- How does the underground fight fit with the falling motif?
- What do we learn about Batman's fighting style?
- How are we supposed to react to violence in BvS?
- What does the Daily Planet pitch meeting tell us about Clark's character arc and the theme of absolute right and wrong?
- Why does Lois pursuing the bullet story represent a new version of the Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle?
<Transcript from the episode>
Welcome fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast, I go scene by scene through the Warner Brothers movies that are part of the DC Films Justice League Universe… what many people call the DC Extended Universe but what was officially referred to in the CW Special as the Justice League Universe. I love the depth of these movies and I love the community of people who enjoy analyzing them for character psychology and literary themes.
I’ve been making my way through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder, and I am up to Scenes 14 and 15. That is, Bruce’s visit to the underground mixed martial arts fight, and the pitch meeting back in the Daily Planet offices. So we’re about half an hour into BvS, or 20% of the way through, and we’re only 12 weeks away from Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer. So I’m going to have to pick up the pace if I want to finish off BvS before analysis shifts to Suicide Squad. I’m going to try to do shorter episodes but put out 2 or 3 per week. I also have lots and lots to say about Man of Steel but I’m not sure when I can fit that in. There’s always www.ManOfSteelAnswers.com if you need a fix.
Anyway, let’s get into Scene 14 of BvS, and I apologize if I miss some things now that I’m going a bit faster through things. Please use the comments to help fill in the gaps.
Scene 14 throws us right into the brutal fighting of an underground match. I think the fact that this fight is shown brutally and the fact that it’s an underground gambling situation are both important. We have not yet actually witnessed Batman fight in this movie, but we saw the brand that he left on an obviously tortured criminal back in Scene 7. And so the brutal fighting here in Scene 14 is a clear foreshadowing of what has become Batman’s fighting style, too. This foreshadowing will pay off when we get the amazingly choreographed yet brutal and bludging Batman action in the warehouse rescue before the climax of the film.
The fact that Scene 14 takes place in an underground fight also connects to the motif of above and below, of rising and especially falling. Young Bruce fell into the bat cave. His rise into the light was only a beautiful lie, and the falling skyscrapers during the Black Zero Event revealed to Bruce that it was a lie and that he was still fallen… in fact, he had fallen even further now that his powerlessness and vengeance were taking over. For two years, he had basically given up his normal war on crime because of his single-minded pursuit of Kryptonite and finding some way to take down Superman (but in taking down Superman, he’s really trying to prove his own worth and overcome his failures).
So Bruce is fallen. Therefore, while the billionaire Bruce Wayne in his high-end suit looks out of place amongst the underground gamblers, and like he would maybe be more comfortable in a library fundraiser, his damaged soul makes it very fitting for him to be there underground.
He also ends up fitting in better than expected because of his strategic fighting knowledge. He whispers something to the black fighter that helps him turn the tide of the fight and end up winning. I’m not knowledgeable enough about the details of fighting to guess what advice Bruce might have given him, but I don’t think the details matter too much. I think what matters is that Bruce is demonstrating his high combat IQ and he understands that one is never just in a fight, you are always in a fight against an opponent and Bruce is clearly very strategic and knows how to read the opponent to devise a winning strategy. In this way, Bruce imparting strategic knowledge to the black fighter is foreshadowing Batman’s own fight with Superman where it is more of a chess match than a straight up brawl.
