Death, Suffering, Identity & The Will to Power; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (SPOILERS)

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

-Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

In the previous post we looked at this newest version of Superman, in which he has become a product of our modern secular age. We are haunted by transcendence. Our world has been flattened, disenchanted. He is conflicted, as are we, about what the right thing to do is because we ourselves have thrown off the transcendent grounds to which “the good” is grounded. The “good” is a conversation, not transcendental truths in which we are aimed. It should come as no surprise this is how Superman would be portrayed in the modern age. No identity and conflicted about what is “good” and whether or not its worth it to do good.

Towards a New Batman

As we move to look at this newest inception of Batman, I want to say how much I enjoy this version Ben Affleck is portraying. He is as close to a comic book adaptation as we have ever seen, and he is far and away the best part of the film. I wish the studio would have opted to do a solo Batman film prior to this one. They could have explored the depth and complexity of this Batman, this would have given Batman V Superman much more grip emotionally for the critics and audiences.

What is obvious is the source material for this Dark Knight is essentially right off the pages of Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. Even Jeremy Iron’s ‘Alfred’ had some lines that were word for word from a panel in DKR.

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The differences are the worlds in which these Batmen, so to speak, are placed and exist in. Affleck’s Batman is essentially thrown into the world started by Man of Steel, and he is blinded by his rage and is going to kill Superman because of the possible future threat he could pose to the world. Miller’s Batman is even older than Snyder’s version, and is very close with Superman since they worked together for years. Superman, in the Dark Knight Returns, is essentially a government pawn who does the bidding of politicians who have outlawed superheroes all together outside of Superman. Gotham is getting worse and worse with crime getting more violent, Batman returns to bring justice back to the city against the will of the Gotham City police and United States government. Their are significant similarities between the two versions of Batman, but also significant differences remain since they are telling different stories.

An Identity Rooted in Death & Suffering

In Batman V Superman, we meet a Bruce Wayne who is broken. He has lost nearly every one he has gotten close to and loved, and is weary from his time wearing the cowl. The introduction of Batman in this movie is a frightening one. You get the sense that people are terrified of the Dark Knight, as the women who he rescued from sex trafficking refuse to leave their cell because of how scared they are of “it”. The opening scene of the movie is the funeral of Wayne’s parents, and subsequently a scene of his parents death. We get the sense that Bruce still finds himself trapped at the scene of his parents death. He has, whether intentionally or unintentionally, rooted his identity in death. His identity as Batman is grounded in the death of his parents, every time he stops a crime or fights a criminal, he is essentially chasing an echo which emanates from the moment his identity was formed.

It is not only his parents death Bruce seems to be haunted by, but the death and corruption of the good guys around him. He remarks to Alfred “20 years in Gotham, how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” He is beaten down, cynical and is in constant agony over what has happened to him and those around him. All of this pushes him towards his complete lack of trust in Superman (not to mention the destruction that happened because of the events in Man of Steel), and why he feels the need to kill Superman before its too late and Superman turns on the world.  He has rooted his whole identity in suffering and death, this is what defines not only Bruce Wayne, but Batman as well.

The Will to Power

Toward the latter portion of the movie when we find our heroes duking it out, Batman remarks to Superman:

“I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re here for a reason, my parents taught me different lesson: dying in the gutter for no reason at all. They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.”

Here we see what Bruce has come to believe about the world and existence. We find the post-modern understanding of the existence of being as “primordial and inevitable violence” (Hart, 2003, p. 5). Suffering is random, and life only makes sense if you force it to. Life for Nietzsche:

“Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.” (Nietzsche, 1886, p 203)

We find this narrative to be exemplified by this inception of Batman.

Moving from this view of life, we also see this Batman participating in gruesome violence. We view him actually killing criminals, how many is not certain. While this is not a big departure from the character since other inceptions of the Dark Knight have killed (yes even Bale’s Batman killed), it is startling and really sets the tone for this version. They attempted to show the change Batman incurs from (SPOILERS) the death of Superman, and he seems to be turning back towards the character we have known historically who is principled and does everything in his abilities not to kill senselessly.

Some Final Thoughts

What interests me with superhero/comic book movies is how much these heroes represent our cultural times. Whether that’s our confusion about moral truth, and if its binding on all humanity, or if life is essentially the will to power;

While Superman can be seen as the exemplar of the modern societies moral and spiritual dilemma, Batman represents the post-modern rejection of even the confusion about these things. Life is appropriation and at the bottom primordial and inevitable violence. Life only makes sense if you force it to, you are not here for a purpose. Life is summed up by dying in a gutter for no reason at all. Batman has gotten to this place from his identity being shaped and rooted in the death of his parents and those close to him; participating in liturgies of violence which only further form and shape the kind of “hero” he has become.

