Tuesday, March 29, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scene 2

Here's a new episode of the Justice League Universe podcast that goes scene-by-scene through the DC Films, produced by Warner Brothers, starting with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This episode focuses on scene 2, the Battle of Metropolis from Bruce Wayne's point of view.

Some of the topics in this episode:
  • Why show events that we've already seen in Man of Steel?
  • What is the surface-level reason for Bruce's vendetta against Superman, and what is the deeper reason?
  • What do we, the audience, know about Superman's actions that the people in the movie, like Bruce, don't know?
  • What does this scene accomplish in terms of establishing the world and establishing WB's approach to building the universe??

When I saw Batman v Superman in theaters, I loved both of the opening scenes and it pulled me right into the movie. Other people, however, criticized the very existence of both of the first two scenes, so I imagine this changed their mindset for the rest of what they saw. People said that the opening scene with the Waynes’ murder was unnecessary because we’ve seen it before. But as I argued in episode 1, it would not make sense to have an entire Justice League Universe and not show the Waynes murder. Besides, they didn’t actually show the full origin of Bruce becoming Batman. They just showed the murder scene because this was central to the start of Bruce’s character arc and Martha’s death came back in a big way later. So we had to have the Waynes’ murder in Batman v Superman.

But people also said the movie didn’t need to include the Battle of Metropolis, AKA the Black Zero Event or the BZE, because we already saw this in Man of Steel. I disagree. In Batman v Superman, we weren’t just shown the same events again, we were shown the events from a new perspective. We saw what it looked like for people down on the ground. Most importantly, we saw how Bruce Wayne was reacting to the event. He consistently moved TOWARD the danger, expecting or at least hoping that he’d be able to do something about it. I think this is, on a larger scale, the same as his father Thomas clenching his fist and moving toward the robber. Bruce is angry rather than afraid and is determined to do something to help. His movements toward the danger took three phases. He flew in a helicopter over the harbor from Gotham to its sister city, Metropolis. He drove in a jeep into the wreckage. And then finally, there was the epic and heartbreaking shot of him running toward the dust and debris while everyone else was running away.

I think this shot running into the dust cloud is the most important shot in the scene. At the beginning of the shot, Bruce is still thinking he’ll somehow find a way to help. But just before he hits the debris cloud, his shoulders slump and he realizes that this is way more than he can handle. It’s a feeling of utter powerlessness and I think this is what pushes Bruce over the edge. He can’t accept yet another failure, and this one is not only a single failure but the beginning of a new era that is well above his capabilities. Imagine someone who has been working to fight crime and make his city a better place for 18 years, and who has suffered loss and nothing he does will actually bring his parents back, and right during this moment of doubt and self-crisis, it is literally thrown in his face that he can’t save his employees, he can’t stop a falling skyscraper, and he can’t contend with super-powered aliens. I think powerless is the key idea to keep in mind with regard to Bruce’s psychology.

The battle of Metropolis pushes Bruce over the edge and now he basically becomes fixated on a single goal, taking down Superman. But not taking down Superman just because he’s a potential threat in the future… he needs to take down Superman to prove to himself that he can. To exert a sense of power again, to redeem his self esteem.

As we’ll see in future scenes, he abandons some of his core principles in his efforts to achieve this goal. He becomes fixated in an unhealthy way on Superman and he forms rationalizations to try to convince himself and others -- namely, Alfred -- as to why Bruce is so hell bent on taking down Superman.

And Bruce’s rationalizations aren’t all that crazy. He of course feels a sense of revenge toward Superman because of the deaths of Jack and other employees, as well as the orphaning of the little girl from the end of this scene. Bruce also makes some sense when he talks about the potential future threat of Superman, if Superman were to ever turn bad. In this scene in Metropolis, we clearly see Bruce’s anger directed toward Superman, and on the surface, I think a lot of the audience can take this to be Bruce’s motivation for trying to kill Superman. But I think the deeper thing that is going on is that Bruce is unwilling to accept his relative powerlessness compared to Superman. Accepting his powerlessness would be like accepting the death of his parents, and that’s something he is not yet ready to do… but over the course of the movie, his character arc might allow him to eventually achieve this peace.

Okay, backing off of the psychological analysis for a second, and going through some more of the functional aspects of this scene. The destruction looked amazingly synchronized with Man of Steel, at least from what I could tell in my theater viewings. And all the destruction also looked very realist.

I thought it was wise for the filmmakers to connect us with one of the people in the Wayne Financial building. Bruce’s interactions with Jack made things feel much more immediate, less abstract. And it also implied a history between Bruce and his employees that made this feel more like a real event and a tragedy affecting real people. The character of Jack also allowed for the writers to insert the line, “Heavenly god, creator of heaven and earth, have mercy on my soul,” which connects to the ideas of heaven and hell, good and evil, that run throughout the movie.

This scene obviously gives us the introduction of Wallace Keefe. The Wallace Keefe sub-plot is probably the most straightforward aspect of the movie because I think his motivations and actions are pretty much obvious to everyone. In fact, I kind of think the Wallace sub-plot doesn’t fit in perfectly with the main plot and themes of the movie because he’s almost too straightforward and transparent. But maybe I’ll see some more subtly as I go through each of the scenes individually. Anyway, in addition to his crippling here in this scene, we also see how Bruce interacts with employees, which is in a respectful and down-to-earth manner. This is essentially a “save the cat” moment that allows the audience to connect with and build affection for Bruce Wayne… (by the way, if you don’t know what “save the cat” refers to in filmmaking, I encourage you to look it up. Once you learn about it, you see it everywhere.) I thought it was clever of the filmmakers to have Bruce save the cat, because he is largely a villain in this movie, but a villain who we don’t realize is a villain because it’s always the hero who saves the cat. If you are surprised to hear me say that Bruce is pretty much a villain, just think about the fact that Bruce’s goal of taking down Superman and the way that he wants to take him down is almost exactly the same as Lex Luthor’s plan. To the extent that Bruce is acting of his own volition, he’s a villain. But of course he’s not of his right mind so he can’t be completely blamed for it, and part of it is also Lex’s manipulation, using Bruce as a tool. But with this scene and others, I think the filmmakers are playing out Bruce in a complex way where one can really see it both ways… that he’s a villain or that he’s a hero.

