Opinion The Politics of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE written by Robert Reineke April 8, 2016 I have plenty of issues with the storytelling in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, but this isn’t a review. Rather its an attempt to delve deeper into the subtext of the film and what it’s trying to say. There are plenty of films that are problematic, that have interesting things going on under the surface and films that are slick entertainments that have nothing particular to say. I believe that BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is one of the former. In particular, I believe that it’s a political film at heart with 9/11 imagery, verbal call outs to the revolutionary war, political talking heads, a suicide bombing, and congressional hearings. I believe the politics start with the film overtly embracing the 9/11 imagery of the Battle of Metropolis. Significantly, I think it’s a refutation of the argument that we never see Bruce Wayne / Batman as a heroic ideal. Throughout this segment, we see Bruce Wayne run into the danger of collapsing buildings and dust clouds and we watch him save lives. He’s very much a first responder in this sequence. It’s only at the end of the sequence, when there is nobody to save, that we see the anger take hold on Bruce Wayne. The film opens with trauma, the deaths of the Waynes, and then shifts to a new trauma, the Battle of Metropolis. And, in the angry aftermath, we watch as Batman engages in extraordinary rendition, tortures terror suspects, and engages in preemptive war becomes increasingly violent, brands criminals, and plots a preemptive strike on Superman. Batman falls short of his ideals through much of the film and I believe that is precisely the point. In response to the 9/11 equivalent in the MAN OF STEEL, Batman has taken on some of the worst qualities of post 9/11 American foreign policy. It’s perhaps surprising that he’s not monitoring Gotham using drones. If he’s something less than the idealistic hero that we hope for Batman to be deep down, doesn’t that reflect how America views itself at times now? So angry that we do things that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s. Perhaps that’s to Zack Snyder’s credit that he allows it to become ugly. To go further, BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE actually allows a way back from the brink. Ultimately Batman chooses not to kill Superman. And, it’s a choice made when Batman sees Superman as a human being rather than as something “other”. Perhaps the film is suggesting that there’s a way to see past xenophobia and see the world as a mix of people, good and bad, and suggests that acknowledging that nuance is a way forward. Bruce Wayne himself says similar things at the end of the film. In my mind, the arc of Batman/Bruce Wayne is the most fleshed out part of the film. Arguably, there’s a cut of the film that focuses on Batman that’s a stronger version of this basic story. We generally don’t view Batman as a symbol of America, but he is an American icon and I think the film draws some strong parallels. Unfortunately, I think the political readings to other parts of the story are more problematic. Luthor is clearly representing the wealthy elite, but his relationship to Superman and the Battle of Metropolis is barely defined. Luthor views Superman as powerful and manipulates those around him out of fear of his own impotence in the face of Superman, but it’s kept in the most general of terms. I suppose there’s something to Luthor cynically using political imagery in his arguments, which he clearly doesn’t believe, but then you have him giving Freudian slips during a public speech clearly undercutting his private arguments. Lois Lane and Clark Kent prove to have surprisingly little power as reporters, which certainly is a statement, however unsatisfying, on the state of the press. Events move too fast for Lois to reach the conclusion of her investigation in the African incident and we never see it published. Likewise, Clark’s crusade against the abuses of the government Batman is deemed to be something the public isn’t interested in reading. Wonder Woman missed the Battle of Metropolis and seems to be closest to her heroic ideal. She’s been a symbol of America at points as well, and we get a glimpse, however brief, of what we used to represent in her brief appearance. She fights when lives are at stake, but otherwise seems to be fairly neutral and uninvolved. And, that finally brings us to Superman, for decades a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way. This is perhaps where the idea of viewing BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE through a political lens crumbles. Superman isn’t a tool of the government or status quo in this film. He’s not a paragon ala Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans and admittedly he’s fighting things more insidious than Hydra, like cynicism. Superman isn’t really approached like an immigrant. Arguably, it’s easier to define Superman by what he isn’t in this film than what he stands for. I suppose one could argue for Superman showing the futility of trying to untangle from foreign and domestic entanglements, as the Obama administration has found so difficult, but that seems a thin reed even to me. Perhaps the film falters by mixing politics and religion. Luthor speaks of angels