A Theological Review of BATMAN VS SUPERMAN
James (13) and I saw BATMAN VS SUPERMAN the other day. It was Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The movie opened on Good Friday. So even though it is the busiest weekend of the year for preachers, I could not make myself wait until the following weekend. And I knew this would happen; I tweeted this last summer:
Just realized #DawnOfJustice comes out on #GoodFriday. #conflict— Frank Drenner III (@revfrankdrenner) July 14, 2015
For any other movie, besides a STAR WARS film, I would have waited. Here's a review of 2016's biggest movie by far, at least until CIVIL WAR comes out in May. There will be spoilers, but I'll warn you before we get there. Here are some plot summaries- nothing more than you'll see in the trailers for the movie.
If you have not seen MAN OF STEEL (2013), also directed by Zack Snyder, you probably should. You can read my review here. There are references throughout BVS to MOS- but if you haven't seen it you won't be lost or anything. Just about everyone is familiar with Superman's origin story. It's the tone that you may find surprising. This is not the Superman of George Reeves of the 50s or Christopher Reeve of the late 70s/80s. He is a reluctant, not joyful, super hero. I believe this change of perspective is what fueled folks', particularly critics', dislike of both MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN VS SUPERMAN.
Batman fans are more comfortable with the darker side of heroism. The Adam West version of Batman was left behind in the 60s. The late 80s/early 90s Tim Burton vision of Batman took hold- he is dark, alone, and focused. The Christopher Nolan Batman franchise of 2005-2012 offered more of a commentary on the society that produced the Batman, rather than the super hero/Bruce Wayne character.
BATMAN VS SUPERMAN is really all about Bruce Wayne. The opening scene of the movie is the funeral procession for his murdered parents. Flash forward thirty years and Bruce Wayne is speeding through the streets of Metropolis, which is under attack from General Zod and the other Kryptonians- fighting Superman- the end of MAN OF STEEL. Bruce Wayne was there. The city is being destroyed by these unknown characters from another world- and their godlike powers. Bruce Wayne, much grayer and more intense than we are accustomed to seeing, watches in horror as his building collapses, killing everyone inside. He helps a security guard trapped by the rubble and a young girl who is now an orphan- as Bruce himself was. He blames Superman for all of the destruction.
And so did everyone else who hated MAN OF STEEL. This is Superman- he is supposed to save people. They are supposed to accept his help. Folk couldn't believe the destruction and certain loss of thousands of lives at the end of the movie. Plus Superman consciously choose to kill someone else- even though doing so saved the lives of an innocent family. So why this double standard? We are willing to accept Bruce Wayne's attitude and character flaws because of his harsh experiences- but didn't Superman also lose his parents- indeed his entire world? The new SUPERGIRL series on CBS does an excellent job of exploring her ongoing grief and struggles to adjust to her new role as super hero. But that's not OK for Clark Kent?
The movie then jumps to eighteen months later. Clark Kent works at the DAILY PLANET, and is in a relationship with Lois Lane. While the Metropolis newspaper in uninterested in the new Bat phenomenon happening across the bay in Gotham, Clark wants to explore. The Batman is much more ferocious than we have seen before. And yes, Ben Affleck kills it. He is filled with rage, and even when he tries to pull off the (pretend) playboy image of Bruce Wayne you know it's not authentic. He has vivid dreams/visions, which often involve Superman. He is obsessed.
As far as the surviving Kryptonian goes, the succeeding year and a half has been mixed. A giant statue is erected in Metropolis, but someone spray paints, "False God" on it. He is accused of murdering innocent civilians in Africa while saving Lois Lane. Congress holds hearings. People, including Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor (played with a youthful awkwardness by Jesse Einseberg), openly question how a society can possibly deal with, even control, a being with such immense power. How can you trust that he will always use that power to help? Especially after the carnage of the battle between others from his world? Luthor and Batman (not working together) begin to explore ways to stop Superman.
OK, HERE'S WHERE THE SPOILERS START, INCLUDING THEOLOGICAL COMMENTARY
Throughout the movie there are cut scenes- Superman saving the astronauts inside the capsule just before the rocket explodes. A girl saved from a fire. People whose homes are flooded- they are trapped on the roof, having painted a giant S on it, almost like the Bat signal. Superman arrives and hovers above these scenes, the reluctant savior. His cape floats slowly behind him. Delivering the girl from the fire, the crowd reaches in to touch him, much as they did during Jesus' ministry. A woman bleeding for years says, "If I just touch his cloak I will be healed..." (Matthew 9:21). This is how the public reacts to Superman. They worship him, fear him. Lois Lane tries to encourage him when he feels discouraged: "People need a savior. You are that hope for them." She mentions the S on his costume, a reference to a funny scene they shared in MAN OF STEEL:
Lois: "What's the 'S' mean?"
Superman: "On my world it means 'hope.'"
Lois: "On Earth it's an 'S.'"
This is the main theme of BVS: people need hope, but do they need a savior? Sure, when they are in crisis- but do the possible risks associated with such power outweigh our need to be saved? There's a great line about the Batman at the end of THE DARK KNIGHT: "...he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one we need right now." Bruce Wayne/Batman is no hero in this movie. He takes on the bad guys for sure, but does not hesitate to do so with abject cruelty, even branding them with a bat sign. I took James to this movie, but not the other boys (they haven't seen any of the Batman movies). Superman is the hero we need, even though he is reluctant to accept the role, and we are reluctant to fully embrace him.
At the end of the movie, it becomes clear to both Batman and Superman that their conflict with each other has been orchestrated by Lex Luthor. They must unite to defeat Doomsday, a monster Luthor creates with Kryptonian DNA. And in a nod to the future JUSTICE LEAGUE movies coming soon, they partner with Wonder Woman, who is all kinds of awesome. She is a strong woman not defined by her looks or the men around her. Her powers to deflect Bruce Wayne's flirting are just as strong as the tools she uses against Doomsday. She'll get her own solo film next year.
(Remember you were warned!!)
As I said in my review of MAN OF STEEL, this Superman is Jesus. It's no coincidence that BATMAN VS SUPERMAN was released on Good Friday, the day Christians believe Jesus died to save the world. In the end, Superman must give his life to defeat Doomsday. The movie that began with a funeral procession ends with two more- one for Superman in Metropolis, the other in Smallville for Clark Kent. Superman gives his life to save others.
There has been a stark contrast between how critics, and the general audience, received BATMAN VS SUPERMAN. The Tomatometer rates it at 30%. Audiences gave it around 75%. It's not the greatest super hero movie- THE DARK KNIGHT series will always be the best for me. To discount it because it does not have an optimistic view of humanity or doesn't make us feel warm and fuzzy really isn't fair. Hollywood is under no obligation to give us movies that make us feel better when we are worried about terrorism, etc. That's not the purpose of art. Art offers commentary and questions, then leaves it for us to respond. So what do you think: is BATMAN VS SUPERMAN the super hero movie we need or deserve?