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Theism & Secular Culture in Batman v Superman

It cannot be doubted that Zack Snyder has created one of the biggest spectacles in the superhero world with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Even among the negative critic reviews it continues to build its own fans, confusing the landscape for potential viewers even more.  But is it really any surprise that such a polarizing film should elicit mixed opinions?  Even so, there’s more going on in the film that just a gritty take on violent vigilantism.

Lest we lose ourselves too much in the versus aspect of the movie, it must be remembered that this is, in some form, a sequel to Man of Steel.  And much like that film, once you get past the enormous scale of the fights, Dawn of Justice is interested primarily in supernatural themes that very closely identify with theism.  In fact, even with Batman’s aggression and the whole “false god” thing going on, the movie serves if anything as a sort of apologetic for Superman, or at least for superheroes, and ultimately enforces his status as a Christ figure.

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I won’t elaborate on the basic ideas of how Superman is and has always been a Christocentric symbol.  For more on that, you can read my Man of Steel review.  But if Man of Steel was an exploration of that theme, Dawn of Justice is a defense of it.  The backdrop of the film is an alarmist cultural response to the overwhelming power of Superman.  That’s a brilliant touch as it pertains to this film as a whole, because it relates quite directly to the secularization of America over the past fifty years, and, as Perry reminds Clark (in a separate context), this isn’t 1938.

If you need any more proof of this, look no further than Lex Luthor.  The film’s primary villain, played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg, formally cites the problem of evil as a large part of his motivation for opposing Superman.  He also delivers an intriguing monologue about demons and angels, where they come from and, implicitly, that much of the world has identified Superman as the wrong one.  Add to that the “False god” label on his statue and rhetorical talk of “removing his halo” and this idea becomes clear: Superman is Jesus, and some people don’t like Jesus.  In fact, some people want him dead.

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Enter Batman.  If Lex Luthor is the atheist of this story, then Batman is the agnostic, albeit one turned cruel by twenty years of battling supervillains in a city nearly torn to the ground by crime.  Despite the marketing of the film, it’s not a dispute of superhero ethics that spawns this fight, but rather a clash of philosophy.  Batman’s cynical skepticism fiercely contradicts Superman’s humanistic optimism, and the sheer power that Superman holds brings that cynical skepticism to the forefront, forcing him to confront the hero as a villain.

All of that, really, to say this: the motivations that lead to the showdown itself, among the three main characters, is really quite good.  The theological elements further increase the compelling nature of the setup, and maintains the sense of conflict that is really needed to make this film work.  As a thematic element, Jesus as a Christ figure really works.

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If the movie had really stuck with that idea and ran with it, this would have been an utterly fantastic movie, because Snyder has a very solid grasp on that idea.  But unfortunately, the narrative becomes bogged down in other ideas that aren’t important to the script, aren’t as well executed, and there’s a lot of them.

Some of these are relatively minor complaints.  Lois Lane’s role in this film seems largely obligatory.  Perry seems to exist solely for amusing easter eggs and Kansas references.  The setup for the future Justice League movie is a bit heavy-handed.  But then there are more significant things – the detective elements relating to Batman’s character are rushed and vague, and the idea of superhero ethics, which is approached, is half-baked and quickly becomes lost in the struggle.  In short, by adopting these additional characters, subplots, and subthemes, the movie becomes bogged down and crammed to the brim, trying to do far too much in its already long run time.

Additionally, if you go into the film looking for a true versus movie, you might be disappointed.  The actual Batman versus Superman fight is some of the best superhero fight footage I’ve seen, but it’s short, especially considering the film’s length.  If you aren’t looking for a versus film, and instead look forward to the teaming up aspect of the DC universe, this won’t be a significant deterrent, but it’s worth mentioning as something of a contradiction between the film’s marketing and the script itself.

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But here’s the thing: for the film’s overly ambitious faults, it’s hard to deny that this is a fun movie.  It is incredibly dark, and I don’t pretend to deny that, but aside from the aforementioned criticisms, Ben Affleck exhibits a tenacity and rage that is appropriate for the role, and his run as the Caped Crusader is passionate and convincing.  Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a show-stealer and makes me more excited for the Wonder Woman film than for Justice League.  Even Jeremy Irons as Alfred is enjoyable, with a sarcastic bent that’s the closest thing the film has to comic relief.  Quite frankly, the film has some of the coolest action sequences we’ve seen in superhero films.

In order to give a truly concise opinion of this film, it really depends on what you value, and what you’re expecting.  If you’re expecting a complex philosophical and moral treatise through these characters, much like the Christopher Nolan Batman films, you will leave the theater disappointed in the wasted potential of the movie.  If you’re looking for a fun, exciting popcorn flick full of comic references and all that stuff nerds never thought they’d see on the big screen, that’s a lot closer to what you’ll get.

Consensus: 7/10. While the film gets more right than it does wrong, and it is massively entertaining, I can’t overlook the missed opportunities and cluttered script that kept the film from being on level with the Nolan films, which would have been a distinct possibility.

Logan Judy
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At Cross Culture, Logan writes about film, comics, cultural analysis, and whatever else strikes his fancy. In addition to his work at Cross Culture, Logan also blogs and podcasts at A Clear Lens. You can find him tweeting about Batman, apologetics, and why llamas will one day rule the world, @loganrjudy.
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2 thoughts on “Theism & Secular Culture in Batman v Superman

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