I have a confession. I think the first 20–30 minutes of Batman v Superman are very nearly a masterpiece. The rest of the film is a mess, have no doubt about it. But the way that the film sets up Batman’s fall from — well, not grace, but heroism — is, I think, rather brilliant.
When it comes to the naysayers of DC’s current line of films, there are two types of critics.
The first is the kind of person, usually a longtime comics fan, who sees the characters as paragons of virtue. They each embody a certain trait. For Superman, it’s hope. For Batman, it’s justice. Any failure to instill these traits into these characters results in a failed adaptation. These types of fans don’t care why the characters are behaving the way they are, out of character. The fact that they’re behaving out of character at all is a problem.
Then there’s the other kind of person, who is open to seeing these characters through a more realistic lens, to applying real-world human psychology to them. I’ve seen people balk at this. “Realism in a movie with a guy who can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes? Really?”
But Stan Lee showed us more than 50 years ago that giving comic book heroes real human problems is the best way to make their superhuman abilities more believable.
To boil it down to one simple example: the first type is the kind of fan who insists that Batman never kills, under any circumstances. And that’s fine. I respect that opinion.
But the second type is the kind of fan who is open to the question, “What would it take to get Batman to break that one rule? How far would he have to be pushed?”
Which is not to say that everyone who hates the movie falls into the first group, and everyone who likes it falls into the second. I fall into that second group myself, and I still think the movie is, overall, a mess. But those first few scenes…
Anyway. If you’re the first type of fan, nothing I can say will matter. These movies just aren’t for you. But if you’re the second type, read on.
Why does Batman do what he does? What compels him? Why is Batman… Batman?
The short answer is the death of his parents, of course. You know that. Everyone knows that. It’s why I was initially annoyed when the trailers revealed that we would be getting yet another retelling of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
When they were creating Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had a rule: no origin story. They knew that the people who would be watching the cartoon already knew the story. It didn’t need to be rehashed. That was in 1992. Since then, Batman’s origin has been retold in at least three films, and flashbacks to the Waynes’ murder appears in at least three of the Arkham games. By this point, it’s tedious. We get it.
So I was surprised when I watched BvS and found that I didn’t mind seeing the origin story again. On my first watch, it was partially because I really dug the cinematography of the scene. It’s very well shot. But it’s more than that. His parents’ murder is not just what compels Batman to be Batman. It’s the same psychology that sends him off the rails in this movie.
It’s not about justice. It’s about control.
For years, there’s been one thing that has always bothered me about Batman: Why doesn’t he just kill the Joker?
If it was about morality, then killing him would be the moral thing to do, right?
Characters like Jim Gordon insist on trusting the system, but the system has consistently showed that it is not capable of keeping Joker locked away. He always escapes, and he always kills again once he’s out.
Don’t get me wrong. Killing the Joker isn’t something Batman should take lightly. It should be the last resort. The nuclear option. There are plenty of things Bruce should try before resorting to it. If Arkham can’t hold Joker, Bruce could build his own supermax prison at the bottom of the ocean. He has the money for it. Or he could keep Joker locked away in the Batcave, in a drug-induced coma.
Batman is the world’s greatest detective. He has a plan for everything. He can supposedly beat every Justice League member in a fight, because he plans ahead so thoroughly.
If a person like that can’t think of a way to keep Joker locked up for life, he has a responsibility to put him down. Batman’s writers, across many different mediums, seem to understand this. So they come up with reasons beyond “killing is wrong” for why Batman has his one rule.
The most common answer is he’s afraid that if he kills Joker, he won’t be able to stop himself from killing every criminal he comes across.
I think it’s flimsy, but okay. It works.
Until you have a situation where some other character is trying to kill Joker, and Batman won’t allow that, either.
Such a situation played out in the 2010 animated film Batman: Under the Red Hood, an adaptation of the 2004 comic from Judd Winick. Batman refuses to kill Joker, and he refuses to allow the Red Hood to kill him, too.
I’ve had an alternative pet theory for a few years, and it just so happens to be the same theory that Chris Terrio is employing in Batman v Superman.
It’s not about morality. It’s not about justice. It’s not about preventing himself from becoming a murderous monster.
It’s about control.
When Bruce saw his parents murdered in front of him, he was powerless to stop it. He had no control in that situation.
Everything he does in the years following that, his time spent traveling the world, his martial arts training, his transformation into Batman: it’s all about trying to gain control over his environment, to establish order out of chaos.
Choosing not to kill, even someone like the Joker, is the ultimate control. To hold their life in his hands, and to let them live. That’s the control Batman is unwilling to relinquish.
Which takes us back to Batman v Superman.
One of the major criticisms director Zack Snyder received from critics and audiences alike after his first DC film, Man of Steel (2013), was that Superman did not do enough to steer the action in the film’s climactic battle away from Metropolis. The scene shows the city being demolished. Skyscrapers being toppled by the dozens. It’s more like a disaster movie than a superhero movie.
Snyder (or perhaps screenwriter Chris Terrio) cleverly took that criticism to heart and made it a plot point in Batman v Superman.
The early moments of the film recount the Battle of Metropolis — from Bruce Wayne’s point of view.
Think about his mindset at that moment.
Streets are being ripped up. Buildings are falling all around him. He watches as his own building — Wayne Enterprises—collapses, and his employees, his friends, hundreds of them, are killed. All of this is happening, and he’s the goddam Batman, and there’s not a thing he can do to stop any of it.
In that moment, he has lost all control. He has once again been reduced to that frightened little boy in Crime Alley, standing over his parents’ bodies. And that is the beginning of his character arc for this film.
Yes, Batman breaks his one rule in this movie. He kills. He kills a lot of people. But the whole point is that this is not the Batman you know and love. This is not the Batman you’re accustomed to. This is Batman psychologically unhinged. A Batman who has lost control.
Alfred tells us this, in what are the most important lines in the movie:
“Everything’s changed. Men fall from the sky. Gods hurl thunderbolts. Innocents die. That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness… that turns good men cruel.”
And I think that makes for an interesting story.
As I’ve said, I don’t like the movie taken as a whole. I could write another whole piece about how the rest of the movie is a disappointing mess. But that, the way they establish Batman’s motives and set up his character arc, I do like that very much.