Tuesday, April 5, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 5 and 6

In the latest episode of the Justice League Universe podcast, I talk about the Senate hearing on the African incident and Lois and Clark's scene in their apartment.

These scenes explicitly state the theme for Superman's character which is that his good deeds come at a cost and he has to find ways to cope with the negative repercussions that follow even his good intentions. I also, at the end of the episode, explain how the apartment scene can be interpreted as an attempt to insert a Christopher Reeve version of Superman, and the version quickly breaks down because this world is taking things seriously and there are issues to deal with based on the African incident -- no time for campy comedy.


This episode focuses on Batman v Superman and we will analyze two scenes that deal directly with the fall-out of the African incident in Scene 4. I will cover Scene 5, which is an excerpt from the Senate hearing on the African incident, and Scene 6, which takes place at Lois and Clark’s apartment.

Together, these two scenes form the first entries in Superman’s primary character arc. In Man of Steel, we saw Clark deciding to take up the mantle of Superman and forge a place for himself in the world. Now, in Batman v Superman, we will see the tragedy that is him trying to deal with actually being Superman. What he has to deal with is all the repercussions of  being an active superhero in a complex world. He consistently tries to do the right thing, but he is disheartened to see that many of his actions lead to unintentional negative consequences or that some people have negative interpretations of his actions or even his very existence. We will see throughout the movie that these tensions really weigh on Superman and he can’t seem to find a way to be Superman that pleases everyone.

I think this is a very realistic take on what it would be like to have Superman here on Earth, and it lives up to the original premise of Man of Steel, “What if Superman were real?” It is also a great way to bring dramatic tension into Superman’s character arc, when he is often criticized for being over-powered or boring. He may have been somewhat boring in the past because his heroic deeds were just universally accepted as wonderful, no questions asked. But it is not boring at all to have a character who is criticized for what he does and criticized for what he doesn’t do.

How do those character issues come into scenes 5 and 6 specifically? Well, right after the African incident where Superman arrives from the sky and saves Lois, somewhat like a guardian angel, the filmmakers immediately take us to the Senate hearing where Senator Finch, played by Holly Hunter, is chairing the Committee on Superman Activities. They are investigating the event because Superman is associated with the United States and so this was an international incident. We are seeing that every Superman action has implications.

The African woman testifying to the committee confirms that Superman came down to the scene and that there were “so many dead,” and both of these statements are true but it is not true that Superman caused the deaths. I’ve seen some people online criticizing the movie because they said the deaths would not be blamed on Superman because they were clearly caused by gunfire, not Superman. But this criticism is very short-sighted, and it is looking at things in a simplistic, movie-type world where causes and effects are very straightforward rather than in the realistic world that the DC Films are occupying. In a realistic world, people, especially powerful people, are very often guilty by association, or they are the victims of conspiracy theories, or there are biased news networks that try to spin things negatively in certain directions. To me, it is very plausible that even though Superman didn’t kill the people in the African incident, the fact that he was there would allow people already predisposed to rail against Superman to find ways to tie it to him.

An important thing to note is also the second part of the African woman’s testimony. She said that it was even worse right after the event when the African government retaliated against civilians. Most likely, the government viewed it as a U.S. intervention, via Superman, taking out one of their generals. I thought the inclusion of the woman’s testimonial was a smart filmmaking move because it gave a personal touch to the events, a human side to the story so that this scene wasn’t just technical government reporting.

Senator Finch then has the line that we already saw in the trailers, “The world has been so caught up in what Superman can do, that no one has asked what he should do. Let the record show that this committee holds him responsible.”

What should Superman do with all those powers available to him? This is a big question not only for people in the movie universe but also people out here in the real world who second guess his decisions in Man of Steel and in Batman v Superman. It makes it quite the load to bear for Superman.

Already, we have two very clear instances of Superman bearing responsibility for tragedy, even though he actually was helping out and doing a good thing. In the African incident, he was just saving Lois and had no part in the massacre of the general’s forces. And in Man of Steel, Superman was just saving the entire planet, yet he gets criticized for collateral damage happening along the way.

Later in the movie, we’ll see more instances of Superman trying to the right thing but getting punished for it.

But back to the Senate committee, some might say that it’s unfair for the Senate to hold Superman responsible for the African incident, especially if their investigation revealed that the deaths were caused by gunfire, not by Superman, and if the later retribution was by the African government, not Superman. But again, I think it’s plausible because the Committee on Superman was probably formed not as a neutral entity but as a way for the U.S. Congress to try to exert some authority over Superman. It stands to reason that the U.S. government would not simply allow Superman to operate unchecked. They’re going to try something to maintain their upper hand, and we already saw in Man of Steel that a military, drone-based approach to reining in Superman didn’t work.

