Tuesday, June 28, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 30 and 31

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Scene 30, Clark receiving the photos at the Daily Planet, and Scene 31, Bruce and Alfred's "absolute certainty" conversation.

  • Clark receives photographs at the Daily Planet
  • Clark's rising tension with Batman
  • Bruce tells Alfred about the Kryptonite
  • Bruce's 1% doctrine
  • Acting performances and editing
  • Questions about god
Thanks to Alessandro Maniscalco

Man of Steel Answers (Kryptonite), Suicide Squadcast, DCU_Club subreddit

<Transcript of the episode>
Welcome, respectful and intelligent 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 films that are part of Warner Brothers’ Justice League Universe. We love the depth and nuance of these films and we love how well they stand up to detailed analysis.

In this episode, we continue our path through Batman v Superman. We are now up to Scene 30, which is a quick scene with Clark at his Daily Planet desk. And then we have Scene 31 which is a heated discussion between Bruce and Alfred now that Bruce has more information on the White Portuguese.

So let’s start with Scene 30. It opens right away inside the Daily Planet offices where we see Clark sitting at his desk. And by the way, I’ve recently seen some people praising the Ultimate Cut of BvS for having more establishing shots than the theatrical cut. This scene is one of several that does not have the typical establishing shot, for example showing the outside of the building before cutting inside. Now, pointing out that the theatrical cut of BvS lacks some establishing shots is a valid statement of fact. But it requires some sort of additional argument to make this a criticism of the movie. One would have to give a reason as to why it was bad to not have an establishing shot. For example, if people were confused as to where this scene was taking place, and if the filmmakers were not intending for it to be confusing, then that’s a critique of the lack of establishing shot. Or if people felt things went to fast and they didn’t have a chance to catch their breath between scenes, then that would be a criticism.

In some of the previous scenes where there was no establishing shot, I don’t necessarily think it was a flaw because it sometimes allowed for some match cuts or some direct thematic connections that would’ve been interrupted by an establishing shot. Here in Scene 30, the sounds and set of the Daily Planet, and Clark Kent at his desk, is very distinctive. There’s nothing else in this movie that would be confused for the Daily Planet setting, and so although an establishing shot would not have harmed things here, I don’t think it was necessary and I don’t think it was bad that they didn’t have one.

There’s also a nice little connection between Scene 29 and Scene 30 here because both Bruce and Clark are at their desks and there is some paper being shuffled around… it’s blowing off the desk in Scene 29 and in Scene 30 Clark is having an envelope delivered to him. Also, Bruce was doing some high-tech digital decryption whereas Clark is getting and processing polaroid pictures… very old school.

The two scenes also work as a pair because Bruce’s concerns were just heightened in the last scene because he saw the dangerous potential of a Superman turned evil and he got a warning from someone saying that Bruce’s instincts are right. Now in Scene 30 we get a quick scene that raises the tension for Clark and prods his animosity toward Batman a bit further.

So in Scene 30, the beat is that some photos get dropped off to Clark and he opens the envelope to see pictures of criminals branded by the Batman, at least some of which are actually pictures of corpses. This connects back to the earlier news report when it was said that criminals branded by Batman are later targeted and often killed in prison. And because the Ultimate Cut is being released tomorrow, this is a good time to remember that Scott, co-host of the Suicide Squadcast, made a prediction that Lex may have not only been behind these pictures being sent to Clark but also behind the actual killings of those branded criminals in prison.

The pictures are marked with handwritten captions, Judge, Jury, Executioner, Justice (question mark). So the question being raised is, should criminals be treated this way? Do street-level crimes warrant torture at the hands of someone who is not authorized by law enforcement and who has no accountability to the public? Do crimes warrant the criminal being sentenced to death? These are big questions in our current society as we deal with controversy around the use of deadly force by police officers. We’ve also had instances, such as with Trayvon Martin, where it was a civilian who took the law into his own hands and a person ended up dead. Or there are cases where the person killed is not necessarily innocent, such as with Michael Brown, but the crimes such as stealing a cigar or jaywalking are far below anything that should coming with a death penalty. In these ways, BvS is willing to raise controversial questions related to law and order, as well as power and religion, and this isn’t always what an audience what’s to be faced with at the movies, but it is the sort of thing that works of art and literature are willing to deal with.

For Clark, these are very serious questions because he is a person with a great deal of power who is struggling himself to find out how to operate in a way that serves the public good and that is also acceptable and approved by public opinion. He is trying to uphold a pure ideal of simply doing the right thing for idealistic reasons, but the world is making that very hard for him. And now here’s Batman, operating in a less pure manner, going somewhat out of control over the last couple years, and his modus operandi is flying in the face of Superman’s ideals.

