Mankind Is Introduced To The Superman: A BVS Analysis
An exploration of the character and arc of Clark Kent/Superman in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
I didn’t know what to expect from Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. This was no accident. Duffy the Younger and I loved Man of Steel but we had diligently avoided all reviews, all reports, all internet reaction, all fervent speculation ahead of the sequel. Time off work was booked. We’d counted down with our top 5 Batman and top 5 Superman films. Eventually, we ensconced ourselves away from Social Media’s siren song and waited for the midnight screening, Good Friday 2016.
Whatever I might have expected, whatever I might have hoped for, dreaded, or believed I would get, BVS did what most of the art I love does; it took me by surprise.
It eschewed my expectations, and then some. I wasn’t expecting a story about the endurance of principles in the face of an onslaught of controversy. Nor did I anticipate a tale which examined how idealism can be poisoned and righteousness corrupted. You better believe I didn’t expect it all to be hung on the structure of a revenge tragedy, with a deliberate inversion of that structure at the ‘death’ stage. Nor was I expecting to get commentary on spin and manipulation that condemns and cajoles our modern media age.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to see storytelling techniques borrowed liberally from classical Greek and 18th Century traditions, either.
I was, however, mightily pleased.
The use of power. The judgement of the powerful, and the way society view them. The subjective, relative nature of morality. That Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice explores these concepts, amongst many others, rather explains why I love it so.
As we round the corner to the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the long awaited, legendary sequel to BVS, I’ve chosen now to write extensively about the heart of that 2016 game-changer; Superman himself.
“Is it really surprising that the most powerful man in the world should be a figure of controversy?”
“Are there any moral constraints on this person? We have international law. On this Earth, every act is a political act.”
“I’m not saying he shouldn’t act. I’m saying he shouldn’t act unilaterally.”
“Men with power obey neither policy nor principle, Miss Lane. No one is different; no one is neutral.”
“While I ate my hero cake, their horses were drowning. I used to hear them wailing in my sleep.”
“Maybe he’s not some sort of devil or Jesus character. Maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing.”
“You don’t get to decide what the right thing is!”
“Good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision.”
From Man Of Steel, it was at least apparent that Zack Snyder would not be providing a simplified Superman in a simplified world. The fairy tale charm that works so well in the 1978 Richard Donner film wasn’t the order of the day, nor should it have been. For one thing, it had been done already, and done extremely well. Why go for the same approach again? For another, Christopher Nolan had used Batman to tell serious stories with things to say.
Why not try the same with the Original and Best Superhero? The comics have been doing it for decades, after all. Nolan had broken the story for Man Of Steel with David Goyer, hand-picked Zack Snyder to direct the screenplay and produced the film, so the verisimilitude that marked his masterful Dark Knight Trilogy was always to be expected; What if this character were to appear in a world that was more like our own? How would we react? Rather than just going ‘oh yay, how wonderful, okay carry on’, what sort of philosophical, psychological, cultural reaction would there be?
Of course Superman would divide opinion. The reality of human nature is such that no figure is universally loved, nor are any universally loathed. No politician. No industrial or business leader. No artist, musician or actor. No sports person, comedian, journalist or writer. And so it follows, inevitably, with Superman. A man who possesses almost limitless power. A strange visitor from the stars. An alien among us. A man who has worked with, but refuses on principle to work for, the Military of the United States of America.
A man with such power acting without authorisation from anyone, who intervenes where and when he sees fit, on the basis of his own moral compass, with his own inevitable, unavoidable biases, both conscious and otherwise.
That many see him as a hero is no surprise; he saved the entire human species, and most if not all life on Earth, from extinction during Man Of Steel. He has performed countless miraculous rescues, as we see from Wallace Keefe’s wall. He has made multiple ‘state level interventions’. No wonder, then, that he is so adored by so many. He even has cheerleaders in the commentariat, with ‘puff piece editorials’ written every time he ‘saves a cat out of a tree’.
