Monday, March 28, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scene 1

I've launched a podcast that has relatively short episodes, each one focusing on a specific scene in the DC Films Justice League Universe. The first episode is live and it focuses on the opening scene of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Some of the topics in this episode:
  • Why did they include another telling of the Waynes' murder?
  • What did the opening voice over mean when it referred to diamond absolutes, things falling, and a beautiful lie?
  • Why was it important that Thomas Wayne clenched his fist and went after the robber, and why was it important that the robber didn't seem to intend to kill the Waynes?
  • I propose the following as one theme for the movie overall: Good and evil cannot be statically identified with above or below, with heaven and hell; rather, they are choices that individuals make in dynamic situations.

Here is the podcast homepage:

<TRANSCRIPT FROM THE PODCAST EPISODE> The Waynes’ murder has been shown on television and in several movies before. So why show the murder again? One reason is because we need it in the DC Films Justice League Universe. It just wouldn’t seem fitting to have this entire cinematic universe of films and not have Batman’s origin included. Another reason is because Bruce being unable to save his parents is even more important in this story than in most Batman stories. As we’ll see by the end, his entire character arc is largely him redeeming his failure to be able to save his parents by eventually saving Clark’s mother, Martha.
This opening scene shows Bruce feeling utterly powerless. At first he runs away from this feeling, running away from Alfred at the funeral, but after his experience falling in the well, he will fight against the feeling of powerlessness and gain power... corporate power, physical power, and the power to terrorize the criminals of Gotham. The power, as Henry Cavill described it, to “inflict justice.”
This opening scene also brings a lot of style and beauty to a brutal incident. The music and directing are stunning. The pearls bring a much more poetic take on the death than would blood. I especially love the shot that is looking straight at the gun barrel with the pearls stretched on either side. And the moment of Martha’s gunshot is heartbreaking, with us seeing the gun’s recoil bursting the pearl necklace but knowing that the real damage is being caused just off screen.
There is so much nuance in each of the actor’s faces in every shot. Some things I noticed in the characterizations were that Thomas Wayne clenched his fist and was actually going to try to fight back against a robber with a gun drawn. That takes some guts and it shows that perhaps the men in the Wayne family can be a bit hot-headed, but brave, trying to take control of even the most dangerous situations. Thomas’s decision to clench his fist and act will be echoed by Bruce later and the question is whether Bruce can pull back before it’s too late.
The robber, who I assume is Joe Chill, also managed to fit a lot of performance in this brief scene. He seems a bit out of his depth from the beginning of the robbery and he is clearly perturbed by the end when it has turned deadly. He does not seem to be an extremely evil villain or even someone who intended for this to happen -- as I’ll mention later, this aligns with the theme that people are not entirely good or evil, it is their choices that are good or evil, and the repercussions of our choices can be profound even if they’re unintentional --  but regardless of Joe Chill’s intentions, it was a horrible and tragic act that was still enough to impact Bruce’s psychology for the remainder of his life.
And this is one point that I want to mark because I will return to it throughout the scenes of Batman v Superman. I think Batman’s character arc is primarily psychological in nature, whereas Superman’s I think is more philosophical and emotional.
For Bruce, this opening scene, together with the feeling of powerlessness in Scene 2, the Battle of Metropolis, firmly establish the root of Batman’s character arc. But the opening scene also establishes the look and feel of Gotham. We see its streets, its gothic buildings, its railway sparks, and its crime.
And it sends a message to the audience that this is a dramatic film that will be deliberate and poetic in its style, and that it has a style so we should expect scenes that might use slow motion to emphasize key moments or key visuals, and there might be non-conventional but beautiful shots that we can appreciate as standalone works of art themselves.
The funeral scene and the bat cave. Geographically, this places for us the batcave just off to the right of Wayne manor, and it is significant that Bruce eventually retreats to the cave and the penthouse rather than residing in Wayne manor itself.
Thematically, we also see the motif of falling and rising, descending below ground, hell and heaven. At the bottom of the cave, the bats represent demons, which are what we typically associate as what comes from “hell beneath us.” But ironically it is those bats, those demons that carry young Bruce back up into the light. It is a powerful image, so as an audience we should be prepared to look for further motifs of above and below ground, heaven and hell, demons and angels.
