An examination of the story elements of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice by M.Schinke
You just have to believe, OpinionNerds!
Running into the final stretch of anticipation for the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on November 17th, it’s time to continue my exploration of the different aspects of what has come to be known as the DCEU, or the connected universe of Warner Brothers films based on the stable of DC Comics characters, with another look at a the film I admire most out of them so far; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
I’ve written a little before about what I’ve found is the difference between story, narrative and plot, so I’m going to use that little bit of knowledge to address one of the questions that I am continually asked about the film;
What is the story? What’s this movie even about?
Now, I’m not a film maker or storyteller. I’m not really even much of a writer. I’m certainly no professor, teacher or film scholar of any kind. I’ve taken one film course at community college and to call it rudimentary would be an insult to the culture that developed the word. It’s hard to guide someone to finding the answers to these kinds of questions when you’ve just barely begun to develop the tools to discern them yourself. Believe it or not; it’s never been my intent to use this platform to just write instructional pamphlets detailing what these movies, “are” or, “are not”. Rather, I’d always fancied myself a trusted companion helping others on a journey not just to discover the things going on in these DCEU films, but to develop a set of tools that will help all of us evaluate and understand films as a whole. Alas it isn’t always so simple; especially when answering difficult questions like,
What is the story? What’s this movie even about?
To take a macro view as if I were writing the blurb for the home video jacket, I might describe the film like this,
“Superman deals with the realities of the world and Batman takes on a mission of vengeance while Lois Lane sets out to uncover the truth behind a conspiracy and Lex Luthor schemes to destroy the Man of Steel.”
I think that would be a pretty good, “floating high above the world in a hot air balloon” simplified overview of the whole movie. I think a second glance at the blurb will give you some clue where I plan to start with this entry, though.
Superman deals with…
Batman takes on…
Lois Lane sets out to…
Lex Luthor schemes…
Now would be a good time to briefly discuss a concept that I’ve often had a difficult time with: the difference between a story and a situation. It’s not a complex subject, but it doesn’t get talked about very much and making the distinction between the two is pretty important. The most simple definition of the two I have come across comes from the blog ItsTheScriptStupid and describes the two thus:
“A “situation” is when the hero finds themself in a particular set of circumstances through no action of their own. It’s when something happens to them. The hero is passive.
A “story” begins when the hero decides to do something about their situation, when they make something happen. The hero is active.”
While a story is almost always about an exploration of character, as it’s the characters choices that drive it, a situation is usually about the puzzle, mystery or what have you, the character is presented with. The situation may test the characters resolve or their skills but it doesn’t always lead to a grand exploration of the characters inner depths. Whereas a story requires the character to do something in order to advance, a situation would probably still happen if that character was involved or not. Famously, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film that has a great character in Indiana Jones, and a great situation, but not much of a story in that the events that transpire don’t require his involvement to occur and the character does not grow or change as a result of them. Now bear in mind this doesn’t mean that Raiders is a bad film; and I will personally fight anyone who dares disagree! Merely as a matter of definition, Indiana Jones doesn’t have a story. The initiation of each of these elements doesn’t necessarily need to be simultaneous, as I’ll demonstrate going forward. There are times when a character spends an entire story dealing with one situation, and others when they have nothing to do but deal with one situation after another with no time for a real story to appear. Or the character can spend a chunk of a movie in a situation, only to finally make a choice that puts a story into motion. The message is that there is no right or wrong way to approach it; a writer uses the tools that best allows them to express the ideas that they wish to convey.
While there is an overall story being told in Batman v Superman, the movie itself is comprised of four stories that, while they occasionally overlap, are mostly left distinct so that each character is explored separately. The film remains this way until around the 2:10 mark when Lois brings it all together. That’s essentially an entire movie by itself of these four separate stories. You could almost break the whole affair up into two chunks with the first two hours being Batman v Superman and the last hour being Dawn of Justice; an approach similar to Zack Snyders Man of Steel. The individual stories are explorations in themes and ideas that do speak to the core of each of the characters.
While it would be easy to get bogged down with a play by play of each story, I’m going to try and cut to the heart of each as best, and as briefly, as I can manage. The idea is not to prove that the movie was written the only way it could be, that’s a folly upon which I wouldn’t care to embark. What I’d like to try to do is to examine the parts and how they were used in the overall arc of the film. I’m going to try and avoid getting too deep into character breakdowns, however it won’t be easy. As any writer reading this should know, story comes from character. To discuss one is to discuss them both. But here I go giving it the old college try anyway.