While we’re on the topic of fighting, I wanted to share an insightful comment that I saw on Twitter from @darththawne (https://twitter.com/darththawne/status/728115795151048704). I don’t know the actual source of the comment, but I got it via @darththawne. Anyway, it pointed out that Batman v Superman actually challenges us to reject violence even though it uses violence as part of the entertainment value in the movie. In many action movies and comic book movies, violence is glorified as sleek and cool. But in BvS, most scenes with violence are actually challenging us as the audience to be slightly upset or turned off by the violence. It is not something to be glorified. I personally think this uncomfortable violence comes through in the Black Zero Event in Metropolis, with its echoes of 9/11, the vicious branding in Scene 7, the underground MMA fight here in Scene 14, the main Batman v Superman showdown when a lot of the audience wanted them to stop fighting and it was almost painful that Batman wouldn’t hear Superman’s case, and also the Doomsday sequence at the end. While I think these sequences were choreographed really well and worked great as action pieces, I agree with the Twitter comment that we are actually supposed to reject the violence to an extent. We are supposed to be upset that Lex Luthor unleashed the violence of Doomsday, and that the government unleashed the violence of a nuclear bomb when it may not have been necessary. If we’re questioning the violence, then that’s actually the point. And if we’re uncomfortable with Batman’s brutality, then that is also the point.
The Twitter commenter commended Batman v Superman for infusing a critique of violence into a genre that often makes light of violence or just marvels at its spectacle.
Okay, to finish out Scene 14, we have Bruce and Knyazev at the bar as Bruce collects his winnings. In the banter, we find out that Bruce knows a bit of Russian and he refers to some of his past womanizing. This builds upon the fact that the BvS version of Bruce Wayne has a long history and has been around the block more than once. In terms of the banter, Bruce is really just trying to make sure Knyazev stays at the bar long enough for his phone cloning software to finish. I thought the close-up shot of Bruce setting down his phone was great because we see another phone in the distance and so we think maybe he’s going to try to do a switch. But although the phone placement does matter, so that was a purposeful close-up, it was not actually for the reason that people might have anticipated. This adds a nice bit of expectation and surprise to the scene.
I also think this phone cloning was great because it is another step in Bruce’s detective sub-plot and it involves the use of high-end gadgets, which is a staple for the Batman character. Overall, with regard to the script, I think it’s amazing that they designed a revenge tragedy with a story of messianic sacrifice that is full of deep themes and does not follow the typical blockbuster formula, yet they also managed to naturally fit in all of the major components that we would expect out of a Batman and Superman movie. We got Bruce/Batman doing some extended, multi-step detective work. We got batcave tech, a batmobile chase scene, multiple scenes at the Daily Planet (though they were very brief), Superman saving lots of people, Superman going on a solitary retreat, Batman using a grappling gun and the batwing, and Superman ultimately saving the day. I think it’s impressive that they fit those major pieces into the movie while still having it largely be a dramatic character study of Bruce, Clark, and Lex.
Okay, I’m supposed to be going at a quicker pace, so to wrap up Scene 14 I’ll just say that the thing we need to carry forward plotwise is that Bruce is now investigating Knyazev because the lower-level connections to the White Portuguese were not panning out. It’s also important to note that his interrogations as Batman were not panning out, but his efforts here as Bruce Wayne did. So although this new information will get him closer to the White Portuguese, which he knows is connected to the Kryptonite sample but he doesn’t know what it all means yet, the success of his efforts here in Scene 14 are actually counterproductive in his psychological journey because they are reinforcing his doubts about the value of his career as Batman.
So now on to Scene 15, we cut to the Daily Planet meeting room with Clark’s line about the “one man reign of terror” forming the bridge between Bruce’s scene and this Daily Planet scene. Clark says, “This bat vigilante has been consistently targeting the port and adjacent tenements. And as far as I can tell the cops are actually helping him.”
So it’s important to note how Clark is positioning Batman. First of all, he doesn’t call him Batman but a “bat vigilante.” Batman is a hero’s moniker and bat vigilante makes him sound less official and it also emphasizes that his efforts are not legally condoned. Clark calls it a “reign of terror” rather than crime fighting. He is emphasizing the brutal methods and the violence over the fact that it is criminals who are primarily the focus of Batman’s efforts. This is a big question of whether certain means are ever justified. Is it okay to do immoral things if they are targeted at people who have committed crimes? And keep in mind that even if Batman in the past only struck fear into the hearts of criminals, that isn’t the case anymore. Since the BZE, Batman has lost his constraints on fear and it is spreading to the victims, as we saw in Scene 7, and it is also clouding Bruce himself.