and devils and Zack Snyder doesn’t back away from the religious imagery associated with Superman. Perhaps Superman as Secular Jesus is just incompatible with a more specific take on a real world politics. Doomsday himself seems associated with pure nihilism, which is hardly a viable political position. Even if nuclear weapons are ultimately unleashed on Superman and Doomsday, it seems more of a religious parable than a political fable. Perhaps that speaks to two separate stories mashed together that were never completely compatible. The political subtext perhaps also speaks to why the film is so divisive. For all the political intrigue of the first half of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, once they get around to saying “Hail Hydra” the good guys and bad guys are clearly demarcated. Those bright lines aren’t as evident in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. Given that it’s an election year, it’s easy to spot how divisive our modern politics has become. Is it any wonder a superhero film that tries to wade into these issues has managed to be equally divisive? The Politics of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was last modified: April 8th, 2016 by Robert Reineke Related Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 12 comments 1 Facebook Twitter Google + Pinterest Robert Reineke previous post Popular Opinion Podcast #14: ROGUE ONE Trailer Reaction and BATMAN V SUPERMAN Fallout next post Weekly Ratings Roundup: April 3 to 9, 2016 You may also like A Justice League of Their Own, Part... September 16, 2012 How to Detect a Crisis, Issue #1 June 4, 2011 A Justice League of Their Own, Part... August 28, 2012 Op/Ed: Marvel’s “Villain Problem” is really an... March 9, 2017 How to Detect a Crisis, Issue #2 August 6, 2011 OP/ED: WB’s “No Jokes” Mandate Doesn’t Exist August 29, 2014 BOF: 5 Things Fans That Fans Think... July 14, 2013 SUICIDE SQUAD and the Changing Face of... August 6, 2016 How Batman Should Begin, Again March 9, 2012 Can ‘The Dark Knight’ Rise Above ‘The... May 10, 2012 Oreole “It’s perhaps surprising he isn’t monitoring Gotham using drones.” Incidentally, in Kingdom Come, Batman did just that with the Bat-drones. Robert Reineke Absolutely. FWIW, I recall early rumors that claimed that Batman would be controlling drones in BvS. Probably dropped, but could be something that makes it to the extended cut. Matthew Dickinson You certainly can’t fault BvS for it’s lack of ambition. Robert, I agree with your wonderful summary that BvS should have been an updated Watchmen, a post-9/11 examination of the American Dream, to some extent this is BvS’s problem. Watchmen so clearly and brilliantly defines it’s representative viewpoints (in both the comic and Snyder’s adaptation, which I rate in my top five comic book films), you’ve got Rorschach representing cynicism, Ozymandias realism, Dr. Manhattan apathy, Nite Owl optimism and the Comedian nihilism. The problem is that BvS tries to map these archetypes onto mainstream DCU characters, it makes the wrong choices as to which DCU characters are which Watchmen and even then translates them badly. A lot of the criticisms about BvS are I think because of this, for instance it loses much of the humour and has even less optimism than what sustained audiences through Watchmen’s grimmer parts. Batman is clearly meant to be cynicism, and this is the most successful translation, but unlike Rorschach whose bat-shit craziness (pun intended) is meant to be laughed at we are meant to take Batman completely seriously. As Robert mentions some of the problems we have in accepting this version of Batman are because he’s become too violent, he’s become like Rorschach, and also because we know he’s making all the wrong decisions about Superman, but unlike with Rorschach it’s not clear whether we are meant to think they are wrong or not. I think as Robert states Doomsday is nihilism and Wonder Woman optimism, but having a dumb monster in the place of the Comedians ‘jokes’ eliminates another source of comedy, black as it may be, and another contrast to show what the heroes are not. Wonder Woman has retired just like Nite Owl and yet they both remain more optimistic and are sources of levity in their films, but again her role is much smaller than Nite Owl’s so there’s less levity, her viewpoints don’t get to bounce off the other characters’ as much and most importantly she isn’t the audience identification character that Nite Owl is. What does that leave us with? Superman should have represented optimism and I think the problems with his characterisation are that he’s forced somewhat to take Dr. Manhattan’s place instead, his square peg is forced into a round hole and the result is the many complaints that he’s too apathetic. His sacrifice actually makes more sense as the arc of an apathist learning to get involved, but doesn’t for the muddled character presented. Is Lex then meant to be the realist? If he had been the John Byrne/Superman:TAS version that could have worked really well, but because he is half Gene Hackman, half Heath Ledger (and a pale imitation of both) he’s too irrational to be a realist (Ozymandias was probably crazy, but he was rational to a fault). A few changes could have made this work really well, Batman should have been the realist, Superman the optimist, Lex the cynical one, and maybe get rid of Wonder Woman and