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 Three: What is Justice?
The unexamined life is not worth living.
-Plato, The Apology
In their most interesting incarnations, superheroes are much like the ancient tales of the Greek or Norse gods, which is to say they are tales about we mere mortals, but writ large.
Every time you read or watch a really good superhero story, you’re touching on something archetypal, that speaks to pieces of our deepest selves and asking questions about them we haven’t yet fully found answers for.
Superhero stories can be about nearly anything. Race relations. Sex. Politics. Violence. The environment. The justice system. But rarely do these stories question the fundamental, philosophical premise of the superhero, by asking “What, exactly, do we mean by justice in the first place?”
Only a handful of stories go this far like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen – and it seems we are getting a version of this kind of tale in the upcoming movie Captain America: Civil War.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of those stories. Unlike Civil War, which appears as though it will ask some timely questions about the intersection between power and politics, Batman v Superman digs into some basic ideas about what is right and what isn’t. It is less about what is happening now in 2016, than what has always been happening to human beings since there have been human beings to wonder about the nature of things.
Beyond the capes and bracelets and batarangs, the movie is asking a question Plato asked us in the Republic some 3,000 years ago.
What is Justice?
This is not as simple a question as it might seem, even if in most superhero comic books and movies it is treated as a foregone conclusion – one that rapidly falls apart once you examine those stories more closely.
Consider the excellent Christopher Nolan Batman films. Those movies seem to suggest that justice is stopping the corrupt by almost any means necessary. The “almost” being key. Batman will break bones, spy on an entire city of people (and then destroy the technology that allowed him to do that in a belated respect for people’s right to privacy) but he won’t use guns and, nominally, says killing the unjust. Except when Batman decides that killing is the only option to achieve his goals, then that rules gets tossed out the window.
The point is, even in those movies which pretend to have settled the question, haven’t settled it at all. The Donner Superman, The Burton and Nolan Batmans, even heroes in the current MCU, who claim that killing is bad and never done by a “hero”, feature those heroes employing lethal force. Justice, then, appears to be whatever the whim of the hero happens to be at that moment.
Batman v Superman avoids such hypocritical and shallow definitions by avoiding getting into a debate as naïve is “killing is always the wrong thing to do.” It is asking a much bigger and more difficult question that does require the audience to pay more attention, and think about what is happening on screen.
To understand why and how this question of justice is being asked in Batman v Superman, we need to go back to the source of used to pose it: Plato’s most famous work, The Republic.
Plato, Socrates, and what we don’t know
Plato was a Greek philosopher thought to have been kicking about around 428 to 328 BCE. His works, the Dialogues, took the form of a series of conversations between the street philosopher Socrates and a host of other characters who discuss broad philosophical concepts.
It is from these stories that we have the “Socratic method” of asking questions. Essentially, Socrates would lead you down a garden path and when you reach the end of it, you discover you didn’t actually know what you thought you knew. Socrates would be the dinner guest from Hades, slowly breaking down everyone’s preconceptions and showing you how wrong you are about just about everything.
The Republic is arguably Plato’s most important and well known book whose ideas still echo today.
The book’s central preoccupation is an attempt to define what justice is. The story features several explanations of justice, which Socrates promptly questions into oblivion before beginning his famous thought experiment about a utopian Republic where the answer may be found.
Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman use the superheroes to explore the idea of justice presented in The Republic.
Superman and paying is what owed
It all begins, and it will all end, with Superman.
Much of the Man of Steel turns on a question of how Clark Kent should, or should not, use his powers. His Kryptonian father Jor-el wants him to be a bridge between an extinct alien culture and the cultures of humanity. He wants Clark to help humans “accomplish wonders.” His Earthly dad, Johnathan Kent believes his son was sent to Earth for a reason, but believes Clark has to discover that reason on his own and then decide for himself what do with that knowledge.
It is not a coincidence that when young Clark is picked on by bullies – boys he could easily crush if he so chose – he is reading a copy of The Republic. If you had not picked up on the overtly Platonic ideas in the film, this not very subtle clue gets you there.
In both Man of Steel and in Batman v Superman, we see a particular part of the Republic debated by Johnathan – the idea that actions come with consequences, even if the action itself if the right or just thing to do.
Some critics of these movies often say that Superman doesn’t just do what is right, but he always knows what is right. In this simple formulation, “doing what is right” is stopping villains and helping people. This is regarded as Superman’s vocation and what he “owes” the world.