Clark points out that Batman has been “targeting the port and adjacent tenements.” With regard to plot, we know that this targeting is because of the White Portuguese and its connection to the Port of Gotham. Also, Knyazev operates primarily out of the Port of Gotham and Batman has been trying to torture his way closer to finding out what’s going on there.
Clark’s last part of his line is about the cops supporting Batman, or letting him operate at least. Why is Clark disturbed by the fact that the cops support Batman? I think there’s at least two parts to Clark’s feelings. First of all, Clark is still growing into his role as Superman and trying to figure out how to operate within a complex world. The police are a similar sort of everyday hero and so, from an idealistic perspective like the one Clark is trying to cling onto in a cruel and complex world, the police should be pure upholders of the law. And for the police to condone Batman’s extra-legal and brutal efforts, this flies in the face of the idealized situation and confuses Clark’s sense of morality and order. Second, remember that Zack Snyder’s take on Superman and Clark Kent is one that involves real psychology and emotion. So here I think Clark actually has a bit of envy toward Batman because Superman is starting to be scrutinized, criticized, and viewed negatively, but Batman doesn’t get the same scrutiny. Instead, Batman gets the luxury of support, like we saw from the experienced cop in Scene 7 who wanted to let Batman work, which contrasts with the government that calls Superman to account later in the movie. And overall, Batman may be able to operate without much scrutiny and oversight because he stays confined to Gotham -- the more troubled of the sister cities -- and mainly to the poor areas that the broader public tends to ignore. This is similar to what we deal with in the real world where crime is less of an urgent issue when it’s in poor areas.
I also think this contrast between the reception that Batman and Superman get ties into a broader issue explored by Batman v Superman, that humanity has a tendency to prefer or identify with vengeance more so than altruism. We tend to be skeptical of altruism but we can totally understand vengeance and even if our heads tell us that vengeance is a dangerous course of action, our hearts often want to see that vengeance carried out. There is psychology research that shows pre-schoolers from a very young age are okay with something bad happening to a puppet that recently acted in a mean way, but the kids don’t like it if something bad happens to a puppet that was recently being kind. In other words, vengeance is pretty natural, and so Batman gets the benefit of the doubt as a character of vengeance, but Superman has a big uphill climb to win over the trust and confidence of the population, even when all he’s done is save people and try to do the right thing.
Another way to look at this is in relation to The Dark Knight Returns, the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Batman is a contradiction, working to wipe out crime and remove the citizens’ fear in Gotham but he does it by becoming a criminal himself and instilling fear, brutality. Back in “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller explored this contradiction and Superman was the partner of the powers that be, sent to take out the vigilante Batman. In Batman v Superman, however, Zack Snyder has reversed the situation, with Batman actually being supported by the police in Gotham. He is called a “good guy” and Clark points out that the police seem to be helping him. So in BvS, Batman is accepted by the powers that be, whereas Superman is under scrutiny by the government and is a figure of controversy in the public at large, even though Superman tries to do things the right way and seeks to be a symbol of hope rather than fear.
I think this is a brilliant move on the filmmakers’ part because in today’s society, especially in the United States, there are many people who actually do embrace the notion of fighting violence with violence. They see justice as coming through punishment or through killing our enemies, which is more aligned with Batman’s form of “inflicting justice,” as Henry Cavill put it. So to me it is a better reflection of society, and takes up the more important issues of our time, to have Batman be the publicly endorsed hero while Superman is the one who gets all the flak, even though he’s trying to do the right thing… he still gets blamed and nit-picked for every negative repercussion.
