Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Batman V Superman
These are some supplemental notes in addition to my first review here:
Please read that first :)
Zack Snyder holds Joseph Campbell in high regard, following his Hero's Journey structure and ideas of monomyth. Like Campbell, Snyder links different mythologies to reveal their universal nature, common threads and similarities.
Snyder recognizes Superman’s significance and meaning in the cultural zeitgeist: exploring if Superman were real, how it would affect humanity and how existential confusion would naturally be provoked. Superman is a symbol made flesh, brought to life as a living mythological being, and the film explores what would naturally happen when the frontiers of fiction and reality are blurred. Additionally, the film emphasizes how mortality is critical to humanity accepting an “alien other”.
“This has been the most rigorous intellectual exercise I’ve had in my writing life. For Batman v Superman I really want to dig into everything from ideas about American power to the structure of revenge tragedies to the huge canon of DC comics to Amazon mythology.[…]If you told me the most rigorous dramaturgical and intellectual product of my life would be superhero movies, I would you were crazy. But I do think fans deserve that. I felt I owed the fan base all of my body and soul for two years because anything less wouldn’t have been appreciating the opportunity I had.” – Chris Terrio
One of Snyder’s favorite films is John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), which explored the passing of the Mythical/God's Age to Man's Age, and though Man of Steel and Batman V Superman Snyder studies the opposite through the meaning of classical mythology for the contemporary age. While not a retelling of the story, BvS borrows heavily from Excalibur to tell its own thought-provoking epic. Chris Terrio majored in British Literature and Zack Snyder specifically mentioned Excalibur as one of the inspirations he drew on to construct the film: evidenced by Excalibur’s poster displayed on the theater’s marquee as the Wayne family walks past, signaling the themes and story threads to pay attention to.
Excalibur’s opening scene introduces Uther Pendragon, father to King Arthur (the knight who will draw and wield Excalibur and pursues a quest for the Holy Grail). The opening to BvS introduces Thomas and Martha Wayne, parents to Bruce (the Dark Knight, wielding the kryptonite spear in a quest of his own). Shortly after occurs the discovery of kryptonite, carried by children (a symbol of innocence) out of the water to (a surrogate of) Lex Luthor, intending to supply the rock to the Dark Knight for the benefit of humanity. The title sword (which also has a green glow, similar to kryptonite) is retrieved from water by the Lady of the Lake, and is pursued by Merlin, intending to supply it to the knight, King Arthur, for the benefit of man.
Lex Luthor is paralleled with Merlin, sharing similar motivations and worldviews as they both desire to eliminate evil from the world and use a Knight as their vessel. While Merlin ultimately recognizes that there is no good without evil, telling Arthur “that evil is found in the unlikeliest of places”, speaking to Arthur’s (and Batman’s) blindside, Lex never comes to such conclusion. Lex desires to reveal the ‘true nature’ of Superman and the metahumans to humanity and eliminate them. Just as Merlin had mistakenly thought that Uther would bring peace and prosperity, Lex also estimated that Batman would be the one to defeat his perceived evil. Both Merlin and Lex are skilled the competence-based disciplines of sorcery and science, respectively. Before modern man’s understanding of science, it was thought to be a mystic art. Humanity’s modern lack of understanding of the supernatural is still equally mysterious, therefore it is appropriate that these two characters share two sides of the same coin.
In Excalibur the King and the Land are one, this is a well-known mythical theme that drove ancient societies’ structures: the King is the Sun that penetrates the Earth and gives her birth.
Bruce brings dry flowers, through a dead land, to his mother's tomb (Mother Earth). Clark brings fresh flowers to Lois (his world) in her bath (the lake). Bruce brings flowers to the grave of his deceased mother, his bouquet though is in a poor state. When Clark calls his living mother, the wall behind her is covered with colorful flowers to further the association. This motherly archetype will bring the two resolutions of the film: the Martha moment (which can be viewed as Plato's Noble Lie) and Doomsday (who is defeated with a rock from Superman's mother world), in both instances the resolution is a shared weakness, linked to mother and Mother.
