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 two: Violence and consequence
By Grant LaFleche
Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone, ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard, he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot rail, hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea,some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook. So with the spear Patroclus gaffed him off his car, his mouth gaping round the glittering point and flipped him down face first, dead as he fell, his life breath blown away.
-Homer, the Iliad.
Considering how heavily the genre depends on the presentation of physical confrontation, it is a curious how little violence actually matters in the universe of comic book heroes.
Since the first comic books through to their modern cinematic adventures, superheroes largely exist in worlds where violence is an act without much consequence.
Sure, some heroes are created through violence – Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne adopt their vigilante identities as a result of the murders of their family members – but once those origin stories are complete, they can usually punch and smash their way through villainy without having to face the consequences of their choices.
This moral and ethical weightlessness of superheroing is so pervasive that even when the violence should shock us, it doesn’t.
Consider the ending of Superman 2, for example. Having tricked the Zod Squad and stealing their powers, Superman crushes General Zod’s hand and flings him across the Fortress of Solitude, where his body slams against a solid wall of ice before sliding into what appears to a bottomless pit.
Even though the Donner/Lester/Reeve Superman exists in an innocent world where violence isn’t particularly violent, there is very little chance Zod isn’t a heap of shattered bones, bleeding out somewhere in the basement of the fortress. Although this Superman is regarded and bright and sunny, and for many is the definitive iteration of the character, in the story he murders his nemesis after having rendered him powerless.
But it’s played as a gag. Superman tricked the villains, who get their comeuppance. Everyone cheers. I know I did. I still do. It’s a great scene.
We are so invested in the innocence of this fictional world, however, we don’t stop and ask the obvious question: “Hey, did Superman just straight up ice that guy? Nah, Superman doesn’t kill. He is going to go down there get him, right? No? Well, maybe Zod will just climb out there…any second now…just…yah, never mind. Superman killed him.”
When he returns to Metropolis, no one asks Superman what happened to Zod. Even the president doesn’t bother to ask what happened to the war criminal who nearly conquered the entire planet Huston. This doesn’t bother us because, ultimately, in that version of Superman’s universe, violence has almost no impact. When does it, it can be quickly forgotten or erased.
The same can be said of most superhero films. The Christopher Nolan Batman has a rule about not shooting anyone, but his code doesn’t fully extend to murder. He directly and indirectly dispatches several people, including most of the League of Shadows after he refuses to execute a murderer – who most probably also dies in the ensuing massacre. This act has few last repercussions in an otherwise weighty story.
Over in the Marvel universe, Captain America fought his way through World War 2 largely unscathed physically or mentally by the violence he certainly encountered on the battlefield. And given that his shield is indestructible and can he throw it enough force that it can stick into solid walls, there is a pretty good chance he has taken lives with it when he throws it at squishy human beings. He and his Avengers teammates kill many members of the invading alien army, but since they are alien monster clones, we’re not fussed about the body count.
These fictional universes are presented in such a way that the destruction superheroes exist to conduct barely send ripples out in the world around them, to say nothing of any internal, psychological impacts.
I presume the upcoming Civil War film will present the consequences of the Avengers actions as a major plot point, but even then any real-world sense of what violence does will likely be minimized. The heroes save nearly everyone in harm’s way and minimize any property damage because that is what superheroes do.
This is not to say these are bad movies that require more realism. They are often amazingly entertaining movies and I wouldn’t suggest they should be changed. They would cease being what they are if that happened. But it is to say they deliberately, because of the genre they inhabit, mute the impact of violent acts.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, like its predecessor Man of Steel, does not do this. Much to the chagrin of some movie goers, this is a world where indestructible gods fighting in a city can destroy that city. It is a world where war is real, civilians cannot always be saved in the nick of time and violence produces scars that run deep into the human soul.
While this is not a style of presenting violence utterly foreign to comic book superheroes, it is not common to the genre. It is, however, very reminiscent of Homeric storytelling.