So this committee has an agenda, and blaming Superman for an international incident would fit with their agenda because it would allow them to argue for a governmental role in having some checks and balances on Superman.

Interestingly, this gives us three big players all trying to figure out how they can maintain some sort of power over Superman --- Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, and the government.

Scene 5 closes with one more quote from the African woman. She says that Superman answers to no one, not even to god. This connects Scene 5 not only to Superman’s character arc of negative repercussions following his actions, and to the tensions between the government and Superman, but also to the broad theme of gods and men. Is there a god above Superman that Superman should him some way answer to? Or is Superman a god amongst mankind on Earth? I mentioned in discussing Scene 1 that I think one possible theme for Batman v Superman is that there are no absolutes when it comes to good and evil, heaven and hell, but instead goodness is about the choices you make in dynamic situations. Here, the African woman is implying that Superman should answer to god, and notions of god typically come with firm ideas about what is right and wrong. Namely, what god dictates you should do is what is good. Thus, in her view, because Superman does not answer to god, he is not always doing good.

But we know from our full understanding of the African incident that Superman was doing good  in saving Lois and that the rest was out of his hands. It was a very complex situation and it seems overly simplistic to say that there were just some rigid commandments that should have been followed. Said another way, maybe Superman isn’t answering to god, but this does not make him evil. Right and wrong are not absolutes and cannot be understood so simply, at least according to the themes of this movie. But it’s still early in the movie at this point, so all of this, from a storytelling point of view, is just laying some philosophical groundwork and raising some big questions for the audience. What are Superman’s responsibilities? Is he to blame for the aftermath of his actions? What should he do with his powers? Who should he answer to? Different audience members might interpret these things very differently than me, but the important thing to take from a scene like this is that the movie is intending for its audience to view things deeply and not just as a surface-level adventure story.

Scene 6, I think, is also a follow-up scene to the African incident. We see how Lois and Clark are each trying to deal with the tragedy. It was, of course, very traumatic for Lois because the death was all around her and her own life was in danger. So we first see her going back to her apartment with a lot on her mind, but she tries to relax and process it all.

I’ll say a couple things about the plot, because I’ve been surprised to see online that some people couldn’t even follow the basics things that were going. Here, the key things that happen for the plot are that Lois discovers the stray bullet that was lodged in her notebook and she ponders this bullet as her potential lead because her instincts are telling her that something wasn’t right about what happened in Africa. It turns out, of course, that she was right and the whole thing was a set-up by Lex Luthor, and the bullet ends up being the piece of evidence that leads Lois to the truth. This bullet and her suspicions are the catalyst for her sub-plot in the film, which I think was well written because it gave Lois an opportunity to show her tenacity and her smarts in several follow-up scenes.

This scene, which comes a bit more than 15 minutes into the movie, also has THEME STATED moment. In other words, one of the characters actually puts forth a theme that the audience can then tune into for the remainder of the movie. Lois thanks Clark for saving her life but she also says “there’s a cost.” I think this is a main theme for Superman’s character: All good deeds have a cost, but they are still worth doing. For Superman, he will often question whether they are still worth doing because of all the pushback and mistrust he gets, but in the end he stays true to his idealism and carries out the good deeds. Some Superman fans who are traditionalists may prefer that Superman never even questions doing the right thing, but I think it is realistic that he would have detractors and that these detractors would give him pause in his actions, and it also makes it more meaningful when he does the right thing if he does so under challenging circumstances rather than doing them just because that’s what he always has done and always will do.

The other main thing that even a surface-level viewer needs to pick up from this scene is that Lois and Clark have furthered their relationship substantially since Man of Steel. They are now living together and trying to maintain some sort of normalcy, but they both recognize that it’s hard to be normal or carefree when they are consistently involved in serious events. Lois recognizes this challenge and brings it up explicitly to Clark, which is her style -- forward and right to the point. Clark also recognizes the challenge but he keeps a lot of it pent up inside, which is his style as a man of few words.

This scene, and Clark and Lois’s relationship, also confirms for me something I liked about Man of Steel, namely, that Lois discovered Clark’s secret identity and fully joined him as a partner in all aspects of his life. I think that continues to pay off here because Lois can be there for Clark as Clark but she is also aware of how much it must hurt him as Superman to have people second guessing him, challenging him in the government, and having to cope with the destruction that followed his actions in Africa, even though it was not his fault.