This goes to a big overarching theme that I recently heard Mark Hughes describe in the form of a question on the Popular Opinion Podcast: “Will society’s cynicism change the good people in this world or will the good people change the cynical world?” Superman represents a good person trying not to be corrupted by the cynicism around him, and ultimately Superman prevails and instills new hope in Batman, Superman, and the population. Batman, during the period when he’s going down his destructive revenge path, represents the cynicism winning out over the good man and the hero that is Bruce Wayne. And Lex, well he’s just been totally corrupted and seems irredeemable.

So in Scene 30, Clark doesn’t have any lines, but we’re supposed to empathize with him and we’re also supposed to be just as troubled by the brutality of Batman’s violence as he is. This is part of why it was so important for the filmmakers to take Batman to the extremes and have him go past some lines that people usually expect Batman not to cross. We are supposed to be troubled by how far Batman has gone toward the cynical and violent and pessimistic end of the spectrum.

And for Clark, I think his issue is at one level the moral disagreements he has with Batman’s method but at another level, I think there is actually some envy there because maybe the people prefer Batman’s approach over Superman’s. That has to have crossed Superman’s mind when dealing with all the negative backlash from his efforts where he’s just trying to help people.

But anyway, for the bloggers who are just counting Clark’s lines, they wouldn’t get anything out of this scene and would just call it a waste. Also, some other critics of the movie have said that Clark should have been suspicious of the photos and should have wondered if someone like Lex was using them to manipulate him.

But come on -- it only makes sense to us, the audience, that he should be suspicious because we know Lex is trying to manipulate things. But at this point, Clark has no inclination at all that Lex has any machinations underway. Also, a journalist often gets photos and tips on stories, so receiving an envelope like this isn’t in and of itself out of the ordinary. The only thing he would maybe be suspicious about for a moment is whether the photos were real or fake. There’s nothing wrong with someone sending in a tip on a real story, and then it’s up to the journalist about whether to cover it. But if someone sent in fake photos, then that would be suspicious to a journalist. But the photos are polaroids and seem legitimate. An inmate being killed is also the kind of thing that could be verified and so it’s unlikely to be faked. Sure, the captions underneath do seem like someone is pushing a certain angle on the story, but that’s basically part and parcel of every press release sent to news outlets. The person pushing a news story usually has a specific angle, and it’s the journalist’s job to investigate and get the full story. For Clark, this is something that Clark was already desiring to cover, but Perry wouldn’t give him the approval.

These photos just make Clark more convinced that he should be following his gut and covering the story of the brutalization of Batman, just like the vision made Bruce even more convinced that he should follow his gut and preemptively take out Superman.

Alright, so that’s Scene 30. Then we go into Scene 31, which is down in the batcave where Alfred is working and Bruce comes in with his new information about the White Portuguese. And to understand Bruce in this scene, because he’s going to build up to a pretty intense peak, it’s important to realize that it’s not just that Bruce now has concrete information on the White Portuguese. It is also that he’s seen how horrible it could be if Superman turned despotic. On top of that, Bruce faced his own death in that vision and he felt yet another failure of the Batman, in this case it was the failure of Batman to lead the rebellion against Superman. So there’s still the deeper psychology of Bruce failing to come to peace with his ultimately fruitless efforts as Batman, his relative powerlessness, but now there is the evermore potent rationalization that Bruce has been developing ever since the Black Zero Event… that Bruce has to take down Superman because a being that powerful is too dangerous to even exist.

So in Scene 31, Bruce comes in and tells Alfred the White Portuguese is a ship. And Alfred responds with his dry humor that even though Bruce is as good a liar as Mozart was a harpsichord player, Bruce cannot get away with lying to Alfred. This is, after all, a man who has been with Bruce since childhood, his closest and sometimes only companion and also sometimes his conscious or his better angel. Now, it may be odd that Alfred brings up Bruce not lying to him after a line where Bruce was not actually lying, but the way I took it was that Alfred has basically had enough of the whole “dirty bomb” cover story and so if Bruce is going to bring it up again, Alfred actually wants the truth this time.

So Alfred straight-up asks, What is the White Portuguese carrying? And Bruce finally comes out with it, it’s a weapon, a rock capable of weakening Kryptonian cells. “The first sample big enough to mean something turned up in the Indian Ocean three months ago. It is now aboard the White Portuguese being delivered to Lex Luthor, who I’m going to steal it from.”

