Sunday, July 17, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 39-41

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Superman's meeting with Martha Kent, Lois's meeting with Secretary Swanwick, and Lex's meeting with Senator Finch outside the hearing chamber.

  • Martha Kent's parenting style
  • Lois gets the story on the bullet
  • Protests and news coverage at the Capitol
  • Lex and Finch outside the Senate hearing
  • The oldest lie in America
Thanks to Alessandro Maniscalco
Man of Steel Answers, Suicide Squadcast, DCU_Club

<Transcript of the episode>

Welcome, fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast, Alessandro Maniscalco and I share our scene-by-scene analysis of the DC Films that are part of Warner Brothers’ Justice League Universe. Right now our focus is on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder.

In the last episode, we just covered the scene where Senator Finch put out a call for Superman to appear at a hearing with the Committee on Superman. We, the audience, know that it might not be a good idea for him to come because Lex has pulled strings and used Wallace Keefe as a pawn to spur on the hearing, and we just saw that Lex now has possession of a substantial sample of Kryptonite. We also have a strong suspicion that Lex was behind the African incident, and in the Extended Cut, it’s pretty obvious already that he was, and that African incident led to the heightened governmental scrutiny in the first place.

But Superman does not yet know about these manipulations, so from his perspective, he has been troubled by the debate and negative reaction that has recently grown around Superman. He has said aloud that he doesn’t care what they’re saying, but we’ve seen it very clearly in his body language and quiet reactions that he does care. Superman has also been pained by the negative repercussions that have followed many of his actions. He is just trying to help when he’s needed and protect those he cares about, but often there are unintended consequences that follow.

Superman would prefer to be a stoic, humble hero rather than someone who seeks the limelight or who wants to have big photo ops or press coverage of his efforts. It was established in Man of Steel and continued here in BvS that he is a quiet person who has a strong instinct to help, but after he helps, he wants to just slip away and avoid the aftermath attention. This is basically Superman as an introvert, which does not make him any less courageous or heroic, and I think it actually offers a nice contrast to many of the other extroverted superheroes that are out there in popular culture right now.

So within this context, Superman has now seen Senator Finch’s invitation for him to appear before the Senate committee. He has avoided the spotlight and has preferred to help out without big speeches or press conferences. But he is now reflecting on whether that has been the best course of action. Maybe the population, which is inherently divisive and cynical, needs to have things more explicitly laid out to combat all the prejudgment and misunderstanding.

So Superman is considering whether he should go against his preference and appear before the Senate committee as a way to explain himself and answer their questions, hopefully to assuage their concerns. And it makes sense that as he is thinking about this big decision, he would go confer with one of the two people he could really talk with about this stuff. Lois is one person he could talk with, but she’s busy with her investigation in Washington, DC, and Clark also probably knows the advice Lois would give. Lois has already said that it’s very important for the world to have Superman and for Superman’s name to be cleared so that he can be a trusted and inspirational figure. This might not be exactly what Clark wants to hear, even though that is what he ultimately decides. At this moment before he’s made his final decision, he probably wants to be reassured about what he’s been doing up to this point and to get some validation as both Clark and Superman, not just the potential of Superman.

So Superman goes to talk to his adoptive mother. And overall, Scene 39 is a scene of a mother giving advice to her son. It’s not a conversation, it’s a chance for Superman to listen and to simply be with his mother. With his mother, he can be himself, which is a quiet person who thinks deeply and cares deeply.

Talking about mother and son, Henry Cavill said the following in the Art of the Film book: “The relationship between Martha and Clark is the one constant, it’s the one thing which hasn’t changed. She will always see him as every mother does… as a boy growing up. He may be a lot bigger and stronger, but he’s still her little boy. And I think he will always see her as the mother figure, as the one to go to, the one to ask, ‘Why doesn’t it make sense?’”

In Scene 39, Martha starts out with the common line about people hating what they don’t understand. This line is in danger of being overused across TV and movies, but it really does make sense here because Superman is still largely a mysterious and unknown figure even though he’s been operating for about two years. Because people don’t know his full story or his total motivations, it allows them to stoke fears and descend into divisiveness, xenophobia, and prejudice.

