Saturday, April 16, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 8 and 9

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast covers Bruce and Alfred's first conversation ("New rules?") and the interstitial where Clark is cooking breakfast and see a news report about the "Gotham bat."

  • Scene 8 gives the audience some breathing room. The batcave uses suspension in a clever way.
  • What do we learn about the goal of Bruce's detective work?
  • What do we learn about Alfred?
  • If Batman is operating under "new rules," what were the old rules?
  • In Scene 9, Clark finally gets to cook, and he watches his first news report.
  • I close the episode by making a few additional observations about scenes 1-7.
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Welcome fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast I give my scene-by-scene analysis of the Warner Brothers movies that are part of the DC Films Justice League Universe. Currently I’ve been working my way through Batman v Superman, and I hope to finish up BvS and at least touch on Man of Steel a bit before we get to Suicide Squad in August. I think these movies are deep and compelling and I love talking about them with other fans.

In this episode, I’m going to cover Scene 8, which is Bruce and Alfred’s chat following the branding scene, and Scene 9, which is Clark cooking and watching the news report about Batman’s branding spree.

In the last episode, I talked about how suspenseful and creepy Scene 7 was, so Scene 8 does a nice job pulling out of that heaviness. It lets us breathe a little bit, while still pushing the plot forward, particularly Bruce’s investigation.

The setting of scene 8 is the batcave. This is a new take on the batcave and one of my favorite things about it is that many of the platforms, desks, and just a lot of the stuff in general is suspended from the ceiling. This seems very cleverly bat-inspired. I also like how this suspension approach allows them to be set underground within the cave but also to have top-notch equipment and functional rooms and workplaces. We’ll get to explore the batcave a bit more in future scenes.

With regard to character, scene 8 opens with Bruce as Bruce, in a well-tailored suit, an interesting juxtaposition with the brutality that we just saw being carried out. It’s almost hard to believe that this is the same guy, if we didn’t already have a long history of understanding the Batman/Bruce character. And once we follow Bruce a bit longer in the movie, we can see that he does still have that darkness inside him, it’s just beneath the surface. This is Bruce at least 18 months since he committed fully to his dark path of revenge and hatred toward Superman, failing to cope with his feelings of powerlessness and showing that at his core he is distrustful of the world, assuming the worst and trying to force it to make sense.

In this scene we learn a lot more about Alfred Pennyworth, and he pretty quickly brings his humor to the mix as he tests the Batsuit voice modulator. This is the first clear attempt at humor in the movie, and I think it works well, and it’s definitely well placed, pulling us out of the darkness from the branding scene. In a movie that some people criticized for being too serious, I agree that it’s serious but in a way that I appreciate, and it did have its spots for humor. Alfred brings some sarcastic humor in several future scenes, Perry White delivers some funny lines in the Daily Planet scenes, and we also get a sight gag with the Kryptonite truck backing up for delivery, Lex’s voice cracking when he assumes command of the scout ship, and the nice moment between Batman and Martha Kent that got a solid laugh in every showing of the movie I went to… probably because it comes perfectly after a super-intense Batman fight scene.

But back to Scene 8 in the batcave, Alfred not only lightens the mood but I think one of his most important roles in the movie is that he humanizes Bruce, and it helps us to see that although Bruce has gone to a dark place, given his branding and his fear-fueled anger, the audience knows that if Alfred is still on his side, then he must still be redeemable. (Note for later: If you’re tracking how Bruce and Lex are actually fairly similar to one another through the first two acts of the movie, you might want to pay attention to Bruce’s humanizing character, Alfred, in contrast to Lex’s only excuse for a friend, Mercy, whom he mercilessly sends to her death in the Capitol. This indicates that Lex is selfish and irredeemable whereas Bruce is redeemable, even though for awhile he’s caught up in a similar hatred of Superman.)

Bruce and Alfred’s dialogue together shows how deep their relationship is, and we already saw Alfred in Scene 1 when Bruce was a boy, so we know they go way back. The way they rib each other kind of reminds me at times of an old married couple, and I like this sort of partnership better, actually, than the typical Alfred-as-stand-in-father dynamic. Some people might be surprised to have an Alfred who is working on the bat-tech and who is a partner in Batman’s operations rather than an honest-to-goodness butler, but there’s actually a long history in the comic books of Alfred being a former military servicemen, special operative, or Wayne bodyguard who poses as a butler, rather than him being a real butler. I think it’s pretty cool to see this other version of Alfred finally make it to the big screen.

Some comments on plot. We see Alfred working on a new layer of armor for the batsuit, which obviously becomes important later and which we already recognize because of the promotional materials. We find out that Bruce’s interrogation in the previous scene was to try to gather information on Knyazev who in turn is connected to the White Portuguese. Bruce mentions that Knyazev is involved in weapons and human trafficking through the port of Gotham, so that links  up the previous scene -- human trafficking -- with Scene 4 in Africa -- weapons -- and this all eventually leads to Lex. Bruce also mentions that the reason for his investigations is because he’s concerned about a dirty bomb coming into Gotham. We find out later that this is just his cover for Alfred’s benefit. The real focus of Bruce’s detective work is Kryptonite.