Conversely, it’s no surprise that he is feared, loathed and hated, too. His power makes him a potential threat to every military and to every state on Earth. His fervent independence must also give pause to governments the world over. Nobody has control over him, nor could any control be exorcised upon him should anyone even try. He’s an American, which deeply concerns the rest of the world, and he’s pointedly his own man, which deeply concerns America. He saves many, but cannot always save everyone, so naturally some resentment will come forth. And of course, he’s technically an illegal immigrant, and we all know how deeply, irrationally hated they can be.
The law could not constrain Superman, if it decided it wanted to and he decided to resist. His power puts him above the law of any and every land. He has his own morality, his own sense of right and wrong, but aren’t such things within the eye of the beholder? His morality is his own, but, as Senator Finch points out, ‘Good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision’. One man cannot be the arbiter of what is good and what is moral. Can they? Should they?
Though public opinion on the Man Of Steel at the outset of BVS is indeed split, it’s clearly not an even one. The world has been ‘caught up with what Superman can do’. Perry White wonders if the ‘False God’ spraypaint marks the ‘end of love affair with man in the sky’, meaning that there’s been something of a love affair up to this point. There’s a statue to the man in Heroes Park, for crying out loud.
BVS, though, shows the fickle nature of that fame. It shows the rapidity with which the tide can turn and the exponential growth 24 hour rolling news can inspire in the human appetite to judge those in the public eye, to judge those we do not know, to judge those in whose moccasins we’ve never actually walked. The Greek Chorus media coverage running through the film demonstrates this with incredible aplomb, in sequences that are so well written, so palpably convincing, so utterly compelling. It’s an old story, really; media darling one minute, public pariah the next. The hero in January becomes the villain in June.
Yes, in part this is due to the machinations and manipulations of the powerful, who have an agenda of their own, especially when demonising their rivals, or demonising an outsider who makes a convenient scapegoat. That Lex only needs to orchestrate a few big instances, though, is true to life; the beast feeds itself, and upon itself, ad infinitum. The rolling news machine simply must have content, simply must have controversy, simply must inflate and inflame conflict. Lex pulled the requisite strings to place Superman in the political and media spotlight and could confidently leave them to it, knowing they couldn't fail to tear and gouge and rip.
It goes without saying that this level of thought, this depth of philosophical examination, doesn’t strike everyone as their kind of Superman story. It is most definitely mine, but I won’t pretend my personal view is universal (funnily enough).
I confess I struggle to see why. Yes, the charming, fairy-tale classic from Richard Donner did not examine such concepts in 1978. So what? That film already exists. Refusing to do something they didn’t do would be utterly pointless. You won’t remake that film and do it any better than it already was. You can’t recapture that particular charm or that particular spirit. One only needs to watch 2006’s Superman Returns to see that. Better, surely, to go the other way, and do something that hasn’t been done with the character on film before.
The comics explore these concepts routinely, and have done so for decades. Not always and not every comic, but often and several. Ultimately, yes, he is a guy trying to do the right thing. Superman should not be curtailed, constrained or co-ordinated by any Government. He should, however, have to think very carefully about these ideas.
Superman should think about how he does what he does. He should consider the consequences of his actions. He should ponder the ramifications, think through the potential results and subject his own views, his own principles and his own morals to scrutiny. This Clark Kent, more than any other on film, more than most in any medium, is a thinker. A self-reflector. And so he should be. He is a man of power who obeys no government policy, who follows no principles other than his own. This is a man who cannot be any more neutral than anyone else. True neutrality is impossible and, as General Amajagh points out, nobody is different. This applies to us all. Even to Superman.
Senator June Finch brings a geo-political dimension to play when examining the ramifications of Superman’s existence, as we are shown throughout the first half of the film. Given the world-shaping potential of his power, Finch views him with a degree of dehumanised detachment. She is, understandably, considering him through the prism of the ramifications the use of his power can have. He’s as powerful as any military asset. More so, in many respects. Shouldn’t then his use of power be subject to rules, to regulations, to checks and balances, like any other weapon? Like any other extension of the state? Aren’t these powers so big, the impact on the geo-political balance of the world so potentially great, that some accountability is needed? And to whom should they be accountable?