Martha continues: “But they see what you do and they know who you are.”
This line is funny to me because it’s like a preemptive slam on the haters who have criticized BvS for the limited number of spoken lines that Superman had. Martha is trying to have some faith in humanity that they see actions more than words and that they don’t just jump to conclusions or don’t just need someone loud, like a blowhard who says things that sound strong on the surface but are actually hollow or contradicted by how that person has lived his life. Unfortunately, in the movie universe and in our real world, Martha is not entirely right. People are prejudicial and are swayed by words over deeds a lot of the time. And if a public figure doesn’t take control of their own narrative and public image, the news media and social media might run with it off in negative directions.

Back to Martha: “You’re not a killer.” Again this is meta-textual because many people after Man of Steel were complaining about Superman killing Zod. Martha, and vicariously the filmmakers, are reiterating that he’s not a killer even though he was forced to kill Zod in that situation. Now, a rebuttal here would be that Martha is not exactly a neutral observer. She’s biased and of course is going to see the best in her son.

And I think that’s the point of this scene. She hits several beats, all of which are supportive of her son. She reaffirms that Superman’s actions are just and that Clark is essentially a good person, not a threat. Next she says that she never wanted this world to have him, which is a very realistic feeling for a parent to have. It’s always hard to let your child leave your protection and head out there into the hands of the world, a world that can often be cruel and judgmental. For Clark, because he is a world figure who is now a figure of controversy, it must be even more painful for Martha.

Martha then hits the final beat, which is to emphasize that what Clark is facing is a choice, not an obligation. She says that Superman can be the world’s hero, a monument, an angel, or he can be done of it. Just like it’s his choice of whether or not to submit himself to the Senate hearing, it’s also Clark’s constant choice of whether or not to continue operating in the world as Superman. The first part of Martha’s line is pointing out that some people in the world, both the movie world and the real world, take it for granted how Superman is supposed to act. “Of course Superman is always going to save the day and do just the right thing.” “Of course Superman should do exactly the right thing at every single opportunity.” People are often holding Superman to impossibly high standards, and even though he can meet those standards a lot of the time, the question here is whether he’s meeting those standards out of obligation or out of choice. To me, the fact that Superman actually makes the choice to be a hero is more meaningful than if he just did it because he has to or because it’s been ingrained into him. This is part of why I love the Justice League Universe thus far, because they have richly developed Superman where he is going through a real psychological journey to become a hero, and it’s a realistic journey that is not over-simplified by just making his courses of action predetermined by some perfect code.

Now, don’t get me wrong --- part of the reason I have loved Superman in the comics, on TV, and in the movies, is because he is a pinnacle superhero. But to me it’s very interesting to watch a Superman who is choosing to be an idealistic and altruistic hero, rather than one who is just automatically that way or who is that way simply because his adoptive parents told him to be a good person.

Moreover, part of the tradition of Superman being the pinnacle superhero is that he is someone that we can all look up to and model our behavior after. People have said that BvS doesn’t live up to this tradition because Superman is dour and has some self-doubt. But I think scenes like this one show the kinds of behavior that we should model ourselves after. Superman tries to do good deeds just because they’re the right thing to do. He doesn’t seek any sort of praise or worship for them. Then when they lead to unintended consequences and collateral damage, he takes that very seriously and tries to hear the stories of those affected. When there are public debates about his role in the world, he thinks deeply about what they are saying, seeks counsel from someone he trusts, he listens before he speaks – which is something that others in the movie and in the real world could learn from Superman – and then he makes the decision to humble himself and appear at the hearing.

So Superman is behaving in ways that can set an example for the rest of us, but he’s the example we need in today’s 21st Century age. The fact that he has some self doubt is not a problem, because if a role model never has doubts or dilemmas, then they provide no guidance whatsoever for people when they do face doubts or dilemmas. What Man of Steel and Batman v Superman do is show us a Superman who is a model of how to deal with doubt and dilemma when they arise, and they show us someone who comes through the other side, doing what he has to do, and knowing full well all the implications of his actions.

