Thursday, April 21, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scene 10

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Lex Luthor's introduction and his first meeting with Senator Finch and Senator Barrows.

What is the foundation of Lex's character? What's the deal with his dad?

How are "Ahoy-hoy" and East Germany related?

Why does Lex ask the Senators for the import license?

Why is the "kindness of monsters" line so brilliant?

Link to Man of Steel Answers, Pulpklatura, Suicide Squadcast.


Welcome fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast, I share my analysis of each scene in the Warner Brothers movies that are part of the DC Films Justice League Universe. I love the depth of meaning in these films and I love discussing them with other fans.

Currently, I am making my way through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I now consider to be a masterpiece of visual literary filmmaking. We are up to Scene 10, which is the on-screen introduction of Alexander Luthor, Jr., known famously as Lex Luthor. I think it was clever that they had different characters in this movie pronounce his surname differently -- some Luther, some Luth-ore. They side-stepped giving a definitive pronunciation, which I think was a wise move because adopting one pronunciation would have retroactively invalidated a portion of previous TV shows and movies. Personally, I’m going to stick with Luth-ore, which is what I’m more used to.

So Scene 10 is roughly 23 minutes into the movie. That’s pretty late for an introduction of the primary villain. But BvS does not handle its villain in a typical manner at all. Lex carries out a large number of actions that drive the plot and the rising conflict of the movie, but almost all of them are enacted off screen. People were probably expecting the more typical approach of showing the villain’s villany on screen. But by having Lex work primarily behind the scenes, this gives us, the audience, a similar experience to those who are actually part of Lex’s plans in the movie universe. We see Lex’s public face and his off-kilter mannerisms, but we don’t see directly how he is manipulating everything. We get bad feelings about him but we don’t get confirmation of his evil-doings until the end. The relatively late introduction of Lex as the villain is also due to the fact that this movie is not a typical hero-villain three-act story. Batman is another villain in this story until his redemption after his moment of clarity -- that is, Act 4 in the Revenge Tragedy archetype. So the movie has already been setting up the beginning of Bruce and Clark’s character arcs but also established Bruce as Batman and an antagonist to Superman. (Sidenote: We’ll see later that it’s actually very important to Bruce that it be Batman who takes down Superman, and not just Bruce Wayne, because part of the motivation is to prove that all the Batman stuff has been worth it.)

So if you view Superman as the protagonist, then Batman has been set up as Villain 1 and Lex is able to come in later as Villain 2. Another amazing thing about this movie, though, is that you can view the whole thing with a different protagonist, namely, Batman. If you identify more directly with Batman and prefer to root for him, then the movie has already set up Superman as the antagonist and you can allow yourself to be convinced by Bruce’s rationalizations that Superman needs to be stopped because he’s too powerful to exist.

To us, then, Superman and Batman are protagonist and antagonist, or vice versa, and Lex can come in now as a bad guy that everyone can root against. To Lex, Superman and Batman are pawns or game pieces for him to manipulate according to his whims. One thing that really strikes me about the Lex character in this movie is how he never seems to have a single care or concern for anybody other than himself in the entire movie. He never sees a person as an end in themselves but only sees them as means to his ends. According to Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, then, this version of Lex Luthor, as far as we can tell, is a totally immoral person because a moral person should view others as ends in themselves.

What are the ends that Lex is pursuing? Well, we’ll start getting into that here in Scene 10, but if you want to jump ahead and see a full analysis of Lex’s character, I highly recommend Man of Steel Answers and the blog post called “Lex Luthor Explained.” In short, all of Lex’s actions are attempts to prove that power is not innocent, and he can’t stand it when someone powerful is looked upon with admiration and love. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

So we get Lex’s first appearance here in Scene 10. Editor David Brenner said that the original 3-hour cut of BvS had Lex’s appearance even later, but they moved it up so that his manic energy could be felt earlier on and color more of the events. I think where they ended up putting it is just right, because we just saw in the previous scenes that Bruce has slipped off the edge and is zeroed in on tracking the White Portuguese, through any means necessary. That brings us to Lex, who much later we will find out is behind the White Portuguese.

We first see Lex shooting baskets in his company’s employee recreational area. This immediately sends the message that Lex is a millenial and part of the Silicon valley-type business model. In fact, the movie overall has a California, San Francisco/Oakland type sister-city feel to it. Lex has brought his father’s company into the 21st Century, just as the filmmakers are bringing the character into modern times. Lex is also ostensibly interacting with his employees, but if you look closely he never really interacts with them. It is likely that this basketball shootaround was artificially staged by Lex because he knew Senator Finch and Senator Barrows were due to arrive. Lex’s line, “I did not know you were here,” sounds exactly like something someone would say if they were pretending they didn’t know their guests had arrived and they were trying to act natural. Lex is carefully putting on the face that he wants to project to others. It’s his mask (though we’ll see some cracks in his mask later at the library fundraiser).

