Monday, July 25, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scene 42

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 42 of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Capitol bombing.

Thanks to Alessandro Maniscalco

Man of Steel Answers, Suicide Squadcast, DCU_Club subreddit

<Transcript of the episode>

Welcome, fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam, back from vacation where I didn’t get as much analysis done as I had hoped. But luckily you all had the great Comic-Con footage from DC Films to keep you busy and excited for the great things coming from Warner Brothers.

This podcast focuses on analysis of the films after they are released rather than on the build-up and marketing of future movies, but if you keep an eye on my YouTube channel over the next few days, I will be posting some reactions to the Wonder Woman trailer and the Justice League footage from Comic-Con. In short, we have lots of great stuff to look forward to, plus Suicide Squad is coming out in less than two weeks and it has a good shot at setting a new August record for domestic opening, just like BvS set a record for a March opening.

But right now, Alessandro and I still have lots of great stuff to talk about from Batman v Superman. This episode will cover Scene 42, one of the most important and, for me, most emotionally impactful scenes of the movie -- the Capitol bombing.

For me, the emotional punch of the scene came from Superman, who we have been watching for over an hour now as he feels the weight of the world pressing down on him, and he is trying to find the right way to help in this cynical and judgmental world --- a world, by the way, that is fairly easily swayed by the influence of the powerful and the media. He has thus far tried to just do the right thing without making a big show or taking lots of credit or attention. But his public image has recently deteriorated, due in large part to Lex Luthor’s manipulations, and we just saw him taking advice from his mother about what to do with the invitation to the Senate hearing. In that scene, we talked about how it really reinforced this as a choice for Superman. And now we see that he has made his choice to humble himself and come before the U.S. government to answer their questions and attempt to ease their concerns. The writers did a great job of setting this up as something that he is not obligated to do but something that he has chosen to do because he is hoping that it might help turn the tide that has been rising against him -- he is rethinking his aloof way of operating and is willing to adjust and become more transparent if it will make everyone feel more comfortable and secure.

So for me personally, I bring all this empathy along with Superman as he arrives at this hearing at the Capitol and so it is heartbreaking and literally choked me up in theaters when I saw him get robbed of his chance to address the government officials and the public. He just can’t catch a break, from the end of Man of Steel where he was criticized for killing Zod and for kissing Lois, to the beginning of BvS where he caught flak for trying to help in Africa, to all the intense debates and protests about him throughout BvS. The shot of Superman inside the fireball of the Capitol after the bomb goes off is so sad not only because of the loss of life that he had to witness, unharmed with a sort of survivor’s guilt, but also because he has it written all over his face in Cavill’s performance that humanity is breaking his heart by not allowing him to be the force for good and the inspirational figure that he is trying to be.

To me, that is what makes this scene so amazing in the film and in Superman’s character arc --- it is an epic scene even though it takes place in one building and isn’t an action set piece.

And this unintended negative consequence that has followed in Superman’s footsteps is especially tragic because it involved violence and casualties following an action of Superman’s that was decidedly non-violent. In the prior instances, such as the Man of Steel battle of Metropolis or the African incident, one might fault Superman because violence begets violence and casualties should be expected. But here at the Capitol, Superman is appearing to testify and hear the testimony of others. He isn’t even looking for violence or collateral damage here, yet Lex makes sure it follows him there anyway.

But this scene has even more to it than Superman’s emotional arc. It also has Lois watching powerlessly from behind the barricade, it has Senator Finch and the extreme tension that is built as she sees Granny’s Peach Tea, and it also shows us Bruce’s psychological reaction to the Capitol bombing. Also, simply the visuals of the Capitol explosion makes it memorable scene because we’ve seen lots of movies that reign destruction down on the White House, but this has the potential to be a definitive cinematic moment for the Capitol building.

Before I go further, I’m going to let Alessandro run through some of his own thoughts on the scene and some connections that he’s made to a recent graphic novel.

