Tuesday, April 26, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 11 and 12

This episode covers Scene 11 (Wallace Keefe's vandalism) and Scene 12 (Daily Planet reaction to the vandalism) of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder.

  • How does Wallace Keefe's vandalism fit with Lex's plans?
  • What are some ideas behind Superman's statue design?
  • How does the Daily Planet react to the vandalism and what does it reveal about public sentiment to Superman?
  • Theme: Power corrupts, but powerlessness can corrupt even more.
  • Pacing issues: Why were these two scenes inserted into Lex's meeting with the Senators? What are people's pacing complaints for the first third of the movie?

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.

In this episode, I continue through Batman v Superman by discussing two scenes that occur in the midst of Lex’s meeting with Senator Finch and Senator Barrows. The two scenes here are Scene 11 -- Wallace Keefe’s “false god” vandalism of the Superman statue -- and Scene 12 -- reactions at the Daily Planet to the vandalism. In addition to those two quick scenes, I also discuss issues of pacing in the first hour of the movie.

So I mentioned in an earlier episode that Wallace Keefe’s sub-plot is one of the most straightforward aspects of Batman v Superman. In general, I think the surface-level read of Wallace is pretty much all there is. Now, later when Lex uses Wallace toward his own ends, I think that brings in some additional layers of interpretation, but Wallace himself seems to be basically what-you-see-is-what-you-get. We saw back in Scene 2 that he was directly impacted by Superman’s battle with Zod and ended up losing his legs.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a lot of research showing that amputees typically go through an adjustment period and have some temporary sadness or a negative outlook, but most eventually arrive at a new normal and reach the same levels of happiness and contentment as able-bodied people. So BvS should not be taken as saying that all amputees hold deep grudges or fail miserably in dealing with their loss. But that is the case with this one individual, Wallace Keefe. Also, Keefe not only lost his legs but his wife and daughter as well. It’s not stated explicitly, but I presume that he lost them in the Black Zero Event from Man of Steel, though it’s also possible that he lost them after the fact, maybe due to his negative reaction to the event. In either case, here in Scene 11, he looks with grief upon his family photo and the fact that the newspaper clippings are all around him send the visual message that he blames Superman and the BZE for the loss of his family, in addition to the loss of his legs.

With regard to those clippings, there were several pieces from the Daily Planet covering Superman’s heroics. And the implication is that Wallace bristles at Superman being cast as a hero. This idea becomes very explicit later when Wallace says Superman is “not a hero.” Again, this is a pretty straightforward sub-plot.

I also noticed, however, that Wallace had at least one clipping about Bruce Wayne on his wall. I think it was an article specifically about Bruce saving Wallace himself. I’m not sure if this means Wallace has cast Bruce in with Superman as a target of his anger, or if it’s just part of his full set of things documenting life since Superman’s arrival. Back in Scene 2, Wallace seemed to have a good rapport with Bruce, but maybe his anger spread out in irrational ways. We can try to parse this more when we analyze the returned survivors checks and the messages from Wallace / Lex.

In Scene 11, it wasn’t just the newspaper clippings and the family photo that sent a visual message to us. It was also the juxtaposition of the squalor and rundown nature of Wallace’s apartment with the pristine and elegant monument erected to Superman in Hero’s Park. This contrast probably ate away at Wallace constantly over the past couple years, and remember that Wallace lived and worked in Metropolis, even though he was a Wayne employee. So he had to put up first-hand with Superman being the hero of Metropolis. Snyder adds to this juxtaposition by also showing us how much effort Wallace has to put in to wheel over and climb up the statue, which implicitly contrasts with how effortlessly Superman can move and fly.

With regard to Wallace festering over time about Superman, he is similar to Lex and to Bruce. They all bristle at the positivity and admiration that has been heaped on Superman since his arrival two years earlier, though all for slightly different reasons. And even though it makes sense that Metropolis would erect a statue for Superman, because he did save the city and the rest of the world in Man of Steel, it is also understandable that Wallace would be resentful because for him it was a tragic day, not a victory. And Wallace is clearly a personal window into all the collateral damage that was part of the efforts to defeat Zod and the Kryptonian invasion.

So Wallace works well later in Superman’s character arc as another instance where Superman tried to do something good and noble, but is sad to see the unintended consequences.