So first of all, this line reveals some timing information. The movie started with the Waynes’ death back in 1981, I think it was based on the release year of Excalibur. Then we jumped ahead to the time of Man of Steel, which was basically 2013, the release year of Man of Steel. Then we jumped forward 18 months to the main chronology of BvS, and the first scene there was the Kryptonite scene in the Indian Ocean. And now we’re here, so three months have passed between Scene 3 and Scene 31. We don’t know if the events that we’ve seen were evenly spaced, but we know we’re 21 months after the Black Zero Event, and we’ll be a couple months further along for the BvS fight and the release of Doomsday, putting those big events about two years after BZE.

Bruce’s line also reveals some information about Kryptonite. He says, like Lex did, that this big sample is the first one big enough to mean something. This means that the way Kryptonite operates in the Justice League Universe is that you need a large sample to really damage or kill a Kryptonian. This implies that a sliver or even a bullet won’t be effective, even if it was malleable enough to make a bullet, which it probably isn’t. And this take on Kryptonite is different than the comics where a tiny sliver has been powerful enough to kill Superman. For a full analysis of Kryptonite, why Batman made a spear instead of something else, and why it glows when it’s being used by Lex’s scientists or when it’s being used by Batman on the tip of the spear shaft, then definitely check out the episode of the Man of Steel Answers podcast on Kryptonite.

The last part of Bruce’s line makes it very clear that Bruce’s intention is to steal the Kryptonite, so now looking back, we can see that that goal is what was driving all of his past actions -- interrogating the criminals, going after Knyazev, tracing the White Portuguese, and hacking into Lex’s data. Kryptonite is where he’s been focusing all his efforts, giving up even pulling the weeds that is his regular crime-fighting in Gotham. And Bruce is so committed to his path now that he’s willing to tell it to Alfred straight up.

Speaking of Kryptonite as Bruce’s obsession at the center of his revenge story, one classic revenge story is Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and some people online have drawn connections between Bruce and Captain Ahab, with the Kryptonite spear being his material obsession and maybe Superman being his white whale that will lead to Bruce’s own demise just as the revenge consumed Ahab. At first, I thought these parallels between BvS and Moby Dick were just a coincidence because there are bound to be parallels between any two revenge tragedies, but then Queen Rey Kenobi on tumblr (http://kingofthesevenseas.tumblr.com/post/144192862947) reminded me that Lex explicitly referred to the Kryptonite as “a whale” back in Scene 10! I am now convinced that the filmmakers did have Moby Dick in mind, at least a little bit.

Okay, continuing on in the scene, we are about to get a powerhouse acting performance between Jeremy Irons and Ben Affleck, going toe to toe in intensity. Alfred, acting as Bruce’s conscience, says that Bruce must be stealing the Kryptonite to keep it out of Luthor’s hands, “to destroy it.” And Bruce just gets this complex smirk on his face and says, “No.”

Alfred points out the implications of this, saying, “You’re going to go to war?”

And this sets Bruce off into all the anger and vengeance that’s been boiling over in him since the BZE. “That son of a bitch brought the war to us.” I don’t even know how Affleck got the growl in his voice on the word “us” but it’s intense. And this line plays on some actual criticisms that people had of Superman in Man of Steel, saying that Zod and his crew would not have come to Earth if not for Superman being here. But of course it was not Superman’s choice to be here on Earth, he was sent as an infant. And he had no idea that activating the scout ship would send out a signal. Man of Steel Answers has also argued convincingly that there weren’t other good candidate planets for terraforming, so it had to be Earth and not Mars, for example. Bruce is blaming Superman for even existing, implying that Superman’s existence brought the Kryptonian invasion and the tragedy along with it, and Superman doesn’t get a pass just because he was able to stop Zod before the entire planet was lost.

Now of course, this is irrational of Bruce and of the critics of Man of Steel to blame Superman in this way. It was Zod, not Superman, who brought the war to Earth. The only thing Superman intentionally did in Man of Steel was surrender himself to mankind and then stop the World Engine and Zod, saving the people and planet. Did he save everyone? No, but he did what he could and overall he won the day. So Bruce is being irrational, but he is rationalizing it to himself because the BZE, the loss of his building and his employees, the little orphan girl, it was all the final straw for Bruce and it was a painful echo of the feelings he had when his parents fell. In both cases, he felt completely powerless, and for the BZE, it was also after he had lost a Robin and probably other friends and companions, and so it threw it in his face that all his training and efforts as Batman didn’t do jack squat in saving Metropolis from the Kryptonians.

