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Batman v Superman: Mythology and the Superhero (Part 1)

Author’s note: This is a three part look at Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, examining the themes and ideas of the film. Part one looks at mythology and how Batman v Superman is told. The second part looks at what the movie says about our relationship to violence and the final part examines the key philosophical ideas at the core of the movie. 

 

PART ONE: MYTH AND STORYTELLING

By Grant LaFleche

 

Funeral pile of Patroclus

Funeral pile of Patroclus from the Trojan War.

Sing to me, O Muse! Sing to me of the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered, the hallowed heights of Troy.

-Homer, The Odyssey

I love superheroes.

For as long as I remember, I have been attracted to the genre. As a kid, the colourful costumes, characters and simple moral tales of Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor or Spider-man were irresistible.

As I got older, while I still appreciated the simple good vs. evil stories that still dominate superhero comics and movies today, the more thoughtful, sophisticated story telling of Allan More, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller or Grant Morrison – stories that could provoke thought, express new ideas or had something to say about the world we live in – became infinitely more interesting.

In the right hands, superhero stories are a representation of a kind of mythological storytelling we don’t see much anymore, the kind that used to be popular in ancient Greece, when the men in sky were not Superman or Iron Man but Zeus or Apollo. These were grand, sweeping stories that explored human nature through epic battles and squabbles among the gods. Battles are titanic. Themes deep and broad. And while not “funny” in our conventional sense, they are endlessly entertaining.

My affinity for these stories, and that sort of storytelling explains, in part, why I liked Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice so much. Unlike the much more common place stories of the current (and fabulously entertaining) Marvel cinematic universe, or DC’s own TV properties of The Flash and Arrow – stories which turn on the simple “good vs evil” motif of the comics with stories that are largely rooted in the personal interactions of the characters rather than broader themes or philosophy – Batman v Superman uses a much older, more operatic, and mythological story telling style.

For me, the experience of seeing Batman v Superman for the first time was rather like my first viewing of the original Matrix movie. The style and spectacle of the movie was overwhelming to such a degree that it overshadowed a lot of what was going on behind the bullet time, kung-fu fights and general sense of unease the film’s central concept – that the world we live in is just a simulation – left the audience with.

It took repeated viewings for me to get my head around the more complicated, deeply philosophical ideas and themes the Wachowskis were playing with. There have been entire documentaries about what the Wachowski sisters were up to with the Matrix trilogy, so I am not going to dig into it here save to say the series is fairly brainy, and uses philosophy as the driver behind many of the characters, environments, plots and themes of the film. It’s just that, in the case of the first film, the viewer can miss them while their attention is focused on a guy who moves so fast he can dodge bullets.

The Matrix code.

The Matrix code.

Similarly, the style and spectacle of Batman v Superman can overpower the senses, overshadowing some very interesting ideas lurking beneath the throw down between two men in capes. In these three essays I am going to try to explore some of these ideas.

Batman v Superman strives – at times very successfully, at others less so ­– to explore ideas. It asks questions about our relationship to violence, about the intersection between that violence and politics, about the role of women and, most importantly, about the nature of justice itself.

The movie assumes the audience is smart enough to follow along. It is trying to do something different even if in the attempt it does, at times, sag under its own weight.

It’s also a bit of a weird film, particularly because of the reaction it created. People who didn’t like the film treated it as though director Zack Snyder had showed up at a critic’s family dinner and struck the critic’s elderly grandmother in the face.

With a shovel.

I don’t recall any other movie where bloggers and news sites were breathlessly reporting on day-to-day ticket sales or so quickly treating unsubstantiated rumour as truth (Snyder was fired, Suicide Squad was doing emergency shoots to make that movie more like Marvel movies, etc). Every flaw of the film was pounced upon with an over-the-top venom that has come to define, unfortunately, a great deal of a particular, entitled, online fanboy culture that treats anything they don’t like as a personal insult. These are often not considered criticisms, but attacks that boil down to “this sucks,” launched by people who, let’s face it, aren’t creating anything of their own.  Pig piling upon the movie has become something of a sport, particularly in the de-professionalized universe of movie criticism.

The movie is not perfect, for sure, but it’s not the horrific affront to good taste many make it out to be. It is, in many ways, an excellent movie and to be honest, outside of Casablanca, I don’t think a perfect movie has ever been produced.

Casablanca - the only perfect movie ever made.

Casablanca – the only perfect movie ever made.

