The following post will be talking about and explaining some of the bigger themes in Batman v Superman. In order to adequately explain these themes, it will be necessary to spoil larger sections of the film.
In the past week, Zack Snyder’s next installment in the new DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman released to theaters. Like many superhero films before it, there has been a sharp division between the critical reception and audience reviews of the film. As of this writing, it holds a 29% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while the audience score sets it at 73%.
Whenever I see such huge discrepancies between critical review and audience review, it makes me take pause and try and discover why this might be. I had heard the media reviews before I saw the film, so I walked into the theater with a certain amount of apprehension. When I finished the film, I had walked out with more excitement and satisfaction than I had for a film in a long time. I had also found an answer to my question on why critics hated it. Even though we watch superhero movies to see superheroes and supervillains pound each other into the turf, it was the media that took the biggest beating in the film.
The previous film, Man of Steel dealt with Superman’s now classic origin story, as well as General Zod’s attempt at turning Earth into a new Krypton. Rather than letting these films exist in a separate vacuum, BvS begins in media res with a brief introduction of Bruce Wayne’s past as well as the finale of Man of Steel. While Superman and Zod fight over Metropolis, there is chaos on the streets below that was not shown in Man of Steel. Buildings crumble and fall, people are hurt and scramble to get away from the incredible destruction happening around them. Wayne is on the scene rushing to help as many people as he can as he watches Metropolis fall. By time we are done with these opening scenes, we can see that Bruce has solidified his opinion of Superman. This is what the vast majority of Batman v Superman is about: Point of view from where you’re standing.
After all, the very film in question is about two of comic book’s most revered heroes, Superman and Batman placed in contrast and conflict with each other. Not because either man is evil, far from it. In fact, we are keenly aware that both men are quite good, and sacrifice a great deal of time and resources to better serve other people and society as a whole. All it takes to put two good people at odds with each other, is misunderstanding and skewed information. Superman is shown to us from three points of view that are repeated throughout the film.
Superman as ‘the God’, and this is shown to us through imagery that depicts Superman floating high above others, and bringing down ‘divine glory’ to lesser people:
Superman as ‘the Devil’, and this is shown to us most often through Batman’s perspective; the worst case scenario where Superman ‘the monster’ will take over and rule the Earth as an unstoppable dictator:
And finally, Superman as he actually is: One of the last of a now dead species in the universe, raised by humans. Sometimes he doesn’t know what the right or best answer is, and even as an adult he has to ask his mom what to do.
The last one, the Last Son of Krypton, is the most important of the three depictions because that is how we the audience know Superman best. To many people within the DC Universe Superman is more than a man. But to himself, the audience, and his parents he’s just mild-mannered Clark Kent with a gift that few others have. This sentiment is established in Man of Steel through Jonathan Kent telling young Clark that he would have to make a choice of what kind of man he would be; Good or bad, he would change the world. It’s just a question of how. Martha Kent also repeats this sentiment in a much more clear manner during Batman v Superman where she tells him to either be people’s hero or angel, or don’t be. Ultimately, Superman doesn’t owe anyone anything. It is his choice of what kind of person he will be in these circumstances. These moral quandries that are missed by others is the real fruit of the Superman mythos; Superman has all the power in the world and he constantly questions himself in how and when he should use it.
A significant portion of the film deals with various media interactions. As we already know, both Clark Kent and Lois Lane are reporters, and Bruce Wayne himself confesses at one point in the film that he owns multiple news outlets, as he’s not quite sure if he owns the Daily Planet or not. As Clark and Bruce get into a heated discussion in regards to Batman and Superman, Bruce Wayne points out that every time Superman ‘rescues a cat out of a tree’, Clark writes a puff piece on Superman. Clearly, Bruce is calling him out on having a media slant, to which Clark has no real rebuttal. In another portion of the film, Lois is dealing with Secretary Swanwick in an attempt to get information regarding a bullet that was recovered from her rescue towards the beginning of the film; he verbally stiff-arms her, telling her that he’s ‘treating her like a reporter.’ A subtle, yet firm jab that indicates that he is aware that she has an agenda of her own and that he’s not going to play that particular game with her. A bit later after Lois makes it clear that she’s not so much chasing a story as she is pursuing the REAL truth, Swanwick warms to her slightly and cooperates.
The media criticisms continue throughout the film, with a distinct focus on how they generate views and not whether it is true or not. One may notice that although the film takes place in the modern day with clear access to current technology and social media, it’s never brought up nor mentioned in any real capacity. Only typical news outlets.
One of the bigger moments of the film comes from the congressional hearing and political punditry in regards to Superman’s actions, which turns into a media feeding frenzy from start to finish.
We are introduced to a man who had lost his legs as a consequence of the Man of Steel end fight, that ends up climbing a monument to Superman and paints ‘False God’ across the statue. Perry White, the EiC of the Daily Planet gets in on the act himself, tasking one of his reporters with a headline (paraphrased) ‘Love Affair with Superman Now Over?’ Although this seems to be an isolated incident, Perry is clear that he wants this story run, and the reporter tasked with it seems put-off with the very idea of running such a headline. Clark is present for this, and seems genuinely upset.
The congressional hearing on Superman’s activities ends very poorly with a bomb detonating within the building and presumably killing everyone within besides Superman himself, who looks on with sadness and frustration. It is the media’s reaction that ties into the overall harsh view of the media within this film.
After this moment, Superman leaves without saying anything to anyone. The media explodes into a speculative circus (and we’re treated to even a few cameos during this time, such as Anderson Cooper, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, among others). One pundit within the film posits that Superman MUST have known that there was a bomb, and if that is the case he is complicit in the destruction of the building. Another puts forth that all of Superman’s actions are political, and yet another suggests that Superman doesn’t serve himself but the public. It is a single, lone commentator that says what is actually true (paraphrased):
‘Maybe we need to stop looking at Superman as a God or a Devil, and maybe just look at him as a guy that’s just trying to do what he thinks is right.’
It should serve as no surprise that no one agrees with this assessment in the film. The very real, disturbing part of this sly, yet upfront criticism of news media isn’t even what is said, but what is NOT said:
In the wake of all that chaos, destruction, and heartache in the aftermath of that explosion one thing stands out:
No one in the media mentions any of the people who were killed in the blast. Not Senator Finch, not any of the people who sat on the committee, nor any of the people in the audience. There is not a peep about them. All eyes and focus are turned on finding potential ways to blame Superman. The tragedy becomes agenda instantaneously. The discussion is never about finding who set the bomb off (it’s clear that everyone knows Superman didn’t do it, but they ponder whether he KNEW about it), or bringing them to justice. It’s not about helping the people who were hurt or mourning the dead. It’s about views, and controversy.
It is incredibly telling during the conversational punditry news montage that while others are sitting back discussing whether Superman could have done his deeds one way or another to their liking, he’s out there actually doing good things. Saving lives, mitigating tragedies where he can, and just trying to live and be the man that ALL FOUR of his parents knew he could be.
And he is.
As we watch the film, we know that Superman is just a man trying to do the very best that he can. The media within the film, and I would argue without as well, want to do as much as possible to skew the views of others to get attention focused on them. If this means that they have to distort the facts to do this, we’re now all the more certain that they can and will. Rather than letting each person see things as they are from a point of view, the media has no issue with forcefully SHAPING that point of view to make it match what they want it to be.