Alfred confronts Bruce with the branding and asks if these are new rules. By referring to a new set of rules, it implies that Batman was operating under some previous set of rules. Although it’s not explicit, I tend to believe that Batman previously had a “no killing” rule and maybe a “no guns” rule. I don’t know, though, if those rules were in place until just now, or maybe they were in place for the first 10 years of his career as Batman but he’s been gradually shifting or loosening his rules. Zack Snyder said that, in his mind, Robin was killed about 10 years earlier, so 10 years into Batman’s career. It could be that Bruce’s descent started with Robin and reached a new phase with Superman. Maybe in future movies we’ll get more details about his sets of rules, because I know a lot of hard-core Batman fans are very concerned about this. For me, it’s very clear that Batman is in a dark place throughout BvS until his redemption at the end, and so I accept the indirect killings, or the manslaughter, as Snyder described it, and I even accept maybe some direct killing as part of this interpretation of the character and a marker of the fact that Batman v Superman is his lowest point in a very painful existence.

Continuing on, Bruce says, “We’ve always been criminals. Nothing’s changed.” Alfred disagrees: “Oh, yes it has, sir. Everything’s changed. Men fall from the sky. The gods hurl thunderbolts. Innocents die. That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness, that turns good men cruel.”

These lines from Alfred are obviously very important, and Snyder’s camera placement plus Jeremy Irons’ delivery make them impossible to miss. Alfred, who has known Bruce from childhood and knows him better than anyone, is making it clear that Bruce is losing his grip and is on a dark path… something different than his previous work as Batman. Of course Batman has always been dark, a figure of the night, but Alfred is saying that Batman has previously been on the side of good. But he recognizes that the shift in Bruce’s mindset since the Battle of Metropolis has turned away from goodness and toward cruelty. And a lot of the audience thinks that it was the destruction and loss of life in Metropolis that set off Bruce’s anger. And while I think that’s part of it, I would say that it was even more so Bruce coming face-to-face with the power of the Superman and that Superman’s existence amplified the doubts and inadequacies that Bruce was already trying to deal with. Bruce wants to reaffirm his power by taking down Superman, and this fixation is turning him toward cruelty.

In the first part of Alfred’s comments, he cues us into a couple overarching motifs. First, he says that “men fall from the sky.” This explicitly connects to the idea of the “fall,” which comes up several times, including right away in the narration of Scene 1, and Chris Terrio, in a Wall Street Journal interview, said that most of Western literature is an attempt to deal with man’s fall -- their separation from god and their clamoring to get back onto the pedestal where they imagine they should be. Second, Alfred uses the word “gods” in reference to Superman and Zod. This plugs into the god theme that flows through the entire movie. I think Lex’s character arc is the most directly linked with the idea of god, in that Lex hates god and wants to reveal the very idea of god as a fraud, but here Alfred is also positioning Bruce’s character arc in relation to god, as well. As noted by @derbykid on Twitter, Lex abandoned his faith after his abuse and becoming an orphan. Bruce, who also became an orphan, was in danger of losing his faith but he ultimately retained it, which makes the endpoints of these two characters very different.

I also think that Alfred’s use of the word “men” is not an accident. He says men fall from the sky and men turn cruel. There are many points in the movie where men or man are used, and it at first seems like just a general sense of the word -- man, meaning human beings. But I think this movie is actually a commentary on masculinity and the way men deal with power and powerlessness, as opposed to how women might deal with it. With Wonder Woman, for example, it’s not just that she has rejected the horrors of humanity for the last century, she has actually rejected men as in males. I think we’ll see more of this idea in the Wonder Woman movie next year, as Wonder Woman’s mythology and the Amazons are tied up with femininity and masculinity.

Now, just one last thing about Scene 8. I thought it was cool to see another parallel between Bruce and Lex. We saw here that Bruce and Alfred have collected a lot of information on Superman. Later, we’ll see a similar thing with Lex gathering all kinds of information about several meta-humans. We eventually learn that Lex did have info on Superman, having discovered his secret identity perhaps even before the movie started, but Lex allows Bruce to steal his files on the other future Justice Leaguers -- Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. But overall, Lex and Bruce are both non-meta-humans who gather data and do research to try to maintain some sort of upper hand.

Moving on to Scene 9, this is just a short interstitial with Clark seeing a news broadcast about the bat branding. I thought it was nice that he finally got to do the cooking that he had hoped for in Scene 6. Looking forward, this is the first of several times that we see Clark taking in some information via the media. Here, it’s about the brutality of Batman. In the future, it will involve more Bat vigilantism but also the coverage and debates about Superman and the Capitol tragedy.