From the character side of things, this must be very frustrating for Clark to see Batman supported by the official powers that be, in the form of the Gotham police department, because Clark knows that vengeance, torture, and terrorizing criminals is not an acceptable form of justice. Clark wants superheroes to rise to a higher moral standard, but he keeps getting dragged down in the mud when he tries to exemplify this standard. Later in the movie, Superman tries to live out his convictions by coming down to the Senate hearing, but this too results in tragedy that, although not his fault, still results in lots of blame and anger directed toward him. Ultimately, it is only through the self-sacrifice at the end of the movie that Superman is finally able to make his point, inspiring the public and more importantly inspiring Batman to rise up to a new level of moral responsibility.
I think these ideas are also why the filmmakers had Batman killing several criminals in the movie. There are still many people in the United States who think that the death penalty is an acceptable form of punishment in a moral society. Batman represents this belief during the timespan of the film, but I’m fairly confident that Superman’s inspiration will lead him to reject killing in the future.
Okay, so Clark has laid out his desire to cover the bat vigilante story and Perry responds with his “water wet” line. This got a solid laugh in the first showings that I went to and it is part of Perry White consistently bringing some humor into the movie. I like the way they wrote Perry’s humor, too, because it’s a sarcastic kind of humor that is funny but doesn’t negate the seriousness of the movie.
The important thing with Perry’s line is not just to laugh but to put yourself in Clark’s shoes. Clark doesn’t think it’s funny. And I know for me it’s very frustrating to bring up a serious issue that you care about and then have someone blow you off or make jokes about it. Again, as with so many scenes in BvS, we the audience have to empathize with Clark to follow his character arc because he doesn’t explain it all in dialogue. We have to read body language and read between the lines, which for me is more engaging because it pulls you into the story to make your own interpretations. But for some people I guess it’s just all about the number of lines of dialogue.
In response to Perry, Clark presses harder, “Why aren’t we covering this? Poor people don’t buy papers?” This concern for the lower-class connects to the Golden Age of comics when Superman was created. He started out as a clear champion of the poor and the downtrodden, and Grant Morrison also used this idea in his first arc on Action Comics in the New 52 reboot. Here in BvS, Clark is trying to be the classic Clark, but just like in Scene 6 (in Lois’s apartment), the realistic world that these movies are set in does not let him be that classic version. Perry dismisses the idea of altruistically trying to stand up for the marginalized or for a pure sense of justice, later saying that the “American conscience died with Robert, Martin, and John.” This is a reference to Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and John Kennedy, all of whom were assassinated in the 1960s and who, from a cultural perspective, represented the end of innocence for America, when the public consciousness had to come to terms with the fact that the perfect 1950s were not actually very perfect at all from the perspective of women, ethnic minorities, or others who didn’t fit into the narrow picture of white suburbia. And American influence in the world was not always benevolent but was often about protecting monied interests. Perry’s line is a paraphrase of a line from The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, but it is used well here by the filmmakers as a way to show that they are putting Superman in the real, post-modern world. Superman is often thought to represent the American Way, from the phrase that started with the radio program and the 1950s TV show. But what does “the American Way” mean in a post-1960s, post-9/11 world? It’s not an easy to question to answer and so the filmmakers are taking Superman through a journey to figure this out, rather than just plopping him into the universe as a fully formed, perfect superhero.
This also connects back to the theme that there are no diamond absolutes, no pure good or pure evil in modern society. In my phrasing of this theme, I said that good and evil are about making choices in complex situations. And in Scene 15 here, Clark has an important line where he says that when you assign a story “you’re making a choice about what matters and who’s worth it.” This is not just a line for Perry but it is something that Clark is dealing with himself. As Superman, every heroic action that he might take is a choice about what matters and who’s worth it. To save one person, he might miss out on someone else who needs him. To go to the site of one emergency, he might be out of position to respond to some other crisis. Every action is not just a choice to act on that one thing but an implicit choice not to act on something else. This is a reality of being Superman and it’s one of the things that Clark is struggling to come to grips with as he is defining what it means to be Superman, and as Man of Steel Answers points out in a recent podcast episode, it’s important to remember that Clark is not just defining Superman’s role in the world but he is trying to define the role of superheroes in general because he is the first to come onto the public stage.
