Tuesday, January 2, 2018

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Justice League Scene 2

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 2 (Batman and the burglar) of Justice League.

  • Additional thoughts about Scene 1
  • Vertical shot motif
  • Batman's first appearance
  • Phony physics (homage to Batman 66?)
  • Fear and riding the parademon
  • Where did the three motherbox symbols come from?
  • Burglar comes back and comments on Superman
  • Motherboxes
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Contributors: @ottensam @raveryn @derbykid @wondersyd @NBego


<Transcript Below>
Welcome, fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. This podcast analyzes the Warner Brothers films that are part of the Justice League Universe. It is written by myself with Alessandro Maniscalco, Rebecca Johnson, Sydney, and Nick Begovich. You can find us all on twitter and you can also follow the show @JLUPodcast.

In this episode we are going to cover Scene 2 of Justice League, which is Batman’s first scene in the movie. We see him catch a burglar and then a parademon above Gotham City. So this is the movie’s introduction to Batman. And within the first 4 scenes, we will get a reintroduction to the trinity -- Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They are clearly the basis and then the new characters added in later are Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. The film is pretty well constructed in that regard, as we’ll cover when we go through those scenes.

But speaking of Superman, we already got the reminder about him in the last Scene. And before going forward, we have two more quick thought about that Scene 1 cell phone footage -- first, there’s a fear that the scene will make the film feel dated in the future, rather than timeless. This is always a risk when you try to do something directly rooted in today’s technology or the current fads of media use. The upside is that you might be able to tap into the contemporary social media climate and the common experiences of sharing cell phone videos, but the downside is that 10 or 20 years from now when phones are very different or when technology and social media have moved on to the next generation of formats, the opening scene of Justice League will seem stuck in its time. This contrasts with smooth dolly shots and rich cinematography, which are more likely to remain timeless.

And second, I’m Batman Man 39 on YouTube pointed us toward a Los Angeles Times interview with Henry Cavill where they asked him about the “best part of planet Earth” question. Cavill responded, ““I think — and I imagine Superman would also think — , the greatest quality of people and humankind is their capacity to love regardless of hardship or difficulties or personal trials. People can be living in the most horrendous war zone or under the most incredible oppression and yet they can still love so selflessly and so unconditionally — and still bear hope through that love. It’s amazing to see what people can do. I think Superman would recognize that and appreciate it.” (end quote)

So we talked about this question of the best part of planet Earth last episode, and we mentioned a few possible answers, focusing particularly on the idea of humanity as the best part, in Superman’s view. Cavill’s answer includes the idea of humanity but adds the extra details about humanity’s resilience and ability to hope and love even in dark times. It’s fitting, too, that after the cell phone footage was shot, Superman himself had to go through dark times, largely at the hands of humanity, but even though he was challenged, he maintained a connection to love and hope, which gave him the strength to sacrifice. So when he returns in Justice League, he has walked fully through that path and was able to himself live out that which he appreciates most about humanity. So he’s not just leading humanity into the sun, he’s inspired by them, as well.

Alright, now let’s get into Scene 2, which is the darker setting of Gotham City. The scene begins with an establishing shot that is kind of unique -- it’s a straight vertical shot down the face of the building in Gotham. This is one of the visual motifs that I picked up on right away because it’s such a dramatic framing of the shot. And these vertical shots all tended to be at the beginning of scenes. This scene begins with a vertical shot down a building in Gotham, then later there’s a shot straight down a rock cliff on Themyscira, and there’s also one down the front of Silas Stone’s apartment building. There might be another, too, but those were the three that keyed in on right away.