Superman is not so sure and even when Zod invades, he wrestles whether or not it is his place to save humanity. Later, in Batman v Superman, Clark’s mother Martha tells her son he doesn’t owe the world a thing and the he never did.
Many movie goers balk at the existence of this philosophical tension in Superman. Of course Superman “owes” the world, they say. His powers are there to be used for good and Jor-El, harkening back to his incarnation in the Donner films, specifically sets this mission out for Clark.
In the Republic, however, defining justice as what is owed to people is an idea found wanting.
The idea is put forward by Cephalus, and Socrates demolishes it by pointing out the law of unintended consequences with a thought experiment I will update here for a more modern context:
You and your friend are hunters, and before you head out on an expedition you ask to borrow your friend’s rifle. He happily obliges on the condition you return when he asks, a condition you agree you. After you get home, life gets busy and you haven’t returned the weapon to your friend. After some time goes by, your friend calls and insists you return his weapon. In the conversation you find that he has become depressed and is thinking about killing himself.
Would it be just to return the gun?
If as Cephalous, or Jor-El, or many Superman fans, you believe that justice is defined by giving what one owes, then returning the gun is the only possible just act. However, since you know your friend intends to kill himself, you keep the gun. In that case, doing the wrong the thing is actually the right thing.
In Man of Steel, Clark saves a school bus of children from drowning and is seen by all his friends. Johnathan at first admonishes his son for exposing his abilities because of a fear that others would discover what Clark can do and perhaps use Clark for ill purposes.
Clark asks if he should have done nothing and let the kids die. His father answers “maybe.” Not because Johnathan is a callus man, but because he is doing the math. “There is more at stake here than our lives Clark, or the lives around us,” he says. Clark has the power to change the world for good or for ill. He’ll only be able to do that when he is ready, which as a confused child he is not. From Johnathan’s point of view doing the “wrong thing” by not saving the kids on the bus could be the “right thing” because far more people could get hurt if Clark’s powers are misused.
Clark is not able to fully resolve this question in Man of Steel. No sooner does he find out where he is from, and what he can do, than Zod attacks. Superman decides fight for Earth against the invaders, but his fundamental question of “what is justice” is largely unanswered.
Still, Zod and his mission reflect another idea spawned from The Republic: a society based on eugenics. As in Plato’s hypothetical utopia, each Kryptonian is assigned a role in society at birth which they must fulfill for the betterment of everyone. Zod was bred to be a solider. Those who rule Krypton are similarly breed for their roles. Even as Krypton itself descends into chaos and ultimately dies, Zod cannot deviate from his pre-determined role.
Scholars have long debated whether Plato believed Socrates’ eugenics fueled utopia would be the best way to organize society, or whether he was attempting to show that, in fact, it would not work. Man of Steel director Zack Synder gives us his answer to the question: a society run on that kind of eugenics is doomed to fail. Superman’s overt rejection of Zod’s (and to a degree Jor-el’s) vision by embracing choice over fate tells us a great deal about what Clark values.
Clark’s basic question of “what is justice?” lingers in Batman v Superman, once again taking the form of Johnathan Kent when Clark visits his grave. He remembers a story Johnathan told him of a flood that threatened the family farm. Johnathan and his father worked through the storm to divert the water and save the farm. Johnathan found out later that while he was eating his mother’s “hero cake” the diverted flood waters destroyed a neighbour’s ranch. Doing the “right thing” of saving the family farm, resulted in the “wrong thing”, destroying a neighbour’s livelihood.
Indeed, much of Batman v Superman sees Clark wrestling with this question. When he crosses international borders to save people he is hailed as a saviour by some, but regarded with suspicion by others who see the world’s security at risk. In our own world, when we want to travel elsewhere to help with a crisis, we need the permission of those we are going to help, or at least their governments. Superman asks no one’s permission in his attempt to pay what he “owes” the world. He is, as one commentator in the film puts it, just a guy trying to do the right thing – helping people is Clark’s obvious instinct – but each time there are unintended consequences.
While Superman wrestles with Cephalus’ idea of justice, Batman v Superman provides a possible alternative definition in the figure of Batman.
Batman and the strong
In the Republic, Thrasymachus suggests to Socrates that justice is ultimately the purview of the stronger person. Laws, from this point of view, are only effective in so much as they can be enforced by a powerful agent.