A small piece of information delivered in this scene is that the bat brand is reportedly a death sentence for the criminals in prison. This makes Batman effectively an executioner because he can indirectly cause the death of criminals by deciding to give them the brand. Clark cannot accept this type of “dark justice” because he ultimately looks for the good in humanity and trusts that their goodness will come around, whereas Batman tends to be skeptical and prepares for the worst. Clark is already under scrutiny for his actions and he is trying to hold himself to high standards; the Batman’s actions clearly violate those standards.

By the way, Scott from the Suicide Squadcast has a fan theory that Lex may have orchestrated the prison killings of those who were branded, because Lex knew that it would hit the headlines and offend Clark. So maybe he’s already stirring the pot of conflict between the two heroes. However, my other favorite podcast, Man of Steel Answers, would disagree with this because at this point in the movie, Lex was working on plan number 1… turning public sentiment against Superman and using the Kryptonite to subjugate Superman through official government action. It is only after plan number 1 hits a road block that Lex enacts plan number 2, using Batman to expose Superman’s impurity.

The branding also connects back to Scene 1 where the Waynes had been watching the Mark of Zorro. Zorro is a character who served as a partial inspiration for Batman back in 1939, and Zorro did mark his criminals with a Z, similar to how Batman is now branding people.

It’s interesting to note that Batman was not called Batman by the newscaster, but the “Gotham Bat.”

To address a minor point of criticism, some have said that it’s unnecessary for Henry Cavill to be shirtless in this scene, but the way I look at it, Cavill trains very hard for this role and I think it kind of makes sense to show it off briefly, if you put that much effort in. And also, if Zack Snyder is thinking about it similarly to Man of Steel, he said that he wants to show Henry shirtless because it proves to the audience that his physique when he’s in the Superman suit is actually real, not artificial.

That wraps it up for Scene 9. Next we officially meet Lex Luthor, though his machinations have already been present in the last few scenes. Before I close this episode, I also wanted to take just a moment to mention some quick tidbits about scenes that I’ve already covered. These are things that I missed, just forgot to mention, or that other people have pointed out about Scenes 1 through 7. First, in the Waynes’ murder, I should have said that I suspect the whispered “Martha” line is an homage to Citizen Kane because that classic also had a close-up on the lips when Kane said “Rosebud” with his dying breath, and Rosebud became central to the plot later on, just like Martha did in BvS.

I don’t think I said this explicitly in my first episode, but obviously Scene 1 opens the movie on a funeral scene and then at the very end we close things down on a funeral scene, as well. I think these funeral bookends are most important for Bruce because they really mark the troubled part of his life, the beautiful lie where he thought he was finding purpose and redemption through the Batman but it’s only after Superman’s death that he has really come to terms with everything and he will find true purpose in leading the Justice League, and seeing the good in people again. “Men are still good” … he didn’t believe that between the two funerals but by the end of the movie he recognizes it, inspired by Superman who always wanted to see the good in mankind, even when mankind was being pretty horrible to him.

Also in Scene 1, there was a great shot where the camera is up high and pans as Bruce runs into the woods, leading into an upside down shot. To me, this showed that Bruce’s world had been turned upside down by the death of his parents, and it also set us. the audience. at dis-ease, helping us to connect with what he is feeling.

There is also a close-up on young Bruce’s face when he yells as his parents are shot. The framing of this shot is almost identical to older Bruce’s yell when the Wayne building collapses. This is a visual cue that the Metropolis tragedy is bringing out the exact same emotions in Bruce as he felt when his parents fell on the Gotham street.

Also, the transition from Scene 1 to Scene 2 was great because Scene 1 closed with young Bruce being pulled up into the light of Bruce’s dream, the beautiful lie of the goodness of his efforts as Batman. And then Scene 2 immediately begins with Bruce descending from the sky and the light, down with his helicopter. As I’ve said before, I think going up and down are a motif in this movie, and sometimes are thematically connected to heaven and hell. In Scene 2, then, Bruce is coming down from his beautiful lie and realizing that his work as Batman up to that point had not really been worth as much as he thought.

In the Apartment scene, Violent Vegan on YouTube pointed out a nice observation, which was that Lois and Clark both going in the bathtub is a foreshadowing of the climax of the movie when they both have to save each other in the water with the Kryptonite spear.

I also noticed that BvS shifted toward smoother camera moves than Man of Steel and did not use as much shaky cam or the snap-zooms during the flying scenes. However, there was a snap-zoom in the Metropolis Attack in Scene 2, zooming onto Zod and Superman as they’re falling back to Earth. I think this use of the snap-zoom is definitely a call back to Man of Steel. I liked those snap-zooms and shaki-cam in Man of Steel because it made it feel like a real camera trying to capture a real person or ship flying through the city, and the rawness of the shakier cam matched with Superman’s initial arrival on the scene. But now that Superman is more established and he’s more in control of his powers, I think it makes sense to go to cleaner camera work.

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