In the last part, we saw that the material suggested a degree of religious influence, and that the fundamental structures of the movie regarding time, space and objects were all directed toward providing deeper meaning through symbols. Now, to complete this analysis, we will take a look at how those symbols unfold and accomplish the resolution of each character’s inner and outer battle.
Characters and Trajectory
For this section, I will examine the narrative and symbolic trajectories of three of the film’s central characters. First, I will address the figure of Lex Luthor who, because he is a passive antagonist (that is, largely unchanged in the film), is an inferior subject for symbolic analysis. Thereafter, I will approach the two active characters, Batman and Superman.
Lex Luthor, in addition to the obvious link between his name and that of Luther, is a character presented as subversive—as demonstrated by his inversion of the painting of demons against angels. He is opposed to social order, as embodied by the senator and the government, as well as the human (Batman) and the divine (Superman). In addition, he obeys his personal pride and ‘Titanic’ impulse, associating himself with the figure of Prometheus, the one who wanted to reject the divine order and act according to his own judgment of men. For Luthor, the human must prevail over the divine from a purely Luciferian and conceited point of view. In order to acquire what he desires, the human must unleash the elementary and primordial forces—the material, the ‘mass’, the grotesque, the violent—all represented in the figure of Doomsday. This drives Luthor to criticize Superman’s absolute virtue and label him as “dangerous”. Lex Luthor cannot conceive of any higher principle in this world, no “good” 1. Therefore, the material powers of Superman are dangerous to Lex Luthor because he refuses to acknowledge that there is anything superior to the material and subjective view. That Superman represents a manifestation of a superior and virtuous principle is beyond his ability to conceive, and so his view is distorted and reduces the figure of Superman to the material plane.
Lex Luthor, in his passivity, does not produce any act by himself—rather, he asks others to act for him and he uses machines and men to create. His one area of agency – and failure – is as an agent of speech, like the senate and the human mass. Indeed, attempts at discourse between the sacred and the human using common human language are illustrated many times in the film, always ending in a failure. This failure is due to the lack of a bridge between the two, any element which makes it possible to recognize the divine in man and the man in the divine. As it is presented here, human discourse is opposed to the essence of things as well as to acts. This is what allows Superman’s mother to tell him that these people are just expressing a “doxa”, an impermanent element that does not change the reality that Superman represents. His mother tells him that he owes nothing to the world. In doing so, she makes him understand that any act of kindness to the world is an act of self-will, or “grace” on the part of Superman, which echoes the classic conception of Christ’s action. The bankruptcy of speech, moreover, is resolved in the death of those human agents engaging in it while the divine, Superman, is untouched, as per the bombing scene.
Lex Luthor is not alone in his representation of the Titanic forces: his creature, Doomsday, is also of the purely material and destructive type. It is the opposite of Superman: the two are equally powerful on the material plane, but they are not equivalent in their virtue or what they represent beyond the material level. In fact, the mass—both in the sense of material density and of common humanity—is also associated with this Titanic force which places Lex Luthor in opposition to Superman. The “first” Batman is also influenced by Lex Luthor, before his redemption, as we will see in the analysis below— he is also of the Promethean type, putting his confidence in his material and combative capacities. Lex Luthor therefore, the man of speech, is a figure of subversion and opposition who characterizes the imperfect relationship of human speech and the corruptible mass.
Batman represents the human aspect in the film. He does so by being attracted as much by his Promethean settling of scores with Superman— bringing the divine down to the human scale—as by his orientation towards the sacred—an opening towards the divine. In this way, humankind is characterized here as complex and conflicted. This is made more evident in the introduction of the dream of Batman where the human (a young Bruce Wayne) falls into the cave (a Platonic cave, perhaps), but is offered the possibility of extricating himself from the depths to go and join the light. Notably, in that scene he is elevated from the darkness of the well to the light above in the form of a cross, as he is raised to “heaven”.
This ‘first’ Batman is a man who tends towards the Promethean, as earlier pointed out, who refuses the sacred because it might bring destruction when conceived of only from the point of view of men—that is, mainly the material and moral point of view. (i.e., the mysterium tremendum). It is Luthor’s Promethean spirit that corrupts Batman through subversion and ignorance and gives him a faulty perception of reality. It is a question of construction by false mental representations. He does not have access to the divine because he refuses communication with it. 2. On the other hand, what differentiates him from the masses is his noble 3 character: he does not ask others to do what he can do himself, unlike Lex Luthor. He tries to do his best and judges that the better must act—hence his action in Gotham, and then against Superman. It is the same aristocratic spirit that shows itself later when he suggests the creation of a superhero league to protect others.
The character is not unchanged through the narrative framework of the film. In the climactic scene where he decides not to kill Superman (which is the critical scene in the film, the ‘symbolic knot’ par excellence), a ’second’ Batman takes shape.
