Tuesday, April 12, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scene 7

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast covers the bat branding scene with the Gotham police officers -- our first scene with Batman!

  • Why is Batman branding criminals?
  • What does this confirm about his character, following up on Scenes 1 and 2?
  • How did the filmmakers build suspense in this scene?
  • How does this scene connect to the theme of pure good and evil?
  • "Don't shoot the good guys"


In this episode, I am going to cover Scene 7 in Batman v Superman, which is the first appearance of the Batman in the Justice League Universe. In the first six scenes, Zack Snyder and his team showed how this movie connects to Man of Steel, established Bruce’s psychological basis, showed us how Lois and Clark’s relationship had evolved and introduced us to the dilemmas that Clark will be dealing with, set up two Chekov’s guns with the “Martha” whisper in Scene 1 and the Kryptonite in Scene 3, and established the motif of above and below and the subject of god.
Very dense but efficient filmmaking thus far.

In this next scene, we get a solid, comic-book-inspired Batman sequence. We see some of Gotham’s dark underbelly, set at night, of course, and it’s clearly different than Metropolis. And we also get some classic Batman imagery with his silhouette up in the corner of the ceiling, literally like a bat. And we see his agility and his ability to disappear back into the night. There are also some bats coming out of the chimney as the police officers pull up to the house.
In short, this is a very cool scene that lets you know you’re seeing a Batman movie. But in typical Zack Snyder fashion, he takes what could have been a straightforward scene and enacts it with expert filmmaking technique and layers of character and thematic meaning.
First, with regard to the filmmaking of this scene, it was physically designed and storyboarded in a crafty way by Synder and Jay Oliva – Oliva, by the way, you might know from his directing of the DC animated movies. The motion of the scene has a clear flow that pulls you first up to the house, with the police cars, then into the house with the batarang, then deeper into the house to the human trafficking victims, and then up to the torture room with Batman. Throughout the scene, there is either a sound or a visual that propels us forward, giving a great sense of motion and tension. The police officers also serve well as the point-of-view characters for the scene. I thought it was especially clever, perhaps inspired by a similar scene in The Dark Knight Returns, to make one of the police officers a rookie. His nervousness mixed with curiosity and then exhilaration is a good mirror for the audience. And I noticed how the more experienced officer gave Batman a bit more space to operate, while the rookie went up and invaded Batman’s space, maybe because part of him was just eager to see the Bat.
The scene not only has solid physical motion, but it also effectively builds suspense. As Alfred Hitchcock once explained, mystery and suspense are very different things. Mystery is when the audience is in the dark about something and they’re eager to figure it out. For example, one of these three people is a murderer and we’d really like to figure out which one it is. Suspense, on the other hand, is when the audience does know something but the characters in the movie don’t know it, and the audience is on the edge of their seat because they know what’s about to happen, they just don’t know exactly when or how. For example, imagine that the audience knows an ax murderer is waiting right at the bottom of a flight of stairs and then an innocent character, who has no idea what’s down there, decides to go check the furnace. As soon as the character decides to go downstairs, we have suspense, and the suspense can build as she goes down the creaky stairs, then flicks on the light, then leans over to inspect the furnace, and so forth.
In Scene 7 in Batman v Superman, we know something is going down in the house because the police arrived with sirens blaring, and we know it will involve Batman, but we don’t know exactly when or how Batman is going to appear. The eerie sounds and moans add to the suspense during the scene, and the human trafficking victims who actually prefer to remain in their cell heighten the suspense even more. The music is also eerie with a moaning sort of choir. The tension reaches its peak when we, the audience, see Batman over the police officer’s shoulder but he doesn’t know it yet. Then the suspense is released with the gun blasts and we get a short resolution period to come down from the tension when the cops interact with one another.
So that already makes this an effective scene, introducing us to some of Batman’s nighttime activities. It also shows how great the new Bat-suit design is. But this scene does several more things at the same time. With regard to plot, we learn later that Batman was not actually trying to save the victims but was interrogating the trafficker, trying to get information about Knyazev and the White Portuguese because of their connection to the Kryptonite.
I think the most important thing in this scene is what it reveals about Batman’s character. First of all, I talked about Scenes 1 and 2 and how Batman has gone over the edge, so we shouldn’t expect the typical Batman that he had been for the first 18 years of his career. Sure enough, in Scene 7 we see that he’s more brutal than we’re used to, not only beating the criminal excessively but also branding him. This brutality is accentuated by Larry Fong’s extremely harsh lighting that he used for the shots of the criminal. Second, this scene shows that Batman’s fear is getting a bit out of control. Batman as a character has always been associated with fear. He uses the bat symbolism to strike fear into the hearts of Gotham’s criminals. He wants to save his city by making the criminals more afraid of Batman than the honest citizens are of the criminals. But fear is a dangerous lifestyle because it grows and spreads. In this scene, it’s not only the criminal who fears Batman but also the victims and even the rookie police officer. We learn through the movie, and this was also covered in a Dr. Pepper prequel comic, that Batman was not always this brutal but that he turned a dark corner after the Black Zero Event in Metropolis. The brutality is here now, though, and it affects all those who come into contact with Batman… first and foremost, Bruce Wayne himself.

