Thursday, March 31, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 3 and 4

Here's the podcast episode that focuses on analyzing Scene 3 and Scene 4 in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, that is, the discovery of Kryptonite in the Indian Ocean and the African incident with Lois and Superman.

Some of the topics of this episode:
  • Why was the placement of the Kryptonite discovery scene so brilliant? How did the scene place these events in a broader context?
  • What does the African incident tell us about Lois's character? And about Lois and Superman's relationship?
  • How do the General's lines connect to later character development? 
  • All that, plus Jimmy Olsen and the KG Beast.

This episode focuses on Batman v Superman and the relatively brief Scene 3, which is the discovery of a kryptonite sample in the Indian Ocean, and also Scene 4, which is the African incident.

First, let’s talk about the transition from the opening scenes into Scene 3. With scenes 1 and 2, we got a powerful foundation for Bruce’s psychology, catching him up a little bit to Superman, who had a whole movie in Man of Steel to establish that he was trying to find his place in the world and was worried about how humanity would react to not only confirmed alien life but also to an extremely powerful individual. I think it was brilliant that the filmmakers took us straight from Bruce’s anger and, more importantly, his feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy, to the discovery of the large Kryptonite fragment because we can see exactly what Bruce would love to get his hands and, as we’ll see later, this Kryptonite is what he’s been working toward acquiring ever since he learned of its existence. We, the audience, as soon as we see the green tinted material, know that it is capable of taking down Superman. So this scene introduces a danger to Superman but more importantly shows us explicitly the object of Bruce’s desire, and also Lex’s desire. This transition is also indicative of the more subtle filmmaking style that Zack Snyder uses. He doesn’t explicitly have Bruce say, “I need to find something that can hurt Superman” and then cut to Kryptonite with a scientist saying, “This will hurt Superman.” Instead, Snyder establishes Bruce’s psychology through the implications of what we’ve just seen, reading between the lines, and then he goes to a dialogue-free scene with Kryptonite that seems like we’re going off on storyline B when really it’s directly linked to Batman’s motivations for Act 1 of the film.

Some people have been critical of the transitions between scenes in Batman v Superman, especially in Act 1, saying that it jumped all over the place, but they shouldn’t criticize this transition from scene 2 to scene 3 because the last shot in scene 2 is a crane shot pulling up away from Bruce, preparing us for a move to the other side of the world and to a focus on other characters.

Now, Scene 3 is fairly simple but I think it does several important things. First, it shows that the events of Man of Steel impacted the entire world and not just Metropolis or just the characters in this movie. Second, it shows that there is an active market for Kryptonian technology, which is a very realistic extension of Man of Steel and sets the stage for a Lex Luthor who is part businessman, part mad scientist. Third, it introduces Kryptonite which we immediately know is going to be important in the plot. I’ll go through each of these points briefly.

Scene 3 connects us back with the Indian Ocean where Superman battled the world engine in Man of Steel. We see the massive remains of the world engine, which makes sense because how on Earth would you move or dismantle something like that in less than 2 years. We see some young men who are out on the water, doing a retrieval dive. I like this touch because it reminds me of some of the fisherman we saw in Man of Steel. I appreciate how Batman v Superman and Man of Steel both situate the events realistically in a broad context. In Man of Steel, there was not only the worldwide “You are not alone” message from Zod, but also the small touches like the fisherman in the Indian Ocean. In Batman v Superman, we again have this grand scope, both here in Scene 3, but also in the next scene, set in Africa, and Clark’s self-imposed exile away from the cities, to the mountaintops. We get these global touches, while still having the movie rooted in the trinity of cities -- Metropolis, Gotham, and Washington DC.

The shots in this scene that are underwater cause any diligent fan to think about Aquaman, even though we don’t see him in direct relation to the world engine.

But the scene then takes us back on land and we see the young men carrying their find to a buyer who is looking through some other odds and ends that people have dug up. I like how this situation shows how profoundly Superman’s arrival has affected the world. Even in these far reaches, people have adapted to new opportunities  and their livelihoods have changed based on the market that has emerged for Kryptonian technology or extraterrestrial materials. Some of the Dr. Pepper prequel comics also dealt with the market for Kryptonian technology. There is a black market, referenced later in the movie by Lois, but there is also an above-board market where private interests and the government have to work out who has the rights to the technology. In a prequel comic, we see a competitor of Lex Corp that found some technology but didn’t document all of them with the government and tried to sell some on the black market. Luckily, Lois was able to get to the bottom of it.