The attempt to establish a larger DC Comics movie universe to compete with Marvel’s, in one film, is dragged about like an anchor around the movie’s neck: Batman’s “Knightmare” vision of the future. Flash’s time travel warning. Diana Prince watching videos of future Justice League members. On their own, each of these pieces are fun and interesting, but within the context of an already sprawling epic, they feel oddly out of place.

Batman v Superman is not the only, nor first, film to commit this sin. Avengers: Age of Ultron, stumbles in the same fashion several times, most notably Thor’s trip to a magical pool in a cave. Indeed, both Thor movies and Iron Man 2, for instance, are uneven works precisely because they have to divert time away from their core stories to set up, in a fairly inorganic fashion, bits and pieces that pay off in future films.

Marvel has pulled much of its universe building off with clever post credit scenes, by patiently expanded their universe over several movies, and more seamlessly including these bits and pieces within the overall narratives. In Batman v Superman, they are little stories with in the narrative – almost like brief intermissions – that don’t entirely work.

This said, it doesn’t sink the movie. Its larger mythological style of storytelling works very well. A friend described Batman v Superman as a train that rattles considerably on the tracks at times, and I think that is an apt description.

Still, while there are some very thoughtful criticisms of Batman v Superman, much of it is mere emotional hand-wringing that manages, bizarrely, to miss much of what is actually going on in the story.

This may be, in part, because Batman v Superman is not told in the same fashion as the Marvel films or Marvel and DC television shows.

I noted before, those stories feel easier to digest because that is how we tell stories most often today. While there may be an overarching goal, or theme at work, that isn’t necessary and the stories ultimately turn upon how the characters interact with each other. It is telling, for instance, that in the Marvel films the villains (with the notable exception of Loki and, to a lesser degree, Ultron) are the least developed characters in the stories. These films get criticized because the Chitauri, or the Dark Elves, or Yellow Jacket, or Ronan are just evil guys whose schemes and motivations range from nearly non-existent to paper thin.

Those critics miss that those movies aren’t about the villains. They invest time in the heroes because the story is about them, and their interpersonal relationships. Saving the world is just the stage the story is told on. In a sense, the band of brothers vibe that makes so many of the Marvel movies to date work is really no different than what made, say, the TV show Friends work.

Friends...assemble?

Friends…assemble?

As a result, most Marvel films aren’t about anything else. The first Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are perhaps the exceptions that prove the rule, (and I am expecting, so will Civil War) in that they both offer commentary on the war of terrorism, the international arms trade and the sacrificing of personal freedoms in the name of national security. The rest, however, don’t dig deeper beyond the relationships. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, is hilarious and marvelously fun, and isn’t really about anything else.

Batman v Superman tries to do something entirely different. Rather than be about personal relationships, it adopts an entirely different method of storytelling and is about themes.

This is no different than how Homer told his stories in ancient Greece. Read the Iliad for example, which tells the story of part of the Trojan War. The story is about hubris, about violence and the consequences of the choices of we make. It is a grand, epic tale, but it is most certainly not about personal relationships or team building.

Consider, for instance, the death of Patroclus, the close friend of the Greek hero Achilles.

Patroclus is ultimately killed in battle against the Trojan army because of a choice Achilles made. (He refuses to fight because of a dispute with the leader of the Greek armies, and famously sulks in his tent). When Patroclus dies, Achilles’ flies into a rage, cutting a bloody swath through the battlefield until he too is eventually slain.

Now, to modern eyes Achilles rage over the death of Patroclus could seem unconvincing.

After all, we don’t spend a lot of time with the warriors. We don’t know very much about the history of their relationship, or what truly makes them so close. We don’t see them exchanging clever quips, or saving each other in battle.

The Fury of Achilles Painting by Charles-Antoine Coypel.

The Fury of Achilles painting by Charles-Antoine Coypel.

We know only that they are very close, that the death of one causes the other to go berserk, and that has direct consequences for nearly every character in the story.

One wonders if the internet had existed then, if fanboy anger would be directed at Homer for his “weak writing” of such a key relationship. Readers of Homer from ancient Greece until now, however, do not fret over this. Not because exploring the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles wouldn’t be interesting, but because that isn’t the point of the story.

The Iliad is concerned with the consequences of that bond, not how and why it formed. As a result, the events in the story turn on an epic, rather than personal, level. And the reader is no less invested in the story as a result.

In Batman v Superman is told the same fashion. The movie is not without its personal moments, but they are not as important as the larger, thematic elements.

Consider, for instance, one of the more common complaints about the film’s opening scenes: the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and young Bruce falling into the cave beneath the Wayne family grounds.

Who at this point, asks the critics, doesn’t know Batman’s origin story? Beyond the comic books which have retold it endlessly, movie audiences have sat through it in both Batman and Batman Begins. It was featured in the Batman animated TV series and the animated movies Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

“We get it already! Why show us again?”

This complaint only has merit on the shallowest of levels. Beyond that, however, it misses the point.

 The murder of the Waynes in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

         The murder of the Waynes in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

The murder of the Wayne’s isn’t really there to retell Batman’s origin. In a rather Homeric fashion, it establishes key themes and questions of the entire story.

Batman v Superman opens and closes with funerals. First, it is important for this particularly story that we know who Bruce Wayne’s mother is. By the end of the movie, you may think that reason is silly or corny (and we’ll get to that in part two) but it has to be established.

Much more importantly, however, is the thematic importance of those scenes.

The Wayne’s funeral is shrouded in gloom and darkness. The landscape is covered in thin or dying grasses and weeds on the cusp of a dark and craggy forest. Bruce falls into the cave and is swarmed by bats. Bruce’s voice over, and the action on screen, explains that in his dreams the bats lift him out of the cave and into the light, something Bruce calls “the beautiful lie.”

What is the beautiful lie? That the world is good.

From Bruce’s point of view, the world is a fundamentally unjust place where justice can be had only by the force of strength. Bruce is such a broken figure when the movie starts, that he assumes ill intent from everyone. There is no “light”. It doesn’t even exist within himself.

“We’ve always been criminals,” he tells Alfred, a significant statement considering later he tell us that he regards criminals as little more than “weeds.” By destroying Superman, Bruce is attempting not just to protect the world but to elevate himself,  to finally rise above the criminality he is both part of and dedicated to stopping.

Batman’s point of view is easy to sympathize with, particularly if you have (as most people will at some point or another) suffered a tragedy not of their own making. Or just look around you. Our politics are marred by the corrupt and the self-interested. Corporate greed trumps other considerations in more circumstances than we wish to really think about. Criminals can commit heinous acts and escape justice. We wage wars, watch the hungry starve and allow the poorest of the poor to continue to suffer in a world of plenty.

The daily headlines and our own personal experience tells us that Bruce Wayne is right. The lie may be beautiful, but it is still a lie.

We don’t need to see years of Batman fighting the criminals of Gotham to understand his point of view. We see the montage of his parents’ murder. The ruins of Wayne Manor. The costume of an obviously dead Robin in a display case. A few touch points combined with our own experience, tells us all we need to know.

The movie ends as it opens. With a funeral – well, two funerals for the same person.

Superman’s is an American military procession, complete with flags and an artillery salute. Clark Kent’s funeral takes place in a simple Smallville cemetery, and the procession passes through a wheat field – a place where things grow. Both take place in the sunlight. Unlike the washed out, grim pallet of the Wayne’s funeral, Kent’s funeral’s are marked by vivid colours.

Superman's funeral from Man of Steel #20

Superman’s funeral from Man of Steel #20

Tellingly, Bruce is at this funeral in the light – only the second time in the movie we see him in daylight. (The first being on the ground during the battle of Metropolis.) Standing in the sunlight, Bruce says to Diana that “men are still good.”

These funerals, and how they are presented, frames Bruce Wayne’s entire story arc. In terms of a larger theme, the film is saying that as explicable as Bruce Wayne’s world view is when the film opens – one we automatically sympathize with – he was wrong.

The light is beautiful, and it’s not a lie.

Far from being the cynical movie some claim, Batman v Superman’s basic premise is that the world is not corrupt, but a place where corruption exists. It says the world that it is worth saving, that people can be good, even if they need an example to follow.

Certainly, this is not the sunny, light motif of most superhero films from Superman: The Movie, through most of the Marvel films. Batman v Superman is criticized for being “joyless.” In this context, that mostly means “not funny.” The Marvel movies and, indeed past incarnations of Superman, are marked by humour sometimes bordering on camp. But the absence of clever quips does not make a movie without joy.

The story that moves from Bruce Wayne’s tragedy and darkness to a confirmation that Superman’s selfless heroism is, in fact, the superior world view and that the light is better than the darkness, is joyful on its own.

Man-of-Steel-Superman-Flight1

 

NEXT: Part two: Batman v Superman – Violence and Consequences

 

 

About Grant LaFleche (3 Articles)
Journalist, gadfly, mythology and superhero nerd. Socrates is my co-pilot.
Contact: Twitter

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