Thursday, May 5, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scene 13

Below is an episode from the Justice League Universe Podcast that focuses on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Scene 13 -- the conclusion of Lex Luthor's meeting with the Senators (Lex's "wish list").

This episode includes the following topics:
  • Returning to the scout ship from Man of Steel
  • Lex's glory -- manipulating people to get what we wants
  • Zod's fingerprints and Lex's cherry Jolly Rancher
  • Possible interpretations of Lex's character
  • Lex's musical theme, his hair, and his clothes
External Links:

I’m making my way through Batman v Superman and in this episode I’m going to finish up the scene with Lex Luthor and the Senators. This is Scene 13. We just saw in Scenes 11 and 12 that Wallace Keefe is a big indication that Lex’s manipulations are already working, and now here in Scene 13 we go back to Lex’s meeting and we see that Lex has Senator Barrows ready to make some deals. In other words, Lex is making steady progress toward his goals, though his goals are not yet explicit at this point in the movie.

We don’t know as much about Senator Barrows as we do about Finch, but we do know Finch is the chair of the Committee on Superman and Barrows is also on the committee, so he has somewhat less authority than Finch but is still a Senator in his own right, so he has some authority and he can pull some strings including in relation to the Kryptonian technology and scout ship.

It’s important to remember here that the scout ship from Man of Steel is the one that was buried for thousands of years and the one that had the genesis chamber, partially damaged by Superman near the end of Man of Steel. And by the way, the genesis chamber had pods for growing Kryptonian embryos, it did not actually contain embryos themselves. There were not embryos buried there for more than 10,000 years. So anyone who tries to make Superman out to be a fetus killer in Man of Steel is just being unreasonably negative.

But the scout ship is flown by Zod into Metropolis during the Battle of Metropolis in Man of Steel after he had taken it over with his command key. (We’ll see that same command key later when Lex descends into the belly of the ship.) The scout ship crashed into Metropolis skyscrapers after Superman gave his “Krypton had its chance” line, and it’s why Zod was spared from being pulled back into the phantom zone aboard the Black Zero.

Speaking of the scout ship crash from Man of Steel, this is actually a slight continuity error that I think I saw back in Scene 2 of BvS. The scout ship cutting through the skyscrapers seems to match very well with Man of Steel… we’re just seeing it from a slightly different camera angle. I think the error is the sequence of events. My memory from BvS is that it shows the scout ship cutting through the skyscrapers before things go quiet and everyone looks up to see that the Black Zero gravity weapon has stopped. Then right after that the military bomber flies into the Black Zero and triggers the singularity. That’s in BvS, but in Man of Steel the gravity weapon actually stops first, when Superman took out the world engine in the Indian Ocean, and then it is several minutes later that the scout ship crashes, after Superman makes his way back around to Metropolis.

So this seems to me to be a continuity error, not within BvS itself but between BvS and Man of Steel. The only way I can think that it’s not an error is that the gravity weapon stopped off screen in BvS and they just didn’t show the reaction to it being stopped. Then, maybe the reason they show people looking up at the Black Zero later is because they were watching the bomber fly into it. But my impression is that they looked up because the gravity weapon stopped, and they didn’t actually know that the bomber was going to come in. I’m curious if other people interpreted this moment the same way I did. Other than this, the synchronization between BvS and Man of Steel seemed amazing.

Back to scene 13, Senator Barrows indicates to Lex that he thinks they can make a deal. Following the blowback from the African tragedy, maybe Senator Barrows sees an opening to stake out a political position in opposition to or at least in suspicion of Superman’s unchecked powers. Maybe his constituency has expressed some distrust of Superman, or maybe he wants to get on Lex’s good side because Lex is fairly powerful as the leader of a major corporation. It could also be as simple as Barrows being intrigued by Lex’s idea of holding a trump card over Superman and Barrows wants to get in on the ground floor of the power play.

Lex invites Barrows to step into his “office,” but they don’t actually go to an office, just to the sideline of the basketball court. Lex’s ironic use of this common business phrase aligns with Lex’s characterization as a Millennial, nontraditional CEO. The scene is fully set in motion when Senator Barrows asks: “What’s your wish list?” This allows us to see some of Lex’s primary desires, his wishes at this point in his plotting. (A few scenes later in the movie, there’s a similar moment between Perry and Lois when Perry says, “The ask, Lois.” For Lois, it’s a question from a trusted colleague and it’s phrased around her request. Here with Barrows and Lex, it’s phrased as wish fulfillment.)

