Tuesday, May 17, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scene 16

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast covers scene 16 of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is Senator Finch's visit to Lex Luthor's father's room.

  • Luthor and Finch's verbal battle. Why is the dialogue disjointed?
  • The "Granny's Peach Tea" setup.
  • When does Lex shift from Plan A to Plan B?
  • We know about Lex's father, but what about his mother?
  • What are the thematic interpretations of turning the painting upside down?
  • BONUS: A list of thematic connections between Man of Steel and BvS.

Thanks to Alessandro Maniscalco for his help with the analysis.
Man of Steel Answers, Suicide Squadcast, Thesis on Man of Steel

Welcome fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast, I go scene by scene through the Warner Brothers movies that are part of the DC Films Justice League Universe. I’ve been making my way through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and I just finished Bruce’s visit to the underground MMA fight and Lois’s pitch to Perry to follow the bullet story to DC.

In this episode, I’m going to cover Scene 16, which is one of my favorite scenes from the movie. It’s Senator Finch’s visit to see Alexander Luthor in his father’s study. And I want to say that I am very happy to have a co-writer for this episode. The analysis here was pulled together by myself and Alessandro Maniscalco.

At the beginning of this scene, Lex is in a good mood because he thinks he’s going to be able to get what he wants from the Senator. He probably anticipates that this meeting is to finalize the agreements and the quid pro quo. He thinks that the Committee on Superman will grant his request for an import license, and moreover, that they will support his efforts to weaponize the Kryptonite and hold it over Superman, which would satisfy Lex for the time being. If the government was actively skeptical of Superman, and the public was gradually becoming more fearful or judgmental of Superman, this would be an important first step in Lex’s long game to discredit and then find an avenue to take down Superman and assert himself. Having the government on his side would also satisfy Lex’s desire to make sure that Superman does not exist “above all” -- Superman is not the ultimate power. As Man of Steel Answers explained in the analysis of Lex Luthor, this is Lex’s initial plan -- to bend the government to his will as a means for keeping Superman in check, and Lex, through his influence over the government, would actually be the top dog.

Lex starts the interaction by schmoozing with the Kentucky mash, offered to the junior senator from Kentucky. He mentions that his father was the one who said Kentucky mash was the secret to health. This brings Lex’s father into the scene immediately and implies to me that Lex Junior is channeling his father as he tries to lobby and pursue semi-legitimate avenues toward his goals. That approach isn’t going to last long, however, and for the rest of the movie, it’s Lex Junior’s private and heartless approach all the way.

With regard to Lex’s character, Jesse Eisenberg, in the Art of the Film book, confirmed that Lex does all his business from a “very isolated and dark place.” Eisenberg also confirmed what I said back in Scene 10 about Lex only pretending that he’s all about his employees and on equal footing with them. Really, Lex was just putting on a facade when he was with his employees and he actually sees everyone as just pawns. Totally dispensable if they get in the way of his plans.

In the scene, Lex goes on to say that the room was his father’s and that Lex has not changed it at all. This desire to keep it the same he calls “the magical thinking of orphan boys.” This is the first time we learn that Lex considers himself an orphan, which should immediately indicate to us that he has something in common with Bruce Wayne -- the most famous orphan in the DC Universe. So because of this, in many of the future scenes, we’ll look at where Lex and Bruce parallel each other and where they diverge in their reactions to Superman and their personal character arcs.

This room and the LexCorp name itself represents Lex’s father constantly hanging over him. Even though, as we learn later, his father was abusive, or at least abusive according to Lex himself, Lex still chooses to keep his father around maybe because he’s trying to prove something to his father, to himself, or because he revels in the private pain as some sort of contrition.

Anyway, Senator Finch is having none of the small talk or schmoozing at all. She doesn’t respond to anything Lex has said. Her first line is just that she’s blocking the import license. She is a strong character who consistently refuses to play Lex’s game or be used as a pawn, and here she not only rebuffs his small talk but also his request to bring in the Kryptonite legitimately. This leads to the most important moment in the scene and I think one of the most important moments for understanding the character of Lex Luthor.

After Finch says no, there are a few seconds where Lex just silently reacts, and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance here is great. His body language and facial twitches do a great job of showing, without words, that Lex is enraged at being told no. I mentioned in a previous episode that Lex is an interesting combination of a spoiled, rich kid and a damaged, abused kid. Here, we see on Lex’s face the spoiled side of that combination, where he always expects to get his way. And at this moment, he’s not getting his way, and I believe, Lex is already deciding that he needs to exact brutal revenge upon Senator Finch, and he is shifting into his Plan B.

So next, Lex gathers himself and moves into his new tact. We’ve already seen him quote the Wizard of Oz and A Streetcar Named Desire, and here he paraphrases the apocryphal quote from Paul Revere, “The redcoats are coming,” as “The red capes are coming.” This refers to the impending attacks from the British during the American Revolutionary War. So Lex is suggesting that Superman is just the first of a wave of invading force in the form of the other meta-humans. He is basically connecting back to his argument in Scene 10 that there are “more of them” out there and the humans need to be ready to defend themselves and to maintain power in the world.

In terms of the scene blocking, Lex has moved from across to room to right up close in the personal space of Senator Finch. It’s one of several times in the movie that Lex violates personal space boundaries, and this, together with his annoying drumming fingers representing the horseback rider warning about the invasion, makes us feel very uncomfortable and annoyed with Lex. It’s very effective for establishing negative feelings toward the villain (though the filmmakers may have been actually too successful in this regard because some people’s negative feelings toward Lex spilled beyond normal villain hate and into distaste for this version of the character overall).

Again, Senator Finch is having none of this and she physically clamps down on Lex’s drumming fingers. And again, Lex responds with deep anger that he barely contains. As Man of Steel Answers pointed out, Finch is actually acting somewhat like a mother with a misbehaving child here. I mentioned earlier that the most important moment in this scene was the unspoken reaction of Lex after he was told no. Another important part of this scene, that is also implicit, is Lex’s mother. Throughout the movie, Lex talks exclusively about his father, and this scene takes place in his father’s study, but that leads to the question, where was Alexander’s mother when Lex Sr. was being abusive? Those questions about mother are raised by Senator Finch’s actions in this scene. Is Lex angered by his mother, not just his father, because she stood by and didn’t save him from his father’s fist and abominations? Does he feel betrayed by and distrustful of all parental figures, and thus extends this to god?

To me, Senator Finch is not only acting motherly over Lex but her no-nonsense attitude in this movie also connects with the other female characters, especially Lois and Diana, largely being more rational and responding better to feelings of powerlessness than the male characters. I’ll probably get more into that later.

But here, Lex continues by trying to give his “oldest lie in America” line, and he tries to regain the upperhand in the conversation by asking if he can call Senator Finch “June.”

Finch counters very directly. “You can call me whatever you like. Take a bucket of piss and call it Granny’s Peach Tea. Take a weapon of assassination, call it deterrence. You won’t fool me.” The filmmakers went to their closest shots right here at this part of the scene, and because close-ups mark things as especially important, we have a strong setup for the later payoff with the “Granny’s Peach Tea” reference.

She is also cutting right through Lex’s cover story about deterrence as his goal for the Kryptonite. She knows that Lex actually wants to use it to take down Superman even before Superman has posed a real threat. She has her concerns about Superman, but she is confident that the democratic process can work out a suitable arrangement with Superman and she believes that he has good intentions. She is more concerned about Lex’s intentions than Superman’s, and rightly so. This is a credit to her instincts, just as Lois has the right instincts with what went on in the African tragedy.

Senator Finch, in reference to the Peach Tea, says “I’m not gonna drink it.” This is a paraphrased reference to drinking the kool-aid, which refers to going along with a belief without critical examination. It also refers to accepting a dangerous idea because of peer pressure, tracing back to the Jonestown suicides spurred by Jim Jones. So in this analogy, Lex is the one with the dangerous idea and she is calling him out for trying to pressure her and others into going along with his plans. We’ve seen all along that she isn’t going along with him, but here she is bluntly rejecting him to his face and casting him as someone with unsavory intentions.

So overall, Senator Finch has definitively won this verbal battle. She’s won the battle, but Lex is determined to win the war, which he will do ruthlessly in the Capitol tragedy.

After her “not gonna drink it” line, Lex doesn’t respond directly to Senator Finch. So again the dialogue jumps to the side instead of following a straight line of conversation, but this is on purpose to show that the characters are on completely separate pages here, not in alignment at all, and the disjointed dialogue also gives an air of discomfort to the scene. We the audience can feel that something is off.

Lex’s non sequitur response is about changing one thing in his Dad’s room. He talks about turning the painting upside down so that the devils and demons are coming down from above instead of up from “hell beneath us.” It’s interesting to note that Zack Snyder studied art history in college, so this is one of several times that works of art play an important role in BvS. (Other places are at the library fundraiser, in the Wayne mausoleum, and during the death of Superman when Batman lowers him in his cape with Wonder Woman and Lois receiving the body, like famous paintings of Jesus being lowered from the cross -- thanks to Queen-Rey-Kenobi on tumblr for making that connection.) Here in Lex’s Dad’s room, I think it’s an original painting for the movie but it is inspired by Gustav Dore, who did some illustrations for “Paradise Lost” and portraits of angels and demons.

Lex’s line about “knowing better now” that “devils come from the sky” is highlighted by the return of the musical score, with Lex’s agitated and slightly grating string arpeggios. So clearly this line is worth a closer look with regard to his character. First, he says that we “know better now,” implying that it is only recently obvious that devils come from the sky and not the ground. In particular, this is a new revelation -- for Lex, it has been since the arrival of Superman. For others, it may only be since the African tragedy, as Lex is manipulating lots of moving parts to try to turn public sentiment against Superman.

And even though Lex doesn’t say anything about angels, we are prompted to think about angels in at least a couple ways. First, Satan was a fallen angel who came down from heaven and then resided in hell. This connects with the motif of falling and the fallen, established right away in Scene 1. If we think about Superman, this also connects to Batman’s fear, which is that even though Superman is good now -- an angel -- there is a fear that in the future he may be a fallen angel, and at that point, who could stop him?

The other way that angels come up here from Lex’s dialogue is that if devils are coming from the sky then they are displacing angels. So the implication is that Superman is not an angel as many are making him out to be, but instead a demon, in Lex’s view. This connects to the theme I’ve mentioned several times before related to good and evil not being absolutes -- the movie shows in many different ways that there are no absolutes in a post-modern society, and grappling with the complexity of what good and evil actually mean is what this movie takes head on. Lex also recognizes a flaw in the ideas of absolute good and evil but instead of rejecting the absolutes and engaging with the complex ideas of goodness as sober-minded choice or as a conversation, Lex simply replaces one absolutism with another --- he reverses good and evil. He is saying that, in his view, the all good actually is the evil. We’ll get into this idea and Lex’s perspective a lot more during the helipad scene when it all comes together, but if you want to understand these ideas about Lex right now, I recommend the Man of Steel Answers podcast episode about Lex’s character arc.

There are a few final thoughts we can fit here, though, about Lex. In the Art of the Film book, Jesse Eisenberg says that Lex sees everyone as pawns. He also says that Lex wants to appear to the public as an altruistic patron rebuilding Metropolis, but underneath he is trying to turn public opinion against Superman and he then wants to kill him because he rejects the goodness and he doesn't think Superman deserves to exist on Earth. More than this, it is very likely that he wants to continue to snuff out all the meta-humans to maintain his sense of superiority and to deny the world any all-good, all-powerful idols.

In an Empire Magazine article, Jesse Eisenberg also talked about his character exploring the idea of the role of supreme power in today’s world. He said, “my character, who has what we would think of as modern financial success, is threatened by this guy who has power in a supernatural way. Superman is an existential threat to my character."

And back to the Art of the Film book, Henry Cavill talked about this movie as modernizing Lex Luthor. Cavill said, “The internet world is all about opinion and Lex is a manipulator of that. He is an internet troll.”

So there you have it. An internet troll is the villain of BvS, and maybe that’s why internet haters came after BvS so hard, because they were actually the villain of the movie and, like Lex, they can’t abide something pure and good existing and being adored in this world.

But in seriousness, this is a modernization of the character but he is not without precedent. In the comics, during the Death of Superman storyline, it is actually Lex Luthor II who is the prominent Lex Luthor, pretending to be his own son and trying to maintain a calm guise but sometimes snapping and showing his true self.

And finally, Jesse Eisenberg also said that Lex Luthor always has back-up plans and thinks he’s smarter than everyone. We can definitely see that here in Scene 16, when he couldn’t get the Kryptonite in legitimately, he immediately shifted over to a back-up plan that involved smuggling it in, using Batman, and bombing the Capitol.

End of Episode:

So that’s what we have for Scene 16. Thanks again to Alessandro Maniscalco for helping me with this analysis. Next up are two quick scenes -- Bruce’s dream in his parents’ tomb and Lois’s bathroom meeting with Secretary Swanwick.

Before I close this episode, I wanted to quickly share some thoughts I had looking across Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. I think it’s really amazing how well these two movies work together as a pair, not just because the events in Man of Steel drive the characters and plot of BvS, but also because of some thematic echoes between the two movies. So here’s my list of cool connections between them:
  • MoS is about fathers, BvS is about mothers (Deborah Snyder confirmed this in Art of the Film book)
  • MoS is about adoption, BvS is about orphans (specifically, Bruce and Lex)
  • MoS is a Moses story, BvS is a Christ story
  • MoS began and ended with birth (the birth of Kal-El and then the birth of Superman, as traced in the YouTube video called “A Thesis on Man of Steel”), BvS began and ended with death (the funerals that marked Bruce’s character journey)
  • MoS involved turmoil about how the world would react to Superman but in the end Superman put his faith in humanity, BvS involved turmoil about the relationship between Superman and humanity but in the end humanity finally put their faith in Superman.

Good, good stuff. And I can’t wait to see how Snyder uses Justice League to finish off what I think will be a Superman trilogy.

Thanks, as always, to my favorite DC-related podcasts. Man of Steel Answers is the master when it comes to DC Films analysis, and the Suicide Squadcast is the best source for DC news and talk.

Please leave your thoughts or questions in the comments, especially because Alessandro and I are thinking about answering some listener questions in future episodes.

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