Next, Lois comes into the scene and says that the crime lab could not identify the bullet from Nairomi. Perry gives his characteristic sarcastic response, calling it a bullet. “You shoot people with it.” Lois is very determined to follow this lead and she points out that it’s suspicious that these kinds of rounds were used even though they aren’t available to the U.S. military or on the black market. There are some quick shots in this scene where Lois looks at Clark and Clark looks down. Lois had hidden the bullet from him back in the apartment scene and he probably is not thrilled that she’s still investigating the African incident because Clark’s preferred approach was to ignore the naysayers and continue on doing what he was doing as Clark and Superman. But Lois is very concerned about Superman’s tarnished reputation because she knows how important Superman is beyond just their personal lives. She not only has the death and danger of the African incident hanging over her, but she is determined to redeem Superman in the eyes of the world. Going back to the apartment scene, she had raised the idea that maybe Lois, Clark, and Superman couldn’t all three coexist, and by pursuing the bullet story, she is implicitly siding with Superman over Clark.
The Man of Steel Answers podcast had a great episode going into this dynamic in greater detail. That analysis mentions something that I thought was really cool -- that this is sort of a new take on the love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman. Lois wants to clear Superman’s name so he can continue being the beacon of hope. Earlier in the apartment, Scene 6, she even indicated that she’d be willing to end her relationship with Clark so that Superman could continue. She is choosing Superman over Clark because Superman means more to the world, even though she loves Clark. Clark is not happy because he wants to have both sides and doesn’t know how to handle the people who are judging him and who are angry or afraid of Superman.
Recognizing this more complex rather than romantic love triangle, it makes the later scenes and especially the ending with Superman’s sacrifice as Superman and then Lois getting the engagement ring all the more potent.
So Lois wants to follow up on the bullet story. Perry says, “The ask, Lois.” To me this phrasing reminded me of just a few minutes earlier in Scene 13 when Senator Barrows asked Lex about his wish list. The similarity in the phrasing clues us in to think about them together, and we see that Lex is making progress on his scheme but Lois is on his trail. With yet another bit of humor about flying coach, Lois heads off to DC, setting us up for her next scene.
But first, now that we’ve seen Bruce progressing in his investigation and Lois progressing in hers, we’re ready for another scene with Lex Luthor, because although we don’t know it yet, both of those investigations are going to lead to him. And the transition here is great, from Lois leaving the Daily Planet office right to Senator Finch arriving at Lex’s father’s study.
That’s it for scenes 14 and 15. And because I’m trying to keep things moving along to stay on pace for Suicide Squad’s release, instead of doing any special episodes about insightful reviews or analyses, I’m going to just drop some in here at the end from time to time. In this case, I just want to mention an article from Screen Rant by Andrew Dyce called “Batman v Superman: How Zack Snyder Told One of Superman’s Greatest Stories.” He makes a lot of good points, such as Man of Steel being a story about fathers and BvS being a story about mothers, about Superman trying to take up the cause that Jor-El laid out for him but realizing that the world is very much like Jonathan Kent had feared, specifically the real world and the BvS world are morally conflicted and the movie takes this head on. And the Screen Rant article also talks about Batman using fear as his weapon and trying to teach Superman a lesson in fear. And Batman succeeds in revealing Superman’s fear, but it turns out that Superman doesn’t have fear about his own life, he fears for his mother and those he loves. This shows Superman’s deep-down goodness, revealed at his lowest point, which then redeems Batman.
A great article. I’ll put a link in the show notes. (http://screenrant.com/batman-v-superman-best-story-movie/)
And as always, I recommend Man of Steel Answers for great analysis and the Suicide Squadcast for great coverage of WB and DC news. Thanks for listening.