So Bruce’s feelings of failure and powerlessness broke him, he fixated his revenge on Superman, and he started building a rationalization to convince himself that he was right in taking out Superman. Now he’s more convinced than ever about his rationalization and he’s about to lay it out explicitly to Alfred.

“Jesus, Alfred, count the dead.” Okay, a christ reference. Can’t let that go unnoticed with all the christ imagery in this movie. “Count the dead. Thousands of people. What’s next? Millions. He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty. And we have to destroy him.”

So we have to admit that Bruce is, in some sense, correct here. Superman does have a great deal of power and it would be very difficult for any military on Earth to stop him if we went on a rampage. But Superman also has the power to protect Earth from some natural disasters and from unforeseen threats, and so far, putting aside visions, all the evidence is that Superman is a protector, not a threat.

But that leads things to Bruce’s 1 percent doctrine, which harkens back to Vice President Dick Cheney who talked about the war on terror and specifically about Pakistani scientists possibly assisting terrorist groups. Cheney said that “if there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” This is known as the 1% doctrine and it was Cheney’s and other’s response to the post-9/11 era where low probability events, if they happened, could have very large negative effects.

It’s related to the broader Bush Doctrine which involves confronting threats before they materialize, as Bruce wants to do with Superman. He recognizes that Superman has been doing good thus far, but he wants to take him out before he ever decides to turn bad. The Bush Doctrine also involves taking the fight to the enemy’s territory before the enemy can come attack us at home. So Bruce already feels somewhat violated in this regard because Superman has already struck very close to home, not hitting Gotham but toppling the Wayne Financial tower in Metropolis. (Though I have to point out that it was Zod who threw Superman into the building and Zod who ripped through it with his heat vision. But Bruce was psychologically broken and had to affix his vengeance somewhere, and with Zod out of the picture, Superman was the clear target.)

Because the filmmakers are so clearly bringing up ideas related to 9/11 and the War on Terror, it’s worth mentioning yet another component of the Bush Doctrine, which is to spread hope to counteract the enemy’s ideology of fear. This is interesting because Bruce is the one invoking the 1% doctrine, yet he is also the one operating out of fear and pessimism, whereas Superman, who is positioned by Bruce as the enemy, is actually the one who is a character of hope. Granted, Superman’s candle of hope is often dampened or nearly snuffed out by society, but he keeps it burning internally, and with the help of Lois, and is finally able to let it out at the end of the movie.

Alfred, as usual, has a bit more perspective on the whole situation as he has seen Bruce’s descent over the years and he has also seen that Superman only seems to be doing good deeds, trying to help out where he can. So Alfred says forcefully to Bruce, “He is not our enemy.”

Bruce acknowledges the point and says, “Not today.” And then Bruce immediately counterargues, making a personal appeal to his shared history with Alfred of pain and heartbreak. “20 years in Gotham, Alfred. We’ve seen what promises were worth. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?”

Bruce has gone from intense determination to quiet sadness in the space of a few lines. He alludes to his long history as Batman, so it brings to mind again the Robin suit, the burnt out manor, and countless other tragedies that we don’t explicitly know about. We can see it on his face that he is tired of those losses, which are not only losses but for him they are failures as Batman because he holds himself responsible to an insanely high degree. He refuses to let Superman be another failure on his part, and he is also trying to reestablish his worth and power as Batman, making it all retroactively seem like it was worth it.

His line about “promises” is also important to remember, because later when Batman finally turns off of his dark path after the Batman-Superman fight, he regains his faith in promises. But right now, he has totally lost faith in promises. Even his own promises, such as to the little girl to find her mom, have proven worthless.

With regard to the acting in this scene, the editor, David Brenner, told the ProVideo Coalition magazine that he was really impressed with how strong Affleck’s performance was here. There was one take where Affleck really went to another level of intensity, and so they really wanted to use that take. And that was the take we saw in the film, so it put them at a medium shot for Bruce when he says his “1 percent” line, which was wider than the previous close-up of Bruce when he revealed that Kryptonite is what he’s really after. Brenner said they balanced the shift in tightness by having a dolly move in on Alfred.

I agree that Affleck’s performance was very good in that shot, but my favorite moment for Affleck was when Alfred presumes Bruce wants to destroy the Kryptonite and Bruce responds with a smirk and a “no.”

We mentioned the word “promise” is important to remember for later. It’s also worth noting that the word “absolute” connects back to the opening monologue, “diamond absolutes.” That ties us in with the major themes about absolute good and evil and absolute truth. Those absolutes were first cracked when his parents died and then shattered when Superman arrived, but he is still trying to grasp at absolutes and it’s pulling him to the edge because there are no more absolutes in modern society, if there ever were.

