This is a guest post by our friend Jordan C. Johnson.
I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re here for a reason. My parents taught me a different lesson: dying in the gutter for no reason at all.
This line, uttered by Batman to Superman near the end of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, defines the profound moral-spiritual-cultural conflict at the film’s center. It speaks to a man in crisis, but more importantly, it speaks to a world in crisis.
And the world is certainly in crisis in Batman v Superman. The presence of an all-powerful alien – for all intents and purposes, a god – has polarized the public. Yes, there are the political polemics as have been mined repeatedly in previous superhero films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Dark Knight: Can we trust him? To whom does he answer? To reference a previous Snyder joint, “Who watches the watchmen?” But more to the point, Superman has thrown humanity into existential turmoil, as laid out by Neil deGrasse Tyson:
We’re talking about a being whose very existence challenges our own sense of priority in the universe. And you go back to Copernicus where he restored the sun in the center of the known universe, displacing Earth, and you get to Darwinian evolution and you find out we’re not special on this earth; we’re just one among other lifeforms. And now we learn that we’re not even special in the entire universe because there is Superman. There he is, an alien among us. We’re not alone.
The existence of Superman jeopardizes mankind’s ego. And our ego is personified in Lex Luthor, a tech brat who grows increasingly unhinged in his efforts to destroy the god-figure who challenges his, and our, importance. The casting of Jesse Eisenberg, decidedly recalling his portrayal of Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg, updates Luthor as perhaps the first truly millennial movie villain: secular, arrogant, entitled, narcissistic, obsessive in his quest to tear down the values of the old guard. He is so threatened by Superman’s powers that he looks to invert centuries-old mythology to suit his modern ideology: “Devils don’t come from Hell beneath us. No, they come from the sky.” (A phenomenon we have seen play out in cinemas recently through revisionist films like Maleficent, in which a fairy tale’s antagonist was recast as a sympathetic, misunderstood antihero.) Essentially, Luthor is a nihilist, and Superman is an affront to his egotistical belief in meaninglessness. Superman is incongruous to Luthor’s outlook, so he feels a defensive need to defeat him, to assure the correctness of his worldview. As Batman says, “The world only makes sense if you force it to.”
At this point, this may all sound like an affirmation of God and religion. But in today’s polarized, politicized society, that would make this movie’s point partisan, which would be antithetical to its themes. Instead, this is where Snyder gets original and progressive: it is not the existence of a deity this movie asserts, but the existence of meaning, of profundity, of value in humanity. Superman, as a being, may make us seem insignificant, but his faith in us makes us seem marvelous.
If Superman represents meaning and Luthor represents meaninglessness, then Bruce Wayne/Batman represents the middle ground. He represents humanity at large. He is conflicted, caught between poles, torn between extremes. He is trying to understand himself and his place in the universe. And in the chaos of existential confusion, darkness can be an alluring force.
The film’s opening lays the groundwork for Wayne’s spiritual tumult. In an instant, his innocent happiness is shattered by the murder of his parents. Snyder’s editing and visuals clarify this moment’s seismic impact: his mother’s pearl necklace – a symbol of domestic security – is ripped apart by her assailant’s firing gun. As the pearls cascade to the pavement, Wayne tumbles down a gloomy hole in the earth, crashing to the ground in tandem with his mother. It is here, in this murk, that he discovers his coping mechanism: darkness itself. He embraces his new-found, nihilistic despair, concretized through a flock of bats that carry him back to the light in a surreal, spiraling flurry of gray-black contrast.
Wayne’s transformation into Batman encapsulates his subtle inner conflicts. He leads a violent, solitary life through which he continually exacts revenge upon the world’s criminals for what they did to his parents (and his life), but this vigilantism also bears an element of care for his fellow human beings, as he tries to stop others from suffering the same tragedy he did. His very nature is a conflict: he is a violent protector, an angry hero, a figure of both darkness and light – vindictive and protective in equal measures.
When Wayne witnesses Superman inadvertently kill thousands of innocent civilians during a battle, he perceives a new threat – a threat far greater than the kind of targets he normally fights. An existential threat. He becomes obsessed, consumed, paranoid. He has a vision of an all-powerful god ruling over a post-apocalyptic Earth, his followers countless, impossible to defeat. This, he fears, is the future – unless he does something to stop it.
The irony here is that as Wayne and Luthor become fixated on asserting mankind’s dominance, they lose their humanity. Luthor is a sociopath who has no qualms about slaughtering hordes of people in his single-minded pursuit of Superman, and Wayne, still overwhelmed by the pain of his childhood trauma, slips further and further into a bleak mentality of violence and anger.
Through all of this conflict, it is Superman who retains his humanity, his decency, his compassion for others. The contrast between visions clarifies this: Wayne has a fearful, apocalyptic vision of imagined death, while Superman – Clark Kent – has a quiet vision of imagined life: his deceased father. At every turn, Superman yearns to connect with both his own humanity and that of others, to inspire mankind, to be virtuous, to do the right thing, to be a beacon of hope.
Consider that: in this triptych, it is the human characters who are least humane, and the god character who is most. This reveals that our humanity does not lie in our biology, but in our mythology – our art. In how we express who we are. That is truly how we assert our importance in the universe. Superman doesn’t represent a supernatural deity – he represents the apotheosis of mankind.
When Luthor declares the impending battle between caped crusaders to be “the greatest gladiator match in the history of world,” he is not overstating its significance: the war being waged is between meaning and meaninglessness. Art and artlessness. Soul and emptiness. It is the war being waged over the very nature of human existence; its symbolism is much more profound than a mere meeting of comic book crime-fighters.
To stress the mythological stakes of the action, Snyder infuses his imagery with distinct evocations of the kind of baroque art Luthor seeks to subvert. He vivifies the human desire for meaning when a woman reaches out her hand for a god’s help, the light of the sun breaking through the storm clouds behind him, or when a crowd gathers around Superman, arms outstretched, hoping to touch their savior.
The titular battle ends on an appropriately quiet, humane note: just as Batman is about to kill Superman – as darkness is about to snuff out light – Superman ekes out the name “Martha.” Batman’s resolve is pierced by this; coincidentally, the two men’s mothers share a name. In this moment, Batman has an epiphany. Suddenly, the clash between Batman and Superman – man and god – dissipates, and is replaced by Bruce Wayne standing over Clark Kent. Two men, two people. Wayne finds a human connection with Kent, and remembers who he is and what he believes in. He sees that he is no longer mankind’s protector – he is someone about to kill someone else. He is someone who is allowing another person’s mother to be killed. He is not a paragon of justice – he is adding to the world’s darkness. In an instant, he realizes he has been on the wrong side of this battle all along. Darkness, anger, and revenge are not worth fighting for – the meaning of humanity is. The ideals Superman represents have value. Humans have value. Life has value. What could be a more profound, life-changing realization than that?
In America, we live in a society torn by partisanship. Whether it’s conservatism vs. progressivism, secularism vs. theism, or any other ideological conflict, we have become insistent on the notion oftaking sides and affixing labels: pro-this, anti-that. We seem to be focused less on conversation and understanding than we are on declaring our allegiance to one side of any given issue, with little room for nuance. The contest at the core of Batman v Superman epitomizes this, and its conclusion makes a truly contemporary case for unity: as we progress as a society, we must conserve the meaning of who we are.