After we see some preparation work in his apartment, because for Wally the act of vandalism will be harder than it would be for an able-bodied person, we head out to the Superman monument in Metropolis. This setting was based in Chicago, I believe, and the statue seems to have a Roman style to it, with the monument wall listing the names of the dead in a manner reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC. The art book for Batman v Superman shows a couple alternative designs for the statue, but I think the one they went with makes the most practical and thematic sense, even though the one of Superman shooting up out of the ground probably looked better just from a visual standpoint. I think the statue design that they did end up using in the movie is functional because the lowered hand allows Wallace to climb up in a compelling sort of way, and the face and chest being a centerpiece of the statue made it a good place for the “false god” phrase to be written.

I also think the statue works thematically because Superman is positioned as a bridge between two worlds, just as Jor-El had hoped. Superman has one hand open and reaching down toward Earth while his other arm is up toward the sky, in the direction of Krypton. Or, rather than a bridge, one can interpret it as Superman guiding humanity toward the light, also as Jor-El had described in Man of Steel, but importantly, he’s doing so with an open hand as an invitation. We’ll also talk later about the messages of the statue when it becomes a setting for part of Superman’s fight with Doomsday, and when Doomsday literally bashes Superman over the head with the names of the innocent dead.

So Wallace wheels over, climbs up, and begins to spray his message, defacing the statue. I think it was a nice filmmaking touch that we actually didn’t see the full message until it was from the perspective of the Daily Planet and Clark, specifically. This also ties in with the media playing a role in how messages get transmitted and how certain opinions or ways of thinking get amplified within this movie, as they do in the real world.

Wallace’s message is “false god.” I’m not actually going to unpack this very much because, as I said, it’s fairly straightforward. Superman clearly represents notions of god to many characters in the movie, and some of the backlash to Superman takes the form of “false god” -- he’s not a hero -- or “god is not all good” -- from Lex -- or “god is too powerful to be trusted” -- from Bruce. Just as Man of Steel dealt with Superman’s alienness, BvS is largely dealing with his godliness. And Wallace is bringing forth a minority opinion that the hero worship may be misplaced or at the very least puts more attention on the hero than the victims. I say minority opinion because the monument itself is actually the much more dominant message about Superman, but cracks in that public adoration are starting to show.

This is how Wallace Keefe ties in with Lex’s overall manipulations, even now, before Lex bails Wallace out of jail. Lex set up the ambush is Nairomi, Africa, because he wanted to start shifting public opinion on Superman. Up to the African incident, Superman was having monuments erected to him, positive newspaper articles written about him, and most people viewed him very favorably. But the African incident caused a lot of questions to be asked and it raised concerns about the scope of his actions. Even though Superman didn’t actually kill the people in Africa, it was enough that he was there and that retaliation deaths occurred, as well.

As seen with the Senate Hearing, the African incident changed the conversation even if it didn’t produce a smoking gun of guilt onto Superman. And I think changing the conversation was Lex’s goal, because he was trying to set the stage for his ultimate reveal that Superman is not a figure of absolute benevolence. The Man of Steel Answers analysis of Lex, by the way, led to this same interpretation.

So how does this changing conversation about Superman relate to Wallace? Well, Wallace had clearly been harboring anger toward Superman for a long time, but it was all very private in an apartment where he lived by himself and probably would not just casually show someone his wall of bitterness. It was private, that is, until Scene 11. Now Wallace, bolstered by the African incident and the governmental inquiry into Superman, is taking his anger and his point of view public. This, in turn, leads to press coverage of the vandalism and a segment of the population may now become bolder in their own distrust or animosity toward Superman. Bruce also becomes more determined to take down Superman after learning more about Wallace, and Clark himself maybe even has some self-doubts or at least has some guilt that Wallace feels such pain because of something indirectly caused by Superman.

So we’ve already touched on Scene 12, which is inside the Daily Planet offices as the reports of Wallace’s vandalism come on the TV. Perry White comes up with a headline: “End of love affair with man in the sky” question mark. This reiterates that the public has generally been very positive toward Superman up till now, but the conversation since the African incident is shifting toward negativity or at least uncertainty about him. The fact that the Daily Planet might run this headline will push the conversation even further in that direction.

This is actually the first scene in the Daily Planet. Even before the vandalism story comes up, we hear quickly that Lois has a call from the crime lab, which later we find out is because she was having Lex’s bullet tested. And we see Perry assign Clark to cover a football game. There also happens to be a football game on TV in the background, and this is probably the Gotham versus Metropolis football game that was filmed out in California as possibly the very first scene filmed for Batman v Superman. A couple years ago, footage from that scene were leaked on YouTube, with two real college football teams who switched into Gotham and Metropolis jerseys and then ran a few plays -- a quarterback sack and then a pass for a touchdown, if I remember correctly.

In Scene 12, the fact that Clark is assigned to cover sports, which doesn’t even seem to be his normal beat, shows that he’s quite a bit further down the ladder than, say, Lois, who has a strong professional relationship and level of respect from Perry, which was established in Man of Steel but which also plays a role later in BvS. The fact, however, that Clark is not feeling fulfillment in his assignments at the Daily Planet will later feed into his overarching character development.

Perry also mentions about the football game that the story can be about the underdog having their dreams dashed. This reference to underdogs reminded me that most people tend to root for an underdog, and when some team is in a dominant position of power, there’s a sort of natural urge to want them to get taken down off their high horse. This idea is relevant to Batman v Superman because Superman is obviously the highest of high horses, and so given humanity’s tendencies, it was probably inevitable that people like Lex and Bruce would come after him and be able to stir up at least a portion of the public to their cause, as well. A lot of fans in the real world also were probably rooting for Batman as an underdog in the fight with Superman.

Two more quick notes about Scene 12 -- with the football game, I think it’s kind of funny that Clark never does end up covering it. And with Wallace in the TV coverage, he was calling out that he works for Bruce Wayne. I think this suggests that Wallace views Bruce more as a good guy because maybe he was thinking that Bruce could help him out of his legal trouble, or the fact that Wallace had a connection to Bruce should somehow be important as he’s being apprehended. It’s a bit interesting to me that he calls out about Bruce, though, instead of maybe trying to spread his message to the cameras by saying something derogatory about Superman. Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts about this detail.

Right at the end of the scene, we have Clark’s quiet reaction to Wallace’s situation. We already saw him quietly react to news coverage of the bat branding, and in the future we’ll see him reacting to the coverage of all the Superman debate. He’s processing a lot of things that mean a lot to him and weigh on him, and the filmmakers invite us to empathize with what he’s going through and to recognize that he’s in a tough position that doesn’t really have a clear path forward in terms of what is “absolutely” good. Based on some of the articles I’ve seen online recently, I guess a lot of the audience wanted all of Superman’s character development to be through plentiful dialogue, but just because the filmmakers took this silent, reflective approach, doesn’t mean that they short shrifted Superman’s character arc. I personally think the quiet contemplation works very well and serves to emphasize that his struggles are basically his alone, though he does have his mother and Lois as his direct connections and lines of support.

Okay, I want to do two more quick things in this episode. First, I just want to put out there another theme that I’m seeing in the movie. And second, I want to touch on issues of pacing in this chunk of the movie.

With respect to themes, I mentioned back in Episode 1 that one theme, for me, is Good and evil cannot be statically identified with above or below, with heaven and hell; rather, they are choices that individuals make in dynamic situations. Another theme I mentioned in Episode 4 is All good deeds have a cost, but they are still worth doing. Now, a third one that I’m developing is Power can be a corrupting force, but so can feelings of powerlessness, turning people toward cruelty. The idea of power corrupting people is very well known, but I think this movie explores what can happen to people when they feel powerlessness, or at least relative powerlessness. I think this theme is developed through Lex, Bruce, and Clark primarily, but also in a more minor way through Wallace. I’ll just mention Wallace here, though, to say that he must have felt powerless in terms of losing his family and not being able to move his legs, and just everything crashing down around him and he couldn’t do anything about it. So how does he respond to this? Well, he responds in a very unhealthy way and villainizes Superman rather than coming to accept his situation and move on from there. He blames others for his situation, which, whether that blame is deserved or not is beside the point, it is not productive to wallow in blame.

