Zack Snyder and Chris Terrio’s new superhero epic has many allegorical and literal themes that you might not expect it to. Even though this movie isn’t on the level of quality of something like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, I do consider the character motivations and mythological themes just as fascinating as the philosophy of Nolan’s grand morality play from 2008.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW FOR BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
I’ve always felt that DC comics characters have more of a timeless and mythic quality to them compared to heroes and villains from publishers like Marvel, whose icons are more relatable and timely. Superman, Batman and co. always seemed more larger-than-life, more statuesque…more like a true version of “modern mythology” that comic book superheroes are so often referred to as. This idea of DC heroes and villains being timeless myths is reflected in the recent DC films. While many found the lack of color and humor in 2013’s “Man of Steel” to be an attempt at being dark and edgy, I saw it as more of an attempt at achieving that mythic quality DC comics often have. The blueish white of many scenes in “Man of Steel” reminded me of ancient sculptures of gods from Greek mythology.
I feel that my interpretation of those visuals from “Man of Steel” were validated in the expansion of that approach clearly found in 2016’s “Batman V Superman”. Not only have they retained a somewhat desaturated palette and a softer reliance on timely world happenings compared to Marvel Studio’s movies, but they have even gone so far as to clearly make the relationship between gods and men from many famous myths be a central and encompassing theme in the movie.
Heroes As Gods Among Us
In the first moments of the movie, we get an opening monologue from Bruce Wayne (slightly paraphrased here):
“There was a time above, a time before…everything that falls, has fallen”
I believe Bruce’s monologue parallels the film’s ending, and ties into the overall theme of the movie, which contrasts beings of the sky versus beings of the earth and the underworld: gods versus men, a fitting theme for a “Batman vs Superman” movie.
Bruce says that “everything that falls has fallen”, and that after he “fell” (figuratively after his parents’ death, and literally into the cave after the funeral), the “light” he was brought to above ground was a “beautiful lie”.
This contrasts interestingly with the end of the film. Superman has supposedly died, and is put into the ground. Lois spreads soil on his coffin as a last goodbye, and then as she walks away, the soil slightly levitates off the coffin before the film abruptly cuts to credits. Not only is this a reference to the ending of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” (from which this film takes many ideas), but it’s also a fulfillment of a cinematic theme, one that Bruce poetically mentions in the film’s opening. For Bruce, he is a being of the underworld: his fear was conquered and his purpose was found in a cave; his work done as Batman is in a cave. Bruce is destined to work within the confines of the elements that define him (“everything that falls has fallen”).
Clark on the other hand, is an inherent being of the sky. He came from the sky when he was a baby, he works in the lofty Daily Planet skyscraper, and he soars through the sky every day as the world’s champion Superman. If he is put in the ground, he is destined to rise back again to the sky.
To directly reference screenwriter Chris Terrio’s statements about the movie to the Wall Street Journal, Superman is Apollo to Batman’s Pluto:
“It’s almost archetypal. In Batman’s origin [the murder of his parents], the primary thing I was thinking about is the fact he falls. It’s the primary metaphor for Western literature: There was a moment before and then everything fell. That brings up questions of Superman.
I began to think Batman and Superman occupy different parts of the mythic imagination. In superhero stories, Batman is Pluto, god of the underworld, and Superman is Apollo, god of the sky.”
I’m a big fan of characters representing grand themes and having elemental qualities, so I’m thrilled to find such elaborate and cohesive mythic themes in DC’s new cinematic vision.
Lex’s Twisted Mission To Prove His Theology
Now onto Lex Luthor. I found this version of the character very compelling, even if more unstable than previous versions have been. He has a clear and twisted theology, and he consistently brings up metaphors to gods and men from mythology.
When speaking to Senator Finch at his home, he references a painting his dad hung which depicts angels soaring down from Heaven to battle demons rising from beneath the ground. Lex states a piece of his theology here, mentioning a wish to hang the painting upside-down, so the painting will instead depict what he considers the truth: that “devils don’t come from Hell beneath us…they come from the sky”.
This obviously references his feelings on Superman, but also encompasses his overall worldview. This painting will become even more relevant at the end of the movie, upon Lex foreshadowing doom to come. But more on that later.
Lex continues his mythological allegories when accessing the Kryptonian scout ship to utilize the old birthing matrix to reanimate the deceased General Zod into the monstrous Doomsday. As he lowers Zod’s corpse into the chamber, he mourns “you flew too close to the sun…”
This references the Greek myth of Icarus building wings from wax to fly, who then flew too close to the sun which melted his wings, and he fell into the sea.
This myth is a lesson of hubris, and even though Lex references the lesson Icarus learned, he still retains that pride. He is a mortal man, but wishes to reach up to the level of the gods. He makes clear his ambition to kill “God” by destroying Superman, since he shares Bruce Wayne’s feeling of powerlessness at such a figure coming to Earth and holding such influence over our fate, whether it be good or bad. He wishes to reach beyond his realm, however despite that ambition he still knows better than Icarus did: he won’t risk himself by trying to ascend to the Heavens (at least not yet), but he will take action to swat “God” out of the sky, to kill him and thus empower man.
This is why he incorporates Zod’s corpse into his mad plan to destroy Superman. Lex’s entire motivation of creating Doomsday in the first place might be seen as a messy unraveling of his plan in the script, and that may partially be true. It’s quite a leap from his previous orchestrations behind-the-scenes, but I come away liking it because it all goes toward a physical manifestation of Lex’s theological view of “God”, or Superman.
When Lex and Superman finally meet, Lex tells him, “if God is all-good then He cannot be all-powerful. If he is all-powerful then he cannot be all-good”. Lex’s masterplan for Superman to fight Batman is not only a radical way to achieve his ends in the story, but it’s a way for Lex to physically prove his theology: He challenges Superman to kill Batman to save someone he loves. If Superman kills Batman, he’s not “all-good”, and discredits him to the world. If Batman kills Superman, then he is not “all-powerful” since he’s killed by a man.
This plan fails however, due to these two opposed elemental forces being united by a common humanity. Lex’s test didn’t work as he anticipated. He now knows that “God” may be all-good since he didn’t kill Batman, but Superman also didn’t die due to an unforeseen turn, so Lex needs to prove that he’s not “all-powerful”. So he unleashes the ultimate means with which to break Superman’s power. Plot-wise these events are somewhat contrived, but I find the overarching thematic ideas they represent to be worth the weak links in the plot.
As we know, this plan of Lex’s results in Superman needing to sacrifice himself to stop Doomsday. In a sense it seems that Lex was right, and Superman may not be all-powerful. But that’s all up for conjecture since it seems that Superman may still be alive in the final moments of the film.
Finally, the movie’s final scene of Lex has him giving a maddened and ominous warning of a threat beyond our world to come. Apparently his time of prying into the knowledge base of the Kryptonian scout ship has shown him more about the universe than he anticipated, as it’s hinted that Lex now knows that the evil god-like Darkseid has set his sights upon Earth. This ties into Batman’s vision of an Earth in ruin, stamped by Darkseid’s “omega” symbol, also a Greek alpha-numeric character. As we leave Lex rambling about this threat, we see police photographing Lex’s office, with the painting of angels and demons now flipped to show the demons on top, falling down from the sky. We knew that this view of Lex’s pertained to Superman, but we now know that it also foreshadows a coming of Darkseid’s forces of evil from the sky as well.
So that’s a brief look at some of the interesting theological and mythological ideas that are woven pretty consistently throughout “Batman V Superman”. What did you think of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice? Are there any other themes that we missed? Let us know in the comments below!
SOURCE: Wall Street Journal