Superman has been invited to the Senate to have a “conversation”.  Finch wants Superman to explain himself and speak for his actions, and wants to explain to Superman the US Government’s stance on his participation in the world given he is seen as an American agent and citizen in which his actions reflect on the US.  She wants to ensure that Superman acts in the interests of America.  She invites Keefe to speak up for himself so that Superman can see first hand the results of his actions, even though they may have been filled with good intent.  

In the Extended Cut we also learn that Finch intends to reveal some truths, specifically about Lex Luthor’s participation in the African incident.

When Finch and Lex run into each other they each hold their cards close to their chest.  Finch is surprised to see Lex, which makes a little more sense when we see the Extended Cut, and Lex gives a reasonable fake reason for being there, to speak out about the rejection of his proposal.

Superman enters the chamber leaving everyone a bit speechless, but not Finch.  Instead she is left speechless by Lex.  When Finch first sees the jar of piss she pauses because she sees something that doesn’t belong as any of us would.  She becomes distracted but tries to keep her composure and continues to speak.  She then makes out what she believes it is, as our brains would naturally formulate a conclusion about what we see, but she questions herself as she can’t believe what she’s seeing since it doesn’t make sense to her.  She stumbles over her words some more as she goes to examine the jar further.  She turns it and sees the writing.  This clicks in her mind as something she had said to Lex which causes her to turn her attention to Lex who is missing from his seat.  Seeing the jar of piss and Lex missing from his seat, she wonders what he is up to.  She then turns to Keefe as if to say something and the explosion occurs.  Perhaps she suspected Keefe and Lex were working together, or perhaps she was going to ask Keefe about Lex.  Or possibly she just turned to Keefe to further analyze the room and the situation.

The explosion occurs which kills everyone who is even the least bit privy to Lex’s plans in one fell swoop and eliminates the committee which he has no more use for.  Senator Finch who as we learn in the Extended Cut knows Lex’s involvement in the African incident.  Killing her is also a way for Lex to exact his revenge on her.  Mercy who has witnessed each step of Lex’s plot and can link him to the Kryptonite, Bruce, and Keefe. Senator Barrows who gave Lex access to the scout ship and Zod’s body.  And Keefe who can attest to meeting with Lex and who is ultimately the lynch pin of this particular plan.  

The Capitol Tragedy also serves to discredit Superman for not saving these people.  Not only does this event show that tragedy follows Superman, in this case because of someone’s personal agenda against him, but it also shows Superman’s failure to save people when a threat is right in front of him.  Of course we learn that the wheelchair was lead-lined in the Extended Cut so that Superman couldn’t see it coming.  Additionally, since Superman is seen to be godly and omnipotent, the fact that he didn’t save these people from the explosion also begs the question to the masses of whether Superman was part of the plan to blow up the Capitol Building.  This is not inconceivable in the minds of the public about someone who has avoided the Senate hearings about Africa and who has been targeted by that very institute.  This is easily construed by many as a response to the backlash he has received from the senate.  The Extended Cut enforces the idea that Superman was involved in the explosion.  And although Superman is seen helping survivors afterwards on the news, and in person on the Extended Cut, he goes missing for some time, at least days, which is evident by the many news reports stating he hasn’t been seen since that day as well as the continued protests and Lois’ investigation of the tragedy in the Extended Cut.

The Capitol Tragedy also serves as a distraction so that Lex can proceed with his plans on the scout ship without being monitored.

We can can gain some insight into what the senators may have been feeling about Superman by considering what Lois says to him in the Superman Earth One Volume 3 comic.