enlarge another role to represent the general public as the apathetic ones (which matches more the post-9/11 audience). Finally have a different villain to Doomsday to represent nihilism, perhaps a Bizarro Zod. stock Personally, I’m ok with Snyder not attempting to copy his own work on Watchmen, but I agree that he made some dubious choices in his characterizations of Bats and Supes. And therein lies the main problem. Maybe we’ll get it more fleshed out in the (God help us) Extended Version. Astro Zombie Trying to construct your universe with a deconstructionist vision is counter-productive. Deconstructionism only works in contrast, but they have yet to establish anything to contrast against with the DCCU, so all you have is darkness for the sake of darkness. WATCHMEN (The Movie) only works (retroactively, because it came out first) as the pessimist counter-point to The Avengers. stock I agree with everything you wrote, Robert. Which surprises me. But, I just think the film fails when it tries to engage in political subtext, because it’s really not sure what it’s trying to say. You hit where Bruce Wayne is in the film dead-on IMO, but as a meaningful counterpart, Superman is wasted here. I’ve only seen it once, so far, but I’ve always believed that comic book and movie politics, be it Marvel or DC (in its current phase) are not very well thought out and are simply excuses for two sides to get to the fight. You might as well be discussing the politics of dancing or feeling good. I especially thought the Congressional hearing scene absolutely ridiculous, since we not only never hear Superman speak in his own defense, we never hear a charge against him or any other witness, just a suddenly flustered senator trying to spit some words out that are basically irrelevant. Then some more destruction porn. It tells me they really didn’t care, let’s get to the main event. Robert Reineke I tried to not actually review whether this political subtext works or not, just to provide a reading on what I believe to be there. I thought it would be more productive to conversation at this point. stock Yes, and I agree with you on most of it. Batman works for me in this regard because I see no fault in his anger, although some of the extremes he goes to might be questionable. There are some who regard the country as merely being asleep at the wheel during the 90s, but that is real world politics that can rarely be applied to a Men in Tights, world. Superman, again, takes it on the chin in this world, and, I’m thinking, to men of our age, that’s a huge disappointment. There’s not enough of a contrast between Bats and Supes to make the conflict work, IMO. Politically, it just seems a series of convenient set-ups for the final fight. In Miller’s story, a history is implied between the characters that provides the subtext. Here, don’t bother scratching the surface, there’s not much underneath, IMO, and what is there is very sloppily handled. As to the real world, Robert, I wish us luck. We’re going to need it no matter which way the pendulum swings. Astro Zombie Nolan’s films better used the Batman mythos as an allegory for the post 9/11 war on terror in my opinion, and cast Batman in a much more optimistic light. Batman Begins sees a lost, angry young man recruited by extremists, only to reject their ideology. In The Dark Knight, Batman is tempted by the power of a surveillance state in order to capture The Joker by essentially wire-tapping all of Gotham. But ultimately he decides in the end that it just too much power to have, and a violation of human rights. The Dark Knight Rises sees the occupation of Gotham by an invading army, with Batman leading an insurgency as a revolutionary figure. stock Batman was also willing to allow himself to be cast as a villain in order to protect his city. People often view films through their own political lenses, which is why the Nolan trilogy worked so well. Both sides see their viewpoints presented as valid, and that is a difficult task to accomplish. I was surprised to see Nolan listed as a producer on BvS since it was frankly, a mess. Astro Zombie The producer credit was mostly for marketing reasons, so they could put his name in the trailers and say “From the people that brought you The Dark Knight.” He had little input on the actual movie, and from what I’ve read they didn’t listen to it anyway. He told Zack it was a bad idea to kill Superman, just as he told Zack it was a bad idea to have Superman kill Zod in Man of Steel. He was right both times, but they did it anyway. stock Too bad for Nolan. I’m sure he had some idea of how to deal with Batman as well. I got used to Supes killing Zod. As it was presented, they gave him no choice. And we all know Superman isn’t dead. In the political sh..stew that is the film, the same country that was attempting to reign in Superman, accused him of political murder in another country and in the destruction of the Congress, then gave him a military funeral apparently for making them unleash a nuclear weapon. I’ll tell you this, if his first line after ressurection is “Woman, why do you weep?” I’m getting the hell out of there. BTW–speaking of Zod–did you get any sense that he was “in” Doomsday? And just what was Luthor going to do if Doomsday succeeded in killing Superman? I’m not a Snyder fan and, outside of a few things I liked with Batman, this flick didn’t change that.