And actually, Lex’s first words are, “Ahoy-hoy.” This is a bit of an unusual greeting. Many people might recognize it primarily from Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, and although Lex does reference a lot of popular culture in his dialogue, I don’t think this greeting was put in as a nod to the Simpsons but instead to the fact that Ahoj is the Czech word for hello, and the Czech Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, which in the 20th Century was not only invaded by Germany but later one of the Soviet states during the Cold War. This very well could be an ancestral greeting for Lex. And because Chris Terrio never lets a moment for subtlety pass him by, “Ahoy” also happens to be a common phrase used to call to a ship, and Lex’s ship ends up being the link that brings Bruce and Lex together.

Okay, we’re only about 5 seconds into the scene. I need to pick up the pace. So Lex points out to Senator Barrows that his dad is the one who put his name on the company, Lex Corp. This becomes important in our understanding of Lex Jr. because it shows that his dad was successful and also a public figure. The discrepancy between the public’s adoration for Lex Sr. and Lex Jr’s private hatred and fear of him will be a driving force for his character.

Next we get some further backstory on Lex Sr. Lex says that his Dad was born in East Germany, which is adjacent to the Czech Republic by the way and has a lot of crossover historically with regard to German, Austrian, and Czech borders. Lex Sr growing up with stale crackers in East Germany is a reference to the Cold War era and the Soviet Union, because before that it just would have been Germany. It was a challenging string of events for Germany in the 20th Century and it would have been easy to become disillusioned with those in power because before the Soviets were the Nazis, before that was extreme inflation and a collapsed economy, and before that was World War 1. Lex specifically refers to the irony of the citizens of East Germany having to come out to the streets to wave “flowers at tyrants,” to worship those who cruelly wield power over them. This is important not just because the three main characters are each, in some way, trying to carry on a legacy from their fathers, but also because Lex’s main motivation throughout the entire movie is that he rejects the idea of benevolent power lording above everyone else and he wants the rest of the world to reject this idea, too. Man of Steel Answers has the full analysis of Lex’s motivations and moves so, again, I refer you there if you want to look at Lex across the entire movie.

But in this scene, we can see that it has stuck with Lex that his father was forced to publicly adore those in power, who were actually cruel and tyrannical. Later we will see that Lex’s father was also a prominent public figure who was abusive and cruel in private.

Lex continues his dialogue by saying that it was by “providence” -- by god’s will or design -- that he discovered Kryptonite. We don’t get a full explanation of how Kryptonite is formed, just that’s radioactive and it has to do with the world engine from Krypton, which is not only extra-terrestrial but which also was actively terraforming the Earth for a period of time in Man of Steel. Lex said his re-build Metropolis crews found it, which means Lex has been sponsoring some of the rebuilding efforts as shown in the prequel comics, and before you say that the World Engine was in the Indian Ocean rather than Metropolis, remember that the effects of the World Engine were being felt in both locations, so the fragment of Kryptonite could be both located in Metropolis and caused by the World Engine. That’s not a contradiction.

Senator Finch asks what a rock has to do with homeland security, which reveals that the pretense for this meeting involved homeland security and Lex waited until this moment, face-to-face to reveal to the Senators the real reason for the meeting. He says it’s about “planetary security” and Lex makes his pitch to work with the government to exert authority over Superman. Based on the Man of Steel Answers analysis, this ties directly into Lex’s refusal to let Superman be a force of absolute power above all others, because power is never innocent. And there was also an analysis by Pulpklatura -- the one who traced BvS as a revenge tragedy -- and this analysis showed that a main theme in the movie is the failure of public revenge or accountability and thus people being driven to private revenge. Basically, Lex’s first move is to partner with the government to reign over Superman. He set up the African tragedy to cast doubt and raise questions about Superman’s role in the world, and then he used this opportunity to pitch his Kryptonite idea to the Senators. Eventually, Lex realizes this public route won’t work and he then shifts toward more private, brutal forms of dethroning Superman.

As a minor note, Lex’s scientist says that they took the Kryptonite sample to where “they” were keeping Zod’s body --- “they” meaning Lex’s team does not control the body but only had temporary access. That’s why Lex negotiates for greater access to the body later, even though he’s had some limited access already.

We learn through the dialogue and a nice visual aide that Kryptonite is extremely damaging to Kryptonians and Lex mentions that they wanted a larger sample. He uses his typical playful language to describe the large sample -- “among the fishes, a whale.” And he references “Emerald City” from the Wizard of Oz. I tend to think that Wizard of Oz is not a big signal for some deeper meaning -- it’s not like Excalibur at the beginning, which basically maps right onto the entire final act of the movie. Instead, I think the Wizard of Oz reference is just a little joke because Lex loves quoting pop culture and making references I think just to amuse himself, and for the audience, we later get Perry White joking about Clark tapping his heels three times to go back to Kansas.

Continuing in the scene, Lex asks the Senators for an import license. They will consider the request until later when Senator Finch gives her refusal. Some people have wondered why Lex asked for the import license when he just smuggles in the Kryptonite anyway, without the license. To me it was obvious that the import license was his Plan A and the smuggling was his Plan B. In this movie, Lex always has a back-up plan. And in an interview with IGN, Jesse Eisenberg said Lex has like 40 back-up plans. In the Man of Steel Answers interpretation, Lex wanted the import license so that he could work with the government but when he sees that Senator Finch still believes the oldest lie in America and ultimately trusts Superman, he shifts toward using Batman to take down Superman, so he smuggles in the Kryptonite and intends for Batman to steal it.

So anyway, he asks them for an import license and he seems a bit exasperated that he has to explain to Senator Finch the reason for a weaponized version of Kryptonite -- as a deterrent to prevent Superman from becoming a tyrant like those that his father had to suffer through in East Germany. That’s the reason he gives at the moment, while the deeper reason is that Lex’s worldview and ultimately his religious beliefs cannot accept an all-good, all-powerful Superman.

Senator Barrows reveals that most people aren’t afraid of Superman (at least not yet) because he says that Superman’s the only Kryptonian around, and the implication is that there’s really nothing to fear with Superman. This leads us to the meta-human thesis, that there are more super-powered beings on Earth besides Superman. And these meta-humans are the roots of our long-standing myths and legends. Senator Finch states it as a possibility but Lex refers to it as a fact. “There are more of them.” And he slams his ball down to emphasize his point, showing his frustration that the Senators are too slow on the uptake. This is one of the many moments where Lex briefly shows his inner volatility, even while he’s trying to hold it together with his public face.

Lex closes the scene by saying that having a Kryptonite weapon, a “silver bullet,” will make sure that we don’t have to depend on the “kindness of monsters.” This is another cultural reference, this time to A Streetcar Named Desire. Now, I wrote off the Wizard of Oz as just a quick nod, but Streetcar seems like it might have been a more strategic choice. Tennessee Williams writes about characters having breaks between their perceptions and realities, and it’s pretty easy to see that Bruce and Lex are both trying to force their own perceptions onto the world, forcing it to make sense, rather than accepting the reality of things. In Streetcar, Blanche submit herself to Stanley and Stanley took advantage of that and was quite brutal. This is what Lex would expect of someone in a position of power like Stanley, that they would abuse it, and so Lex does not want to be like Blanche but instead wants to fight back and reject that person of power, in this case, Superman. Ironically, Blanche ends up cracking and being taken to a mental institution at the end of Streetcar, and at the end of Batman v Superman we see a somewhat cracked Lex who is also institutionalized, in Belle Reve.

But even just on the surface, this “kindness of monsters” line is good because it shows that Lex has equated Superman to a monster rather than a hero as most people have seen him, at least up to the African incident. In Lex’s view, Superman is a monster but one who just hasn’t yet been revealed as a monster. In Scene 10, Lex presents himself as someone who is planning for a worst-case scenario in case Superman were to turn bad, but actually, Lex already views Superman as a monster who needs to be exposed as a monster or taken down a notch on the power ladder because Lex is unwilling to accept that power is innocent or that someone in Superman’s position is purely good.

Also, Lex’s manner of speech and his fake Southern accent for the “kindness of monsters” line just adds to his smarminess and his unlikeability. The fact that Senator Finch actually is from Kentucky and has a slight accent makes this borderline insulting, as well. In future scenes, we get to watch the subtle showdown continue between Lex and Senator Finch. And it has already started here in Scene 10. Not only is there the accent insult, but right at the beginning of this scene Lex asked the Senator, “How ya doin’?” But Lex is someone who never cares about others and so the question is just for show because he’s trying to butter them up for his proposal. Senator Finch seems to be on to Lex before she even arrives at the meeting, and she responds, “Really great” and her eyes are searching him trying to see what he’s up to. She won’t be played easily, and the subtle swordplay between these two characters is something I really enjoyed about the movie, and it was more akin to a character drama than a typical comic-book action movie.

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