(So before getting into this I want to make it 100% clear that this entire piece is my own interpretation of this movie. I make no claims that I am, “right” about any of this. All I can do is have faith in my abilities as an observer and hope that what I have to say rings true. So let’s try and start with what function each of the four story lines performs in the overall body of the movie.)
Lex’s story is primarily designed to drive the movies plot as he creates the main situation for the film. Lex is the engine that puts the entire film into motion and every other characters story relies on his choices and his actions to some degree. He also functions as the glue for the film as the only character who’s story directly interacts with the other three, and will provide the elements that eventually bring them all together. It is also through Lex, or through Lex’s machinations, that many of the films philosophical and theological questions are raised.
Lex’s story seems to focus around issues of power; who wields it, how it’s wielded, where it comes from, etc. Lex sees himself as a philanthropist, a self described lover of humanity. His speech about Prometheus at the library fundraiser is very telling towards his attitude in regards to Superman as it revolves around taking power from the gods and putting it into the hands of the human race. In this we see his philosophical approach to the relationship between humanity and divinity and, as such, his feelings towards what humanities relationship with Superman should be. It is pretty on the nose but it again drives some of the core philosophical concepts in the film.
I’ve read some criticism that there is no mystery in Lex’s story as it is never in question that he is up to no good. This is an astute observation as the movie never makes an attempt to obfuscate that Lex has ill intentions. The mystery is never that Lex is up to something; he’s Lex Luthor, so of course he’s up to something. The mystery is both what he is up to and, more importantly; why. The only thing we know, up until Lois pieces it together, is that Lex want’s the Kryptonite. Lex’s story is simple to understand and his plot more simple to follow than people might think, though I applaud the efforts made to keep his true intentions hidden until he reveals them to Superman. I am also enamored of the fact that the culmination of his efforts isn’t just a scheme meant for some material gain and, like any great villain, I truly believe that he has good intentions at heart. Lex truly believes that he is right, and his story shows how far he is willing to go to prove that.
Lois’s story follows the mystery element in the plot in a way that keeps Luthor’s actions distant from the audience and leaves the other stories open for dealing with their specific areas of focus. Her story allows the movie to reveal the details of that mystery in a way that feels natural; through the efforts of someone actively pursuing it, as opposed to the villain providing an info-dump or by simply showing the audience the behind the scenes activity out of need for exposition. As a character, Lois is the perfect vehicle for this bit of storytelling; it fits her role as a journalist and gives her an organic purpose for being involved in the films events. Following the story allows her to be where she needs to be for her part in the plotting. Lois is also, along with Martha Kent, the vehicle by which we get to see Clark Kent; the person under the cape. This is an important structural element so the character of Superman is allowed to be more than just an icon.
Through Lois’s story we are introduced to some of the big questions in the film. The question of what authority power answers to will become key, and the idea is first introduced to Lois by General Amajagh. Lois’s story also contains a theme of responsibility, revealed first when she wonders aloud if Clark can love her and be Superman. I always took this to be an ill timed, “do I have a right to own you away from the world” question but, taken in context with her previous statement about the cost of saving her life, as well as the Generals statement that, “Ignorance is not the same as innocence”, speaks more to a question of whether or not his relationship with her puts others in danger as he seeks to protect her. She also shows that she recognizes her place in the incident; she understands the reason it occurred was because of her presence. Her choices are driven by this sense of responsibility and by her belief that Superman is innocent despite the evidence to the contrary.
If there is a hierarchy of forward energy, Bruce is the most active protagonist of the film. He is the character most actively pursuing a goal; that being to get the Kryptonite and kill Superman. Bruce’s story drives most of the action in the film. From the second prologue in Metropolis to the warehouse rescue; his is the story with the most going on. If Lex is the plot generator, and Lois follows the mystery, then Bruce is the action engine and one of the functions of his story is to provide that shot of adrenaline when it’s needed.
The major themes introduced in Bruce’s story are powerlessness and fear. These themes are the foundation of Bruce’s experience in the film and are illustrated in the prologues and the nightmares the character has. These prologues not only introduce us to this version of Bruce Wayne but they set up the emotional arc for the character as well.
