Batman v Superman: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Batman V Superman: What Went Wrong? It’s no secret that BvS has drawn widespread ire for its issues with plot and tone. So, in an effort not to flog a dead horse, we decided to focus on another issue plaguing the film: its ideological failings. Many of the film’s cues are taken straight from Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns- a work that paints a very clear philosophical divide between Batman and Superman. But its in replicating this dynamic that BvS starts to flounder. By exploring some of Miller’s key inspirations, we’ll unveil how the philosophical backbone of The Dark Knight Returns was adapted to Batman V Superman- with lackluster results.
Written by: Tommy Cook
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
Batman v Superman: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. Jared here again — this time to discuss the punching bag of the DC Universe. No, not that one; This one. Now since everyone’s already beat the film up for its shameless franchise plugging…its slow plotting…and well…that, we’re going to focus on something else – Batman v. Superman’s ideological failings. So let’s see if it “bleeds.” Welcome to a Wisecrack Edition on Batman v. Superman – What Went Wrong? And of course, spoilers ahead. One of the biggest challenges facing the architects of the DCEU is: how to make Superman a relatable character? After all, it’s hard to identify with an indestructible, self-less, god-like figure. So what was their solution? Well, a pretty smart one if you ask me. They kind of did what was done in the Last Temptation of Christ- took a benevolent messiah figure and emphasized his vulnerabilities, flaws, and most importantly- doubts.
Doubts as to whether he can or should carry the burden of divine status; essentially making him more HUMAN. We see this push and pull as Superman decides between being a benevolent savior or just focusing on what matters to him- namely Lois. The problem is this botches a fundamental part of a movie about the rivalry between Batman and Superman- namely, having them embody different ideologies. This doesn’t really happen. Enter Batman V Superman’s biggest inspiration: Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. The film takes a lot of its cues from this work: An older broken Bruce Wayne. Check. Superman being hit by a nuclear warhead & then being healed by the sun? Oh yeah. Robin’s memorialized costume in Batman’s lair? Yep. …Even the central fight between Batman and Superman is more-or-less taken from the graphic novel — with Superman trying to reason with Batman, and Batman having none of it. But beneath the ‘mask’ of both The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman v. Superman lies an unlikely inspiration; one that solidifies an all-important ideological distinction between Batman and Superman: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Well, at least it does in the graphic novel. Rand’s novel follows Howard Roark, an ‘experimental’ architect, who faces near constant opposition from the rigid establishment. And yeah – I know what you’re thinking: ‘What the hell do two superheroes punching each other have to do with architecture?’ Well not only has Zack Snyder been trying to make “The Fountainhead” movie for years…
But Frank Miller cites Rand as a big influence on his work. Per Miller, he was “drawn again and again to [Rand’s] ideas” and how she “took the fate of humanity out of the hands of a convenient ‘Big Brother’, and into the hands of individuals.” In particular, both Miller and Snyder seem drawn to Rand’s depiction of male heroes. In The Fountainhead, protagonist Howard Roark is the IDEAL man. A man, who no matter the obstacles, achieves his goals and never gives up an inch on his integrity – even if that leads to conflict with others. This Randian hero is defined by “ethical egoism” – the belief that the best course of action is always what’s in your best interest. Only through pursuing your own self-interest, can you ever hope to achieve happiness – a central tenet of Ayn Rand’s philosophy: Objectivism. To Rand, a male hero must be a radical individualist, unwilling to bend, smarter than everyone else and well, not too shabby on the eyes. Sound familiar to a certain ‘Dark Knight’? Rand’s ‘Ideal Man’ fits Miller’s Batman to a tee. He’s a super rich, handsome playboy with a genius intellect who refuses to bend to anyone’s will but his own. It’s Batman’s adherence to Randian egoism that enables an ideological conflict between Batman and Superman- individualism over collectivism.
Batman faces constant obstruction from the US Government who task the ultimate ‘conformist’ to stop him: Superman. In Miller’s work, Superman is the anti-Rand figure – a character whose self-sacrificing moral righteousness & commitment to ‘good’ marks him a ‘Government Stooge’. Much of the drama in Miller’s graphic novel stems from these differing ideologies: the individualism of Batman vs. the conformism of Superman. Now – whether you agree or not with Rand’s philosophy, there’s no denying that Miller successfully instilled the spirit of her theories to create a compelling interior conflict between our two titans. So, while Frank Miller pulled this off with flying colors, Batman V Superman’s integration of this philosophy is where it all goes wrong. First let’s give props to what they got right – Batman. Affleck’s version is pretty much in line with Miller’s Randian take on the character. He’s handsome, almost supernaturally athletic…Smarter than everyone else…and catnip for the ladies. Batman’s also a complete individualist, refusing to bend his will to anyone – even the judicial process.