With regard to analyzing visual motifs, part one is noticing the motif and tracing it through the work of art -- finding all the instances where it occurs. And then part two is interpreting a meaning or insight that is contributed by the motif. Films do not always have that second part -- the meaningful interpretation. But I always appreciate them more when they have both parts. And we’re happy to say that, in the case of the sharp vertical edges, we think this visual motif does have meaning. We see this motif as being related to the theme of isolation. Cliffs and walls are boundaries, and each time they are visually emphasized, it’s reinforcing that idea of the separation and isolation of people in Justice League.
  • Gotham -- Batman is isolated, not yet part of a team.
  • Themyscira -- the Amazons separated from the rest of the world, making them vulnerable to Steppenwolf’s attack.
  • Stone’s Apartment -- there’s Vic’s isolation but more generally there’s the isolation of people in densely packed cities. They can’t possibly get to know all their neighbors, and in fact we often try to live in ways where we stay out of each other’s business. The privacy is nice, but it’s also isolating. In modern society, we are often alone even when we’re surrounded by millions of people.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Right now in Scene 2, all we need to do is mark the first instance of this visual motif, and we’ll comment on it more as it comes up later.

Once the camera pans up to the rooftop, we see a pigeon cage, as is often associated with New York City. And by the way, pigeons have been used as a visual motif in the past. The movie On the Waterfront uses rooftop pigeons as a symbol for the longshoremen and Terry’s dilemma of balancing loyalty with justice. In Justice League, our eye doesn’t stay on the pigeons very long because we are also shown some old newspapers and a headline stands out, “Superman is Dead.” This contrasts with the previous scene where we saw Superman alive and it also places this film very clearly in the post-BvS continuity. That Superman is dead will be emphasized again before the end of the scene.

The ragged newspapers and the pigeons walking over them in a dark, night time scene, where a criminal is about to emerge, also send the message of the general decay and crappiness of the world. That negativity since Superman’s death will be shown in several different ways throughout Act 1.

When we get the home release of Justice League we might be able to pull more information off of these newspapers, but even watching it in theaters, it’s easy to also make out a JANUS building sign that is clearly visible. This is a connection to the Black Mask character from Batman comic book stories. Black Mask’s parents owned a company called Janus Cosmetics, so perhaps this is a hint that it is indeed true that David Ayer is using Black Mask for his Gotham City Sirens script, as he hinted with a tweet last spring. Speaking of which, Gotham City Sirens was not explicitly included in Warner Brothers’ announced lineup. But that doesn’t mean it’s been scrapped, it just means they may not be emphasizing it up front for the moment. And David Ayer did say that Gotham City Sirens is still in development. The films that got explicitly mentioned were Aquaman, the Wonder Woman sequel, Shazam, Flashpoint, Batman, Batgirl, Suicide Squad 2, Justice League Dark, and Green Lantern Corp. So even though this list doesn’t have everything you may have been looking for, it still shows that there’s a bright future for the Justice League Universe post-Justice League.

But getting back to Scene 2, it not only has clear continuity with regard to Superman being dead, but it also picks up directly with where Bruce Wayne left off at the end of Batman v Superman. At the end of that movie, Bruce was very aware of the looming threat, thanks to his visions and Lex Luthor’s cryptic warning. And so Bruce wanted to gather people together to be prepared in Superman’s absence. He talked to Diana about this at the cemetery, and now here in Scene 2, we see that he’s actively trying to figure out what the nature of the new threat is. It’s implied that he’s been trying to find out all he can about the parademons that have started showing up, and he’s also been going through Lex’s data, and presumably Amanda Waller’s data too, on meta-humans so that he can try to put together a team. In other words, Bruce has been busy between movies and he is trying to live up to his promise to Superman, that he won’t fail him in death.

As stated in the Art of the Film book for Justice League, “Justice League starts shortly after the passing of Superman, with Bruce and Diana trying to put together a team. We see Bruce find inspiration in the sacrifice Superman made, it renews his faith in humanity.” And in the Justice League Official Collector’s Edition book, Ben Affleck described it as follows: “Bruce was feeling fearful at the end of [Batman v Superman] from Luthor’s warning that a bell had been rung. He was worrying that there was some kind of attack coming, so he’s decided to gather together as many metahumans as he possibly can. Where we left things, he was in the nascent stages of building a team - he was starting to research. This movie begins with Bruce trying to find these superhumans that he believes are out there. He is actively recruiting.”