Even those that don’t enjoy the movie are quick to say that Bruce Wayne, or Batman, is the best part of it. I believe this is because his story is the most simple. What sours people is in the application of certain aspects of the character, but the function of his story within the film doesn’t seem to suffer many; as an apparent revenge tale it’s the one that makes the most sense.
It is in Clark’s story that the major questions of the film are asked; by whose authority does a power like Superman’s act, and who are they accountable to? The movie explores these questions by how the world reacts to Superman’s actions, portrayed through agents of the Government and members of the public. In addressing Batman as a reporter, Clark looks at the issue form another angle; that of the effect Batman’s activities have on the people in Gotham. Clark’s story examines these themes in the questions that are posed about him by the different characters in the film; Bruce Wayne, Senator Finch, Lex Luthor and even Lois Lane. We examine the character from the outside in, but we also see much of who he is by what story he chooses to follow.
Clark’s story suffered the worst in initial examination due to the tremendous editing it underwent in the making of the theatrical cut of the film. That gut the core of his issues with Batman and removed the ideological content that separates them. It is in Clark’s story that we see the contrast between Batman and Superman by examining how each chooses to engage the other. It is also through Clark’s story that the movie receives it’s overall narrative, or the emotional perspective of the film.
Deconstruction Of The Heroes
The word, “deconstruction” is used as a negative observation in that many critics believe that, to the degree it was used in this film, it was either an ill timed or badly implemented example of the process. What I believe is that we are seeing a true deconstruction of both of our heroes as known quantities as well as the superhero genre in total. To do this the movie does ask you to at least be familiar with the broadest scope of who each of the characters is. Perhaps that is unfair to ask of an audience, but I don’t feel it’s outside the realm to expect for an audience paying to see a movie with Batman and Superman in it.
In the case of Batman, the deconstruction is not just about taking away his toys, his money or exposing his identity; all the trappings of Bruce Wayne as Batman. Batman has, in my eyes, always been best defined in that he was able to take the tragedy of his parents death, and all the darkness that goes along with it, and turn it into something good by overcoming or channeling the associated trauma. In BvS, we are seeing what happens to that character when he no longer possesses the faculties to hold those feelings at bay. The film is deconstructing Batman by examining what happens when that character can no longer maintain that one defining trait and succumbs to feelings of powerless and fear. In the prologue, the crypt nightmare and the Knightmare scene we are seeing Bruce in states of feeling powerless, defenseless and unable to fight back.; and we see him spiral out, so to speak, as he attempts to find ways to deal with this.
Likewise, the questions asked in Clark’s story cut right to the core of the whole concept of super heroes that began with Action Comics #1 in 1938. Superman was the first and, as the prototype, the character laid the groundwork for all the rest to follow. I feel it is appropriate to use his story to ask these questions. These characters all act with extra legal powers and apply a supposed superior morality to the world. We, the audience, accept these characters and their assumed morality because their actions are always portrayed to be objectively good. Unfortunately our world isn’t that simple, and what separates good from bad is usually a thin line of personal experience. From Superman’s point of view we also get some new questions; how do you measure the, “good” you do if there is always the possibility of a, “bad” consequence? How do you continue to act in that regard if no one else seems to care? Both of these questions come into play as he addresses Lois on her balcony and his, “father” on the mountain. Superman is a character that has become so associated with hope. Here, we get to see how this character reacts when the faith that drives that hope is shaken.
What About All The Plot Points?
I’ve used the term plot point a lot in my discussions and when working on this entry, I had to finally admit to myself that I didn’t actually know what that term means. I always thought a plot point was, basically, anything that happened in a story. It didn’t take much reading to see that I was very wrong in that. An article at WritingForward.Com begins with this statement,
“Take a moment to think of some of the most significant scenes in your favorite stories.
More than likely, the scenes that pop to mind are those in which major events occur: Jane meets Mr. Rochester, the Titanic hits the iceberg, Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan. These are some of the most dramatic scenes in film and literature. They’re scenes that move their respective plots forward by leaps and bounds.
These are called plot points.”
A plot point, by observed definition, is a major turning point in a story that changes it’s trajectory. It is a moment when the story will spin off into a new phase. Like other structural elements such as act breaks, which we’ve talked about before, plot points are not held to any specific number or placement; you can use as many as it takes to tell your story. A constant criticism from certain segments of the community has accused BvS of having too many plot points, many of which they will claim are dropped or don’t add up to anything meaningful. Again, I would question these accusations; especially when the plot points being discussed are things like Batman killing, the Knightmare scene, the Robin suit in the Batcave; things that I don’t think rise to the definition of a plot point. Like I did, the assumption they make is that anything that is given a focus is a plot point. For me; this was a consequence of talking about things that were outside my scope of education; no matter how obvious they might seem. So I went and got me some educating; in a very limited degree, of course.