In what reads as a neat comment on the thinking of the political and military spheres, the assumption is that the power must be accountable to them. They split the Super from the Man, seeking to hold the former to account without taking into consideration the later. They view this purely as how to control the Super, without reconciling with the fact that it is wielded by the Man.
What are his rights? To what extent do they extend any rights at all to this immigrant, to this literal alien? Do Human Rights, in their mind, even apply to Kal-El of Krypton? That the political powers of the story seem not even to consider this side of the equation is telling, but the storytellers clearly wish us to do so as viewers. The Greek Chorus encapsulates and crystalises these issues, with questions about the restraints that can be placed upon this person, with views expressed that every act is a political act and that the paradigm has shifted, whilst also demonstrating that Humanity is struggling to accept their new reality as but one species in a Universe which contains beings of Kryptonian power, civilisations of Kryptonian advancement, and their relative place within it.
How does Clark Kent react to the microscope under which Superman is being scrutinised? Not with certainty, that’s for sure. He is quite properly torn between his desire to do the right thing, his natural tendency to help when he sees a situation in which he can and the clear ramifications his actions have. If Superman paid no heed to the query of Kahina Ziri, asking how he chooses, he’d be a bit of a monster. If he cared not a jot for the occasionally legitimate concerns about what his actions mean, if he dismissed worries about when he might act and why, he’d be a callous, uncaring, inhuman god, setting himself above humanity. This Clark’s humanity bleeds from him all the way through Man Of Steel and BVS. He seeks solace in a call home to his Mother, in the middle of the night, in a charmingly touching moment. He expresses his wish that things were more simple, before being told that, no matter what he might think, no matter how some may reflect on times past 'nothing was ever simple'. It's an important truth, one overlooked routinely in our world, nevermind this one. He even goes directly home to see Martha Kent later, who tells him he can choose to be the hero, the angle, the monument, or he can choose to be none of the above. That he is no more obligated than anyone else. That he has a choice.
Making a different choice, though, seems entirely antithetical to the character. We saw that even in Man of Steel. Lois knew it; stopping helping people 'isn't an option' for him. Nonetheless, this very human Clark cares deeply about the responsible exercise of his power. Rather tellingly, Clark spends much of this film being uncertain. Bruce Wayne doesn’t. He has an ‘absolute certainty’ about what Superman is, or could be, and about what must be done about it. Ditto Lex Luthor. He has an absolute certainty all of his own, that those with the most knowledge must logically have the most power.
Interestingly, Clark reacts to the world questioning the activities of a powerful man who exercises that power on his own terms by going against his editors wishes to pursue the story of… a powerful man exercising power on his own terms. This is one area in which Clark actually is certain, which in itself is telling; The ‘Bat Vigilante’ is a ‘one man reign of terror’ who abuses his power, who answers to no-one and who seems to be getting away with it. That is particularly noteworthy; Clark clearly feels Batman’s activities are not getting the appropriate coverage, that the world should be paying attention to this, that something should be done about it. He even remarks that the authorities appear to be helping him. It’s subtle, clever character work, and it tells us a great deal about how Clark is struggling to reconcile with the global reaction to his own alter-ego.
In his own way, Clark narrows his focus onto The Batman. He’s determined to hold him to account, determined to stop this powerful figure acting with impunity. Determined to stop him, period. It’s a very neat reflection of his own mindset in the context of the scrutiny of Superman and further emphasises the point that even the best of us can fall into the trap of judging someone based on an impression, an interpretation, without having walked any distance in their moccasins. Of judging others through the prism of our own neuroses, our own circumstances, our own perspective. Especially when that interpretation is being guided by powerful figures with an agenda of their own.