Man's relation to woman is an important aspect of characterization in BvS.
Bruce chases a seductive woman, has one night stand, and does not have any women that he is close to. Bruce only begins to find his center and will be restored when he integrates woman back in his life - he reaches out to Diana by email, he rescues "a mother" from fire and is saved from fire by Wonder Woman.
Lex has a destructive relation with women, he burns women, (Senator Finch, Mercy, and he wants to burn Martha), he never restores his relationship with women.
Superman has a healthy and close relation with women, he respects women and goes to them for advice, and therefore, he is the most "good" character.
Superman taking humanity out of the hole parallels Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Superman is the sun, the light that saves and awakens mankind. The hole represents the womb, the cave, and the light is the new world. In MoS, Superman left the cave and saw the light, learned to fly.
When he was young, Bruce fell into a hole. In the remains of the building, Lois also stumbled and fell into a hole. In MoS, Superman had a Plato's Cave moment, in BvS Batman has a false salvation, (which he believes to have been a Plato’s Cave moment) he rises from his cave/hole to a knightmarish world, where reality is twisted by his own fears and misconceptions, which he can retroactively recognize his light as a "beautiful lie". He has inverted the roles (a common theme in the film too), making himself the messiah, in his third dream he is crucified, and Superman is portrayed as a demon in the second and third dream.
Lois and Bruce both represent humanity, Superman takes humanity out of the hole. He gives them the light. But, for the journey to be complete, he has to take man's place (resembling Christ) in the hole. Both funerals parallel each other, one sees the birth of Batman, the second the time he regained Hope. It also makes life a cycle, an important mythological notion.
Another story paralleled here is the legend of the Parsifal, the Wounded King, with a Holy Spear and a Holy Chalice (representing the male and female).
This is first paralleled in the bath scene, and is later revisited in the abandoned building when Lois plunges the spear in the water (chalice). In their first water scene Clark and Lois made love, in their second water scene there is a symbolical sexual rite of giving fertility and prosperity to the land. In this second scene, Superman dives in the hole of water, undergoing a baptism as water symbolizes cleansing, transformation and purity. (This also recalls when the kids found the same kryptonite in the Indian Ocean). This recalls the film’s question of innocence and purity ("ignorance is not the same as innocence", "power can’t be innocent") - does Superman achieve a state of purity and innocence? Does he become the "innocent fool" (Parsifal) or an innocent with knowledge?
Lois hides a bullet from Clark and Lois hides the spear in the water. Superman goes to find what humanity has hidden. Bruce walks with flowers, Batman walks with the spear. The spear is a reflection of Man's powerlessness (and a phallic symbol). The spear also is what makes Superman powerless (shared weakness).
The film’s theme of powerlessness is the reaction to the Super-human, something that transcends humanity, causes us to question our existence and the film explores what it can do to people (Bruce, Clark, Wallace, etc). Wallace embodies this the most, as he lost his legs and "cannot piss standing up". Lex offers him to "stand up for something", an expression Clark uses too. To kill Doomsday, the incarnation of violence and the creation that arose from man's inflated ego (Lex Luthor), Superman “stand” with his weakness, taking that which makes him powerless, and sacrifice himself. He transcends his weakness in an altruist act.
Powerlessness is also linked to sexual energy and procreation. Bruce is concerned with leaving a legacy, Lex creates with a dead body, though it is Superman who becomes the rightful king of the land, and fertilizes it’s (re)birth. Superman is inherently a Sun symbol/figure (the character even receives his power from the Sun). Lois decides to wear his ring, symbolizing her alliance to the Earth, the Mother. Superman's sacrifice is an act of creation more than death (which is inherently sexual).