There maybe more plot points in the movie then most people are used to dealing with, but not as many as they think. So; if not everything that is mentioned in BvS is a plot point, then what are the major plot points? Which events transpire that spin the story off in a new direction when they occur? Let’s see if we can’t track them down.
I don’t know if the dual prologue’s are allowed to count as plot points. Obviously the events in Metropolis are incredibly important for Bruce Wayne, but sine they all happen outside the movies, “main” timeline, I’m going to disallow them. They inform the character of Bruce, but they don’t alter the course of the story; specifically, because the story hasn’t even started yet.
Plot Point 1:
I think most people would peg the Nairomi incident as the first plot point but I beg to differ. If I had to peg the first plot point it would be the discovery of the Kryptonite. It seems like a small scene but, if you don’t have that, the rest of the movie doesn’t happen. However I believe that this is also considered the inciting incident for the story proper as it is the event that kicks off the whole affair. *Edited -Incorrect application of the concept of the inciting incident. While I do believe this to be the first plot point presented, it is not the inciting incident for the story. 6-01-18
Plot Point 2: Of course we then get to the Nairomi Incident. This sets up the main mystery of the film, kicks off the problem for Superman and is the starting point of Lois Lane’s story line. This plot point ends the period of peace for Superman that existed between Man of Steel and BvS, and incites the films main situation. *Edited – This is indeed the inciting incident by definition. 6-01-18
Plot Point 3: I think the next major plot point is the revelation that Bruce Wayne want’s to kill Superman. Again, so much of this movie was spoiled before most of us got a chance to see it but this was meant to be a major reveal for the film (Just a reminder to avoid those Justice League spoilers, kids. Just say NO to spoilers). We have a revelation of what Bruce’s objective is, and from this point on we track the film on a very different path. This revelation forces us to look at Batman, and his actions, in a new way.
Plot Point 4: The next major plot point is the Capital Building Bombing. This, again, changes the direction of the film; Bruce Wayne goes over the edge in his prep to take on Superman, and Clark’s faith in himself is shaken so much he retreats.
This event will send everyone off to what will eventually result in The Big Fight, but I don’t believe that the fight itself is a major plot point as the fight is a goalpost for the story, not a turning point itself. Batman is already geared up for battle, so Luthor taking Martha to force Superman’s hand isn’t a major turning point either; it just gets Superman where the film is already going. Again; the fight is where the story has been leading to all along and it, in itself, doesn’t change the trajectory of the film. The resolution to the fight is also not a plot point as it is merely the resolution of the events that preceded it.
Plot Point 5: I believe the final plot point in the film is Luthor releasing DoomsDay. When this happens the story is forced own a very different path and becomes a flat out action film. Every major character will be involved and they will all be affected by what happens as a result. This is also the plot point that takes us through to the end of the story, including Superman’s death and Batman’s ultimate redemption.
Might there be other plot points? Sure. There could be many minor plot points for the characters along their individual story paths, but I feel these are the ones that drive the piece as a whole. Does the movie need to have so many plot points? Of course it doesn’t. I’m sure no one held a Super Soaker up to Chris Terrio’s head and forced him to write the screenplay the way he did. So no, the movie didn’t have to have so many plot points. But, it does.
So What Were They Fighting About?
Would it bother anyone greatly if I said’ they aren’t fight about anything?
Let me come at that from another angle. There are essentially two questions that can be asked of The Big Fight;
What are they fighting about?
Why are they fighting?
It’s easy to treat these questions as interchangeable but they are, in fact, very different; with one being far more important than the other in my estimation. To say that the two men aren’t fighting about anything isn’t being glib or facetious. There is nothing going on between them on an active level; no conflict that would require a resolution on this scale. There is no argument between them, no macguffin to chase and no disagreement that would require a dust up to resolve. If one or the other, “wins” they don’t gain anything from the, “loser”, so the two of them aren’t fighting, about anything.