Another nice link to BvS and to many comic books is having Batman first appear in a reflection or as a shadow and then in person. In BvS there was the reflection in the museum at the sword of Alexander, and here you see Batman in the reflection of the glass before the burglar notices him and then we cut to a straight-on shot of Batman perched on the side of the building. Alessandro thought this shot looked a bit fake, but it didn’t bother me, though it may have been a bit of a flat composition. I do think it’s a very Gotham-esque way to have him introduced in the movie. The burglar also seems to be afraid of Batman, which is a fitting reaction for the Dark Knight.

The burglar drops his loot and then he has a bit of a cat-and-mouse with Batman. Overall, with this action sequence and the set design here, we thought that it almost felt more like the Tim Burton era of Batman. Obviously the actor and the Batman costume are the modern version, but the several things gave us a sense of Burton -- the set looks more like a soundstage, kind of like the Tim Burton movies that consistently felt like they were in a movie studio rather than a real city (at least to me); the neon backlit signs; Batman’s leaping flip and the surreal physics; the wooden watertower and the leak gag; plus the music, all contributed to a bit of a Burton feel. Now we’re not saying this is necessarily bad, we’re just saying that elements of this scene seemed to us to be a bit inconsistent with Batman v Superman and even some Batman elements later in this same movie.

Speaking of the criminal shooting the water tower, it is kind of like the water tower urinates on him. Omesh @PrimeEarthMook connected this to Warner Brothers, a film studio that has a water tower as its icon because of the famous water tower in the middle of its Hollywood studio lots. So in a sense, this might be symbolic of WB interfering with and somewhat desecrating the creative process of the filmmakers.

In our opinion, the water tower and the shot of the water stream hitting the guy were very deliberate, so Omesh is not crazy for thinking about this angle. But in our view, WB’s interference was not malicious. When they interfere, they are trying to do what they think is best for the movie, although yes this may sometimes differ from what Zack Snyder or Chris Terrio would do if left completely to their own devices. And it may differ from what some fans wanted, but WB was trying to be helpful, even if they were targeting someone other than yourself, or even if it didn’t work out as well as even WB had hoped.

Another thing about the unlikely precision of the watertower leak right on the guy’s face is that it gives us a hint that there will be some exaggerated or inaccurate laws of physics here. This is a departure from the prior films in the Dawn of Justice trilogy, and the other main moment where the physics were unrealistic was when the burglar was extended out horizontally over the edge of the building. Even if Batman was strong enough to hold him at that horizontal angle, which would be incredibly hard, there’s still no way that the criminal’s toes would be strong enough to hold that position. This distracts me every time, but I should say that not all of our contributors view it this way. Some of us are fine with it and think it’s plausible physically, and also one redeeming perspective to take here is to view this as an homage to Batman 66, where they often had scenes of people walking up the side of buildings horizontally. If the filmmakers knew they were breaking the rules of physics, but they explicitly talked among themselves about this homage to the old TV show, then I can give them credit for that. The side-walking on a building is pretty iconic from that show.

It’s kind of funny actually, because this scene makes me think of three different versions of Batman at different points. There’s the Batman 66 I just mentioned, the flip seems like Burton/Keaton-type of Batman action, but the shot where Batman swings around onto the side of the watertower, that fluidity of motion really seems like the Batman from BvS. And the suit, of course, still looks really good, carrying forward from BvS.

Once Batman defeats the burglar, tying him up and dangling him over the edge, it brings us to the main plot element of this scene. The man asks, “What do you want from me?” And Batman answers, “Fear.” This is very fitting for Batman, a character who is known for using fear as his weapon against the criminal underbelly of Gotham, and in Justice League, fear will take on extra meaning because of the fact that parademons are drawn to it. As Batman says, “They can smell it.” Fear also connects to one of the major themes that we identified in our first analysis episode, that fear is not as powerful a motivator as inspiration. The theme of course, isn’t clear yet -- it’ll be developed throughout the rest of the movie -- but this scene is an early and clear indication that we should be on the lookout for fear as a conceptual idea in the film.

As the man hangs over the edge, Batman checks some sort of device on his arm to see if the parademon is approaching, and then at just the right moment, Batman pulls the burglar back and jumps onto the parademon. This is a cool Batman moment, not only because of the precise physicality but also because it suggests a lot of detective work and preparation beforehand. This moment is also a very memorable introduction to the parademons. And as Batman flies out now over the rooftops of Gotham, it seems as though this scene overall was inspired by Justice League: Origin by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, the Justice League reboot that was part of the New 52 in 2011. That comic book story also started right away with Batman pursuing a parademon on the rooftops, and the parademon ends up exploding. And all of that was a preamble to an invasion from Apokolips, just like in the Justice League film, although the graphic novel uses Darkseid rather than Steppenwolf as the main villain.

We mentioned that this scene starts the fear thread, but this is also the beginning of the sonic emitter thread. The parademon hears a particular siren sound and reacts very strongly to it. Batman takes note, and that sound will come up again later in the film. There will be a couple reminders and then a big payoff in the Ukrainian fight scene at the end.

We get some action between Batman and the parademon and a Boba Fett-style moment where Batman stops his slide with his gauntlets. He uses some trademark Batman gadgets and eventually gets the parademon trapped against a wall, which gives the audience a chance to look at it pretty clearly. We get the sense that they are somewhat mindless monsters, or like big insects and so we don’t need to empathize with them too much, which makes them good fodder for fight scenes later in the movie. And then the parademon explodes and we see the green alien blood goo, and there is left on the wall a picture of three squares. Later on we’ll find out that these represent the three mother boxes from the planet of Apokolips, but what we won’t find out is how or why these three squares appeared from an exploding parademon. Yes, the Motherboxes created the Parademons, but why would his self destruction leave these three squares? Would all parademons leave this kind of residue behind or just this particular parademon? We aren’t really sure. And probably it’s just a plot convenience to show the audience the beginning of Batman’s investigation into the symbols.

This is our first time seeing evidence of the mother boxes, but of course Batman’s been looking into it already. As Alfred said, it matches the other sightings. So this isn’t the first run-in with a parademon. And Alfred also says, that the three-square pattern is “all over Luthor’s notes.” So they’ve been looking further into the data that Bruce acquired in Batman v Superman. Bruce and Alfred have also seen Cyborg’s creation footage, which showed some of the power of a mother box. But they may not have made the connection that these three squares are references to three of those devices like the one that formed Cyborg.

Later in the film, it’s a bit inconsistent with regard to how much Bruce claims to know about the mother boxes. This could be a bit of discontinuity from BvS or it could be that at times Bruce is sometimes withholding how much he actually knows from Alfred or Diana. He has done something like before, after all, such as when he was holding back information about the kryptonite from Alfred in BvS.

As far as Lex was concerned, we won’t seem him in the movie proper, but we can presume that he was trying to learn more about the mother boxes after seeing the STAR labs footage and he may have even asked the Scout Ship for information on them. This also means Lex could have known who Steppenwolf was before discovering the Motherbox transmission the night Superman died. Because some of this happened after Bruce stole Lex’s files at the gala, it means Bruce has been gathering more information since then. He could’ve stolen info from the FBI or other government agencies, and we know he got some additional info from Amanda Waller at the end of Suicide Squad. Although Bruce has a lot of info, he doesn’t know everything. That’s why Diana will have to explain more to him later by the lake.

One thing that Bruce seems to be missing here at the start is the connection between the motherboxes and Steppenwolf. Even though he doesn’t know about Steppenwolf specifically, Bruce has seen the mother box’s regenerative ability in action. So it’s a natural conclusion that he has the idea of using the Motherbox to bring back Superman. And at the end of the movie Bruce says to Clark that he just undid a mistake. Was that what he was trying to do from the start? He is clearly trying to protect the world from invasion, but maybe at the same time he is hoping to find a way to bring Superman back.

Speaking of the invasion, the burglar is back now and he asks what the parademon was. Batman says it was a scout, and the burglar says in a very on-the-nose way that it’s from outer space, “like an alien army.” This is a bit too explicit for our taste, but it’s hard to blame WB and the filmmakers for going more explicit because so many people missed things in Batman v Superman because things were unspoken.

Another thing that some people didn’t get in BvS were the transitions between scenes. For example, in Metropolis Bruce Wayne was staring up at Superman with anger, and then it cuts to the beautiful Indian Ocean, but the connection is that kryptonite will become Bruce’s fixation as a way to get back at Superman. Now for Justice League, the filmmakers did try to put in more explicit transitions. Here in Scene 2, the burglar will talk about Superman being dead, and that leads to the World-without-Superman montage. And Bruce and Alfred will talk about prepping the jet to go North tonight, and then the next time we see Bruce will be Scene 5 and he is up in Iceland. So this scene makes it very clear what to expect next. No one can miss the links this time.

It’s very cool again to have Alfred as Batman’s partner, always with him in his earpiece. And in addition to the going North idea, to which Alfred says, “Good. It’s time then,” indicating that they’ve been preparing for this recruitment of the other heros. On Alfred’s screen are images of the four future justice leaguers, Diana, Arthur, Barry, and Vic. With Vic, it’s not the STAR Labs footage from BvS but rather an image of him in his football jersey.

And then the other thing that Alfred says in this scene is when he sees the parademon explode, he says, “what the hell?” This is a small but meaningful connection between Apokolips and hell. It’s common in the comic books to position Apokolips as a real sort of hell, and the movie does the same, though some of these thematic links were cut from the movie, like the line in a trailer when Aquaman says that they’re going to fight the devil in hell or something like that, but even in the theatrical version of the movie, there is a clear notion that the parademons are like demons and Steppenwolf is like a devil character trying to bring hell to Earth.

The final dialogue in the scene is right before Batman jumps off the building back down to the Gotham streets. The burglar calls out to him, “It’s because they know he’s dead, right? Superman. Where does that leave us?” So again, the burglar’s lines are a bit on-the-nose. But hopefully this helps make sure that everyone in the audience knows that Steppenwolf’s invasion is not just a coincidence, it is happening as a direct result of BvS. And this is also an interesting moment because the burglar says these lines to Batman, and Batman doesn’t respond. And as we mentioned before, we’ll see that Batman feels some guilt and responsibility about the death of Superman, so hearing this from the burglar must sting a bit. It is also a direct echo to what Lex said to him at the end of BvS, “ding dong the god is dead.”

And then the burglar’s question “Where does that leave us?” in Superman’s absence is the lead-in to the next scene. It’s also a driving question for Act 1 overall because part of why the league needs to come together is because the world is left without Superman.

So the idea behind the burglar’s lines here are very clear. But the nagging questions that we have are, (1) how is the burglar back here with Batman after Batman flew around with the parademon? And (2) why does Batman just leave him on the roof? These aren’t that important, but they did cross our minds and distracted us a bit from the scene. The simplest explanations are probably just that, for 1, Batman happened to fly right back to the same building that he was on before. And for 2, either Batman will call the police off screen or maybe he’s just not that concerned with a petty criminal because he has a much larger global threat to deal with.

Furthermore, in a Men’s Fitness interview with Holt McCallaney, the actor playing the criminal, he revealed that there was originally more to this scene that didn’t make the final cut. So there may have been some explanation as to why Batman just left him there. The interview also mentions that this scene was originally meant to be more comedic, but the studio stepped in to discourage that.

The addition of this scene before the montage in Scene 3 does make some good sense. It gives us
a clear Batman scene in Gotham, and this way, by Scene 4, they’ve clearly established Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And this scene was very Gothamesque, and one can even view this scene as Batman using the city to his advantage. It shows his connection to the city and his skills and tools, and it also provides us a starting place for Batman, as a street-level hero specific to Gotham, so that we can see throughout the movie how he must expand out into much more -- moving around the world, taking on bigger threats, and working with other people. Without this scene, he would just be going right into that latter part of the arc, without the starting point. So even though we have some quibbles with it, and we can talk in our next episode about whether the World-without-Superman montage should’ve been first to continue the pattern of Zack Snyder opening scenes, we can definitely see the purpose of this Batman scene.

End of Episode
That is our analysis of Scene 2. And it clearly emphasizes the three boxes that will be the focus of Bruce’s detective work for the first portion of the movie. We, of course, know that these are motherboxes from the planet of Apokolips. But Bruce hasn’t figured out exactly what they mean, yet.

But on the topic of motherboxes, we wanted to make a few additional comments. Motherboxes in the movie, while having characteristics of Motherboxes in the comics such as the ability to regenerate hosts, seem to have similarities to the Fatherbox as well. Fatherbox was in Grant Morrison’s “Seven Soldiers” storyline as one of the seven treasures left on Earth by the New Gods, while the Motherboxes were likewise left on Earth in the film. This is interesting in that it connects to the movie Seven Samurai, early promos that read “Unite the Seven”, and Snyder’s own words about Batman having to quote “go out and find these seven samurai”, as each character in the Seven Soldiers story undergoes their own trials and tribulations leading them to to a final battle which they each contribute to.

Although similar to Motherboxes in some of its abilities, Fatherbox is of Apokoliptian origin instead of New Genesis, and Producer Charles Roven mentioned in the Art of the Film book that “the Mother Boxes [in the movie] were created on Steppenwolf’s home planet”. The design of the Motherboxes in the movie also have a similar design to the Fatherbox. The Fatherbox is formed by combining two magic die. While they are not combining dice in the movie, the idea of combining the Motherboxes to form the Unity does seem to be borrowed from this concept of the Fatherbox in this comic book story.

Additionally, the Motherboxes appear to be sentient in that they act independently at times and communicate with Steppenwolf who speaks to them. They created Cyborg and reached out to Steppenwolf after Superman died.

While Steppenwolf and his army of parademons are certainly a threat to the planet, the larger threat is the Unity facilitated by Steppenwolf. The Unity turns the planet’s life into parademons, stripping them of their humanity and free will, and perhaps their soul, and turns the planet into an Apokoliptian world as explained by Diana in the movie. This sounds very similar to the anti-life equation which, in the comics, is a formula for total control over the minds of sentient beings.

So a big question is why the Motherboxes didn’t summon Steppenwolf before Superman even arrived on Earth, especially if he was the whole reason Steppenwolf wasn’t called sooner? After all, the motherboxes have been on the planet for 30,000 years and if they needed a window where Superman wasn’t there as a protector, they had a large window open before Superman even arrived, before the new age of heroes. If the Motherboxes were waiting for terror and division to reign, as Steppenwolf explains, then it seems like the 1940s would be a good opportunity, because World War 2 was happening, and even Ares had already been defeated by Wonder Woman, so the Old Gods were all dead. And presumably Diana would be the only superhero around at all.

But the motherboxes didn’t call Steppenwolf in the 40s. They waited until now. Alessandro was thinking about this and he thought back to the STAR Labs footage from Batman v Superman, Silas says that he successfully activated the device that we know to be a Motherbox. This suggests that it was inactive and therefore not monitoring the planet, which could explain why the Motherboxes didn’t call out to Steppenwolf sooner. According to The Ultimate Guide to Justice League, Silas Stone activates the Motherbox to revive Victor about a year before the events of Justice League. Once activated, the Motherbox would have scanned the planet and detected Superman’s energy who, as we see in the movie, is clearly strong enough to defeat Steppenwolf, while the rest of the team together isn’t. So once Superman died at the hands of Doomsday in Batman v Superman, the Motherbox, which was now active and able to awaken its counterparts, sent a message to Steppenwolf together with the other two Motherboxes, to invade Earth, now that there are no defenders capable of stopping him.

Worth noting, according to the supplemental Man of Steel prequel comic, the Scout Ship was co-piloted by Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl. Given that the Motherbox presumably informed Steppenwolf there were no Kryptonians on Earth to defend it, we can assume that neither Supergirl nor any Kryptonian sleeper cells currently on the planet.

There is of course more to say about the Motherboxes, and we’ll address things as they come up in our scene-by-scene analysis.

But that’s it for now. Thanks for listening. And be sure to check out the Suicide Squadcast for DC-related news and also keep an eye out for any new content from Man of Steel Answers.

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