To finish out this scene, Martha says, “You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” On the surface, this seems crass, and I’m sure that’s how a lot of people have taken it, just like they took Jonathan Kent’s “Maybe” line as heartless, as if he has actually said “Yes, you should let kids die.” He didn’t say “yes,” he said, “maybe,” because he was acknowledging that the world is difficult and there are going to be hard choices to face. With Martha here in Scene 39, she’s not being crass, she is actually just making a valid point. Clark does not owe the world. He has already saved it once, and anyway, someone who does something heroic did not actually owe that heroic deed to the world, they just took it upon themselves to do the heroic deed even though they don’t owe it to the recipient. If someone runs into a burning building and saves a child, it’s not that they owed it to the child. In fact, if they did owe it to the child, it wouldn’t really be a heroic deed. It would just be a deed, a fulfillment of an obligation.

So Martha is right that Superman doesn’t owe the world… and it’s a good thing that she’s right. If he did owe the world, then there would be no reason for us to look up to him or appreciate his deeds. They would just be things that we expect him to do.

And then on top of all these abstract ideas about heroism, we have to realize that Martha is Clark’s mother. Of course she is going to care first and foremost about him as her child. It hurts her deeply to see the fear and hatred that is spreading around Superman. She wants to protect her son and if the world is not a safe place for him, just like Jonathan Kent predicted, then she wants Clark to know that he doesn’t have to continue. She’s showing unconditional love for her son and if it’s too much for him, she wants him to know that he’ll always have a home to come back to. She lets him know this, but she doesn’t tell him what to do.

As I’ve said before, I loved the Kents in Man of Steel. I thought they were very loving parents who cared more deeply for their son than they did for the outside world, which is a very relatable type of parental feeling, and they also didn’t try to simplify or give black-and-white truisms about how to live life. They were there with Clark in all the pain and complexity of life on Earth. They helped him to navigate the complexity rather than just giving him some artificially simple folk advice.

Martha Kent continues that loving, realistic parental relationship here. It pains her to see her son carrying the weight of the world. She lets him know that it’s a choice he can make, and it really is up to him and no one else. This makes it that much more meaningful when Superman eventually does choose to be the hero and take up the mantle for good. To me, it resonates much more than if she had simply said, “You know what to do. Go save everyone and do the right thing,” as if it were that simple.

What she does do is communicate very clearly that she loves Clark and she will always love him, unconditionally, and that’s really all you want from a parent, and it gives the child the confidence to go forth and make difficult choices in the world. And it’s also something that Bruce never really had, growing up without parents. When Bruce went to get comfort and guidance from his parents, it was actually just the graves which added to his pain and powerlessness. Alfred, of course, tries to fill in as a parental figure, but he is repeatedly unable to get through Bruce’s fog.

Lois redeems Superman

Moving on to Scene 40, we see the next step in Lois’s investigation of the bullet and the African incident that started all this negativity toward Superman. She wants to clear Superman and understand the truth of what is happening. In the Extended Cut, Lois does a bit more of this investigating herself, but here she has used her contact and her trust in Secretary Swanwick to make progress.

Swanwick joins her on the riverside bench and tells her what CI, or Central Intelligence, has found out about the bullet. In the Theatrical Cut, this is where we find out that Lex was behind the Nairomi incident. And I think this is a nice part about the Theatrical Cut – that we get confirmation about Lex’s hand in it at the same moment that Lois does. In the Extended Cut, it’s great to see more of Lois’s investigating, but because the African frame job was so much more explicit, we already knew it was Lex from the beginning and we’re just waiting for Lois to catch up.

The fact that the bullet was created by Lex Corp implies that Lex Corp is working on secret research and development projects, unquestionably at Lex's whims and likely in pursuit of creating weapons which can stop metahumans. Not only does this make sense given Lex Corp has developed this weaponry and he need only reach into his own company's supply of weapons, but it also ensured that Lex could not be implicated without the US Government being implicated. The CIA was also there, unofficially involved in the sensitive African civil war, so Lex knows he’s protected because the government isn’t going to expose him lest they be exposed. Indeed, this is exactly what we see as Swanwick refuses to go public with the information, which limits Lois's ability to prove anything. The Pentagon and the intelligence agencies at this point are willing to let Superman take the flack to protect their own involvement in Africa, and in so doing they also protect Lex.