The more difficult question to tackle is the, “why”. Why are they fighting? Each of the men come into the conflict motivated by the events in their individual stories but in my opinion they are fighting for the same reason; they are both suffering from despair.
I believe that if there is an answer to why they are fighting it is simply because neither man sees themselves as having any other option. It’s not simply about Superman being a threat or Lex having Clark’s mother, though this is clearly the surface interpretation. Superman has been manipulated, and Batman has made choices; but they both come to the same place, and they fight because each of them feels they have to do something about their situations, and neither of them knows what that is. And since their respective stories don’t involve each other there is nothing to span the gap between the two of them until Lois arrives and bridges their stories together. These are two people fighting for all the wrong reasons and, despite the marketing leaning heavily into it, the fight is not portrayed as a thing to be enjoyed. Your mileage will vary, as an individual audience member, on whether or not this idea works for you; no analysis can convince you one way or the other. This is the interpretation my examination of the film has led me to. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than another approach to the subject; I’m only saying, “this is how I see it”.
But Does It All Add Up?
As much as the film plays as a whole, each individual story has it’s own ending as well. If we’re looking for narrative conceit, I would urge you to look at the individual story lines and how they resolve before looking to the film as a whole. The narrative conceit, as defined by Film.Crit.Hulk, among others, is the choice a character makes that allows them to overcome their obstacle and complete their arc in the story. As each character has an individual story there will be an individual conceit for each of them as well as a total conceit for the film itself. Some of the conceits are less pronounced than others, as in the case of Lois and Diana, as their arcs are not as rounding as the three male leads. Never the less we can attempt to identify the types of arcs being employed for each character and try to identify the conceit and how they are additive to the overall film.
Lex’s situation is existential in nature; Superman exists. And because Superman exists, Lex will choose to act with the intent on bringing Superman low before the world. It should be obvious that Lex Luthor has a negative change arc; he ends the film in a subjectively worse position than when he began by making choice that do not allow him to learn the great truth he needs to grow. I believe the point of his narrative conceit, where he makes his choice to complete his arc, is when he allows DoomsDay to be born. Lex does not believe in the essential goodness of Superman but he does believe that the way he sees the world and it’s relationship to power is absolutely correct. He believes it with such determination that he is willing to sacrifice the world to prove it. Like Bruce, who is in a similar place, Luthor has an opportunity to make a choice as to which path he will follow. He literally has a 30 second window of time to make a choice as to where his life will go next, and he chooses to unleash DoomsDay. As with the rest of the film this decision will have an effect that drives everyone else. It will lead to the death of Superman and will plant the seeds that will eventually bear fruit in the Justice League. (Editors Note – Lex’s arc is a tragic or fall arc, as defined below – 03-21-2018)
Lois has a flat character arc in this film. Unlike a positive change arc, which requires the character to start out believing a great lie and finding the truth through their story, a flat arc means the character starts the story with the truth, and through that truth they effect change in the world around them. Lois is the only main character that knows and believes the truth of Superman. Even as Clark’s faith waivers she maintains that belief and is determined to share that belief with the world by finding the truth about the desert incident. As such, the movie places her as the polar opposite of Lex; she believes in Superman without question. The movie may not give her a role as a plot generator but without Lois the movie becomes oppressively one sided against Clark. Critics have said that the film needs an outside character to give the audience an, “in” into how the world feels about Superman, but insist that it shouldn’t be Lois because we, “expect” her to love him. To simply give that dramatic role to another is to create a character specifically so they can tell the audience it’s OK to like Superman. Lois is already doing that job and more, so from a writing point of view it would be inefficient to layer in another, special purpose character like a Jimmy Olsen simply to be a Superman sycophant.