In part one, I discussed how director Zack Synder uses the same kind of operatic, mythological storytelling Homer used in the Iliad and Odyssey to tell his story. Rather than a story rooted in personal relationships – the primary focus of the Marvel films – Synder is focused on broad themes and ideas.
His presentation of violence, regarded by his critics as wildly over-the-top for its own sake, is done the same fashion as Homer.
Readers of Iliad will note Homer’s often ghastly descriptions of battlefield violence. It is not enough for you to know people died. Homer isn’t satisfied at hinting at the destruction the battle between heroes caused. He wants you to see it. Feel it. Every broken bone. Every shattered body. Every organ pierced and drop of blood spilled.
Reading the Iliad can be a very uncomfortable experience. The war shatters everyone and everything it touches and Homer isn’t going to let you hide from it.
Consider this description of the death of Erymas in book XVI of the Iliad:
“Idomeneus stabbed Erymas in the mouth with the pitiless bronze, and the bronze spear passed clean through beneath the brain and split the white skull bone asunder; his teeth shook loose; both eyes filled with blood; blood burst from his nostrils and out his gaping mouth, and a black cloud of death encompassed him round.”
Good luck getting that out of your head.
Which, ultimately, is the point. Homer could have simply noted that Erymas was stabbed with a spear, and left it at that. Your imagination might fill in some of the rest. But Homer is interested in showing you the true, brutal cost of war. We recoil from this level of destruction because we are supposed to. One of the major themes of the Iliad is that all actions have consequences, violent actions especially so.
Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are criticized for the sheer scale of its violence, particularly the battle of Metropolis showdown between Zod and Superman.
In Superman 2, the battle is very much like the battle with the Chitauri in Avengers. Some property damage and a few explosions. Critically, the heroes get time to be heroic. In the Avengers, although New York is invaded by an alien army, the city remains standing. Promotional clips from Civil War show the death toll to be 74 people. This is superheroing at its most classic – a handful of heroes save a city from an army of thousands, with a minimum loss of life.
During the Superman 2 battle, the Zod squad stop their attack at points to give Superman a few moments to save bystanders, and quip about how caring is a weakness. There are time for speeches and poses, and the battle moves at an exciting, but measured pace. The violence is leisurely.
The Man of Steel of version of this fight is rather like being on the battlefield of Troy. Events are a blur. There isn’t time to do anything but fight. It is not that Superman doesn’t want to save anyone, he just can’t. This Zod has no interest in speeches and gloating. He wants to destroy humanity and Superman is in his way.
The city is leveled. The scale of the destruction becomes numbing, echoing 9/11 imagery – something that is even more evident from Bruce Wayne’s ground level view of the fight in Batman v Superman. It is in that perspective we see a friend of Bruce’s facing the moment of his inevitable death. Later one of his employees loses his legs. Even before Bruce tells us the death toll was in the thousands, we know.
So why present the battle this way at all? Why show an American city reduced to rubble we know people are buried under? Is this a fetish for destruction porn? Surely the more classic superhero battles of Superman 2 and Avengers – where the heroes can save those in peril – are less shocking and more fun to watch.
Maybe so. And maybe that is the point. Violence is supposed to make us feel uneasy, frightened, angry and enraged. There are entire countries where people have no option but to accept catastrophic violence because they are surrounded by war. Metropolis, the proxy for America’s greatest cities, ends up looking like a Syrian city of the present day, shattered by war and reduce to rubble. That image is deeply unsettling in a society largely free from the impacts of full scale warfare.
The point behind the destruction in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman isn’t to revel in destruction, but rather to recoil from it, or at least consider what it means. In the real world, we have to live with the consequences. In this fictional universe, so do superheroes.
Superman’s final act of violence in Man of Steel is to kill Zod. Faced with no other alternative to stop the carnage, he
does the one thing he believes he shouldn’t, and Superman’s howl of pain after killing Zod drives home the point of the entire battle – we cannot commit acts of violence without it impacting others and our deepest selves.
The Synder Superman is wracked with guilt and remorse for killing Zod. The Donner Superman grins. The difference in how these films regard violence is absolutely apparent in these moments. Only one of them is truly honest.
