Man vs Superman

Batman vs Superman depicts the conflict between mankind and a Homeric type of god in the figure of Superman, although unfortunately the film decides to abandon the potential complexities of this theme for Hollywood-style action thrills.

It is sometimes the case that one, before actually seeing a movie, has a very clear view of what it should be about and how the events which it depicts should be structured. I had this view in relation to the Zach Snyder film, Batman vs Superman. My only prior knowledge of it was the trailer that was released beforehand. The title really says it all: Batman and Superman, the two perhaps most famous heroes in the DC universe, are to be engaged in a life-or-death battle against each other. I’m surely not to be blamed for having my imagination set in motion by such a prospect.

In my mind, the true meaning of this story is that mankind – represented by Batman – realises that they have a god, a superman, walking amongst them, and realising the danger of this, they decide to kill him off. Almost immediately, I thought of Nietzsche and his most famous slogan that ‘God is dead’, explaining that man has elevated himself by taking the place of the one they had killed. Thereafter, I came to think of the Austrian scholar Eric Voegelin and his more thorough, and less poetic, philosophical investigation into the murder of God through the secularisation of religious symbols in Western thinking.

Both Batman and Superman are powerful representations, though I grant that this is somewhat masked by the fact that they insist on wearing spandex. When it comes to Superman, I find it incorrect to compare him to the Christian God: a being that is simply beyond all that can be understood as human. Superman obviously has a beginning, and a perceivable end. He, as we see in his name, belongs to a particular sex. Furthermore, as Clark Kent, he is entangled in a number of human relations: for Lois Lane, his foster parents, and so on, and he has quite intense feelings.

Therefore, it is more fitting to compare Superman to a Homeric god like Zeus, Ares, or Minerva, or perhaps one of the old Norse gods, like Odin, Thor, or Loki, my point being that Superman is a combination of both ‘super’ and ‘man’. In old Greek poetry, the gods were always entangled in human affairs, and they engaged in all activities, from lovemaking to warfare. In a sense they were, of course, far beyond anything human by virtue of being immortal. But seen from another perspective they were, at an emotional level, on equal footing with their human subjects. They could take insults from perceived slights, fall in love, become jealous, rage and take vengeance, and in general act in ways which definitely can be thought of as strange and unbalanced.

The Homeric gods often walked amongst the humans in disguise, and they were constantly meddling in their affairs. I find it fair to compare Superman to a Homeric god; although a benevolent, balanced, and helpful one. The Greeks – at least in the Iliad and the Odyssey – took the gods for granted, and never thought it strange that these often quite unbalanced beings took it upon themselves to meddle in their affairs. Superman, too, moves amongst the humans, disguised as Clark Kent. He also meddles in the affairs of ordinary humans, although he does so with the best of intentions. But his presence is still felt, by some, as a threat. This is not at all strange, considering that man in the secular age has gotten used to holding the position of master of the universe.

Imagine that a Homeric god came down to Earth in our, at least to a large degree, secular world. What a shock it would be! In the film we see Batman, as Bruce Wayne, witness how a city is destroyed in the battle between Superman and General Zod. Batman is a strategic thinker, a realist to borrow a term from International Relations theory, and he always has risk calculation in mind. The strength of Superman is the weakness of ordinary men. As Batman himself formulates it, if there is even the slightest risk of Superman turning against us, we have to take action.

That is the philosophical meaning of this movie. We have a god walking amongst us. Not the omnipotent God of the Christian religion, but a Homeric god which we really know nothing about. He seems to do some good for the present, but Batman, as a good realist, naturally begins planning for the day when Superman decides that it is not enough to simply be good anymore, but decides that he wants to rule the world. Batman represents the anxiety of secular man in reaction to the prospect of a god walking amongst us; a god that we have no means of subjecting to our will.

Batman, as our representative, decides that he needs to acquire the means of killing Superman should this become necessary, and we are shown how he goes about setting himself up for this difficult and dangerous task. Batman is an interesting character in his completeness; unlike many other types of such characters, he has multiple talents. He has both the brains and the brawn. He is at once strategist, scientist, and a superior fighter: Batman is constantly planning, scheming, inventing new gadgets, and training in order to perfect his physical capabilities. One particularly cool scene shows Batman (played convincingly by Ben Affleck) going through a tough gym session prior to his confrontation with Superman. One of the things I like about this film is his realistic and effective training: doing weighted pullups, running a prowler, and pounding a tire with a sledgehammer.

Batman, like man in general, can discipline himself into taming the forces of nature. Superman, however, is a force of nature. But, as mythology shows us, a trickster can, once in a while, overcome a god. In one of the best scenes, Batman and Superman face each other, and Batman is given a warning not to pursue any more of his nocturnal activities. In response, Batman asks Superman: ‘Tell me, do you bleed?’ In the end, Batman will find out if a human can spill the blood of a god.

I only wish that this perspective had been allowed to shape and structure the storyline to a higher degree. But in this movie – as is often the case with the products of modern pop culture – things have to be kept relatively simple. The film therefore has a villain: a person who is even more talented as a schemer than Batman, Lex Luthor. Luthor is by no means a poorly-drawn character, even if he is portrayed a bit too similarly to the Heath Ledger version of the Joker.

It is significant that the film has to have a clear-cut villain made of flesh and blood and with a vicious purpose. It simply can’t be the case that the tension between Batman and Superman, and what they represent, might be allowed to exist on its own and without any third party adding to it. As it ends up, Luthor’s scheming is made out to be the real reason for the tension between our two opposing heroes, because he wants them to fight each other. This makes the film rather strange and slightly confusing, because from one viewpoint, the perspective I have discussed above is present in the film, and with enough presence for a critic such as myself to take notice of it. From another viewpoint, however, the tension between our two heroes is completely done away with, because Luthor and his vicious plan are shown to be the cause of it.

If this is good or bad is a question of taste. In my mind, it is bad, because it serves to ease and take the focus away from a tension which I perceive as real and very important: the tension between a near-god who walks amongst us and a man who fears what he might be capable of should he turn malevolent to mankind. This is all done away with. What is worse, the last twenty or so minutes are dedicated to a classic superhero type of battle between Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman on the one side, and Lex Luthor’s creation, Doomsday, on the other. The long scene is well-made, but completely pointless and adds nothing of value to the story.

At this point, Batman and Superman are reconciled after Batman is reminded of Superman’s connection to mankind, namely his mother Martha, which just so happens to have also been the name of Batman’s own mother. The reason for the introduction of Doomsday is, as it seems to me, to further ease the tension between Batman and Superman by introducing a fantastic supervillain they can unite against. And, of course, this gives the audience something spectacular to be thrilled by, should they have grown tired of the actual story by that point.

As it stands, this movie can at best be said to be a flawed piece of art. That much I can grant it. Perhaps I have done it too much justice by discussing it as if it contained a deeper philosophical theme. Regardless, the more serious and important perspective was there, alas not to such a degree as it should or could have been.

I give it 3 out of 5 Evolian tigers.