In a way, the movie is as much, “Lex v Lois” as it is, “Batman v Superman”. If Bruce and Clark are the movies North and South poles, then Lex and Lois are its East and West. It’s fitting that these two would stand so opposed to one another given the traits of their characters; Lex has no belief in Superman, and Lois has nothing BUT belief in him. Lex woks in shadows and obfuscation and Lois seeks to discover truth. As Lex schemes to tear Superman down, Lois works to unravel those schemes to preserve him. If the story of Lex and his schemes against Superman were it’s own movie, Lois would be that movies hero. (Editors Note – Lois’s arc is touched by tragedy as she will lose something by the end of the film – 03-21-2018)
Bruce’s situation, story and narrative conceit should be the easiest to detect, but some elements still prove elusive to some people. Bruce’s story actually begins before the films present day events; when he learns of the Kryptonite and begins to develop his plan to take on Superman. Like Lex, his situation involves the existence of Superman. And like Lex he is also using Superman to externalize an internal crisis. The Black Zero Incident, in which Bruce was left to watch powerless as people died, was a re-triggering of the feelings associated with Bruce’s childhood trauma. Added to this is an element of despair; that for all his efforts and all his losses he hasn’t accomplished anything good in the world. Bruce is feeling a loss of faith in who he has been; he tells Alfred that they’ve always been criminals (a true statement, but one that reads as an admission that he was never better than those he fought to stop), he questions how many good guys are left (or stayed that way), he tells Alfred that nothing he has done previous to killing Superman has mattered and he doesn’t deny that taking on Superman is likely a suicide mission.
As best as I can read, and I’m sure people will disagree with me, Bruce has externalized all of his issues on to Superman. He is afraid of Superman, or some associated feeling; one does not have nightmares about things that they do not fear. His actions in the film, the irrationality; they are a fear response. Where he must get to in his arc is to face the source of that fear and overcome it; which is what he sets himself on a path to do when he chooses to spare Superman. The narrative conceit in Bruce’s story is when, instead of killing Superman when he has the chance, he chooses to recognize what is is truly afraid of. He chooses to face the source of his fears; to stop running from his parents death. In doing so he is offered a chance to do something to finally overcome that fear. This is a classic positive change arc; the character starts out believing a great lie (Superman is something to be feared) and through the challenges in the story they learn a great truth (Superman is not to be feared), and through that truth they find growth and change. (Editors Note – Bruce’s arc is, technically, a tragedy, or fall arc, with a growth outcome. His choices in the story will almost destroy him, which is the core of what a fall arc is – 03-21-2018)
And now we get to Superman himself and this is going to be to the one that will really split those of you who might be reading this. I want to make sure I point out here, as I do in all my entries, that what I write here is all my point of view and based on my own observations. I’m not going to tell anyone that I am, “right” and they are, “wrong” for anything they feel or interpret from this or any other movie. I will argue what is diagetic fact; what is actually on screen; but I will never tell you what you interpret is wrong unless you seem to be going out of your way to violate the context of the scenes. So; what is Superman’s story all about? What is the narrative conceit? One word;
Bet you expected me to say, “hope” didn’t you?
Well; so did I.
In fact, an earlier draft of this section featured that as the key idea until I sat back and had a good think on the subject. I always assumed that faith and hope were interchangeable ideas separated by the thinnest of semantic division; but it turns out they are two very different concepts.
Faith is a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.
Hope is the desire for a certain outcome.
Faith and hope go hand in hand; you can’t get to hope without faith. Hope as a named concept has always been applied to what Superman can bring to others. What this movie points out, through Clark’s, “conversation” with Johnathon Kent, is that even Superman needs to have faith.
The situation Superman finds himself in is being Superman in a world that doesn’t seem to know if it wants one. Specifically, Lex has engineered events in such a way that people are beginning to question the objective good Superman is attempting to do by essentially asking, “What gives him the right to choose who lives and dies?” When first presented with this situation, the choice Clark makes is to ignore it. When offered the choice to pursue the issue that pertains to him or to investigate Batman, he turns his attentions towards Batman. While noble to take on the plight of the poor in Gotham, in doing so he purposely ignores the situation brewing around him, and this allows it to escalate. Remember, a story doesn’t begin until a character chooses to act. In this case, Superman’s choice is to divert his attention away from one that actually involves him and enters into a different story; one where Clark Kent, “takes on” the Bat-Man. In this he is trying to get other people to care, to follow his lead and, “do the right thing” as he tells Perry White. When that doesn’t work, when people will not follow, he does exactly what Superman should do; he steps in to do that thing because it needs to be done. And in doing so he provides the answer to the question posed to him; we give Superman the authority to act when we refuse to. This is the essence of super heroes; people who have the power to act and who do so because it’s right. It’s clear in the film this is not the way he wanted to do things, but it was ultimately the only option he was given. This is an example of a crack in his faith in the good in the world. (Editors Note – Clark’s arc is also a tragic, or fall arc with a shifting element. He dies in the end but not before gaining a new perspective – 03-21-2018)
Clark doesn’t address his own situation until Senator Finch and Wallace Keefe call him out to Capital Hill; and by doing so he plays into Lex Luthors hands. All the events in the film are pushing Clark, like Bruce, towards despair. His internal dialog with, “Johnathon” tells him that you have to have faith; faith that there is good in the world. Faith that what you do matters. Faith is the essence of hope; you have faith in what you are doing, and you hope for something good to come of it. This is ultimately the narrative conceit in Superman’s story; after all the boxing in and questioning and all the terrible things that have happened around him, Superman makes a choice to have faith that there is good in the world, that he can make a difference and that what he does will matter. With that comes the hope that his actions will lead to something better. That’s all hope is; a desire for an outcome. It’s not an emotion. It’s not a thing you can give to someone like a birthday present; it’s an idea that you hold.