Lois: A source in the United Nations tells me that people in and out of the security council are worried about you… about what you can do
Superman: They Shouldn’t be
Lois: No?  One big fight leveled part of Metropolis, another poked holes in the planet.  We’ve had an invasion, a nuke detonated in the upper atmosphere--
Superman: That last one wasn’t my fault.
Lois: My point is that you being here has changed things.  Everything.  And then there’s your regime change in Borada.
Superman: I get why they’d be upset about that, but it had to be done--
Lois: I’m not arguing, but did it have to be done by you, in that way?  Right out in the open?  You’re on a slippery slope...It’s the camel’s nose in the tent.
Superman: You’re mixing your metaphors.
Lois: And you’re mixing in things that can backfire on you in ways you can’t imagine.  You did what you did because you thought it was right.  But where’s the end of that thought?  Where do you draw the line to say ‘This far and no farther’ if you think that taking action is what’s right?  Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it.  It scares people.  You’re scaring people.  And I know that’s not what you want or--”

This seems very in tune also with what we’ve heard from the deleted scenes in the Extended Cut.  About how Superman decides who to save and who not to.  Lois’ line about how far is too far and no farther also ties into Injustice storyline’s inclusion in the movie in which Superman decides to use his powers to become a tyrant in order to bring peace to the world regardless the cost.

Had Superman been given the opportunity to speak during the Senate hearing it likely would have been something akin to Superman’s speech to the general assembly in Earth One Volume 3 below in the tone of Cavill’s Superman.

“Look, I get it.  I do.  I’m not like everybody else around here.  I can do things nobody else can do.  I--get--it.  But what you need to get is that I am not your enemy.  I am NOT your enemy.  I am not any KIND of enemy.  I’m here to help you.  All of you.  I’m realizing now that what happened in Africa was a mistake.  My intentions were good, but it scared you.  And as much as I hate to admit it, you were right to be scared.  I crossed a line that should not have been crossed.  I give you my word that I’ll try never to cross that line again.  Will I make mistakes in the future as we try to work this out?  Probably, yes.  This is a new situation for all of us.  But I think that over time, working in good faith, we will find that balance.”

The rest of the speech has a slightly less relevance but still holds true…

Superman: “If anything happens to me, if someone like Zod or Tyrell or the next nutbar to roll in off the galactic rim actually does manage to kill me--you need to understand that whoever is big enough and powerful enough to finish me off almost certainly won’t stop there.  So I’m not going to stand here and appeal to your charity, or your kindness, or even your humanity, as much as I value and cherish all of those things about the human race.  I’m speaking to your sense of enlightened self-interest.  I’m not the problem.  The problem will be whoever is standing behind me when and if I fall.  I’m here to help.  I swear that to you on my honor, and I hope to prove that to you in coming years.”

Surely Lex knew that Superman would eventually be brought before the senators to answer for his actions.  Given the profound and forthcoming nature of this speech taken directly from practically proven source material (Man of Steel followed the plot of Earth One Volume 1.  Batman v Superman follows the African plot and government uproar found in Earth One Volume 2.) we can apply the knowledge of this speech to gain insight into Lex’s genius mind and what he likely was able to predict would have been said and discussed at the hearing.  It likely would have put to rest much of the anxiety about Superman, perhaps even Batman’s own concerns.  Which is exactly why Lex knew he couldn’t allow Superman to speak.  And the best way to do that was to destroy the very institute in which Superman would be heard.

In Superman: Birthright Lex frames Superman leaving people asking “Failed rescue or deliberate sabotage?”  This is certainly what some might be thinking about both the African Incident and this tragedy at Capitol Hill.  And just as in the comic people start fearing Superman.  People who are afraid of dogs, even though the dog might be adorable and cute and has done nothing wrong, they would prefer the dog be killed and taken away from their sight because their fear is so irrational and extreme.  In this respect, Lex’s plan to demonize Superman works toward his goal of having him killed.