By Batman v Superman, Clark is struggling to determine his place in a world keenly aware of his capacity to save or destroy them. We’ll explore that in the next part, but for now, it is worth looking at the internal impact of violence presented in the film.
While the Battle for Metropolis shows us what war does to a society, Synder explores what violence does to the individual person in the broken figure of Batman.
Bruce Wayne’s entire life has been violent. The murder of his parents was just the start. By the time we see him in Batman v Superman, he carries deep internal scars from years of crime fighting. He is prone to drinking heavily. He has become excessively brutal, even by the already violent standards of a man who dressed up like Dracula and throws muggers through windows. He brands criminals knowing his mark will mean they will be hurt or killed in prison. Killing might not be his first option, but he is willing to use lethal force. Unlike the Nolan Batman, Synder’s dark knight makes no hypocritical commentary about never taking a life. He will if he must, but unlike Superman, Batman shows no remorse. His belief that sometimes killing in necessary is reinforced by what he witnesses on the ground as Zod and Superman level the city.
Most telling are Bruce’s nightmares. He dreams of his parents’ murders, of a creature lurking in his mother’s crypt and of monsters swallowing the Earth. His inner world is in complete turmoil. Because of the violence in his life – the violence that created him and that which he regularly inflicts on others – the man is in a near permanent state of emotional trauma.
He gives every impression of having the same mindset of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. A once obviously noble man who has become so scarred and so obsessed, he is unable to see the faults in his unflinching quest to seek justice. Alfred attempts to reason with Bruce Wayne, trying to make him understand that Superman is not his enemy. Ahab had his first mate, Starbuck, who like Alfred, is unable to convince his master of the futility of his quest:
“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
“Hark ye yet again – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
For Ahab, justice can only be found in the destruction of the whale. For Batman, it is the destruction of Superman. In either case, whale or Superman, the target of their wrath has come to symbolize everything that thwarts human intention – killing that target is their way of imposing order on a chaotic universe.
The most telling moment that shows just how deep Batman’s psychological trauma runs is found in the moment when he doesn’t kill Superman.
Yes, the “Martha moment.”
Critics have dismissed this moment as patently silly. It is by coincidence in comics lore that Clark and Bruce both have mothers named Martha, and to use that as the motivation for a Batman bent on murder to suddenly stay his hand is, they say, ridiculous at best.
However, there much more going on here. What happens in that moment runs deeper than Batman recognizing that Superman is a person, rather than just a threat to be eliminated. What happens in that moment speaks directly to the film’s attitude toward the consequences of violence.
As a journalist, I have interviewed soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be an utterly debilitating condition. It can also be unpredictable. I have spoken to combat veterans who have episodes triggered by sights and sounds that, on the surface, appear to have little do with what the experienced at war. When they encounter something that is a direct reminder of the horrors they witnessed, it can be totally crushing.
A solider once told me that he has had PTSD episodes after walking past children that only superficially reminded him of the body of a child he saw in Rwanda. It took him years to recover.
So when Batman has the spear at Superman’s neck and is told he has to “save Martha”, he doesn’t just stop fighting and think “oh, your mom is named Martha too!? We’re BFFs!”
Bruce has an immediate, vivid recollection to his own mother’s murder. He stumbles backwards, seemingly in shock. He doesn’t seem to be aware that Superman and Lois are there. He is reliving the murder of his parents.
Bruce Wayne is having a PTSD flash back.
Far from being a trite moment, Synder has used a coincidence found in the DC Comics mythos to try and say something about what violence does to a person.
Few superhero movies approach this sort of commentary. Marvel shows us flashes of it through the eyes of Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 and, more vividly, through Black Widow in the Age of Ultron. But neither character depicts just how far down the psychological rabbit hole emotional trauma can push a person as the figure of Batman does in Batman v Superman.
Although the movie presents us with epic fantasy, Batman v Superman puts the consequences of violence directly before the viewer and does what most other films in the genre don’t – it asks us to think about it.