He even brands criminals so they’ll be shanked in prison. Now, I watched the whole movie being pretty confused as to why Batman wanted to fight Superman in the first place – but here too I think there’s a nod to Rand. If Batman is so concerned about this God-like Superman, it’s because any kind of God ruins the whole ethical egoism thing: how are you supposed to make your own choices, based on your own rationality, when there’s something objectively greater than you? Rand was famously an atheist for this reason. So they get this Randian version of Batman right – but it’s with the depiction of Superman that things begin to get muddled. They couldn’t create a purely benevolent, do-gooder Superman cuz that would be boring and impossible to relate to. Conversely, they decide not to make him the collectivist stooge that Miller made him, because, well…the audience is supposed to like him just as much as Batman and we’ve got Justice League films to make here people! So what do they do? Previous depictions of Superman have focused on his self-sacrificing goodness. In Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal, Superman doesn’t save people for his own betterment, but simply because it’s the right thing to do — be it rescuing a cat from a tree, or catching Lois from plummeting to her death.
The Superman of BvS, however, looks like he’s stuck performing the most tiresome 9-5 job imaginable, he even claims he couldn’t stop the court house bomb because he essentially didn’t care. Since Gods shouldn’t whine about saving humanity, the film constantly undercuts the perception of Superman as a purely benevolent Christ-like hero. Which, later, Batman just straight up tells Superman face-to-face. Superman’s crisis manifests into two warring identities – the classic Superman ‘The God’ (benevolent & Christopher Reeves-like) and Superman ‘The Man’ — which for Snyder means a Randian Objectivist. IE: a guy who flies to the middle east to save Lois but leaves all the other innocents to die. This internal conflict is pretty blunted stated by Martha Kent… For Martha – there’s no difference between choosing to be a Benevolent Messiah or a Self Involved Objectivist. Both are equally valid. The important thing is that it’s Clark’s choice to make – and this rational choice is what marks a Randian hero. Later the ghost of Jonathan Kent gives Clark his own advice, revealing the time he selflessly ‘saved’ his farm from a flood; yet unbeknownst to him – the water went upstream, flooding another nearby farm.
Jonathan Kent here dismantles the notion of self-less heroism. There’s simply no point to being the ‘classic selfless do-gooder Superman’ because there will always be another flooded farm you couldn’t stop. When Clark asks Ghost dad how he could live with himself after dooming the nearby farm, he responds – “When I met your mother. She gave me faith. She was my world.” Dream Jonathan is kind of like a ghost of Objectivism past: suggesting that true moral righteousness comes from bettering yourself, pursuing your own self-interest, and protecting the ones you love, because they in turn bring you happiness. Ethical egoism in a nutshell. So what choice does Superman ultimately make — Messiah or Randian Hero? Actually… he doesn’t really make a choice at all. At first, Superman seems to embrace Jonathan’s objectivism, returning to Metropolis only to save the people who really matter to him – aka Lois & Martha. He even echoes Jonathan’s parting words, telling Lois – “This is my world. You are my world.” So what is his decision? Both.
As a benevolent savior, he takes responsibility for the well being of the whole planet, but as an objectivist he also mentions he’s doing it all for Lois. Five seconds later, Superman sacrifices himself in the most Messianic fashion possible – Christ-like with his arms spread out. Heck – there’s even a makeshift cross behind Superman’s corpse. Superman’s ambiguous philosophy becomes problematic since BvS is framed as an ideological conflict between Batman & Superman; and yet none actually exists. The first time Bruce and Clark meet, the film pays lip service to what SHOULD be their differing beliefs… Bruce doesn’t like how Metropolis and the world blindly trusts Superman by labeling him a savior. Bruce questions the very possibility of a “superhuman benevolent savior,” because as he’s seen- even the best can turn bad. And Clark thinks Batman is a vigilante, who needs to be put in check. This is a similar ideological conflict as Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; but BvS, instead of exploring the dynamic further, immediately upends it. The world turns against Superman… Because, like Batman, he acts on his own accord. And by using Objectivism to make Superman more relatable, the film ends up shooting itself in the foot, because now there’s almost no ideological difference between Batman and Superman.
So in a film that requires a conflict based on differing ideals, that’s based on a source material showcasing this ideological divide, BvS instead becomes a ‘Randian Hero’ vs. ‘A Maybe Sort-of Randian Hero who can’t decide if he wants to be the divine savior the world wants him to be..’ So in the end, the film presents no preference of heroics. Whether one should sacrifice oneself for the greater good, or only keep their own interests in mind is immaterial, because the solution presented isn’t that one kind of heroics needs to be put in check while another promoted. Rather, the message is they just needs MORE HEROS. – Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg – and that they all should form their own team — aka The Justice League. So just what the hell is Batman v Superman really trying to say? As a purely objectivist Randian piece of work, it fails because (unlike The Dark Knight Returns), it doesn’t create any ideological difference between its main characters. So instead of the film espousing a clear philosophy, supporting Batman or Superman, everything just becomes muddled. Quite simply — it’s a mess. But it’s an amitious mess, and for that, it deserves credit in my book.
And hey — maybe Justice League will get it right. Thanks for watching guys, Peace.