There's two additional sexual metaphors, the first recalls Da Vinchi’s “The Creation of Adam”, as Superman is framed touching the Earth with his finger. The second Superman’s burial in a hole: planted as a seed. The fact that he ends up in the Earth also connects to his acceptance by humanity. MoS revolved around that birth imagery - as when Jor-El sacrificed himself and sends the Scout ship, (seed/sperm) to Earth. Superman dies in a parallel scene like his father, killed by the ghost of Zod, he becomes the father (important part of the Hero's Journey) and so sends a seed into the Earth. Superman is planted as a seed in the ground, Lois walks from left to right and disappears behind a tree. The World will grow into a strong tree, united, spreading from a common root, and sharing the same axis. Friedrich Nietzsche said “it is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough for it".
This also references 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film begins by entering the monolith, and concludes in a rebirth as the Cosmic Child meets the Earth. BvS begins as the camera pulls out of a black "monolithic" coffin, and concludes as Superman enters the monolith and Humanity is rebirthed. Superman has become the world "If you seek his monument, look around you". The film also evokes the Myth of Prometheus as the attendees of the funeral hold candles, showing that Superman brought fire to man, the light, out of the hole into the whole.
Dreams can often unlock repressed memories or help with problem-solving.
When Bruce fell in his first dream, his mother’s pearl accompanied his fall. The pearl symbolizes Martha’s influence. The first time Bruce did not pick it up (when he found Batman, his false hope), however the second time (when he hears his mother’s name) he recognizes the symbol in Clark (his places hand on Superman’s heart as he promises to “find her”). The musical cues back this up as the high soprano leitmotif symbolizes his mother. (Interesting to note: a similar pearl necklace is worn by Senator Finch on her first meeting with Lex. The pearls appear again (giant this time) in the genesis chamber at the time of Lex’s blood bath and communication with Apokolips. The pearls symbolize innocence, creation, and motherhood.)
In the first dream, Bruce is lifted by the bats into a ray of light that visually parallels the beam of the terraformer. This analogy is of real importance, Bruce seeing himself as a dark Savior, resurrected by the bats. This first scene also tricks the audience, putting them in Bruce disoriented position, as it melds a presumed flashback together into a dream. At the beginning of each of Bruce’s dreams there is the audible sound of the world engine, illustrating Bruce’s PTSD.
Bruce’s second dream occurs after Lex explains his painting “devils don’t come from hell beneath us, they come from the sky” and the camera rises up.
In the Wayne crypt, there is a stained glass painting of the Archangel Michael with a sword, ready to kill a dragon/demon that set the world on fire. Michael is often depicted with a spear and a red cape, and he is a figure of healing and protection. This is prophetic as Bruce believes he is similar to Michael, who has to save all earth from the alien demon with a spear. Though it is instead Superman who will allow that healing process as a true archangel. It is interesting, amusing too in regard of the critics, to see that Bruce is represented with religious imagery and Jesus symbolism just as Superman.
The third dream turns it into a nightmare, moving from the realm of the memory to a world more fantastic and alien, gaining in complexity and using recurrent elements that enable to show the transformation of Bruce. There is also a recurring motif from the second dream as the bat who elevated him here eats him, as a demon, drags him in the shadows.
Bruce’s third dream also recalls the first desert scene in Nairobi. This could parallel Bruce usurping Clark's role (though it could also be analogous with Lois and search for truth): they both access Superman weakness, there is also an indicator of the fact that he is influenced by the media (which deepens his paranoia) and Lex machinations. Bruce thinks Superman killed the people in the desert but he holds himself responsible as he thinks can stop him and get that weapon. In the Knightmare, he only reacts when his people are killed and when the dream is recreated in real life (with the bomb at the Capital) it only deepens his confusion and difficulty to differentiate the dreams from reality. The Knightmare begins with Bruce standing on a high point with binoculars, illustrating his inability to see beyond his surroundings, as he cannot see clearly or in the distance. (The dust and the landscape even resembles Krypton on her doomsday, giant eruptions of fire emerge from beneath the surface, both reminiscent of past and future. At that point, he has become purely delusional as the nightmares demonstrate, it shows a great deal of his functioning and psyche. This is complemented by his actions and discourse in waking life, the themes of the ghost and revenge through Wallace that symbolizes humanity's feeling of powerlessness, Clark also suffering from dreams of guilt and his father telling him about "drowning of horses" in the dead landscape of the artic paralleling the dryness of Bruce's future, Clark also ends up on a mountain following that reversed height use and to amplify the fall. Superman ends in a hole, he has taken man's feeling of powerlessness when he dies "standing up" with the kryptonite, his weakness, and ends in a beautiful parallel of Wayne's funeral and Bruce condition at the beginning.)