Here, it’s not explained that what is happening is the white man is a buyer looking for valuable Kryptonian artifacts, and specifically Kryptonite, but the filmmakers trust that the audience is smart enough to pick up on all of these dynamics.

Of course, the most important part of Scene 3 is the simple fact that it introduces the existence of Kryptonite in this movie universe. I’ve already talked about how this becomes the driving force behind Batman’s interrogations and investigations, but this is a bit unexpected because most audience member’s first thought would be that Lex Luthor is the person who will eventually use Kryptonite against Superman. Although Lex is also very interested in Kryptonite, he never actually uses it. Instead, what Lex uses as his primary weapon is information. This gets into the ideas of knowledge and power that underlie Lex’s character, but more on that in later scenes.

In terms of storytelling, I think it’s great to plant this seed of Kryptonite early so that the audience can always be wondering who’s going to get their hands on it and how they’re going to use it against Superman. It’s a version of Chekov’s gun that we know will go off at some point later in the movie. (In fact, it goes off more than once, with Superman and then with Doomsday.)

Okay, on to Scene 4. We see Lois and a photographer arrive for a scheduled interview with an African general who is probably a warlord. We know now that this CIA operative who was undercover as a photographer was Jimmy Olsen. Zack Snyder explained in an interview that they had decided there was not enough room in Batman v Superman or Justice League for the Jimmy Olsen character, and so for awhile they weren’t going to have him at all, but then they decided to use him for this small role that ends pretty abruptly. I would’ve liked to see Jimmy in a future Superman standalone movie, but I don’t think it’s too big of a deal for him to be missing in this movie universe. And if you happen to be a huge Jimmy Olsen fan, there is one version of him that is central to the Supergirl TV show, and you could still maintain some hope even in the movie universe because maybe this was a CIA operative who had assumed the identity of real-life photographer Jimmy Olsen, and the real Jimmy is still out there. Or maybe this was Jimmy Olsen’s brother, kind of like they did in Smallville.

Anyway, Lois is the much more important character in Scene 4. She arrives to an exciting yet dangerous location, working on an important story. This is very reminiscent of her entrance in Man of Steel to the buried scout ship. Also, just like in Man of Steel with the soldiers, Lois has to immediately nip some sexism in the bud. Here in Batman v Superman, she responds to the warlord’s demeaning comment by saying, “I’m not a lady, I’m a journalist.” The fact that she wants to dispense with the gender-based talk as quickly as possible tells me that she has constantly had to deal with sexism all the way up the ranks in her career, especially since a lot of her reporting probably deals with men in powerful position who are perhaps not used to going toe-to-toe with a tenacious female reporter.

Lois also asks a great question, “Who’s paying for these security contractors?” At the time, this seems like it might be alluding to some unseemly money-making operation on the part of the warlord, but we later learn that her instincts were right on because those security forces were the most suspicious thing going on there, as they were actually hired by Lex as a set-up for the entire tragedy, intended to mar Superman’s character.

The warlord himself has some important lines, too, that foreshadow future aspects of the movie.
He says, “What I am is a man with nothing, except the love of my people.” I think this most closely connects to Superman’s character arc later in the movie. Superman is essentially the opposite of what the general is claiming to be. Superman has great powers and abilities, but he does not have the love of the people. Sure, there are definitely Superman supporters, but what stands out to Superman and what’s more important overall are the Superman detractors. The government is trying to reign in his power, Lex and Bruce are preparing to take him down, and big segments of the population see him as a danger and an outsider. The animosity weighs on Superman heavily as he tries to do the right things but is met with negativity and judgment.

The general’s line also alludes to the fact that true power comes from the public… it cannot be self made. So in a sense, Lex is doomed to failure because he tries to manufacture his power artificially or through manipulation. Superman, on the other hand, is destined for success because he is good in his core but he strives to do better because he knows he is still letting people down. He will struggle throughout the movie for how to balance these tensions, but in the end he earns the admiration he deserves, the “love of his people,” by making the ultimate sacrifice to stop Doomsday.

