Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Zack Snyder’s divisive followup to his equally divisive Superman-reboot, Man of Steel (2013), will likely remain the most controversial film of 2016. It has received so much press, both good, bad, and ugly, that even general audiences with only passing interests in the film industry have discussed it at length.
I will not be discussing the merits of those criticisms or praises of Batman v Superman (henceforth, DoJ), (1) because I have already done that, and (2) there is no point in arguing about a film’s artistic merit, or lack thereof, when people have already made up their minds. Instead, today I’d like to discuss my interpretations of DoJ and how I personally related to its narrative, character themes, and character arcs. In other words, this will be an in-depth, subjective analysis of the movie’s content.
A large part of what made DoJ interesting to me was its blunt, unapologetic contemplation of depression (in Bruce Wayne/Batman) and belonging (in Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman). This style played a large part in the film’s divisiveness — either you like this style of brooding or you don’t — but if it weren’t for Snyder’s and screenwriter Chris Terrio’s commitment to such a frank contemplation of psychological needs, the film probably wouldn’t have connected with me near as much. For all its brooding and grief and despair, the thesis of DoJ is thus: Empathy is what saves us from self-destruction, and love is what enables us to belong.
Since the first name in DoJ’s title is Batman, let us start with the darker element of this equation: Bruce Wayne. Batman is not portrayed as a hero in this movie, at least not until its final act. That’s the appeal of Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Batman, in my eyes, and is the core appeal of the character in general. No-kill clause or not, Batman is at best defined as an anti-hero, at least if we’re keeping Adam West and Joel Schumacher-interpretations off the table. The definition of an anti-hero is as follows:
Anti-Hero = A protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, or morality. These individuals often possess dark personality traits such as disagreeableness, dishonesty, and aggressiveness.
Even considering most of the lighter canonical interpretations of the character, that description fits Bruce Wayne’s Batman to a “T.” He is called “The Dark Knight,” after all. A disturbed, depressed individual who beats up petty criminals in alleyways in an attempt to cover his childhood grief hardly screams selfless heroism.
From certain points of view, Batman could be reduced to a masculine revenge-fantasy, which is largely how he’s portrayed in DoJ. This where the traits of an older, more experienced, jaded Batman come into play. Even in the prologue depicting the iconic murder of Bruce’s parents, an older Bruce Wayne (voiced by Affleck) narrates the inception of his Bat persona with cynicism and an almost sardonic mocking of its romantic motivation. Wayne now regards the beginnings of his vigilantism as “a beautiful lie.” The meaninglessness and randomness of his parents’ deaths (which we’ll come back to in a moment) gave him a sense of brutal purpose, and taught him that the world only has as much meaning as one forces upon it. It did not teach him acceptance, enlightenment, or a path to inner peace.
Fast forward decades later and we find Bruce Wayne battered and cynical, drowning in nihilism. He goes through the motions of social protocol in the most apathetic, basic manner, but continues to push his few remaining dregs of emotion and passion into his violent nighttime escapades. His remaining emotions are anger, wrath, and a rather dark sense of humor. His cape and cowl represent not a superhero costume, but more of a Gothic Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde transformation, a beastly werewolf persona revealing his animal ferocity within, a terrifying yet natural defense mechanism against what he perceives to be an uncaring, senseless world.
Why? Because twenty years as the Batman in a corrupt, crime-ridden Gotham have only intensified his brooding darkness, not lightened it, as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005–2012) asserted it could. His cruel cynicism has transformed from a mask for his inner pain to his modus operandi. Twenty years of unspeakable violence, cruelty, and enduring the deaths of Jason Todd (Robin) and witnessing the deaths of thousands of his employees at the hands of the Joker and Superman, respectively, have finally broken him. He is no longer a hero, if he ever was one. He no longer even wants to be.
And that is the key difference between Batman and Superman in this film: From the outset, Bruce Wayne has forsaken his aspirations of heroism and justice, having resigned his mission to selfish revenge under the laziest of facades of global safety (i.e. destroying Superman). Superman, heavily flawed and inexperienced though he may be, at least tries to do the right thing throughout this story. He often fails and falls far short of his potential, but in his heart, deep down, he remains a good man. Bruce is not.