Now I want to just give some minor observations going through the scene, and then we’ll close with some overarching ideas.
  • At the start of the scene, Superman lands in front of the Capitol steps and then walks up the steps -- a more humble and conciliatory gesture than landing right at the doorway or flying into the building. He also lands in front of the protesters, many who are anti-Superman, though some are supportive of Superman. But Superman doesn’t acknowledge or face the protesters, even though he clearly feels their barbs. Instead of facing the crowd, he looks up and his eyeline seems to be either fixated on the American flag, the Capitol dome, or the Statue of Freedom atop the dome. Just as those objects are symbols of ideals and principles, we are watching Superman in this movie attempting to find his place as a living symbol -- trying to fulfill the potential that Jor-El dreamed for him.
  • Next up is a great shot of Superman walking straight toward the camera in the Capitol hallway. Such straight-on framings are not used very often and they are a powerful form of blocking, so it’s worthwhile to recall at least two previous instances of Superman striding right toward camera. The first was earlier in this movie when the tyrannical Superman was coming toward Batman in the desert bunker. The second was actually back in Man of Steel when Superman had surrendered himself to the military and was being led in handcuffs with soldiers around him. This again emphasizes the choice that Superman has in how he will proceed because we cannot take for granted that it is a simple matter for him to become the classic Superman of Reeves or Reeve. With his decision to come to this hearing, is he on a path toward the tyrannical Superman of Bruce’s vision or a path toward a Superman who submits to humanity as he did in Man of Steel? Will he submit to the will of the people, as Senator Finch desires? The parallel between this shot and the Man of Steel shot, I think, is especially meaningful because in both instances it is Superman willingly humbling himself before U.S. governmental powers -- first, the military, and now the Senate. In Man of Steel, no one knew who Superman was yet and so he let them handcuff him so that they’d be more comfortable. Here in BvS, he is known and must be trusted to a pretty large extent because he is allowed to walk right into the depths of the Capitol and the officers seem to be concerned more with the protesters than Superman. Also, here Superman walks alone because that better represents where he is in his emotional journey.
  • Next in Scene 42, we are reminded that Bruce is watching and that he is concerned about Wallace Keefe as Greg hands him another returned check.
  • Then Superman enters the chamber and we see Senator Finch, Senator Barrows, and also a cameo by the real-life Senator Leahy who has been in several Batman movies in the past.
  • Superman walks forward into the chamber and there’s a beautiful moment with a close-up on him gently opening the gate and quietly taking his position with his hands clasped together in front of him. This moment again emphasizes Superman’s humility in this scene and also reminds us that he’s a real person, not a god or myth. The fact that he waits to be addressed shows his respect for the process and that he is essentially doing this for the benefit of the Senators and the public, not to push his own message.
  • Once Superman is in place, Senator Finch actually begins by thanking Wallace Keefe for coming, not Superman -- this is a bit of a slight to Superman, who made the bigger gesture to come and was more selfless in being there, whereas Wallace was there with his own ax to grind. But politically, it probably made sense for Finch to start with Keefe as the stand-in for humanity and the public’s concerns about Superman, and then throughout the hearing her hope was to expose Lex and build confidence in Superman so that Superman is heard and acknowledged by the end of the hearing. Of course, that never happens.
  • Interestingly, there’s a shot of Superman and Wallace Keefe both looking at one another. Maybe they would have been able to see each other’s perspective and work through their issues through the conversations that Finch has been promoting, if not for Lex’s bombing.
  • Next are the final lines from the character of Senator Finch. There is more context here in the Extended Cut, but based on the Theatrical Cut, we can also see that she is raising the ideas of truth and returning to her point about good being a conversation, an effort to see one another’s perspectives and then navigate complicated situations. Goodness is not a unilateral decision, and this his her response to the fact that there are no more diamond absolutes. This idea was covered nicely on the website Audiences Everywhere <dot> net. Here’s a quote from Audiences Everywhere that is relevant to this scene: “He is disheartened not by obligation, but in the realization of his fictional position in a non-fictional moral landscape. It is almost as if he is cognizant here that he has been removed from the comic book world of moral certainty, his fictional home of eight decades, and placed into a world that makes his existence conceptually impossible.”
  • Senator Finch’s monologue is interrupted when she notices the jar on the desk. Since we know the contents of the jar, we can infer that it was probably the stench of urine that first caught her attention. Holly Hunter has a great performance here, and Zack Snyder really let the moment soak in (no pun intended) by drawing out the tension, having the music cut out to emphasize the quiet awkwardness in the room and Finch’s building terror, and then just as Finch finally comprehends what the Granny’s Peach Tea means, we, the audience, connect the phrase back to Finch’s denial of Lex in Scene 16. We see with Finch that Lex is missing from his chair, and she is now terrified that Lex is capable of something terrible even though she doesn’t know exactly what the danger is until it’s too late. One thing I really like about the Theatrical Cut is that it is right in this moment that Finch figures out Lex’s true nature, but it’s too late for her. It leads us to be more invested in Bruce, Lois, and Diana who are all still trying to catch up to Lex’s manipulations, hoping that they can do so before it’s too late altogether.
  • Superman notices Finch’s odd behavior and follows her gaze to Wallace Keefe just as the bomb goes off. The Extended Cut reveals that the wheelchair was lead-lined so he couldn’t have seen the bomb, even if he was looking, but as we see later, he was going to blame himself either way as he is internalizing some of the criticisms being leveled against him.
  • The bomb goes off and we see the explosion start inside the room and then we get wide shots of the Capitol building and the reactions of the crowds outside, with the anti-Superman protesters being proven right in a sense, and in horrific fashion. We see reactions from Martha Kent and Lois Lane. And the filmmakers included a shot of a horse rearing up, which continues the horse-based motif that accompanies the most tragic parts of the movie - the Metropolis wreckage, the Capitol bombing here, and also Superman’s death later. Horses also play a central role in Jonathan’s story, which is coming up soon.
  • Then of course there is the visually stunning shot of Superman inside the fireball, the shot that I already mentioned choked me up as it so powerfully represented Superman’s challenges and struggles. I talked about it earlier in relation to unintended consequences, here even happening when he is trying to be humble and peaceful. Another way to think about this moment is through Pulpklatura’s ( lens of public and private vengeance. In this moment, public vengeance or public avenues for dealing with conflict, such as “talking to each other” has failed. An attempt to address unchecked violence is met with even greater violence, so we can hang our head along with Superman that this is the unfortunate way of things… not by his own doing but by humanity’s. With this seeming failure of public vengeance, it opens the door to private vengeance or unilateral means of dealing with situations, which if Superman went that way, he would be joining Bruce and Lex in their destructive paths.