Bruce emerges from a cave (the Wayne manor ruin can be seen behind him) in a post-apocalyptic landscape, a land even drier than the Wayne Estate in autumn. (Note that Clark will later have the same number of deaths, three: space, water and Doomsday).
Bruce’s search for Superman’s weakness fails as he is captured and hung in a crucifixion-like position, even having acolytes hung as well on either side of him. This Jesus symbolism and imagery, is the mistaken role of savior that Bruce entitles himself to: his messiah complex.
Bruce projects the devouring bat onto Superman, making him the demonic figure that inhabits his inner self. Lex does the same, and when a man stops projecting onto others, only then will they become their complete selves.
The first dream ends with Bruce being lifted out of a hole surrounded by bats. The last dream ends with Bruce being put in a hole, identity exposed and killed. Symmetry.
Another theme is that of delusion (deception, lying or hiding from the truth) which is symbolized through a reoccurring motif of drinking and the offering of a drink. The drinks are presented as a symbol of covering up wrong doing.
In the introduction to Nairobi, the undercover “James Olson” is offered a bottle of Coca-Cola accompanied with “wind is bad luck, blood in the sky”, offering the delusion that everything about to occur is luck, yet it will be orchestrated: in the open by Lois, undercover by the CIA and behind the scenes by Lex. The attention is directed to violence “in the sky” (Superman), however the violence will truthfully be earthbound (CIA, Lex).
When Senator Finch first arrives at Lex’s mansion, Lex offers her “a little bourbon before lunch?” trying to sell the delusion that they’re friends and allies, and characterizing her with a Kentucky stereotype. Finch declines it all in declining the drink. Throughout the scene, Lex is clutching his drink, perhaps implying that his entire pitch is a delusion. He takes three calculated swigs, after quoting his father that “Kentucky Mash is the key to health”, after “maybe Dad will come back if I just keep everything the same” and after proclaiming that “devils come from the sky”. The most direct instance of this motif, is when Senator Finch says “take a bucket of piss and call it ‘Granny’s Peach Tea’, take a weapon of assassination and call it deterrence: you won’t fool a fly or me. I’m not going to drink it.” Finch is directly rejecting the notion that renaming things changes their fundamental nature.
On television, there is a clip of Jon Stewart saying that “we’ve got thirsty people out there”, implying the general public is ready to accept ideological delusion.
At the museum, the curator places a glass in Diana’s hand, she diplomatically accepts, but while the curator is distracted, she returns it to a server’s tray without having taken a drink.
The curator is deluded: he presents the artifact to be the authentic sword of Alexander, the triumph and culmination of his career. However Bruce tells Diana that “it’s a fake”, something she was already aware of. The curator wants her to drink the wine (accepting the ‘authenticity’ of the sword) – but the spirit of truth declines both.
When Bruce returns home from questioning Santos about the “White Portuguese”, Alfred offers him a cup of coffee with “you don’t even know if he exists. Could be a phantasm.” Bruce knows better and declines the coffee. Shortly after, Bruce offers Alfred a cup of coffee while explaining the necessity of Batman for investigational success. Alfred accepts the cup, but doesn’t drink (compromise). Alfred doesn’t accept Bruce’s need for Batman, and asserts that the investigation should continue under the guise of Bruce Wayne. Alfred also laments the Wayne’s empty wine cellar (conveying that Bruce has had more than his fair share of delusion)
At Lex’s fundraiser, nearly everyone is drinking. Lex’s guests are all holding drinks and servers carry trays of alcohol – though the main characters (Clark, Bruce, Lex, Diana and Mercy) aren’t drinking. A server directs Diana’s attention to his tray, and she mouths “no, thank you”. Lex actively tries to entice his guests to drink, he begins his speech by summarizing: “open bar, the end”. If they accept (drink) his ideology, then none of the rest of his speech would matter. He also concludes his speech with “drink! Drink!” imploring people to embrace his worldview.