Now, about pacing and editing around this part of the movie, some people have criticized the pacing. They usually aren’t very specific, but I have to assume that they’re complaining that the movie moves really fast from basically Scene 3 with the Kryptonite sample through to Scene 21 at Lex’s fundraiser. I assume this because most of the scenes in this span are very short, like 1 or 2 minutes, and they basically hit you with dense amounts of information but move on to the next thing before they’ve really given you a chance to process it. The only scene that has a little bit of breathing room is Scene 16 when Senator Finch comes to Lex’s dad’s study, but most of them go by pretty quickly.

If this is the critique, then I think the explanation is first that it’s a bit unavoidable because the filmmakers are basically doing their best to provide everything that’s needed without wasting time because the runtime is already at 2 and a half hours. The solution here is to watch the movie again, I think. And lots of people have reported the benefits of a second viewing. I’ve seen many people who liked the movie at first say that they loved it after a second viewing. And I’ve also seen many people who were on the fence after their first viewing but came to like the movie after a second viewing.

The second explanation for moving through these scenes so rapidly in the first big chunk of the movie is that the filmmakers were trying to keep the audience a little bit off balance because that would give us this sense that we didn’t quite know what Lex was up to behind the scenes, and it might cause the audience to raise several questions which pulls us forward into the movie as we seek the answers. So in this case, it just means paying close attention and being okay with a little bit of uncertainty and trusting that, okay, the bullet and the White Portuguese and Wallace Keefe will all fall into place eventually.

Now, maybe I’m all wrong and people were actually complaining that the pacing was too slow in this first quarter or third of the movie. That seems a bit odd to me, but it’s possible. If someone is saying that it’s too slow, then I think what they must mean is that there aren’t enough big action sequences between Scene 2 with the Battle of Metropolis and the Knightmare Batman scene, which is like 45 minutes later. This speaks to the expectations that someone brings to the movie. I would say that Batman v Superman is a philosophical character drama that happens to involve superheroes and also happens to have a few really awesome action scenes in it. But I would not call it an action movie, or a typical superhero movie. And of course I’ve already mentioned Pulpklatura who argues pretty convincingly that it’s a revenge tragedy, not a three-act hollywood blockbuster, at least with regard to Batman’s storyline. The point is that, because it’s not a typical action movie or superhero movie, one shouldn’t expect popcorn action sequences ever 15-20 minutes. You might say that part of the blame for misaligned expectations falls on the Warner Brothers marketing team, and that’s a fair point, but now that the movie’s out, I would hope it could be judged on what it is, rather than what people thought it was going to be.

Now, some of the criticisms I’ve seen didn’t frame it around pacing but instead framed it around editing. For example, people have complained that the movie jumps around, especially in the first third. So with regard to Scenes 11 and 12 here, people might ask why these two short scenes were placed right in the middle of Lex’s scene with the Senators. Why not let Lex and the Senators play out fully before shifting to Wallace?

I think the placement of Wallace’s vandalism scene is actually pretty brilliant, but the tricky thing is that it might be hard to see that it’s brilliant until you’re looking back at the whole story. But my rationale is that, back in Scene 10, Lex just made the case for needing a deterrent against Superman. He said that we don’t want to have to depend on the “kindness of monsters.” Now, immediately after he makes that argument, we see someone who views Superman as a monster. We also see that public sentiment is shifting against Superman, as represented by both Wallace’s public act but also Perry’s proposed headline, and so for the Senators, they may end up being open to Lex’s proposal about a Kryptonite deterrent because politicians are always keeping tabs on public sentiment. Right after the Wallace scenes, we see that Senator Barrows does seem open to working with Lex, so then the question becomes Senator Finch. And asking that question -- how will Senator Finch respond to Lex’s proposal given the current public climate and the different perspectives on Superman? -- leads us, the audience, into the next main segments of the film.

So some people as they’re first watching Scenes 11 and 12 might see Wallace as totally separate from Lex, and so it seems perplexing that those scenes would be inserted into the middle of Lex’s scene with the Senators. But these are scenes that are at first only linked by adjacency, but later we see that they are actually directly linked by the story itself. Another example of scenes like this are Bruce and the little girl in Metropolis adjacent to the scene where they discover Kryptonite in the Indian Ocean. Those seem totally separate in the moment, but in retrospect we see that as Bruce was embracing the little girl, he was setting himself on an all-consuming path to seek out precisely that piece of Kryptonite.

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