Jesse Eisenberg brings a volcanic intensity to the role of Arch-villain Lex Luthor, his malevolence, cunning and mercilessness bubbling beneath a veneer of breezy eccentricity. It’s a layered, multi-faceted and engrossing performance that deserves an essay all of its own, which may or may not come in time.
His machinations, though, force Superman squarely into the unforgiving glare of the modern media age. He makes sure Lois Lane is in danger so that Superman will personally intervene in a politically sensitive area of the world, exposing shadow American interventions and drawing governmental attention. He also ensures that extravagantly violent death surrounds the entire incident, burning bodies in the hopes of suggesting that blasts of heat vision might have been involved. Again, the propensity for lies to disseminate is touched upon here; Clark tells Lois ‘I didn’t kill those men if that’s what they’re saying’. Clearly that is what some are saying, even though the causes of death would be easily proven and presumably widely reported upon. The lie has already gotten out and about, well ahead of the truth.
Lex pays and prepares a witness to provide damning testimony against Superman as he works Senator Finch’s committee into his own ‘puppet theatre’. He bails out, befriends and benefits from Wallace Keefe, taking advantage of his impotent rage and trauma to turn him into an unwitting suicide bomber. He points Clark towards the unheralded, increasingly extreme actions of Batman. He ensures that, just as the coverage of Superman and his role in the world reaches fever-pitch, a devastating national disaster takes place as the Kryptonian is clearing his throat to set out his stall and address the concerns of the wider world.
And it gives Superman serious pause.
Just like the murderous campaign of The Joker in The Dark Knight, also conducted very much in public to pin Batman with the blame, Lex Luthor makes Superman consider his place in the world and his own role in the unfolding horror.
It proved unpopular with many, but for this lifelong Superman fanatic, if you have Superman face Lex Luthor for the first time in your story and the Man Of Tomorrow is not forced to question his place, his impact and his actions as a result of the machinations of his foe, you’ve failed pretty miserably in your task.
It should be noted that Henry Cavill is utterly convincing throughout. It's not the flashiest role, this Clark Kent/Superman. It's not as showy as the eccentric, monologuing villain role for Lex Luthor, nor the embittered, blinded fury of this iteration of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Cavill has to be solidly heroic and confident when the moment calls for it, troubled and self-doubting when the moment calls for it, righteously indignant, distraught and self-flagellating, contemplative, determined, assertive and stoic, all when the script calls for it. He has to carry over a lot of introspective characterisation with a script that leaves his character much more talked about than talking. It is often lost in the maelstrom of commentary around the film, but he does this with aplomb. And that exchange with Lex Luthor in the Scout ship (You've lost/I don't know how to lose/you'll learn) is classic, classic Superman, too.
It would be going too far to say that Superman abandons his principles after the Capitol bombing, or at any moment in this story. He does, however, take time away to consider what he is doing and why. If what he is doing is having the impact he intends, if it is causing more harm than good. It doesn’t matter, really, to the dead and the bereaved, that the disasters have been orchestrated by some malignant force to discredit Superman. Ultimately, they are still dead, injured or bereaved because of the strange visitor from outer space. ‘There are people behind this’, as Lois rightly points out to Clark, but the reason these people, aka Lex Luthor, are taking these actions at all is because they want to destroy Superman. That’s the harsh truth Clark needs to contend with. His actions, his very existence, has consequences, unforeseen or otherwise.
All those powers, and he still couldn’t save them.
If Clark is going to have a moment of great doubt, if he is going to experience anguish on the Mount of Olives, I’d much prefer it to be over matters such as these (and as a result of Lex Luthor, to boot), than because he is considering giving up his powers and his role as Superman so that he can live a quiet, domestic life with a romantic partner. That’s the usual reason the hero considers calling it quits, in superhero films. A deeply selfish, incredibly immoral choice, which we saw in Superman II (both the Lester and Donner cuts). Dare I say it, that’s not MY Superman.