At an emotional level, this scene in the apartment shows that Clark really wants some respite from all the stress of being Superman. Clark wants to get his mind off of all of it, by cooking dinner and then by joining Lois in the tub, and Lois knows the repercussions weigh on him -- they weigh on her too. She sits with him there, together taking in all the complexities -- she’s thankful he saved her, but she also knows that it puts added pressure on him because he loves her and always wants to be her protector. She knows the Senate is having a hearing about the aftermath of the African incident and Superman’s unsponsored actions abroad, and she knows it must be frustrating for Superman that this is how people react when he’s just trying to do a good thing. Blame gets cast on him just because he was there, not because he actually caused the deaths. After bringing up the issues so that Clark knows she is there for him with all of it, by the end of the scene she is willing to just be close to him and not necessarily talk about all of it.

I think the depth of their relationship is also shown visually by both of them being exposed. Her, in her nakedness, and him, with his glasses hitting the floor, he is completely before her as Clark and as Superman.

Looking at bit more closely at Clark’s side of things, he is already fully aware that they’re talking about him. That’s why his response is immediately, “I don’t care what they’re saying” rather than “what are they saying” or “oh, there was a hearing?” He has been through this before and he knows what kinds of divided and often negative reactions to expect when he acts as Superman, and he’s already made up his mind that his way of dealing with it will be to try to put it out of his mind… but clearly it’s on his mind heavily.

A part of him must also realize how close he was to losing Lois. If he hadn’t gotten there in time, she might have been killed. That’s a scary thought for him and one that he is probably trying to distract himself away from.

This scene shows Clark trying to go on having a normal life, coming home to his girlfriend, cooking a meal, relaxing in some form of comfort. But it’s so hard for him to have that because of the way that people second guess his intentions, judge the repercussions of his actions, or plot to usurp or control his power. He wants to do his heroic deeds and then go on living his life as Clark Kent. He is happy having Lois there as his companion and he clearly loves her deeply, but it still doesn’t make things easy.

Many people have pointed out how Batman v Superman takes some of the real-life criticisms of Man of Steel, such as the destruction of portions of Metropolis, and incorporates them into the story of BvS. I think the movie has even more subtle responses to the critics of Man of Steel and DC Films. For example, in this scene, Clark says he “doesn’t care what they’re saying,” referring to people looking for the worst in whatever his actions were. This could almost as clearly be taken as a comment to those who are always trying to find the flaws or the disapproving angles on this new film version of Superman. He doesn’t care what those haters are saying. This is who he is.

Another way to look at this scene is as a straightforward explanation of why the 1978 version of the character doesn’t work in a realistic universe. Clark comes into the apartment almost trying to be the classic Christopher Reeve version of the character. He saved Lois and now the next thing that is supposed to happen is some charming talk over dinner with some endearing, campy humor like Clark overcooking a Turkey with his heat vision. We can see the few moments when Clark walks in carrying the groceries as him literally trying to give the Man of Steel haters what they want, but given the reality of the world and the seriousness with which the BvS filmmakers are treating these characters, that joviality can literally only last for a few seconds. Lois shares her concerns about the hearings and the fallout from the African incident, she has a haunting feeling that something doesn’t add up about those events, and she is worried for Clark and their relationship because she knows that his love for her will sometimes draw him out into dangerous or no-win situations. These concerns are real and deep and they get in the way of having some sort of rom-com type scene, and I personally love the tone that Zack Snyder has set and the weight that it brings to the characters and what they’re going through.

Now, just because frivolous banter doesn’t really fit, it doesn’t mean the filmmakers can’t show the affection that these two characters have for one another. And Clark shows his determination to not let his detractors get to him -- at least not yet -- and so he pushes through and joins Lois in the tub, a romantic encounter that provides some context for how their relationship has developed over the past two years and is also an effort by Clark to show that he still wants to be both Superman and also Lois’s Clark, if only the negative sides of humanity would allow him.

So that’s what I have right now for Scenes 5 and 6. Please use the comments to let me know what I’ve missed or if you’ve interpreted things in other ways.

Next up, we get our first introduction to Zack Snyder’s version of Batman. To close this episode, I give my acknowledgments to the inspirations for this podcast, the Man of Steel Answers podcast and the Suicide Squadcast. You can also find all of my comics-related content at my blog, comic and screen <dot> blogspot <dot> com.

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