We also talked about the bullet in a previous episode where, because it’s such a specialized tech, certain channels are going to have to be used to trace where it came from, and Lex is very likely to be monitoring those channels to see who is investigating the African incident. So now that Lois has gotten a definitive answer on the bullets, we should also assume that Lex knows people are investigating it.

But there’s actually a bigger revelation here than Lois finding out about Lex’s involvement in Africa, which she knows makes Lex partially responsible for all the heightened scrutiny and protesting against Superman. The bigger moment, which was emphasized beautifully by Zack Snyder’s directing and the editing, was when Lois realizes that Lex also knows Superman’s secret identity. This shows that Superman is in even more danger than they realized before, and because of Lois’s close relationship with him, this is of course very troubling for Lois. It’s also troubling for her to realize that she played an indirect part in luring Superman into the trouble in Africa, and if Clark didn’t have his relationship with her, she wouldn’t have been an effective form of bait, but this is part of a nice character arc for Lois as she gets to redeem herself later by getting in between Batman and Superman at the end of their fight. Also, in the Extended Cut, she redeems herself with the investigation of the Capitol bombing.

I think it’s important to note here that Lois is pretty quick with her deductions. We should all remember this for later when she makes a mental connection between Doomsday and the Kryptonite spear. It’s been amazing how many people have called that a plot hole when Lois goes back to get the spear. It’s not a plot hole, it’s just a smart character figuring out the same thing that Batman and Superman figure out --- namely, that Doomsday came from the scout ship and so is probably of Kryptonian origin, and therefore the Kryptonite spear would probably be an effective weapon.

Now, although Alessandro and I both love this movie, we are not blind to some of the inconsistencies or places that could’ve been improved. In this scene, it seems like as soon as Lois discovers that Lex knows Superman’s secret, she would warn everyone who is a part of that secret. So she would try to tell Clark right away about Lex, and although she doesn’t get a chance to talk to him until after the Capitol bombing, even then she doesn’t tell him about Lex. Now, we might be able to overlook this omission because she only saw him for a few moments and they were dealing with the aftermath of the bombing. But it also seems like Lois should have called and warned Martha. Maybe she did, but they didn’t show it on screen, and it didn’t seem like Martha had been warned when she’s abducted, so it seems safe to assume that Lois did not warn her, which seems a bit out of character.

So that’s a little mistake, but it’s minor and it doesn’t have any direct bearing on the themes and character arcs of the movie. It only affects the story.

Scene 41: Preliminaries to the Senate Hearing (1:07:45 -- )

Finally, we’re going to cover Scene 41 really quickly. This is all the little lead-ups to the Capitol hearing. We see Soledad O’Brien interviewing Wallace Keefe. This allows us to see that Lex has helped get Wallace cleaned up, it reminds the audience that Wallace has the wheelchair from Lex, which will of course be very important in the next scene. And the interview with Wallace also allows him to reiterate his position about Superman not being a hero, because he won’t actually get to testify later in the hearing.

We see Bruce Wayne watching the coverage of the Senate hearing, and he sees Wallace and asks Grace to “get Greg up here, please.” Note that Grace, Greg, and Jack show a pattern that Bruce interacts with his employees by first name. This was also shown when Bruce was there in Metropolis helping Wallace and he right away learned his name and called him Wally.

Bruce had recognized Wallace as a former employee and victim of the BZE, so he asks Greg why he hasn’t been getting the checks from Wayne Enterprises or possibly from a Wayne foundation to help victims of the Metropolis attack. Greg says that he has been getting checks every month and returns them. Bruce looks through the checks and sees the disturbing messages, including one that Pulpklatura was especially thrilled about – “I am your ghost” – because ghosts that further flame the main character’s vengeance are a typical part of a revenge tragedy story. Bruce asks why he hasn’t seen these before and Greg says he’ll get to the bottom of it.

Of course, later on the helipad, we find out that Lex is at least partially behind these returned checks and the disturbing messages. But it’s a bit of an open question about how much Lex was involved. One possibility is that Lex has been planning to spur on the Batman-Superman fight for at least 8 months or so, intercepting the checks way back then and returning them either month-by-month or all at once just before this Capitol hearing. Greg had said that Keefe had been returning them, which makes it sound like Keefe was returning them individually each month, but I think Greg was unaware of the returned checks until just now because now Keefe is getting media attention. So Greg went and looked into Keefe’s file and found all the returned checks, and then assumed that they’d been returned all along, when really they may have been returned just recently.

