Tuesday, June 7, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Batman v Superman Scenes 22 and 23

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scenes 22 and 23 of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, that is, the Day of the Dead rescue and the Superman montage.

  • Superman's character development during the fire rescue
  • "Day of the Dead" musical score
  • Ironic imagery of the godlike Superman taking it in from his couch (joons.tumblr.com)
  • Superman as glorified first responder
  • Reference to Superman: Peace on Earth (@superherospot)
  • The talking heads debate about Superman
  • Casper Richter's thoughts on Superman's reflection and what we can learn from him
  • BONUS: Listener questions about the ultimate cut 
Thanks to Alessandro Maniscalco for his help on the analysis.

<Transcript of the Episode>
Welcome fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast, I share my analysis of the movies that are part of the DC Films division of Warner Brothers Pictures, focusing especially on movies in the Justice League Universe.

This episode contains analysis by myself and Alessandro Maniscalco of scenes 22 and 23 in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder. These are the scenes where Superman saves the girl in Mexico and then we get a montage of Superman heroics cut together with talking heads in the media.

We are considering Day of the Dead its own scene because it follows in continuity from Scene 21 when we saw Superman leaving for the rescue, whereas the montage in Scene 23 is basically out of continuity. We don’t know precisely when each of those rescues took place, and the talking heads come in over the montage, not over the Day of Dead where we have only the score.

So starting with the Day of the Dead, we have three main things to mention here. First, Dia de Muertos starts on October 31st and goes into the first few days of November. So that gives us a pretty specific time of year for when Lex’s party was occurring. We can use this to try to keep track of the timespan between later events because there are sometimes gaps of a few months between scenes in the movie, even though it might seem at first that they happen in close proximity.

Second, let’s look at Superman’s body language and reaction to his saving of the girl from the fire. He floats down from the burning building holding the girl gently and he has a slight smile on his face as he walks across to what seems to be her mother and possibly other family members. So for a nice moment, things are going the way Superman wanted. He was happy to be there to save the girl and return her safely to her family. But this shot follows Superman into the aftermath of his rescue. In fact, Scene 22 is entirely a oner -- a long, single shot. This oner keeps us locked in with Superman so we can follow him and realize that his act of heroism is actually a pretty small part of his experience and that the aftermath and people’s reactions to him are much bigger and longer lasting.

Just as soon as Superman hands off the girl, he is swarmed by an adoring crowd and we see on Superman’s face that he is not thrilled about being the center of this attention. He just wanted to save the girl, basically being a guy who’s trying to do the right thing. But the people around are turning him into a figure of worship. These people are, of course, happy that Superman came, but this type of response is still negative to Superman because he doesn’t want the hero worship or the idolatry.

I think the way Henry Cavill played it was subtle and touching, again showing how much character depth there can be even without lines of dialogue.

And recall that this is only the second new scene with Superman, not counting the Black Zero Event. In both instances, Africa and now Mexico, Superman was trying to do the right thing, and yes, he actually did save lives, but both times it led to something undesirable. In Africa, it was the African government’s backlash against its people, and in Mexico, it was this mass of people adoring him and reaching out to touch him as if he were a savior or healer. So we are seeing a pattern that it is difficult to be Superman and it is impossible to control the ripples of effects and reactions that come after any instance of Superman intervening.

Henry Cavill, in Art of the Film, referred to this idea. He said: “People want to direct their fear at something, whether at everyday, real-world stuff or at this new god in the sky. Whether it be them praising this savior, or hating him. These are the things he faces.”
Superman is troubled by both responses, worship and hatred.

The third thing we wanted to mention for Scene 22 was the amazing musical score. In this scene, Hans Zimmer reprised music from Man of Steel and used it to show the weight of the world that is on Superman’s shoulders, and how being a superhero in the real world is not all fun and games but comes with a measure of guilt and the need to realize what you can and cannot control.

We’re going to play excerpts of the score here, starting with “Flight” from Man of Steel. This is the music that accompanied Clark finally learning of his origin and then pushing his limits and flying for the first time. This was a huge moment for Clark because he not only had the answer to the main question that had been nagging at him for twenty years, but with the ability to fly he didn’t need to rely on hitchhiking anymore and he could return home to visit Martha as he wished. Plus, there’s just the pure element of exhilaration.

Now let’s hear how these musical themes were resituated for the Day of the Dead scene. First, listen for the rising intervals -- a fifth, a sixth, then a seventh -- that are supposed to lead to a full octave over a big, full Ab-Major chord, but instead the phrase never crests.