Works Cited:

Hart, David Bentley; 2003, The Beauty of the Infinite

Nietzsche, Fredrich; 1886, Beyond Good and Evil

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The Secular Age; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (Part 1)

“God is not an object of desire; he is the end that makes desire.” 

-David Bentley Hart

Batman V Superman is, by my estimation, one of the most divisive films I’ve ever seen. The critics overwhelmingly hate it, a good majority of the fans love it. I am one who really enjoyed the film, albeit not without some major critiques of narrative, structure and the over all plot trajectory. This movie had so much potential, but it at once had too much going on within it, and at the same time didn’t have enough to satisfy.

My goal in here is stated within the title of the post: a philosophical and theological look into Batman V Superman; Dawn of Justice.

I want to mainly explore the two main heroes in the film: Batman and Superman.

A Secular Superman

What I find so interesting about this film is how utterly modern it is, especially when it comes to the debate of what constitutes ‘the good’. Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch has a line that sums up the message Snyder and company are seeking to convey when they speak of the ‘good’ in our modern context: “The good is not a unilateral decision…the good is a conversation.” She makes reference to what the good is in a democratic society, but I think this applies much more broadly to our current modern, ‘secular age’. (in a Charles Taylor fashion)

Taylor in his monumental work ‘A Secular Age‘ seeks to understand how within 500 years our society has gone from atheism being somewhat of an impossible position to take, to atheism being basically the default position. Jamie Smith sums up Taylor’s take on our secular age:

“Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded.” (Smith, p.12)

Our age is “haunted”, and we cannot escape the call and knocking of the transcendent. This is evident in the way Snyder and company has approached the Superman character, they employ the comparison of Kal El and Jesus Christ. In Man of Steel it is beyond obvious this is the case.

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Snyder has spoken at length about Superman’s mythology being linked to Christ. This incarnation, so to speak, of Superman represents the very thing Taylor is showing about our current age. We are haunted by transcendence, even though we have attempted to throw off all things pre-modern. There are problems attempting to link “God” and Superman together, since theologically speaking:

“God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.” (Hart, p. 30)

Superman, on the other hand, is not anything like God. Maybe some demi-god fashioned in our own image, but surely not the God of the theistic traditions.This is the issue of Lex proclaiming “God vs. man”. It becomes all too illuminating. It speaks to the modernist tradition (enlightenment period) of our attempt to overthrow God and conquer the universe by objective rationality and show that we are autonomous and have no need for “fairy tales” and hokey religion (in the words of Han Solo) to fill in the gaps when we do not understand something in reality. Not to mention the remark of “If God is all loving, He cannot be all powerful, and if He is all powerful he cannot be all loving” speaks to the new atheist (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) monumental ignorance when it comes to understanding how the metaphysical categories of God are understood in the theistic tradition. We won’t delve into that now, but one thing to be said is that to put anthropomorphic categories onto God is a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of God. His distinctness from the created order. He is not constrained to our finite capabilities, and is not bound one way or another by finite human categories.

Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman speaks to our modern secular age being haunted by transcendence. Our secular age is one of the contestability of every belief, not by the amount of religious participation (or lack thereof). What is even more striking is the conflict Superman still feels now, even though he has been doing it for about 2 years. This conflict speaks to the heart of our modern age: an attempt to deposit meaning within the thing itself, rather than the object as a pointer towards the meaning outside of itself. We desire justice and truth, but we have abandon the very thing in which these things have their ground (God). Superman wants to do what is right and good, but what is right and good is not merely ontological truth’s to which we are aimed, but as the Senator would say they are a “conversation”. They are decided by the consent of the governed. Hence Superman has no real identity outside of what others say he is. This is conflicted as well, and this is where I think Snyder has really failed to give the character of Superman justice (no pun intended). Superman does what is good not because of what others decide is good, but because good is an end in itself.

What interests me about this movie, and others in this age of comic book movies, is how much our culture is represented by these characters. In the next post we will take a philosophical look into the other main character in Dawn of Justice: Batman.

 

References:

Hart, David Bentley (2013-09-24). The Experience of God. Yale University Press.

Smith, James K. A. (2014-05-01). How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.