So now that Barrows has opened the door, Lex begins to savor the moment… his first big moment of getting what he wants. Lex grabs a bowl of Jolly Ranchers, a display of cockiness, and then says that his first wish is access to the crashed scout ship. I love Jesse Eisenberg’s performance here as he looks straight at the Senator to read how much he’s got this guy wrapped around his finger.

Senator Barrows agrees to give access to the scout ship and we get an out-of-time cut right to Lex’s entrance in the scout ship. He pulls up alone, with the necessary papers, gets decontaminated, and then struts in slow motion down the final bridgeway over the Lex Luthor main theme in the score.  I’ll talk more about the Lex Luthor musical theme at the end of the episode -- but I loved the stylized entrance and the big use of music because this marks what a big moment it is for Lex. People just watching the movie on the surface might think, why is this a big deal, nothing even really happened. But knowing Lex Luthor, his gaining access to the scout ship should cause us concern because it’s all going according to his plans, and his plans are probably not good. The music and the stylized filming marks this as one of Lex’s moments of glory. His biggest moment of glory, as explained by Man of Steel Answers, is definitely the Capitol tragedy, but this entrance to the scout ship is a first moment of glory because he has manipulated people and pulled strings to get precisely what he wanted, and he got it through legitimate means of influence. Lex’s moments are not physical accomplishments or even direct actions but instead his crowning achievements are his manipulations toward his own ends. Looking ahead, we will see that Lex doesn’t even use the kryptonite against Superman -- his achievement is to get Batman to use the kryptonite for him. This scene is the payoff of Lex having his minions buying things over on the other side of the world (see Scene 3) and his leverage with the politicians here in the United States.

Next, Lex asks for General Zod’s body for testing. Senator Barrows is a bit surprised, perhaps because Barrows doesn’t see the potential inherent in a Kryptonian corpse, but Lex of course sees lots of potential. Even if he doesn’t know exactly what he might do with it, I’m sure he has lots of ideas, and part of his mad brilliance is knowing that the corpse is going to be important in the future.

Lex gives his funny and presumptive, “Okay,” line. And this time Senator Barrows doesn’t explicitly give his answer on screen, but the cut away to Mercy Graves and some soldiers bringing the corpse to an eagerly awaiting Lex lets us know the answer. Lex waving them forward and then raising his palms to stop reinforces the idea that Lex doesn’t have physical power like Batman or Superman but he has his power because he gets people to do what he says.

Another recurring idea about Lex is that he gets his power through knowledge, and so he wants to learn what he can from the scout ship and from Zod’s body. Lex’s power is through knowledge, but he also thinks of himself as powerless and as the underdog compared to Superman (and compared to his father). That’s why, as we’ll see later, he shuts down at the idea that knowledge is power.

But for the scene overall, this inclusion of the scout ship, with that great helicopter shot over the top of the scout ship tent structure, and of Zod’s body, with Michael Shannon’s face in the body bag, are more great instances of Man of Steel connecting directly into this movie. The universe is being tightly constructed, rather than just separate movies that happen to exist together.

This scene shows Lex or one of his scientists using the Kryptonite shard to remove a layer of skin from Zod’s fingertips. These become important to the plot later, but right here in Scene 13 it does a couple things. First, it gives off a general air of creepiness around Lex because the audience of course naturally reacts to seeing skin being peeled. This adds to the kind of creepy, slightly-askew performance that Jesse Eisenberg has already given. Second, the fingertip skins allows Zack Snyder to show off his subtle brilliance. He cuts right from the peeled fingertip to Lex pulling a plastic wrapper off a Jolly Rancher. The audience subconsciously associates Zod’s skin with the wrapper, which is a disgusting juxtaposition. Then Lex fingers the candy as he brings it right up Senator Barrows’ face. This is the first of at least three times that Lex violates people’s personal space -- you’re not supposed to put your hands right up to people’s faces like that -- and  he does it later with Clark and with Lois.

The scene ends with this humorous but creepy flourish, as Lex tries to feed a piece of candy to a clearly uncomfortable Senator Barrows. Lex says, “It’s cherry,” which got a solid chuckle every time I watched the movie. Lex then licks his fingers, connecting back to the fingertip shot with Zod but also just adding to the general unease that we have about Lex.

The candy-in-the-mouth interaction, I think, is also meant to represent that Lex has basically dominated over Senator Barrows here. What started as a supposed quid pro quo between the two, ended with Lex clearly getting the better of Senator Barrows. The candy and the finger licking, being sort of reminiscent of children, might also reinforce the idea that this is sort of a game to Lex. But that might depend on your interpretation of Lex.