The general has another line that is worth mentioning. After the CIA operative is discovered and Lois says that she didn’t know about him, the general says, “Ignorance is not the same as innocence.” This is one of those lines that seems more profound than is required for the immediate situation, so I like to take these lines and use them as a lens for later events in the movie. In this case, I think “ignorance is not the same as innocence” most directly applies to Superman in the Capitol explosion. Superman feels guilty even though he did not cause the explosion. He was ignorant of the danger, he didn’t look for it. But this is not the same as innocence. He perhaps could have stopped it if he had been more diligent.

The line may also apply somewhat to Bruce in that he was ignorant of the ways in which he was being manipulated in his anger toward Superman, but that’s a bit more of a stretch and I’ll have to think about it further.

Scene 4 is also our introduction to Anatoli Knyazev, played by Callan Mulvey, and known in the comic books as the KG Beast. Knyazev has a very memorable face, which cues the audience that we should remember him because he’ll come up again later, and it’s also important because Lois has a later scene where she recognizes him. This scene also establishes Knyazev’s imposing physical presence. He dominates over the CIA agent and shows that he is unflinching in executing kill shots.

We don’t know it yet, but later we see that Knyazev is Lex’s muscle. And Lex definitely needs muscle because it is an important part of this version of Lex that he be physically unimposing. Lex is about manipulation and power through knowledge, not through brawn, and he is also at his core very insecure about his shortcomings, thus he overcompensates by literally trying to become god, playing with life and death like it’s a game. This character arc wouldn’t work if Lex was physically impressive or if he had a purple mech-suit that could stand up to Superman, like he does in the comics. Thus we have the KG Beast, instead, doing Lex’s bidding.

At the time that the security forces turn on the Africans, who they were seemingly working for, the audience was likely confused. But this is purposeful confusion. We’re not supposed to know exactly what is happening, just that there were some brutal murders that were not the fault of Superman. This is setting up the investigation that Lois will be following throughout Act 1, and it eventually ties in to Bruce’s own detective work tracking down the Kryptonite.

For me, this created some compelling intrigue. But I do wonder if some of the negative reactions to this movie were because they didn’t like the unexplained nature of this African scene. If you put this together with some potential qualms with retelling the Waynes’ murder and also reshowing the Metropolis destruction from Man of Steel, there might have been people who disliked 3 of the first 4 scenes, or maybe didn’t see the point of them. This might have put them in a negative mindset that they never quite got out of in the rest of the movie. For me, though, as I’ve explained in this podcast, I loved all of these scenes so far and I think they played a clear purpose in the overall story.

The final beat in Scene 4 is Superman arriving to rescue Lois. Some people say that it’s too convenient that Superman is around three times to save Lois. But I think they all make sense, taken one at a time, so it’s not that crazy that they would all occur. In this case, I think Clark knew Lois was on a dangerous assignment and so he either kept his super hearing tuned in that direction and started on his way as soon as he heard the gunfire, or else he was actually hanging back just out of detection range so he could come in at any signs of trouble.

Superman’s arrival looked great and it was a nice pan up from the departing mercenaries on the dusty road to Superman coming through the sky. Superman makes his patented vertical entrance into the room where they’re holding Lois. The silent look between Superman and Lois tells a lot about their relationship development over the past two years. Again, the filmmakers show us subtle clues rather than telling us explicitly how close the two have grown. Superman looks with love toward Lois, no sign of annoyance that she got into trouble but instead he has pride in her work and he is just relieved that she’s still okay. Lois looks back at Superman with confidence that he will save her, and almost telepathically, she knows what he is going to do and lowers her arms in preparation to protect herself from the impact.

The general makes a threat to Superman while he’s holding Lois hostage, and Chris Terrio, the writer, could have chosen many different lines for him to speak. But out of countless options he chose the following, from the General to Superman: “Take one step, you will see the inside of her head.” I think this line reinforces the idea that Superman already does see the inside of her head, in the sense that he knows her very deeply and they have a connection that doesn’t even require words.

Then we get the awesome visual effects shot of Superman quickly bursting the General through the wall. Superman seems to have gained more precision in the use of his powers, and the fact that he has leveled up is confirmed in later scenes. But in this scene, the dynamic conclusion puts a memorable cap on the Lois and Superman introduction. Overall, this created some intrigue with the questions about what was happening with the security forces, we see that Lois is still an in-depth field reporter, and we see Superman and Lois’s deep bond. We also get the trope of Superman saving Lois, which is a part of the Superman canon since 1938, but in this case it’s not that Lois stumbled recklessly into danger. She was doing her job and, as we’ll find out later, was set up by Lex to draw Superman into the situation.

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