But on a more emotional level, a lot is hitting Superman right at this moment inside the fireball. He is not only sad to see another of his attempted good deeds ending in destruction, but he is having a crisis of identity, like maybe he has misplaced his faith in humanity, and he is also feeling like a failure -- feeling powerless in not preventing the explosion.

One of our listeners, @Eclipse from YouTube, also talked about reacting to this Capitol bombing:
“jor el said; they will stumble, fall but in the end they will join him in the sun. Speaking of which i just realized why the imagery of superman inside the fireball hits me the way it does... He's alone. The fiery area around him resembles [it as] if he were in the actual sun. and like manofsteelanswers said; ‘if they hate him this much to the point of going this far, they'll never join him in the sun.’”

After the explosion, people criticised the Theatrical Version because they said Superman shouldn’t just be standing there. Shouldn’t he be flying around and saving everyone who’s left or putting out the fire? Of course, we now know that in the Extended Cut he does fight back his pain and sorrow and try to help the victims. But even in helping the victims he feels powerless and feels the judgment of humanity because of the tragedy that follows in his wake.

Now, although this is one of the definitive moments for Superman’s character arc, there is also an important beat here for Bruce. Bruce sees the bombing and opens the latest envelope supposedly from Wallace Keefe. This time, instead of just a returned check, it includes a newspaper clipping of the fallen Wayne Financial building from the BZE and it has the red words, “You let your family die.” This is a painful reminder of Bruce’s failure to save those Wayne Employees, one of whom was Wally, and now with the Capitol bombing Wally is the latest victim that Bruce failed to save and he blames himself, even though it wasn’t his direct fault. Bruce sees this as proof that Superman is too dangerous to even exist because he brings out violence around him, and Bruce probably feels guilt as Batman because he hasn’t yet taken out Superman, and if he had taken him out earlier, maybe it would have prevented the Capitol bombing.