The guests honor Lex, smile, laugh at his jokes and anticipate his speech. Bruce tells Lex “well I thought I’d come drink you dry”, attempting to convince Lex he accepts his ideology. Mercy catches Bruce below, which he tries to deflect by using drinking “that last martini was too, too many”. While talking remotely to Bruce, Alfred offers himself a delusion, saying to Bruce “go downstairs and socialize: some lady from Metropolis will make you honest”, while acknowledging his dream to himself saying, “in your dreams, Alfred”.
(While not related to delusion, it’s interesting to note the subtext: Bruce was lying to Alfred, Alfred was saying "You're not being honest with me anyway, hope some girls get the luck”. (However this is prophetic, because it later comes true as Lois is the “woman from Metropolis”, the catalyst for his honesty and redemption).
There are also instances of self-comfort that accompany beverages. Lois takes a drink of wine when confronted with her bloodstained shirt. Bruce drinks from a wine bottle after waking from his dream, after a one-night-stand, in the lake house. Anatoli drinks two shots of alcohol to soften his gambling loss. Perry drinks his coffee to accompany his acceptance of cynicism.
Superman’s shield is in the shape of a diamond. The opening monologue is prophetic of his death, talking of the fall of diamond absolutes.
The Above/Below Motif begins in the first scene – the setting is fall the season, visually leaves fall, sparks fall, Thomas Wayne falls, gun shells fall, pearls fall, Martha Wayne falls, snow falls and finally Bruce Wayne falls – accompanied by the falling musical score and followed by Bruce’s narration about fallen nature. This signals to the audience to pay attention to the symbolism. In the film, Bruce is either looking down at things or falling to symbolize his decent into the darkness. The further Bruce gives in to the Batman persona, the more he becomes a criminal and gives into nihilism.
When he is looking up: it’s towards things he hates or has no control over. It’s only after he changes his path that he is shown going up breaking through the floor to travel up to the scaffolding and walking up the hill after the funeral. When Batman goes to save Martha Kent, Alfred makes the conscious and spoken decision to drop Batman off on the second floor while the enemies are on the third floor. Traditionally, Batman will drop down, grab an enemy, and repel back up, as when Batman broke into LexCorp. Here Batman begins from the second floor, decimates the third floor, and rises up into the rafters, metaphorically rising up. This symbolizes Batman rising above his demons, in some ways. He's seen above the crooks destroying their weapons.
Batman has always mirrored his villains, and in BvS as he loses himself he becomes more like his Rogues. When fighting Superman, half of his mask breaks off echoing Two-Face and he echoes Scarecrow, when he told Superman "Breathe it in. That's fear." This directly displays he is on the precipice of becoming that which he has always fought against.
“People are always like ‘you changed Superman’,” said Snyder. “If you’re a comic book fan, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you know the true canon, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you’re a fan of the old movies, yeah I changed him a bit. That's the difference. I'm a bit of a comic book fan and I always default to the true canon. Not the cinematic canon that sort of, that in my opinion, plays fast and loose with the rules. And so, I feel like I tried to create a Superman that would set a tone for the world.” Zack Snyder
Here are some of my favorite videos and articles exploring some other topics in the film.
GORDIAN KNOT SYMBOLISM
MOBY DICK AND WHALE SYMBOLISM
THE METAPHYSICS OF BvS
THE QUINTESSENTIAL ARTICLE: REVENGE TRAGEDY
Applying Suspense to Archetypal Superheroes:
Hitchcockian Ambiguity in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice