Sunday, May 22, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 17 and 18

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses Batman v Superman:Dawn of Justice, specifically, on Bruce's dream of visiting the Wayne mausoleum and Lois's visit to Secretary Swanwick in the restroom.

ALERT: At one point in discussing Scene 17, I said Jonathan and Martha Wayne instead of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Please forgive the error.

  • Why did the filmmakers include several dream or vision sequences?
  • What is the significance of Bruce's visit to the mausoleum?
  • What are the main takeaways from Lois's first visit with Secretary Swanwick?
  • BONUS: How would BvS have been different if it followed the typical three-act blockbuster movie structure?
Thanks to Alessandro Maniscalco for his help with this analysis.
Man of Steel Answers, Suicide Squadcast, Pulpklatura

Welcome fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. This podcast goes scene-by-scene through 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.

A special thanks to Alessandro Maniscalco for his help analyzing these scenes with me. This episode covers Scene 17, which is Bruce’s dream visit to the Wayne Mausoleum, and Scene 18, which is Lois’s first meeting with Secretary Swanwick.

So we just cut away from Scene 16 where Lex and Senator Finch were looking at the painting of angels and demons. Lex had said that devils don’t come from hell beneath us but from the sky. So this implicitly plants the idea that maybe angels are found in hell beneath us. Now, we cut to Bruce Wayne walking to his family’s mausoleum. This is his walk into the land of the dead, so even though the graves are not literally buried below ground, we have the metaphorical idea that if angels are below and devils above, then maybe Bruce Wayne is the angel because he’s the one who has fallen to the ground or below ground, and Superman is the devil in the sky. Maybe Lex Luthor is actually right. This connects back to what we’ve seen before with Bruce in the batcave, underground, and Bruce at the underground MMA fight. Thematically, we are led to contemplate whether Batman, with his demonic silhouette and imagery, may actually be the angel. And Superman, the god in the sky, may actually be the danger or threat.

It could also be that Martha Wayne is the angel, who now rests in her tomb. Maybe it is hard for anyone to stay pure in modern society, or as Superman later says, maybe “No one stays good in this world.” If the world is a corrupting influence, then angels would indeed be below the ground because the only way someone could be a pure ideal or not commit acts that are interpreted in divisive ways is to actually be dead and not be acting at all in the world anymore. This idea is similar to how people, right after they die, often get a free pass or get the benefit of the doubt in public opinion. Very often, they are viewed posthumously in a much more favorable light than they did when they were alive.

Of course, the idea that someone can really only be an angel after they have died is much more applicable if that person sacrificed himself in death, and this idea will play out in a big way for Superman at the end of the movie.

Okay, so we got all that just from the transition from Scene 16 to Scene 17. And it’s things like this that still baffle me when I hear all the complaints about the sequencing of scenes in the first hour or so of the movie. When you’re looking thematically, like in this case, or if you look at the character psychology, like in the cut from Bruce’s powerlessness in Scene 2 to the Kryptonite he is obsessed with in Scene 3, then the scenes make a lot of sense. I guess if you’re just looking at the movie for plot where A causes B causes C causes D, then it might seem odd. That could either be a case of misaligned expectations about what kind of movie BvS is, or it could just be that a lot of the public does not have the skills to watch for thematic flow rather than a flow of events.

More about the sequencing and structure of the movie at the very end of this episode.

But right now, before we get further into Scene 17, we want to make a few comments about why there are so many dream or vision sequences in BvS. Some people have complained that there are too many and they also view dream sequences as a waste of time because they are not really happening, so who cares.

First of all, there really aren’t a ton of dream sequences. By my count, there are 2 dreams and 2 scenes that would better be described as visions. The first dream is Young Bruce being taken up to the light. This was the dream and the beautiful lie that his work as Batman would be his salvation and pull him out of his fall that followed his parents’ death. The second dream is right here in Scene 17 with Old Bruce visiting the mausoleum. Then, there’s of course the big vision with a tyrannical Superman and the omega symbol, and even though Bruce seems to wake up at the end of that vision, I took it not as a dream but as a glimpse of a possible future because the Flash’s time travel had opened up a rift in the space-time continuum, allowing Bruce to see into the perspective of his future self.

And then finally there was Clark having his vision of Jonathan Kent, which I took to be a memory or a hypothetically constructed conversation with his father’s memory rather than a dream.

So why have these dreams and visions? Well, I think the main reason is to give the audience insight on the internal thoughts and struggles of the main characters, Bruce and Clark. In a novel, a large portion of the content can be the internal thoughts and emotions of the characters. Sometimes you’ll have pages and pages that take place between two lines of dialogue because the medium allows freedom for the author to explore the inner workings of the characters. And in comic books, many writers provide internal monologues throughout the issue which also provides a window into a character’s thoughts and emotions. In film, we can of course watch the body language and read between the lines of the actors’ performances, but that can only take you so far. In BvS, Zack Snyder uses dreams to give more insight into what exactly is weighing on the characters and what they are going through, and because a lot of this movie is about the characters’ emotional journey rather than the plot per se, it’s very important for us as the audience to interpret the dreams and visions rather than just write them off.

A second reason for the dreams and visions is because they are common component of the revenge tragedy genre. We know Chris Terrio studied revenge tragedies while writing BvS, and Pulpklatura, who I’ve cited several times before, gave a detailed analysis of how BvS fits into the revenge tragedy mold. And part of a revenge tragedy is to have ghosts come and speak to the person seeking revenge, pressing him forward but also indicating to the audience that there is a touch of madness there. In BvS, rather than ghosts, they used dreams and visions to serve that same function. And if you want to get really detailed, Pulpklatura actually noticed that there was one ghost -- Wallace Keefe. One of the returned checks even said, “I am your ghost.”

A third reason for the dreams and visions is to contribute to the pacing of the movie. This dream in Scene 17 includes a jump scare that adds some kinetic energy in a portion of the movie that is otherwise largely dramatic dialogue and thematic exploration from scene 8 to scene 22. The Knightmare Batman sequence in scene 28 adds a big action set piece within the first hour of the movie, which is really only the second action sequence, with the first being the Battle of Metropolis in scene 2. Later, Clark’s memory vision with Jonathan Kent functions to slow the pace and give Clark’s character some time for contemplation before the fight with Batman.

So those are three reasons to have the dreams or visions in general. Within each individual scene, we’ll also give the specific meanings and interpretations that add to their relevance in the movie.

Which brings us back to scene 17 and Bruce’s dream visit to the Wayne mausoleum. This scene starts with Bruce walking in slow motion toward the mausoleum, carrying flowers. The use of slow motion and the return to this same location connects us directly back to the Wayne funeral in scene 1. So Bruce is still grappling with the weight of that funeral, even 40+ years later. And it reminds us that this was not just the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne but it was also Bruce’s fall from grace, which was communicated so beautifully in scene 1 with the falling sparks, the falling snow, the falling leaves, the falling pearls, and then Young Bruce physically falling into the batcave.

Bruce brings the flowers into the mausoleum and places them in a vase that seemed to be strategically placed relative to the camera so that the flowers obscured Thomas Wayne’s name, leaving us to focus on Martha Wayne. This is an example of keeping Chekov’s gun loaded because “Martha” is of course going to pay off in a big way later on.

In the mausoleum, there is at least one painting up. And like we mentioned last episode, Zack Snyder studied art history before going to film school, so I’m pretty confident that paintings like this were chosen pretty strategically. In this scene, I think it is an image of St. Michael vanquishing Satan, so we have a direct battle between an angel and a devil, which is foreshadowing the coming battle between Batman and Superman. But to me, it is also highlighting that the absolute notions of good and evil are pretty old, and society has come a long way since that painting was created, so that returns to the big thematic question of whether good and evil are so simple and separate in today’s world. It is also interesting that the angel in the painting is wearing red and blue garments, which connects to Superman’s color scheme.

The dream continues with Bruce looking at his mother’s tomb and then touching the oozing substance, which I’m guessing is blood but it’s very dark because of the color and lighting in the mausoleum. But it’s probably blood, because then this would represent the blood on Bruce’s hands. Of course, Bruce is not responsible for his mother’s death, but that hasn’t stopped him from feeling guilty about it and from feeling powerless that he couldn’t do anything to stop it. Then, of course, the Battle of Metropolis and the arrival of Superman brought back those exact same feelings to Bruce and set Bruce on his dark path.

Next we get the jump scare with what most people are calling the man-bat. In fact, I think this man-bat actually has an action figure or bust coming out as part of one of the toy lines for BvS. The man-bat introduces bat imagery into this nightmare and this connects with Young Bruce’s earlier dream that also ended with bats. And like we said earlier, the jump scare is there for energy and pacing, but it also brings home the fact that Bruce is not just depressed or melancholy about his mother’s death, he is violently haunted by it.

I’ve said in several past episodes that I really think Bruce’s primary issue is with himself and his failure to deal with the loss of his parents, his feelings of powerless. It is not about him thinking that Superman is a true threat to the world. Those comments about Superman as a threat are just his rationalizations after the fact that he uses to try to convince himself of what he’s doing, but what’s really driving him is his damaged psychology. There are several pieces of evidence in the movie that point to my interpretation, the first being the way that Scene 2 was shot with several visuals and themes in the Battle of Metropolis calling back directly to Scene 1 and the death of the Waynes. There is also some evidence in future scenes, but right here in Scene 17 I think is evidence as well. Note that Bruce is haunted by his parents’ death… that’s what is on his mind even when he is trying to distract himself with drinking and a one-night stand. He is not having nightmares about Superman “burning the whole place down.” Later, of course, he will have a vision of a tyrannical Superman, but that is a vision from the Flash, not from Bruce, and it serves to confirm his rationalization rather than actually prompt his actions in the first place.

Scene 17 finishes with Bruce waking up. There is a woman in bed with him, but there is no clear shot of her, and she doesn’t get a name or even a mention by anyone in the movie. This is a very economical way to show that Bruce is a womanizer, and from his bedroom and lakehouse we can clearly get the sense that he is well off. Of course the wealth and the womanizing are common parts of the Bruce Wayne mythology. Very often, he does the drinking and womanizing are part of a public face to divert suspicion of him being Batman. In this BvS interpretation, he is doing the womanizing and drinking because he is in a very dark place and is having a sort of mid-life crisis about his career as Batman and whether any of his efforts have been worth it.

We also see that Bruce lives in this modern lake house rather than Wayne Manor, and we’ll talk more about that with Scenes 19 and 20.

Bruce gets out of bed, so we infer that going to the bathroom and washing up is the next natural thing to happen. Then we cut to Scene 18 where it is Secretary Swanwick, not Bruce, who is washing up at the sink. So another clever transition. As a reminder about Man of Steel, Swanwick was a general then but he is now Secretary of Defense. And in Man of Steel, he gradually developed an admiration for Superman because he was aware of the full range of events that happened with the Kryptonian invasion and he knew that at every step along the way, from Superman giving himself up to Zod to going to take out the World Engine to coming back and stopping Zod in Metropolis, Superman was working in cooperation with the military and was doing all he could to save the Earth.

At the very end of Man of Steel, Swanwick was there with the crashed drone that had been trying to track Superman, but there wasn’t malice behind the drone, just a sort of trust-but-verify mentality. Of course, Superman asked Swanwick to fully commit to the trust part. And I think the big thing to remember coming into Batman v Superman is that Swanwick has a personal relationship with Superman based on shared trials, and because of this personal connection, Swanwick is less likely than others to get swept up in the public sentiment and media frenzy.

In Scene 18, we get the nice reveal of Lois Lane in the men’s bathroom, showing her tenacity and also her own personal history with Swanwick. Lois accuses Swanwick of treating her like a stranger, and Swanwick retorts that he is treating her “like a reporter.” This phrasing is a call back to Scene 4 with the African general. Back in that scene, Lois wanted to be treated like a journalist, not a lady, so she can’t really argue with Secretary Swanwick here for treating her like a reporter. It also shows that Swanwick knows Lois fairly well, and has respect for her. He isn’t actually upset with Lois for cornering him like that, but he’s not going to back down either.

This scene is the next step in Lois’s bullet investigation, following up on her permission from Perry to come to Washington DC. I think this is why we didn’t get an establishing shot for Scene 18 -- because the filmmakers wanted to do the clever cut from Bruce’s morning routine to the bathroom here, and an outside establishing shot would have interrupted that flow, and also because we already had the establishment of the location with Lois’s previous dialogue. It’s up to us as the audience to keep abreast of the investigation, pulling us in as sort of co-investigators with Lois.

With regard to the bullet itself, some people have been confused about why Lex would use unique, extravagant bullets in Africa at all. This point is covered in detail in a Man of Steel Answers podcast episode, but since we’re running long here, we’ll talk about it more in Scene 33 when Lois gives the bullet to Swanwick. It’s enough for us to say here that the audience is supposed to continue to wonder what the deal is with those bullets and what they’re special capabilities are. And comic book readers of the 1990s might recognize special arms and anti-superhero weapons as a common plot device during that era.

Swanwick refers to Major Ferris, who was also in Man of Steel and who we’ll see later. He also makes a couple of jokes here about Lois having balls and her source being a tinfoil hat. It’s pretty funny, but really he’s trying to dodge her questions, yet she’s persistent. They move out and through the hall, which gives some nice motion to the scene, and allows for Lois to pull Swanwick back toward her when she says they haven’t been told the truth, and it allows Swanwick to walk away from her when he has made his point about Lois just trying to put back Superman’s halo, and her own.

With regard to her investigation, recall that Lois knows something was off about the African incident, but she doesn’t know it was Lex yet. She asks if it might have been the government giving experimental rounds to fighters in Africa. This would be a big story to her personally because part of the experimental design of the bullets might be that they can puncture Superman’s skin. And she wants to clear Superman’s name but she also wants to know the extent of the danger toward her partner, whether it be a governmental threat to Superman or something else.

She says that she’s after the truth, which of course connects to Superman’s big three -- Truth, Justice, and the American Way -- and it also ties in with one of the big themes of the movie about absolute truth only existing if you are willing to reject other people’s perspectives. Swanwick says that the truth is Lois is trying to clear Superman’s name and her own. And that is true, to a certain degree. But it’s not the absolute truth. There is still the question of what happened and why in the African tragedy, and those facts exist independent of Lois’s motivations for pursuing the story.

People who misunderstood the African incident and thought that it was about framing Superman as a murderer should also listen closely to Secretary Swanwick here. Because he doesn’t say that the truth is Superman killed those people, and he doesn’t even mention Superman possibly killing them as part of the problem. He frames the problem as Superman operating at all in another sovereign nation, because Superman is viewed as an American and so his actions carry more weight than just the actions of an individual. Superman being there at all caused lots of political grief and strain for the Defense Department and certainly other offices in the government as well. Plus his presence seemed to have contributed to backlash violence from the African government.

Swanwick also implicates Lois in the African tragedy because he says she was following a story to some place that she shouldn’t have been (and being a place she’s not supposed to be is like the men’s room, but Africa was on a larger scale, of course). Thus, he’s basically right that she’s trying to clear the incident because of her own guilt and not just because she wants to protect Superman. And it’s interesting to note that some audience members have criticized Lois for being a damsel in distress in the African incident, but here we see that the filmmakers are actually addressing this criticism in the movie itself. Swanwick is criticizing her for that, too, and she is also blaming herself. But we should point out that she wasn’t just fooling around down there, she was pursuing a serious news story in a dangerous part of the world.

Swanwick finishes with references to halos, which of course connects to the motif of angels and demons. And Swanwick saying that Superman had a halo implies that, before the African tragedy, Superman was largely viewed as angelic or in a favorable light by the public. But that has been tarnished, and as we see in other scenes, the media firestorm is fueling itself and, with Lex’s prodding, the negativity toward Superman will get more and more out of hand.

Swanwick also says Lois is cooking up a conspiracy. The ironic thing here, though, is that even though 99% of governmental conspiracies are false, there actually is a conspiracy in this case and Lex Luthor is behind it. Thankfully, Lois keeps on the story and eventually gathers the evidence that will help put Lex in Belle Revve prison by the end.

And one final remark -- if people are interested in picking up a Superman graphic novel that connects a bit to Batman v Superman, well, obviously there’s the Death of Superman, but another option is Earth One: Volume 2. That graphic novel also involves Superman flying in to deal with a warlord-type character, but he handles the situation a bit differently than in BvS, so people might enjoy comparing and contrasting those two versions.

So that’s what we have for Scenes 17 and 18. Next up we go back to Bruce as he gets an invitation to Lex Luthor’s party.

To close out this episode, we want to make a few broad remarks about the structure of Batman v Superman as a movie, which admittedly is quite a bit different than typical blockbusters and definitely different than other superhero movies that have come before.

A very common complaint about Batman v Superman is that the editing was bad or choppy. When I’ve looked more closely into what people mean by this, I almost always find out that they don’t really mean the editing -- which is the process of making dozens and dozens of cuts to put a scene together. Instead, when they say “editing” they actually mean the sequencing of scenes. And I think they’re thrown off because in Batman v Superman it’s not A leads to B leads to C, as it is in many blockbuster movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens or single-character stories.

As more astute viewers have pointed out, Batman v Superman draws on a comic-book style sequencing where there is a lot of jumping around every few pages in the first issues of a story arc, but you have the confidence to know that they will all tie into the story by the end of the arc. Here in BvS, it jumps around, but there is a clear rhythm, cycling through Bruce’s investigation, Lois’s investigation, and Lex’s manipulations, all of which relate to Superman being in the world and all of which end up leading to the same place in terms of Lex’s plan to discredit and take down Superman. If it’s your first time viewing it, you just have to give it your trust for the first 45-minutes or so and try to get ahold of all the threads so that you can appreciate it when they all come together.

Now, when I say that BvS does not have a typical blockbuster structure, I don’t just mean the sequencing of scenes. I also mean that this is not a hero’s journey or even a typical three-act movie that has come to dominate screenwriting in recent decades. (If you’re curious about the formula for many blockbuster movies, check out “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder.) Instead, BvS is more of a five-act revenge tragedy, as explained by Pulpklatura whom I’ve cited before, and I’d also say it’s more of a literary work that explores themes first and foremost rather than a popular fiction work that follows a plot first and foremost.

To try to make this point more clear, here is a brief rundown of what BvS might have looked like if Warner Brothers had forced Snyder and Terrio to abandon their creative vision and adhere to a typical blockbuster formula:

  • Begin by setting up normalcy for Bruce and Clark. Show Bruce’s routine with his work at Wayne Enterprises and Jack. Build in some hints or allusions to his nighttime activities as Batman. For Clark, show the world adoring Superman and show some happy-go-lucky scenes with Lois. This setup will lead to the expected contrast later when things start to turn south for both characters.
  • Introduce Lex and give him a tangible villain objective. For example, maybe he wants to kill Superman and position himself as the better protector or hero of Metropolis. He could do this by manufacturing a crisis in Metropolis that only he can stop, so he comes out looking like the hero. (By the way, I’ve noticed that a lot of people mistakenly believed that Lex’s goal in BvS was to kill Superman. And so they criticize the movie by saying that the Capitol bombing was stupid because of course it didn’t kill Superman. Or they think Lex should have used the Kryptonite himself and killed Superman at several different opportunities before the end. But this is a misunderstanding of Lex’s motivations. Lex wanted to discredit Superman and he needed the population to turn on him, to “see the blood on his hands,” because this would represent a rejection of god that aligns with Lex’s own beliefs. Lex couldn’t stand Superman being adored and standing “above all else,” so he needed to sour the waters and manipulate public opinion against Superman, not just kill him.)
  • Okay, after the setup, a typical blockbuster telling of Batman v Superman would have then, around the 15-minute mark of the movie, thrown big wrinkles into Clark and Bruce’s lives. For Bruce, the Battle of Metropolis would have jerked him violently out of his normalcy. For Clark, the African tragedy would have started to shift public opinion and government oversight against him.
  • Then there would have been sequential rising action where Bruce and Lex’s actions were directly affecting Superman, and Superman’s responses were directly spurring Bruce and Lex. There would be a series of predicaments where the audience is not thinking about themes or philosophy but is just thinking, “Ooo, how is he going to get out of this,” and “Now, how he is going to get out of this?” And there’d be things like, “Ooo, Bruce is not going to be happy about that.” But it would all be pretty straightforward and the events that are happening on the surface level would be the real events of the story. Just about everyone would get it all on their first viewing.
  • Next, Lex’s plan would come closer and closer to fruition, and at the end of Act 2, Lois or Bruce (or both) would figure out Lex’s plan and so some of the heros would devise a plan to stop it. That would propel things into Act 3 where of course the plan to stop Lex would fail and we’d get to the point where it looks like the heros are totally lost and Lex is going to win.
  • Then at the lowest moment, something surprising or clever would happen, like maybe Superman and Batman team up in a unique way or maybe Wonder Woman finally arrives, and they would rise up to defeat Lex in a way that was different but even cooler than what they had planned.
  • Then there would be celebrations and a clear happy ending where Batman and Superman are so thrilled with their victory that they decide to expand their ranks, and the audience all leaves the theater with smiles on their faces, ready to write glowing reviews because of all the straightforward fun they had.

As you can tell from my tone, I am much happier with the Batman v Superman that we actually got and I would have been disappointed if BvS had played out with the typical blockbuster formula. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few movies that I enjoy that follow that type of structure pretty closely. There’s a reason the formula is a formula -- because it works well to provide a solid 2 hours of entertainment for a broad audience base. But that formula also makes a movie quite predictable and forgettable. It doesn’t challenge people’s thoughts about what a superhero movie can be, nor does it delve as deeply into literary or philosophical themes because the formula privileges plot over art.

To be fair, if Warner Brothers had followed the formula, they probably would have made more money. People could have followed along more easily because they know how these sorts of movies work, and the formula is designed to spur good feelings. And I admit that a lot of people would have genuinely liked the movie better if it was a typical 3-act blockbuster rather than a 5-act revenge tragedy, but I know that myself and Alessandro and all the other people who love analyzing movies would’ve had much less to dig into if it were formulaic. So I’m very grateful to Warner Brothers for supporting the filmmakers’ vision, and all things considered, it’s really pretty amazing that a movie that broke the mold has made over $870 Million, which as Forbes recently pointed out, is more than just about every summer blockbuster will make this year.

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