Like The Dark Knight before it, there’s an altogether deeper, more intellectually satisfying reason behind this moment of great crisis in BVS; The villain has caused the hero to doubt his place, to doubt his choices, to question if he is actually doing more harm than good.
And as he chooses, tellingly, to walk like a human to the top of the mountain, his haunted psyche delivers unto him a ghost. Classical literature often turns to an apparition on the eve of battle, which in essence this is for Superman. They are also commonly employed to lean into the guilt of a character, personifying their complicity and confronting them with their moral failing or dark misdeeds. Here, though, the screenplay inverts those tropes. Clark has been struggling, Clark has been torturing himself, but by conjuring the ghost of Jonathan Kent, he is gathering his spirit once more. He is marshalling his morals. He is reckoning with the events that have taken him to the mountain top and renewing his sense of self.
Clark chooses to accept his guilt and grow from it. He chooses to accept the nightmares in the hope that, one day, they will stop. He has this hope because he knows there is indeed good in this world. He worried back in Man Of Steel about trusting Humanity, largely feeding off the fears of Jonathan, fears which appear to have been largely founded by the events of BVS up to this point. He has also been faced with an incredible backlash, an hostility and rejection from those he is compelled to help. He has been on the receiving end of a concerted campaign, a concocted conspiracy, orchestrated by a powerful man who hates him simply because he exists.
Clark, though, decides, in this scene, through a memory of his father, inspired by those ideals with which he was raised, not to be dissuaded.
Yes, Clark has rightly had to think about his actions, and the consequences they have, as should we all. Yes, his power makes such thinking all the weightier, all the more vital, as his actions are all the more consequential. Yes, Clark should always try to be conscious that he has no monopoly on morality and that his interventions have ramifications but most of all Clark has come to embrace the fact that he is a part of this world.
Yes, there are always going to people who reject him. There will always be ‘arm-chair’ superheroes’. He is going to have to contend with the reality that there will always be people he can’t save and he will always be learning on the job, to a certain extent. There will always be those who demonise him, no matter what he does. There will always be those who seek his disgrace, or his destruction. Ultimately, though, Clark’s choice is that they are worth saving. He doesn’t ‘owe’ the world this, but he chooses it. In the end, it is his world. He is a part of it. His choice is not to let these people tell him he isn’t a part of this world just because he wasn’t born here. He refuses to let these people tell him that this world is not his.
This is his world, and he can save it. This is his world, and he will save it. This is his world, and he will lay his life down for it.
The immigrant chooses his home and refuses to have that choice made for him. The powerful figure chooses to use his power to help as best he can and refuses to let the fact that he is not infallible and omnipotent stop him from trying. The hero makes peace with one villain (starting them on a road to redemption), saves another from their own demonic creation and fells the monster with his dying breath. The man has found his place.
Like many stories of Kings and Queens, of Presidents and leaders, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice explores themes of power and its consequences. It delves into the moral conundrums faced by those in positions of authority. It examines the way in which our modern media cacophony judges them and argues that morality cannot be some fixed, unmalleable constant, nor can any of the powerful afford not to scrutinise themselves, or be scrutinised by others.
It is not, however, solely a story of the powerful. We can all face rejection. We can all be misrepresented and maligned. We all have our own biases, and we are all susceptible to being misled, misinformed and manipulated, too. We can all be misunderstood, and we can all be guilty of misunderstanding. We can all make mistakes, and our preconceptions can be mistaken. We can all fall, but what fall’s is not necessarily fallen. We can rebuild and we can do better. We all have power of some kind and we must all be conscious of the impact our actions can have, but we should not allow these careful and conscientious considerations to stop us from acting at all.
This is our world; it is one in which good is a conversation rather than a unilateral decision and it is one in which actions have consequences, but whilst we must always be aware of this, we can and should choose to keep going. We can and should choose to be the guy trying to do the right thing. We can and should make this choice not because it is easy and not to be rewarded with praise and acclaim, but simply because it is right. You don’t need to be Superman. If you want to be a force for good, just try to do good.
If you seek his monument, look around you.