Another possibility, although I admit it’s more of a stretch, is that Lex had previously infiltrated the Wayne victim relief fund and found out who the recipients are, and maybe Lex identified some like Wallace Keefe who seemed to have resentment and extreme anger toward Superman. Then Lex may have intercepted their checks to fan those flames or to make them needy later, when Lex could come in and offer some support and use them as pawns in whatever Lex’s plans ended up being. So maybe Lex started shaping Keefe not knowing exactly how he would eventually use him, and then after Finch denied the import license, Lex said, “Okay, I know how I’m going to use Keefe in my scheme.” And then, just a couple months ago, he took the checks, scrawled the messages and sent them back to Wayne to spur Bruce’s rage, and decided to use Keefe to exact his revenge on Finch and bring more anger and scrutiny onto Superman through the Capitol bombing.

To be fair, I should say that Alessandro is pretty firmly on the side of the first interpretation -- that Lex has been manipulating the checks and sending them back for basically two years, with a long-term plan to spur Bruce in his hatred toward Superman. Alessandro’s view is that this is confirmed by the final piece of mail coming in with the newspaper clipping. He says that the checks, therefore, didn’t come in right at the end because they weren’t with the newspaper clipping. But I’m still not so sure. All that the newspaper clipping proves is that there were at least two deliveries – one with the checks and a follow-up delivery with the newspaper clipping. But it’s still possible that these were only a few days or weeks apart, rather than spread out over months or years. And I actually think it would be riskier for Lex to return the checks every month for two years, because what if Bruce had seen them earlier. He could have seen them right from the beginning and gone and talked to Wallace Keefe and changed the whole trajectory of everything after that. But this is definitely stuff that is left implicit in the movie, and so if you have other thoughts or questions, please let us know in the question.

This scene also has that great shot of Superman descending in front of the Capitol. The protestors are around him, as are some people with messages of support. Lois is able to be there because she was already in Washington doing her investigation. But because of that story, it makes sense that she would not be the Daily Planet reporter assigned to covering the hearing itself inside the Capitol. A TV reporter says that we expect Superman to make some kind of statement. This builds up the audience’s expectation for a Superman speech, which will make it even more surprising when the bombing happens before he has a chance to say anything.

The other important set-up for the Senate hearing scene is of course Lex’s taunting of Senator Finch in the hallway. Lex is waiting outside the chamber because he really wants to see Finch face-to-face. These sorts of interactions are part of his fun and games and reveal how totally evil this version of Lex Luthor really is. When Finch arrives, he tells Mercy Graves to go in and save his seat. This also shows how heartless Lex is, by sending in his closest associate to her death. In the Art of the Film book, they explain that Mercy is a lawyer by training and that she is super efficient and effective in doing whatever Lex’s needs to be done. But as we’ve said before, Lex never shows Mercy any compassion or personal connection. Lex is a totally isolated individual. It also makes sense for him to make sure Mercy dies in the bombing because she can connect Lex to Wallace and to probably a lot of his manipulations.

Lex tells Finch that he is eager to tell the world he was willing to finance a Kryptonian deterrent but it was rejected by Finch. Now that Superman is feared and trust in him has waned, it will be a black mark on Finch’s reputation. But the fact that Lex will be carrying out the bombing implies that he had no intentions of actually telling “his story”. This is just his way of throwing her off his scent and it’s also his opportunity to have the last word in their battle of wits going back to Scene 10.

Lex’s next line shows the pattern of Lex being a sleezeball and also taunting people based on their names. He says Finch will be on the “hotseat,” which is obviously a depraved inside joke for Lex himself. And he calls Senator Finch “Junebug,” based on her first name of June. Later he has similar fun playing with Lois’s name. But overall, Lex is so gleeful to be carrying out his murderous bombing, it’s pretty sick.

One line that I’m not a huge fan of is Finch’s response about being able to wrestle a pig. Now, I grew up on a farm and my grandparents actually did have pigs, so I don’t mind the farm reference, but it just seemed like it didn’t connect well to the previous line about a hotseat.