When I first saw the movie in theaters, I thought it was a bit far-fetched to have Bruce float up amongst the bats. But this concern was addressed immediately as Bruce continued his narration, marking this particular version of events as his dream recollection, rather than a perfectly true retelling.
Speaking of the narration, here is Bruce’s voice over from the opening:
There was a time above. A time before. There were perfect things. Diamond absolutes. Things fall. Things on Earth. And what falls, is fallen.”
The first line referencing “above” confirms the above and below motif that I already mentioned. In fact, I think it’s more than a motif. I think it sets up one of the themes of the movie. Based on my initial interpretations, I would state the theme this way: “Good and evil cannot be statically identified with above or below, with heaven and hell; rather, they are choices that individuals make in dynamic situations.” In other words, good and evil, heaven and hell, are not “diamond absolutes.” This idea, as we’ll see in the future scenes, permeates the three main characters. Superman tries to do good but it leads to unintended negative consequences. Lex Luthor tries to reverse heaven and hell, but he still maintains them as opposite absolutes, failing to grasp the theme that good and evil are dynamic choices. And Batman knows that the good are not absolutely good… they can turn bad. He uses this to rationalize taking down Superman, but he is actually going through the process of turning bad himself.
Going back to the motif of falling, the word “fallen” calls forth ideas of fallen angels, and even Prometheus, who we’ll talk about later, is a Titan who has fallen from Zeus and Olympus. Visually, we see the young Bruce literally falling into the batcave, cut to be simultaneous will the fall of his mother Martha to the gutter. Going from the literal to the metaphorical, the adult Bruce is gradually falling over decades. Bruce eventually comes to the point where he goes over the edge that he had been teetering on for most of his career as Batman. His parents’ death set him toward the edge in the first place, other tragedies such as the death of Robin nudged him ever closer to the edge, and the next scene, with the arrival of Superman, is what finally pushed him over. Much of the movie is an exploration of what Batman is like when he’s finally lost it. When he’s fallen. We’ve always known Batman was a damaged hero, but what does it look like when that damage becomes too much for him to bear?
One way to interpret this new Batman is that he is a fallen Batman. But consistent with the theme of good and evil not being fixed, we will see the story of how Batman redeems himself and is ultimately able to make a different choice.
The narration concludes: “In dream, they took me to the light. A beautiful lie.” First of all, this should reassure anyone who thought it was too far-fetched that the bats lifted Young Bruce up. This was a dream-tinged recollection of the event. The other thing that this concluding line does is show us that Bruce is looking back on his career, which started with those bats in the batcave, he’s looking back with a great deal of skepticism and cynicism. Earlier in his career, Bruce might have thought that his parents’ death caused his fall but his reemergence as Batman put him in the light, into the realm of goodness. This supposed goodness of Batman was the beautiful lie. After 20 years, suffering more loss and only temporary victories, Bruce is realizing that it has not brought him contentment, it’s unclear if he’s really improved things in Gotham because other criminals keep coming up like weeds, and he recognizes that he has been criminal in his activities.
How does Batman deal with his realization that his career might have been a beautiful lie? One way that he deals with it is to become laser-focused on one mission, taking down Superman. He thinks of this mission as his legacy, the one thing he does that will matter. If he can succeed in this mission, it might trump all his previous failings.
Taking down Superman would also restore his sense of power and control. To set this character arc in motion, all of his doubts about his career and his feelings of powerlessness are heightened by the arrival of Superman and the destruction of Metropolis. Which brings us to scene 2, the Battle of Metropolis from Bruce’s perspective.

1 comment:

  1. Zack Snyder interview with Forbes confirms my interpretation of "beautiful lie." Very cool, I'm not just making this stuff up!

    "ZS: And also the thing he [Bruce] says about, “They took me into the light… a beautiful lie,” which is of course the idea that like, “Oh, if I decide or somehow the path takes me toward this road of being a crimefighter, that’s a path toward enlightenment or what is best in men.” And he realizes now, at the twilight of his crimefighting career, that maybe that’s not what happened, you know? “Twenty years in Gotham, how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” “Among us [crimefighters]!” you know? “We are not excluded from that!” He says to Alfred, “We’re criminals. We’ve always been criminals.”"