In Gotham City, Bruce Wayne is the strong man. He has the intelligence, wealth and technology to impose his version of justice on an entire city. The brutality of the emotionally broken Batman of the start of the film is a clear indication of the state of things: Justice in Gotham is Batman’s justice.
In this way, Bruce Wayne is Thrasymachus’s definition brought to life. Batman himself makes the matter plain when says he has learned the world only makes sense when you force it to.
This is particularly true of his attitude toward Superman, who he sees as a threat. Batman is not interested in compromise or negotiation. He accepts no advice and will heed no warnings, even from his most trusted adviser. He chooses to deal with Superman as he does anyone else because, as the strong man, Bruce alone gets to decide what is right.
Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, and a magic ring
Another of Socrate’s sparing partners, Glaucon, takes Thrasymachus’ definition of justice a step further. He presents justice as an elaborate fiction, a mere social contract between strong parties to prevent themselves from being victims of injustice. More than that, Glaucon says justice, as a concept is naïve. The unjust man wins every time because he is willing to do the things the just man is not.
Given the state of human behaviour, it is sometimes difficult to argue that Glaucon is wrong. We often see the unjust prosper while the just suffer. And while there are elements of this argument in Batman, Wonder Woman presents the disillusionment one feels when it seems that Glaucon’s jaded view of humanity is correct.
Wonder Woman, believing that justice is a sham, is Superman’s true opposite number in the movie. Rather than struggle with a philosophical uncertainty while staying in the world, she retreats from it. “Man has made a world where it is impossible to stand together,” she says.
But Glaucon is most fully represented in the figure of Lex Luthor. Luthor is the unjust man who prospers while the just (Superman) doesn’t. Luthor is manipulating the world with ill intent behind the scenes and is loved while Superman saves the world with pure intention and is sometimes reviled.
Luthor’s world view is version of a story Glaucon tells Socrates about the Ring of Gyges. This was a mythological ring that made its wearer invisible and thus could get away with anything, rendering the social contract of justice moot. Glaucon argues this is why the unjust man always wins. The unjust man will always use the ring for his own selfish ends and even if you gave it to a just man, without the social contract to keep him just, he too would use it for unjust purposes.
“For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.” –Glaucon, The Republic, Book Two
Lex Luthor sets Superman against Batman to prove this point. Superman’s supposed nobility is merely a paper thin mask. Present Superman with the right pressures and he too will be an unjust man. Instead of a magic ring, he has to kill Batman to save his mother’s life. Like Glaucon, Luthor presents an argument that seems so convincing that Superman wonders if he is right after all, telling Lois no one can stay good in world like this one.
In the Republic, Plato rejects this argument by returning, in a way, to the previous idea of all actions having consequences. If just acts have consequences so do unjust ones. However, from Plato’s point of view, the consequences of unjust action may not be material in nature but damaging to one’s internal self, or soul.
Socrates, through Plato’s writing, regarded justice itself as inherently valuable and, by acting justly, a person can live what he called “the good life.” This is a life guided by reason and an internal harmony. This person, by mastering in their inner self, can promote stability in their community, which for Socrates was the city of Athens.
Luthor’s physical capture at the end of the film, therefore, isn’t really the consequence of his scheming. His shattered mental state is. Luthor is driven mad by his actions.
Which brings us back to Superman. In his final moments, Superman embraces the notion of justice as something that is, in and of itself, valuable. His philosophical conflict falls away as he does so, enabling him to act without hesitation. His purpose as a protector is clear. It doesn’t matter what his critics say, Superman is going to act to protect the innocent because that is a purpose that carries its own reward.
Unlike Batman, who believed in justice through strength, Superman sees justice as achieved through sacrifice. Unlike Luthor, who believes the unjust is always rewarded, Superman knows he is rewarded simply by being just. And in his action of confronting and stopping the monster Doomsday, he proves to Wonder Woman that justice is real.
As I noted in the first of these essays, Batman v Superman goes out of its way to demonstrate that Superman is right and the other three characters – Batman, Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor – are all wrong even if we feel intuitively at first this isn’t the case.
It’s not about Superman being mopey or grim. It’s about Superman navigating deep philosophical questions on the road to become a hero.
The movie’s rather clunky subtitle, The Dawn of Justice, is an obvious nod to the future Justice League films. But given the film’s heavy reliance on Platonic ideas to drive its themes, it might be a subtle nod to The Republic and the ideas that book contains.