(Editors Note – New personal research has led me to further refine my my understanding of the character arcs in the film. My current assessment is that each character is experiencing a variation on a Tragedy, or Fall Arc, as outlined here. This categorizes the film solidly as a tragedy in terms of category – 03-21-18)
But What Does It All Mean? What Was It All About?
One of the things I find most fascinating about the films construction is that despite the four isolated stories the plot is built on, every one of them is, “about” Superman. Even with his reduced presence in the theatrical cut, even if you take the active character out of the film entirely; the movie, and all of it’s individual stories, would still be about Superman. Every character does what they do and makes the choices they make because of Superman’s existence or presence in their lives. It sounds reductive to say but without Superman; there could be no Batman v Superman. You could take Batman out and have some permutation of the story to tell just by focusing on Superman’s tap dance with despair; but you can’t tell any of these stories without Superman. Period.
In that respect it can be said that the films total narrative conceit does, and should, revolve around the resolution of Superman’s story and the choice he makes; the choice to have faith. When viewed through this narrative lens, faith becomes an undercurrent in every characters story.
Lex lacks faith. His feelings towards Superman stem from his inability to believe in what he sees Superman as representing. Additionally, his attacks are not focused on Superman himself but on the image of Superman in the eyes of the people. By painting Superman actions so negatively he is attacking their faith in Superman.
Bruce has lost faith. He no longer believes that his actions as Batman have made any difference in the world, as he all but admits to Alfred. His fear of Superman is driven by his inability to believe in the goodness of people. So he has lost faith both in himself and in others.
Clark is losing faith; in himself and the world. At one point he states that, “Superman was never real”, an indication that he does not believe in what he was trying to achieve. The events in the movie are causing him to question if there is good in the world.
Even Diana’s story evidences a loss of faith; she just lost hers a long time ago. After everything she has seen, Diana has lost faith that mankind can come together to make the world better.
Lois is having her faith tested but she is the only character who’s faith remains true. She believes in Superman, and that faith leads her to where she needs to be so she can help save the world. It is through Lois and her faith that Clark finds the strength to keep his own, and ultimately to do what must be done.
It is Clark’s demonstration of faith that goes on to inspire Bruce and Diana. Clark shows Bruce that people can still be good. He shows Diana that they can work together. It is with that in mind that the two of them will embark onto the next phase of their journey.
Bring It Back To Me
I believe that if there is a narrative to the film, an over arching emotional or philosophical perspective guiding it, it would have to be faith. We all like to associate Superman in specific, and super heroes in general, with hope; but hope is passive. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t like the association as hope doesn’t require you to do anything. Hope doesn’t ask anything of you but to sit back and wait for things to happen. By contrast, faith is active. Faith is hard. Faith requires energy. And yes, sometimes; faith requires sacrifice.
I don’t believe superheroes are about hope. They don’t stand around and wish for things to get better; they go out and make things better. To do this, they have to believe that what they are doing is going to mean something. They have to believe that on the other side of that long fight is something better, and it’s that belief that gets them through. If they don’t have faith in what they are doing, they can’t have hope for a better tomorrow.
When I started this piece I thought I knew exactly where it was going to end up. I was very, very wrong. The story of Batman v Superman isn’t one of superheroes fighting or villains cackling in the background while the world burns. The story of Batman v Superman is ultimately, I believe, a story about faith. A story about why faith is important and what happens to us when we lose it. This is a Superman story through and through because Superman is about nothing if he isn’t about faith; that overriding belief that the things you do matter, that people are worth while and that life is worth protecting. There is no proof that any of this is true.
But if you had proof; you wouldn’t need faith.
Clever endings aren’t my bag.