In some ways, I think Scene 7 is a parallel to Scene 6 in Lois and Clark’s apartment. In the last scene, we saw how Superman’s issues affected his other persona, as the serious ramifications of Superman’s actions pushed into his personal life. Here in Scene 7, we see how Bruce’s issues are affecting his Batman persona, as he is getting more brutal, less compassionate, and more tunnel-visioned in terms of finding the Kryptonite and taking out Superman.
I think this scene also speaks to the theme that I first mentioned in Scene 1 – that good and evil are not diamond absolutes, but are complex and dynamic. If good and evil were absolute and separate, then we could clearly say that Batman is good, or at least his deed here is good, because he saved the human-trafficking victims and apprehended the criminal. But within the complex thematic world of the Justice League Universe, things are not so simple. Yes, Batman stopped the crime, but he did so completely outside the law himself, and he did so by torturing the criminal and striking fear into the innocent. In fact, the victims refer to Batman as a “devil” even though they also say that he saved them. They’re clearly blurring the lines between good and evil. Maybe Batman’s work here is still good on balance, but we have to throw the absolutes out the window.
The last thing I wanted to point out about this scene is how Chris Terrio continues to use very minor characters to deliver lines that feed right into overarching themes of the movie. We saw in previous scenes that Jack and the African woman explicitly allude to god’s role in their lives, after having encounters with Superman. We also saw the African general remark about innocence and ignorance, which sets up Lex’s later comments about power not being innocent and his quest to turn knowledge into power. Here in scene 7, the experienced police officer yells at the rookie, “How about you don’t shoot the good guys.” This is a small bit of dramatic irony because Batman is literally trying to take out Superman for most of the movie.
And I can’t close out this scene without mentioning the great new Batman musical cue. It’s a dark, rich, intense pair of chords, each played out over the 1, tri-pl-et 1 rhythm. The chords match this version of the character very well, and the use of the recognizable rhythm was a stroke of genius because it is very versatile. At just about any point in the score, you can underlay that rhythm, even if it’s just with drums rather than the full chords, and it inserts Batman into the picture. I also think there’s one rise of the cellos that is actually an homage to Danny Elfman’s Batman score from 1989.

So that’s what I have right now for Scene 7. Overall, it was really only a tease of Batman, kind of like the Jeep action in Scene 2 were a tease for an eventual batmobile chase scene. I like this deliberate, slow-build approach, whereas other filmmakers might have just started things right away with full-on Batman action. Or if this were a James Bond film, we definitely would have had the batmobile chase scene up front. These choices aren’t better or worse, they just depend on taste and creative preference.

Next up we get our introduction to Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons. As always, I acknowledge the inspirations for this podcast – Man of Steel Answers and the Suicide Squadcast. Thanks for listening, and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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