Then, listen to the return of the Flight theme -- C, B, C -- but now over a somber accompaniment that represents Superman’s burdens. What was the joy of first flight is now all the weight that comes from being a superhero.

[Insert Day of the Dead excerpt https://youtu.be/lnNwMiOWDM0?t=1m18s]

As you can tell from the music, this is yet another heart-wrenching moment for Clark and for us, if we’re empathizing with him. For at least the third time, he is basically trying to be the classic version of Superman but the world is ruining it and turning it sour. First, there was Lois’s apartment where he wanted to have a fun dinner with her but there were the repercussions of Africa to think about. Then there was the story he pitched at the Daily Planet, but the American conscience had died. And now here he is saving a girl from a fire but he can’t revel in the moment because he’s met with worshipping masses.

This leads us right into the montage of Scene 23, but before we go there, a quick thought from one of our listeners, Umesh Narayan from YouTube. He pointed out that setting Scene 22 at a Day of the Dead celebration may have been to show Superman surrounded by death during one of his altruistic actions, representative of how he was surrounded by death in Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel and the death in Africa when he was saving Lois. Umesh also wonders if this might be meant to elicit a notion of a “valley of death” as in Psalm 23.

But now let’s push into Scene 23, the Superman montage. We’ll start with some comments on what we see Superman doing here in the montage, then we’ll mention some thoughts about the different topics that are being discussed on TV.

The Superman montage shows how active he has been over the past two years, intervening in various kinds of disasters and in various parts of the world. There is the Russian shuttle launch disaster where Superman saves the capsule, the large tanker or freighter that he is pulling through the ice probably up in the arctic circle where there actually is an increase in shipping routes due to global warming but still has dangers of being iced in, and then there are the flood victims who are on their roofs reaching out to Superman. If you put these together with the Day of the Dead rescue, you see Superman exerting power over fire, ice, water, and technology.

These images draw on some famous comic books such as Superman: Peace on Earth, by Paul Dini and Alex Ross. Thanks to @superherospot on Twitter for putting together a nice image of this reference https://twitter.com/SuperheroSpot/status/720860323553488896). One slight nitpick I had was that I thought Superman’s boots and feet should have been digging much more intensely into the ice because even though Superman is strong enough to pull the ship, he still needs to be pushing against the ground with a force equal to that which he is hauling. A lot of old Superman and superhero media made these kinds of mistakes all the time -- just because Superman is super strong doesn’t mean that the beam he’s using for leverage or the platform he’s standing on is equally as strong. This was actually one thing that I really appreciated about Man of Steel, that they showed his super strength being used in real ways with real effects on the physical objects involved.

Although I had this nitpick, I should say that the Art of the Film book showed sketches by Zack Snyder for this scene, and Snyder’s original concept had much more extreme digging into the ice by Superman’s boots. Also, I can think of two possible explanations for how they did it in the movie -- one idea is that these shots in the montage are stylized accounts of what happened rather than true capturings of the events as they happened. The other idea is that Superman is maybe flying forward as he pulls the ship rather than truly walking with all his weight and force on the ground.

I also initially had some concerns over the flood situation because I wasn’t sure why Superman was hovering there rather than coming down to help or talk to the victims. Again, this might be stylized, or, as Doc from the Man of Steel Answers podcast also pointed out, it may be that he is simply surveying the complex situation and planning a course of action. Some new light may also be shed on this scene by the ultimate cut trailer that was just released. In some of the ultimate cut footage, an African woman asks how Superman decides who lives and dies. That question might be exactly what Superman is struggling with above the flood victims. Does he first save the people who painted his symbol? Or does that show unearned favoritism? At this point, Superman may be well aware of all the negative repercussions and judgments that can follow his actions, and he’s trying to be very deliberate and thoughtful before he acts.

This all ties into the major theme of the right thing not always being simple and obvious; morality is about complex choices.

Of course, regardless of those inferences about themes and Superman’s character, the imagery is clear in terms of people calling on, maybe expecting Superman to help, and his coming from the sky is an angelic image that leads to memories of Lex Luthor’s line about reversing the angels and demons.

It’s also maybe worth mentioning that floods come up in the movie at least three times. Here’s there’s the obvious flood, back in Scene 6 Lois joked that Clark was going to flood the apartment, and then later Jonathan Kent tells the story about the flood that killed the horses. I’m not really sure if there’s any meaning to be drawn from the floods, not like there is from the horse motif, I think, but if you have any thoughts on it, let us know.