Of course, we don’t have a clear picture of the character yet, just from these first scenes, but I do want to put out there four possible interpretations of the Lex Luthor character in Batman v Superman. I think there is some evidence for each of these interpretations, and some seem to have more evidence than others, but I don’t think there’s a right answer, and it is also valid to say that his character is maybe a blend of more than one of these.

And before I mention the four interpretations, it’s important to recognize that none of them are precisely the traditional comic book or animated version of Lex Luthor. Of course, there is not one single version of Lex Luthor in the past, as he’s been a mad scientist, an evil businessman, a campy businessman, a politician, and other things, even a member of the Justice League. But most of the interpretations involve Lex as a domineering, alpha male. He’s typically an alpha male human who tries to take out Superman in an alpha-alpha showdown. Here in BvS, he is very smart and wealthy, but he is slight of build and seems to have some deep insecurities that manifest in damaging and evil ways. This beta version of Lex matches more with the overarching theme that I mentioned last episode about powerlessness being even more corrupting than power, turning people cruel.

So here are four possible interpretations of Lex:
  • First, Lex is a spoiled rich kid who also had an abusive childhood. A lot of books and movies have done the abused child thing, and many have also done the spoiled rich kid thing, but I think BvS is unique in combining the two together. It makes me think of an interesting documentary I saw this year called Tickled, which is about a man in New York City who inherited hundreds of millions of dollars and who was a very disturbed individual, but one who could basically get away with whatever he wanted. The documentary shows how he used that freedom and wealth to ruin other people’s lives for sport. I think this version of Lex is sort of a kindred spirit with that spoiled, deranged multimillionaire from Tickled.
  • Second, Lex hates god and wants to kill all forms of god that rise above everyone else (especially himself). This is the interpretation in the great Hub City Review by Matthew Theriault. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
  • Third, Lex is hell bent on proving that “power can be innocent” is a lie. This perspective is laid out in detail at Man of Steel Answers <dot> com.
  • Fourth, and this is related to the previous one, Lex is someone who cannot stand that a powerful public figure is adored, as his father was.

So that’s four possible interpretations of Lex. There are certainly others, and moving forward now from Lex’s first scene, we can keep these interpretations in mind and see which one stands up to the evidence and which one resonates with your own perspective.

One thing that is definitely true, regardless of your overall interpretation of what drives Lex, is that he manipulates people toward his own ends. He pulls strings to get what he wants. That brings me back to Lex’s awesome musical theme that was introduced in this scene. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL explained in a YouTube video that their inspiration for Lex’s theme was from classical music, but they wanted to tweak the classical music in a way that was a bit unsettling. To me, it gives off a Baroque style because of the use of harpsichord and strings, and it does come across as a bit unsettling. Especially the violin arpeggios that are just a bit out of tune and grating, indicating Lex’s underlying mental illness.

I also thought it was brilliant that they used a harpsichord, which is like a piano except the strings aren’t struck by a hammer but plucked by a little hook attached to each key. The harpsichord is plucking strings and there is also some use of pizzicato in the string section, which to me aligns with the fact that Lex is always pulling the strings and manipulating those around him.

To close this episode, I just want to comment on Lex’s hair and costume. With Lex Luthor, of course the bald look is iconic and definitely the most famous look in popular culture, but the longer red locks are not a creation of Zack Snyder’s. Lex’s red hair has a long history in the comics, going back to his very first appearance in Action Comics 23 and also the John Bryne reboot in the 1980s and elsewhere. Bald is dominant, but long red hair is not unprecedented. And this way, Lex losing his hair at the end of the movie can be part of the story and can mark a shift for the character.

As a side note, Lois Lane has also been a redhead quite often in the classic TV series and in the comics, even though many people are used to her as a dark brunette.

With regard to Lex’s clothes, I’m sure there’s a lot to say here, but unfortunately I am not very astute when it comes to costume design. He definitely makes some weird choices. For example, he sports some polka-dot patterns, a dress jacket over a weird sort of golf shirt, and even some interesting casual shoes. So if you’re able to read a lot into the costume choices like these, or if you have an eye for the creative implications of wardrobe in movies, please share your thoughts in the comments.

And that’s it for now. Thanks so much for listening. After this scene with Lex, the next two scenes feature Bruce at the underground fight and then Clark at the Daily Planet pitch meeting. So we’ve got the three main characters one after the other. And then actually, the next three scenes after that feature Lex, then Bruce, then Clark and Lois again. All of that leads up to Lex’s fundraiser, where the three main characters are all brought together in the same room. It’s some nice weaving on a structural level where the different threads that have seemingly been separate are all coming inevitably together.

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