On the hero side of things, many fans have noted that Bruce managed to directly save two people in this Metropolis scene. He helped free Wally and he also scooped up the little girl before she got crushed. People use this to get some more digs in on Superman from Man of Steel, implying that Superman should have saved more people. It’s an unfair comparison, though, because Superman had to take on the world engine and Zod directly, and Superman had the entire fate of the world in his hands… and he managed to save the entire world, by the way. Bruce had the luxury of just trying to help out whoever he could in his immediate proximity. Don’t get me wrong, I give Bruce credit for his efforts in the battle zone, but it’s pretty marginal compared to what Superman was able to accomplish. And Bruce’s efforts would have been for nothing if Superman had failed on his side of things. The power difference between Bruce and Superman was probably most clear when Bruce saved the little girl -- good for him -- but then looked up to see the large-scale destruction that someone with Superman’s power was capable of inflicting. There’s just no comparison.

Speaking of the little girl, that rescue actually happened to be the exact scene that I saw them filming in Detroit back in the summer of 2014. You can check out on YouTube the on-set footage that I took of Ben Affleck and his stunt double running that rescue scene with the little girl.

Another important thing to keep in mind throughout this entire scene is that the audience knows more information than the characters in Metropolis do, including Bruce. The citizens of Metropolis see an alien ship slamming its gravity weapon at ground zero, but they don’t know all the dynamics that have occurred between Superman and Zod. And they don’t know Zod’s full plan to terraform Earth completely. The citizens of Metropolis also have no idea in the moment that the reason the gravity weapon stopped was because Superman took care of business on the other side of the world. They don’t know that they should already be thanking Superman for that part of the effort to stop Zod. Instead, they might still be thinking that Superman is part of all of the destruction. After the Kryptonians are pulled back into the phantom zone, they see Zod and Superman fighting and eventually crashing back down to the city with the satellite wreckage. We the audience know that Superman is heroically attempting to stop the murderous Zod, but the citizens of Metropolis just see two Kryptonians battling and causing destruction. It would be easy, at least at that moment, to have anger and resentment toward them both.

After the actual battle, though, most of the citizens of Metropolis come to realize that Superman was the hero that saved the world. In the tie-in novel Crossfire, we learn that Superman helped for weeks with the clean-up and rescue efforts in Metropolis. They eventually constructed a monument to him as a hero. But Bruce had already made up his mind, right away during his breaking point in the Battle of Metropolis. He was not won over by Superman after the fact, for all the reasons I mentioned before, plus the extra potent fact that the little girl he saved was now an orphan, just like Bruce himself. It was yet another mother that he was powerless to save.

As a note for later, the distinction between what we, the audience, know and what the people in the movie universe know becomes important again when Superman recovers in space after the nuclear blast. We see him recover from a pretty damaged state of being, but the people in the movie universe don’t have that knowledge and so they think about Superman’s death as a more permanent situation than perhaps we do.

Now, four quick final thoughts on this scene. First is a small detail -- the riderless horse that passes in front of Bruce in the dust cloud. I took this to be a heartfelt tribute to the fallen soldiers and fallen officers, like is often used in memorial parades. One thing I appreciate about Batman v Superman and especially Man of Steel is that they treat the armed forces with respect. The armed forces are competent, if sometimes outmatched, and they are not being replaced by superheros such as Superman but are instead working together. With regard to the horse though, I also noticed that horses show up at least a few more times in the movie, so we can keep an eye out for any important connections between those scenes.

Second, I liked the Jeep driving scene because it was like a tease because it was so obviously not a batmobile chase scene. It was compelling action but we knew something even better would come at some point later in the movie.

Third, I think another important reason to include this alternative point-of-view on the Battle of Metropolis is to remind us that the scout ship crash landed in the heart of Metropolis. That, of course, becomes very important to the plot later on. And astute viewers of Man of Steel will remember that the scout ship contains a genesis chamber and that Zod was the last Kryptonian to command the ship.

And fourth, this scene shows the approach that Warner Brothers is taking in establishing their characters within the Justice League Universe. Our first introduction to the adult Bruce Wayne is through his perspective on the previous movie. And this scene makes us wonder what he’s going to do next, because the Battle of Metropolis was obviously an important turning point for him. This is different than just introducing us to Bruce and Batman on his own terms and then later pushing him next to Superman and other characters. We are having each character organically lead us to the next, and after we meet them and see how they relate to the current plot, we are led to wonder about their origin or what they will do next. Personally, I love this approach as it feels more like the real world where everything is dynamically connected and you learn about someone’s origin only after you’ve met them and had a reason to care about them. It also helps the new movies to add to the depth of the previous movies. For example, if this had been a separate Batman film, it would have added almost nothing to Man of Steel. But by looking at Bruce in relation to the events of Man of Steel, and then following both of those characters forward, the two movies become an inseparable pair with the later movie adding even more nuance to the first.


  1. Something I want to point. Bruce tells the girl that he will find her mom. A parallel that Bruce wants to save her mom, just like he wanted to in his childhood.

    1. Very good point. That's why you're the master, Kevin.

      I think I might be able to circle around to this when I get to some of Bruce's later scenes.