End of Episode:

Before we close, we just have a few more overarching thoughts that were inspired by these scenes, but we weren’t sure where to put them above. First of all, in a recent graphic novel, Superman: Earth One (Volume 3), there was a scene with a similar sentiment as the 1% doctrine argued here by Bruce. In the graphic novel, it’s Zod presenting the argument to the UN. He says: I want you to imagine a playground filled with your children.  A strange man approaches.  Worrisome?  Say he has a gun.  More worried still?  What if he is wearing a bulletproof suit and carrying a bag filled with guns and grenades and ammunition.  And what if he were carrying a nuclear weapon?  Even if his intentions were the very best...how safe would you feel about your children?  Wouldn’t you feel safer if he were gone?  That is how you should view Kal-El.  He is a nuclear weapon, and whatever his intentions, sooner or later he will go off.

Second, we just saw Clark Kent working in the Daily Planet office. This leads to one question that sometimes comes up around Superman --- should he ever work at his day job or two personal things because anytime he’s doing that, there’s surely something he could be doing as Superman to help someone in need or prevent some sort of damage or crime? Basically, with the powers of Superman does he ever have the right to not be Superman? Is it ethical for Superman to ever take a day off?

The old Adventures of Superman TV show did not really take up this philosophical question, and the Christopher Reeve movies had Superman willingly give up his powers for love, so he took the position of not only taking a day off but taking the rest of his life of from saving people, though of course the irreversible power loss was reversed and a Super kiss set everything back into place. The comic books for most of the history ignored this philosophical question but there have been some that have taken it head on. In BvS, the beauty is that we see Clark grappling with the question himself. As the world has begun to doubt, debate, and protest about his actions as Superman, that gives him a sort of general permission to not be Superman for awhile. He is able to retreat to his alter ego as Clark Kent, and maybe he can stand for something as a journalist and do some good in the world. But just as Perry blocks him from covering the Batman story, Clark gets the photographs that show the Batman’s reign of terror continuing. Clark now feels like he has to do something, and if he can’t do it as Clark, he’ll have to do it as Superman.

But overall, Batman v Superman does deal with that question of whether Superman is ever allowed to have a day off. If his good intentions sometimes have negative repercussions, then it is permissible for him to sometimes do nothing because doing nothing is a neutral action whereas trying to help can sometimes lead to a negative outcome overall. Of course, although there are the people protesting Superman, we know that Superman has the deep instinct to help out whenever he can because we’ve seen that all the way back through Man of Steel when Clark was a boy, when he was a roaming adult, and when he first put on the Superman suit.

Our third and final idea to share here is again about Bruce rationalizing to himself that Superman is too powerful to exist. Clearly, we have parallels between Superman and god imagery, so we can naturally extend the question philosophically to be: Is the Western ideal of god too powerful to exist and should we also work against god because we can never be 100% certain that god is all good?

Of course, the character of Bruce who is leading us to this philosophical question is himself in a psychologically broken state. So his is not the most reliable perspective. But is he nonetheless representative of mankind, because aren’t we too often broken because of our powerlessness and failures? Are we going down a similar destructive path or have we been able to pull ourselves out of it like Bruce does at the end?

In response, a christian audience member could associate Superman with christ and say that it was precisely christ’s sacrifice and example that gives mankind the way forward, to accept our powerlessness and yet love god. Or a literary audience member could use Superman himself or other characters from literature such as Valjean as the example that we can strive toward, even though they’re fictional they can still serve as a real inspiration in the world. Or a humanist audience member might see this as Superman serving as an example in the movie universe just as real people and real heroes here in our universe can inspire one another and support each other in grappling with and accepting our limitations and striving to stand together and make a better world.

So Batman v Superman not only leads us to question a purely benevolent god, but it also gives us both a religious and a humanist means for answering the question optimistically.

Speaking of god, it’s kind of ironic that while Bruce and Lex accuse Superman of being a god, and how dare he, it is actually Bruce and Lex themselves who play god by deciding that Superman should die, and then Lex plays god even further by creating life with Doomsday.
And Wonder Woman is more like a deistic god who has stepped away from the workings of mankind.

But we’re going to have to stop there because we have an Ultimate Edition to watch. Thanks for listening. We’ll get an Ultimate Edition special episode up soon. And in the meantime, you can check out Man of Steel Answers and the Suicide Squadcast.


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