower was part of the collateral damage in Metropolis, and Wayne (Ben Affleck, once again in superhero guise after 2003’s disappointing Daredevil) lost family in the wreckage. Given his own traumatic past, he blames Superman for the loss and launches a vendetta — getting his hands on some Kryptonite to accomplish the deed.
Superman/Clark Kent, of course, has his own problems. He has serious doubts about the Bat, a violent vigilante who holds himself above the law. His editor at the Daily Planet, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), won’t listen to his concerns. His relationship with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is always complicated. And his own public image is in question.
What neither he nor Wayne know is that both public opinion and the enmity between them is being manipulated by Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg as a twitchy psychotic), who would like to be rid of Superman and believes Batman may be the one to do it. He feeds Batman’s obsession and forces Superman to fight him to the death (I won’t say how). And as anyone should be able to predict, the two superheroes eventually put aside their differences to join forces against an even bigger threat from Luthor. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) throws herself into the fray, complete with her own theme music, setting up the next movie franchise.
BvS is a dark movie, both literally and figuratively. Batman has always been a dark character, and we are told for the umpteenth time that it’s because he had to watch his parents being murdered. And after Superman’s first actual killing at the end of Man of Steel, a certain amount of shine has been rubbed off his virtuous persona. One moment he’s doting on Lois or worrying about his mother (Diane Lane); the next, he’s issuing surly threats. When he arrives to fight Batman, he tries to explain the situation and enlist his help. But his patience soon evaporates, and winning the fight becomes an end in itself. Moreover, the violence between the two supposed “heroes” is almost sadistic: Batman, in particular, wants Superman to suffer.
There are missteps. When Bruce Wayne dons special armor to fight Superman, the helmet makes him look like LEGO Batman. And his sudden “conversion” to being Superman’s ally comes off poorly, as if we’re supposed to accept that all of his testosterone-fueled fury evaporates in a moment of bonding between orphans.
But the real story here is with the script’s front-and-center religious theme: is the adulation of Superman just another form of ignorant idol-worship? That sentiment is shared by both Luthor and Wayne, as well as a paraplegic victim of the destruction of the Wayne Tower, who defaces a statue erected in Superman’s honor with the words “False God.” The movie’s imagery plays up the religious tone. Instead of merely swooping in, Superman hovers with backlit glory, and even the young Bruce Wayne is given a resurrection of sorts.
One wonders if the scriptwriters have been reading Nietzsche, in whose writings the notion of a “superman” was tied to the death of any belief in a transcendent God. The world needs heroes, Nietzsche argued, who can face the death of God courageously and use what power they have to create their own life-affirming values.
God is typically absent from superhero movies, and BvS baldly tells us why. It’s because superheroes are like gods themselves, albeit like the gods of Mount Olympus, who squabble between themselves. In the end, the central philosophical and moral question is the one Bruce Wayne poses in his paranoia: why should we assume that super-powered beings will do what’s right and good? Or as Luthor says explicitly:
God takes sides! No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy’s fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful.
Some belief in God is presumed in the movie. A man prays to the Creator of heaven and earth before dying in the Metropolis carnage. A woman testifies before the Senate that Superman doesn’t even seem to be accountable to God.
But don’t expect DC or Marvel to ultimately side with the Bible over Nietzsche. Today’s superhero movies are populated with beings who clearly have feet of clay, who struggle with their own passions to make the heroic decisions. As they wield power, they also make up their own self-justifying rules of engagement. That’s why we fear them. But somehow, they manage to keep choosing to defend humanity from the bad guys, even at great personal cost. That’s why we love them.
What motivates their noble sacrifice? Is it Clark’s love for Lois, or the small-town values instilled in him by the Kents? Is it Bruce Wayne’s need to redeem the injustice of his childhood? Yes, yes, and yes. And we can count on their creating their own league of heroes in which they can’t fail each other.
But superheroes live in a world of good guys without God, and bad guys without a true concept of human sin. We can learn from the struggles of these characters by asking ourselves what we can or should do with the power we have. But the answers to why we should make those choices will have to come from somewhere else.