This Scene 23 montage also brings up the longstanding idea that Superman is more like a fireman or first responder, dealing with emergencies and acts of god, so to speak, whereas Batman is more like a policeman, focusing on the crime world.

Ironically, the rescues and interventions they show in this montage are not very controversial at all. I don’t think anyone would actually disagree with saving people from a fire or explosion, from a flood, or helping to move a stranded ship. Yet, juxtaposed with all these activities are the debates and controversy that has risen up around Superman.

So let’s take a quick look at some of the points that get raised by the media’s talking heads.
  • With regard to religion - “many people believe in a higher power, most religions have a messianic figure. And when this savior comes to Earth, we make him abide by our rules? We need a paradigm shift.” This brings up questions of whether Superman negates or replaces religions or whether he is forced to fit in to ancient ideas of saviors.
  • With regard to cosmology - Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out that Superman’s existence takes humanity down another notch in terms of our perceived importance in the universe. From this perspective, some of the negative backlash against Superman may stem from a subconscious rejection of losing our special place as the only intelligent species or as the top of the food chain, so to speak.
  • With regard to popular opinion - one commentator says that evil has come when people follow someone with great power, but it is also pointed out that it’s not really the leader who leads the people but the people who project themselves onto the prominent figures of a society.
  • Also, it was cool to see Woodburn again, who was the blogger in Man of Steel that Lois used to leak her original story.
  • There is of course the really insightful line that maybe Superman isn’t an angel or a devil figure but just a guy trying to do the right thing. This ties in to the major theme that there is not absolute good or absolute evil but only choices made in complex situations.
  • With regard to politics - Aaron Sullivan suggests that Superman should adhere to international law because every act is a political act. In essence, it is impossible for someone of Superman’s stature to just act naively as if he’s just helping, and so some sort of oversight is going to be necessary. Charlie Rose points out that of course someone as powerful as Superman would be controversial (although it’s interesting to note that many critics of BvS disagree and think Superman should be completely non-controversial). Senator Finch says that Superman has the capability of carrying out what are basically state-level interventions, and she doesn’t say that this is bad but she does say that it should give us “pause” that he has that kind of power.
  • Charlie Rose also asks Senator Finch if she’d be comfortable saying to a grieving parent that “Superman could have saved your child, but on principle we didn’t want him to act.” Finch replies that it’s okay for Superman to act, but he shouldn’t act unilaterally. She also says that there IS a Superman, implying that there’s no sense in asking the question of whether there must be one. This gives insight into why she turned down Lex earlier -- not only could she see through Lex’s facade, but she also seems to be open to a way forward where Superman works together with national and international leaders to find a way for him to operate that is acceptable to all parties. This also means that she must have some trust that he does not have ill will toward humanity. And I think it’s nice that Senator Finch’s points here are consistent with what she says later about good being a conversation, and her reliance on democracy and compromise.

All of these could get an episode on their own, and if you look online, you can find some nice essays about some of these topics -- the philosophy of Superman, the morality of Superman, and so forth.

I often refer to the Man of Steel Answers podcast, and it’s particularly relevant here because that podcast had an episode on Superman in BvS and one of the main points in that episode was that, in the Justice League Universe, you cannot take for granted that everyone knows what it means to have a superhero operating in the world. In many ways, BvS is about everyone coming to terms with the implications of having a superhero, and that’s not a trivial thing to figure out. As an audience, because we’ve been accustomed to superhero stories for 75 years, we have expectations for how a superhero should operate and how everyone should react, but if Superman were to arrive on Earth for real, it would not be smooth sailing.

We don’t have the time to delve into all of these topics, but we do want to point out that the filmmakers explicitly wanted all of these implications of Superman’s existence to be brought up with the audience. They clearly want us to be having these sorts of conversations, which of course are not merely fantasy but are a means for examining our own values. And by presenting it through a media montage, they are also inviting us to think about the role of news coverage in shaping our perceptions of powerful figures, and how the news is often not really news or analysis that brings clarity but is often a narrative that breeds controversy or fear.

The end of the montage is important because we pull out of the TV and see that Clark has been watching this all, just like he was back in Scene 9 after the Bat Branding. He is silent but is clearly troubled by the controversy surrounding Superman. It’s definitely not the case that he “doesn’t care what they’re saying.”