Bruce, with his father’s portrait showing up in the background of the shot, feels a great deal of responsibility in this moment, even though he is in no way directly culpable for the tragedy. Just like Superman isn’t directly at fault for many of the things he gets blamed for, the movie is raising questions about how people react to these situations and whether they put blame on themselves even for things that are out of their control -- or do people seek to put blame on others. Maybe part of being a hero is that you do take on more responsibility than is expected.

But overall, I think it’s very telling that this message that Lex sent to spur Bruce on in his destructive path was not actually a message about Superman as a threat, it was a message about Bruce’s failures and powerlessness… playing on Bruce’s psychological trauma. If it was about Superman, the message would have been “Look at what he brings in his wake” or “Look at how much power he has, he must be stopped.” The fact that what Lex uses to successfully spur Bruce forward is Bruce’s own feelings of powerlessness is strong evidence in favor of my interpretation that Bruce’s real issue is with himself, not with Superman. The explicitly stated issues of Superman’s power, even though they have some merit, are just Bruce’s rationalizations to himself and to Alfred.

This interpretation of Bruce’s real issue becomes very important later when we get to the “Martha” scene after the Batman-Superman fight. It is the fact that Bruce’s issue is himself that allows him to have his moment-of-clarity. If the issue was really Superman, then Batman’s turn toward redemption would seem too rushed and it would seem illogical that Batman could now go and team-up with Superman.

End of Episode:

So those are some of our thoughts on Scene 42. This is one of those scenes where we really can’t do it justice with just one episode, but we don’t have time to analyze it from all the angles that it probably warrants. We can mention in closing, though, that after the Capitol tragedy, everything in the film moves into high gear. Batman is totally determined to get the Kryptonite and carry out his Superman take-down. Superman retreats, as the character often does, for some solitude to deal with his emotional dilemma. And Lex now has the access he needs to gather more knowledge and to put his knowledge into action.

We should also mention that, even though Lex wasn’t in Scene 42 itself, having stayed outside the hearing after Scene 41, this scene was a huge triumph for him. He has blown away those overseeing him or skeptical of him. He has gotten his personal revenge on Senator Finch, a character who refused to go along with his manipulations and who seemed to see through his facade. He has enflamed the protests against Superman, not by framing Superman for the bombing but just by having the bombing and destruction happen in connection to Superman. This wasn’t an attempt to kill Superman, this was an attempt to move things several steps further in the direction of Lex’s overall plans because the Capitol bombing leads to Batman’s commitment to kill Superman, to Lex’s accessing the scout ship with Zod’s body, and to increased negativity in the public perception of Superman.

Thanks for listening, and as always, be sure to check out the Suicide Squadcast and the Man of Steel Answers podcast. The latter just released a new episode that has some great insight about drinks and the offering of drinks possibly being a motif related to delusions. Check it out. And also feel free to leave your thoughts or questions in the comments. Now that I’m back from vacation, I’ll try to catch up on everything.


  1. Hey guys, really enjoying your analysis of BvS, and great to recognize others who appreciate what the movie has to offer. Question that pertains to this episode: there is a still photo floating around the 'nets that shows Henry Cavill as Superman at the Capitol looking pensive as he stands before a bank of media microphones. Any idea if this is from a yet-unseen deleted scene? (Bring on the four-hour edition! Yay!) Or just a still for publicity purposes? Chronologically I'd place it after his walk down the hallway, but before he enters the hearing room. If it is from an actual scene, any idea what Superman might have said to the media?

    1. Thanks for the support. I know the photo you're talking about -- my understanding is that it's a publicity image for the movie and not necessary from a scene. Clay Enos probably took it while they were filming those Capitol scenes, and you actually might be able to ask Enos about it on Twitter -- he's pretty responsive.

      I can't rule out the slight possibility that is was a quick scene left on the cutting room floor, but if it was I don't think it ever made it close to an actual cut of the movie. Now, regardless of all that, what might he have said to the media? I really don't think he would make a full statement because that full statement would be what he says to the Senate committee. At most, I think he would just explain why it was that he decided to appear at the hearing ("I want people to know why I do what I do" "I'm hear to address people's concerns", something like that).