The meaninglessness of his parents’ tragedy emphasizes Bruce’s cynicism and has come to form his entire world view. The world is inherently without order, without reason, and perhaps even without morality at all. Here is a man born of privilege, with all the material wealth and gifts a human could ever want, and yet because he was denied the most crucial emotional bonds a human needs — loving parents —- in such a brutal, scarring fashion, he lost his faith in humanity. His career as the Batman has only compounded his warped perception of his life and the lives of those around him. This is the classic psychological framework of a major-depressed individual. His mind is, for lack of a better word, broken.
And yet, as Affleck so fluidly demonstrates in this film, and as Liam Neeson noted in Batman Begins (2005), hate and anger can give you great power. While his mind may be ripe with emotional disorder, his body and athletic prowess have been honed to their physical limits. Batman not only takes down waves of hardened criminal opponents with ruthless determination, his combat skills and calculating strategy make short work of Superman in their titular fight. Spin it however you want, Batman kicks Superman’s ass in this movie. Sure, he’s challenged here and there, allowing just enough tension to make their duel interesting, but the Dark Knight handily defeats the Man of Steel in the end.
This is a key point: Unlike other dark, yet ultimately more optimistic portrayals of love vs hate, or innocence against cruelty, Batman’s dark vengeance overcomes Superman’s self-defense and love for his mother. This is no battle between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge a la A Tale of Two Cities. Love does not conquer hate. Batman earns the moral, philosophical, and physical victory.
No, something else saves Clark Kent, and vanquishes Batman’s hatred — or at least keeps it at bay. Bruce Wayne’s disillusionment with his deceased loved ones and the repetitiveness of crime-fighting prompted his mission against Superman (Affleck notes in the film that his ancestors were once hunters). He views his battle against the Man of Steel as his sendoff, his lasting legacy, his swan song. He believes this may be the only thing he does that matters. If this is not a parable for suicidal ideation, then I have no idea what is. Delusions of grandeur and narcissistic obsession with violent quests are the calling cards of people looking to end their lives on purpose and with a bang. Those aspirations are also often impulsive, and people can, ironically, be talked down from them with the right approach.
But wait, there’s more! Regardless of whether he were to defeat Superman or not, Bruce Wayne would’ve committed suicide that night if he carried his mission to its intended conclusion. If he lost, he would have died at the hands of Steel, but if he won and did commit premeditated murder of a downed, helpless opponent, Bruce Wayne, as we know him, would have finally destroyed himself. He would at last become the villain. He would at last become the monster that murdered his parents and created the Batman in the first place. He would have completed the circle.
But he doesn’t. To paraphrase an anonymous source: [Batman’s entire character arc in this film is about him becoming a hero again. He’s introduced as a monster, the devil in the shadows, taking down criminals not to save their victims, but for a lead on Kryptonite so he can destroy Superman. The murder of Robin by The Joker and watching Superman’s battle with Zod destroy Metropolis has broken him. He feels powerless against a cruel world over which he has no control, and that rage has turned a once good man cruel. He now kills to defend himself and brands the most heinous criminals to condemn them. Cold-blooded murder will be his final descent into darkness.
When he hears Superman use (what he thinks is) his dying breath to beg him to save his mother, he finally sees that he has become the villain. It’s not about their mothers having the same name; it’s about Batman realizing he is no different than the monster who killed his parents and created him. In throwing down the spear and saving Superman’s mother, he also saves himself. Anyone who looks at that entire scene and sees nothing but a shitty Step Brothers-meme, wrote off Batman v Superman before it was even filmed.]
And that’s the kicker: The core of Bruce Wayne never left that alley, that moment that sent him down the dark path to becoming Batman. In many ways, all of us who are tormented by things we cannot understand, who turn to anger, cynicism, and even violence to hide our grief, remain the petulant children who never recovered from our childhood wounds. Wayne’s parents’ brutal murder has been the driving force of his entire life, and that experience, in what is a monumental and benevolent twist of irony, is what saves him. His remembrance of childhood pain is what saves him from committing coldblooded murder of a defenseless victim. He empathizes with Kal-El at last.
It is crucial to note that Batman’s love for Superman did not stay his hand. He did not, and by the end of this film, following Superman’s sacrifice, still does not “love him.” He barely knows Superman, let alone Clark Kent. Batman’s warmhearted, hamfisted emotions do not conquer his violent hatred. His empathy does. His ability to share the feelings of another, to see himself in Clark’s shoes, even if for a moment, is what stops him. Batman’s refusal to become the monster who made him, to become yet another mindless killer in a chaotic, senseless world, is what completes his arc.