One of our listeners, Casper Richter from YouTube, pointed out that Superman, more than anyone else, seems to reflect deeply on the things he is doing and the impact he is having on the world. He is trying to hold himself to a high standard and is disappointed when things do not go as he would’ve wanted. In contrast, Bruce does not reflect on his actions, even with Alfred trying to prompt him to do so. Bruce spends his time rationalizing and convincing himself of what he thinks he needs to do. Moreover, Casper Richter noted that this movie puts Superman in a real-world setting and so we see that humanity is also failing to reflect on our actions as we think we are the king of the world and use up the resources unwisely and don’t adequately address global issues like climate change. From this perspective, Superman may be somber as he takes it all in and processes it, but the fact that he’s reflecting on it all is actually something that we could strive to live up to.

People have complained that Superman should be more confident, helping people and enjoying life. Superman DOES want to help people (he does it all the time) and he DOES want to enjoy his life and balance life with heroing (see the Apartment scene, for example) but the point is that humanity won't let him. Humanity is divisive and wants to strike down pure goodness and bring it through the muck and mire... Lex represents this, but also the government drags him into their political leveraging, the press uses him to stoke fears and feed on hatespeech, and the public divides into two camps akin to the two-party system in U.S. politics.

Superman is the beacon of idealism that we know him as, but what BvS does is use that as a mirror to show us, present-day society, how jaded and destructive we've become.

Ironically, many of the debates about BvS and the hate directed at it just go to prove its point.

In closing here, we want to share some thoughts from Joons.tumblr.com, written by Chelsea. What follows is a paraphrasing of her post, and I’ll put a link in the show notes: Chelsea wondered if some of the criticism directed toward BvS was from people who didn’t distinguish between what’s actually shown in the movie and the ironic points that it is trying to make. She pointed out that we got a series of pundits talking about the Superman as a god, as an identity-less force of nature, accompanied by shots of The Superman ascending from heaven and performing Herculean deeds, but none of that is Superman’s true nature. We the audience know it isn’t because the montage ends with clark in casual clothes staring at the television, exhibiting a mix of trepidation and anger. This normal guy watches while the world talks about him like he’s a vindictive, uncontainable spirit. They’ve built statues to him. They want him to do everything–and nothing. Their version of the Superman appears defiant and unreachable and all-powerful, but the Clark we see and know is sitting on his girlfriend’s couch, wondering what to do, wondering what people see when they look at him. To come away from that scene and think, “the film is trying to portray Clark as a god” is missing the really obvious point that the film knows Clark is so much more than that, that he’s uncomfortable with even the suggestion of being held up as something perfect or unreachable. He hates it. The crucial flaw of every character in the film is their inability to see him as ordinary. Lois lane’s ability to see him that way allows her to discover evidence of Luthor’s plot and to force Batman to rethink his assumptions. Luthor and Bruce cannot predict Clark’s behavior because they don’t think he will react in a human, emotional way. Everything about the way the story unfolds tells us that Clark is happily earthbound, that all attempts to frame him as divine are inherently flawed and even dangerous. Critics can’t seem to tell that the movie is presenting that view of Superman as a flaw, primarily, i think, because they are so used to superhero films being so literal about everything that they can’t even recognize metaphors and ironic imagery when they appear. And that’s their failure, not the film’s. And certainly not Superman’s.

So that’s our analysis of Scenes 22 and 23. Next up is Lex and Wallace Keefe.

Before we close out this episode, though, we have one listener question and one quick announcement. A bunch of you asked about whether we were going to analyze the ultimate cut trailer and what we are going to do when the ultimate cut is released. Our position is that there are a lot of great podcasts and websites that cover the movie news and marketing materials like trailers, but not enough that analyze the themes and content of the films themselves. So we’re not actually going to review or analyze the trailer, but we do recommend that everyone should watch it. It definitely hints at some interesting new stuff that will be in those 30 extra minutes of the ultimate cut.

When the ultimate cut does come out, our plan is to release one special episode that hits on the major ideas raised in the new footage, but we won’t be able to do an episode for every single new scene or new sequence of footage. The other thing we will do, though, is we’ll incorporate some connections to the new footage as we finish out the remaining scenes in the movie. So when we’re going through to the conclusion of BvS, our analysis will be informed by the extra footage.

And the announcement is I’ll be attending the Superman Celebration in Metropolis, IL, this weekend. So if you’re going to be there too, let me know on twitter @ottensam (o-t-t-e-n-s-a-m).

Thanks for listening and thanks again to Alessandro Maniscalco for his help. Be sure to check out Man of Steel Answers and the Suicide Squadcast, and leave your thoughts and questions in the comments.

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