Lex’s last line, though, is huge and the filmmakers emphasized it well by going to a straight-on shot of Lex instead of the typical over-the-shoulder type coverage. Lex finally gets to say his line about the oldest lie in America – that “power can be innocent.” So Lex is saying that power is never innocent. This line spans out and applies to a lot of events and characters in this movie. Obviously Superman has a lot of power, and Lex could not stand the idea that people looked up to him as supremely good and trustworthy. So Lex needed to show that Superman is not innocent, he wanted to show the “holes in the Holy.”

The government also has power, the media has power, so they are not innocent in the anger and cynicism of society either. Lex might also be specifically calling out Senator Finch for trying to proceed deliberately rather than taking immediate and violent precautions against Superman. Bruce also has a great deal of power, both through Wayne Enterprises and as Batman, and we’re seeing how he has definitely not remained innocent. Lex might not realize it, or maybe he does, but he is powerful as well and so he’s admitting that he’s not innocent. It is interesting to think of his oldest lie in relation to his fundraiser speech because Lex tripped up precisely when he was saying that he has knowledge and that knowledge is power. So perhaps his mini-meltdown was because he doesn’t think of himself as powerful and so thinks that the oldest lie doesn’t apply to him, but of course he is powerful through his knowledge and influence and his ruthlessness. So he isn’t innocent either. It would seem to me that he must know he’s powerful, and so he knows that he’s not innocent, but he just embraces it and what he can’t stand is people who think there can be an innocent power in the world, such as god or Superman.

One small question I have about the oldest lie is why he phrases it as the oldest lie in America, rather than just an old lie in general. Perhaps this is to connect to the truth, justice, and American way triad that we mentioned before. Or perhaps it’s because the question of Superman’s innocence is allegorical for America as the world’s super power. I think Chris Terrio at one point talked about Superman representing America’s military might – and so BvS raises questions about how we use our military, how we make decisions about when to use it, and how the media and general public form opinions about military activities. If any listeners have viewed BvS with specific lenses of American imperialism or American exceptionalism, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Anyway, Scene 41 ends with Lex’s final dig, saying “good luck” as Finch enters the chamber, and Lex of course has no intention of actually taking his seat that he had Mercy save for him. The filmmakers, of course, will follow Senator Finch into the hearing, and that brings us to our next scene… one of the most important in the film, and for me, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes of any comic book movie I’ve seen.


  1. So Mr Sam, did you watched the Justice League Teaser?

    1. I was on family vacation so I didn't see it until the evening after it was released, but I will be posting some thoughts with Jason Book on YouTube this week. My quick reaction is that there are some very cool personality characteristics that will probably make for compelling interactions on the team (e.g., Aquaman stoic and reluctant, Flash talkative and eager -- Bruce and Diana as partners). The character designs look good, but I'd like to see some more hints at the themes they will be exploring because my fear is that it's just plot and personality rather than literary like MoS or BvS. (The BvS Comic-Con teaser gave some hints of interesting themes right from the start.)

    2. I personally think that the reason the Teaser felt so light was because they wanted to ease any "complaints" that Justice League will be "grim" and/or "joyless" from the get-go. As ridiculous and senseless as those criticisms were, they really dented both MoS and BvS a bit, so I can understand why they showed what they showed they way they showed it to make a first impression.

      I'm also not that worried about any literary themes since we are getting Terrio in the script, and he did confirmed that this film will have depth some time before the debut of BvS in theaters, maybe you remember something he said about comparing Superman to the sun god Apollo and Batman to the underworld god Hades?

      The way I look it: MoS was a deconstruction of Superman as a character, BvS was a deconstruction of Superman as an icon, thus maybe JL will be a deconstruction of Superman as a legacy.

    3. Good points. I think you're right about the marketing. They were not going to go as heavy with this teaser as they did for BvS (even though I love the heavy). I also agree with you that Snyder and Terrio will probably not disappoint on the themes, but those themes might be more judiciously mixed with standard plot/action/personality-type movie ingredients. I would love to see Justice League round this out as a Superman trilogy, as you suggested!