This appears by the resolution of the Oedipal node that inhabits him 4. Batman himself is a very “Freudian” character; psychoanalytic theories help us understand him through the downward movement that he embodies within the narrative. Remember that Batman is associated with falling. Examples of this are his final battle against Superman where he raises him to the top of the building and the more the sequence develops the more they go down; or his training where the weights are constantly thrown down; or when as a child he falls down the well; or when his parents are killed and everything falls to the ground, this is reflected in his dreams, which are are one of the aspects of the subconscious studied by psychoanalysis where the internal drama is played out. Batman is a psychological hero, the product of a childhood trauma which itself takes the form of fear (here bats) to fight crime, the other-id, which generally is a case of psychotic neurosis. His city itself, Gotham, is rather like a huge collective subconscious where the unleashed forces of it ravage the dark night-time landscape, by contrast with Metropolis, which is seen as a functional city, as expressed by the boss of Planet News when commenting on crime and Gotham. All this without mentioning the theatrical and dramatic aspect of his costumes, his presence and his impact. Criminals in Gotham, the subconscious, are locked up in Arkham’s asylum, not in prisons. In a sense, beyond the Christic resolution described in this analysis, Batman represents at least the victory of the superego over the ego and the id through a positive resolution; this is what differentiates him from a criminal (id) or a vigilante like the Punisher (ego). We could even add that, in fact, his quest to kill Superman probably comes from an internal imbalance, where the ego takes over the superego.
In addition, he has, from the beginning of the film, tormented relations with women, whether it be his tense relationship with Wonder Woman, or his relationship with “faceless” women who are in his bed for what we can only imagine as casual sexual relationships, or with his mother’s grave in his dream. We see this especially in the visions he has of his mother when she dies. As she does so, her last words are toward his father and not himself, hence creating a Oedipal complex of the child that wants to take his father’s place. Thus, the significance of the mother figure is deep and striking for Batman. He cannot resolve this internal conflict by himself, and therefore plans the murder of a father—Superman—in order to resolve this conflict which marks him. But in the end, the resolution is quite different from what he intended. While Superman is about to succumb to the weapon made of kryptonite (echoing the lance of Longinus), after having revealed his humanity to Batman by fear (of kryptonite) as well as by blood (the cut that Batman makes on his face, a “visceral” mark that opens the dialogue) 5, Superman further shows his vulnerability to Batman by asking him to save his mother. The names of the two mothers being the same, Martha (a name that resonates with biblical symbolism), Batman thinks that Superman is asking him to save his own mother, when in fact Superman, accepting his own death, is actually asking him to at least go and save his mother. This triggers a resolution of Batman’s Oedipal complex. This can occur because Batman recognizes a Same in the divine Other; he too has a mother, a mother whom he wants to see well again. Thus, Batman recognizes his counterpart in Superman: the relationship to the mother and above all, love (because God is love), which is made even more evident by the intervention of Lois Lane. This ability to see the Same in the Other in this new light lays the foundation of a morality which expounds the Christian imperative of the dignity of all beings of human essence. This change is exemplified in his treatment of Luthor, which echoes that which he himself received from Superman—he spares him.
An opening was already foreshadowed in Batman’s father’s hubris. In the scene where his father was killed, he is depicted with a closed fist, aimed at the criminal. Superman’s hubris is shown to be the same as Batman’s father since the camera closes in on a tight shot of his fist, all this against Batman the “criminal”. In both cases, that hubris represents the loss of the character. However, that same hubris leads now to the redemption of Batman, because continuing the fight leads to Superman’s defeat at the hand of Batman, ditto for the father of the latter 6.
Thus having accepted his role in the story and having resolved his internal conflict, Batman acquires a renewed virtue which allows him to assist Superman in his fight against Prometheus / Lucifer. Besides, this is what allows him to assist, as a “favorite disciple” in the death of the divine; this element echoing the death of Jesus when the first to recognize him as truly God is a Roman legionary, that is to say one of those who had had the task of persecuting him and seeing to his death. Batman is the centurion who was the first to cry out “Really, this was the Son of God!”. All of this in a scene where crosses appear in the background, in deep darkness (echoing the Gospel where the heavens are torn apart and the world is plunged into darkness), where his disciples (Batman and Wonder Woman) and the weeping women (Lois Lane) detach him from the cross (Doomsday’s hands) in order to place him in what looks like a cave in the eyes of the spectator: it is a summary of his passion, his death and his funeral (see the cover picture of this article). Batman appears, at the funeral, like a Paulian figure: going from a party which persecuted Christ and his disciples to a party which defends him, as he promises to set up a community that will be able to continue his memory (his speech notably echoing Romans 5:6 “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners”); thus the League of Justice becomes an allegory of the Church.
For Superman, most of his transformation also involves resolving an internal conflict. This conflict is twofold: on the one hand the role of the sacred and of virtue, on the other hand of his Oedipal problem.
The character is torn by the masses and their opinion, as he wants to please their doxa rather than the internal imperative which guides him towards the virtue which his fathers have summoned him to make known to this world. This is where his Oedipal conflict begins: he refuses to fully pursue his father’s dream because it could cause problems for humans, setting himself therefore passively against his father. However, this conflict sees its first stage of resolution in the discourse he holds with his adoptive father on the mountain. His adoptive father tells him a story which illustrates that to be someone’s hero is necessarily to be the anti-hero of another. Judges are always appreciated by the person receiving the compensation, and hated or feared by the person receiving the judgment: this was also true of the Judges and Prophets of God in the Old Testament, as they were hated for the truth they carried. In addition, this speech shows him that his father resolved his own conflict with the world and his own internal symbolic confusions, meeting and accepting the Other as being the World. That is to say, his adoptive father resolved his internal problem when he decided to love and settle with Martha, his wife (and Superman’s mother).
So Superman does everything to go save his mother, this symbolic World of his father that he wanted to make his own. In the end, after his existential encounter with Batman, he accepts the fact that this World (Martha) is not his and even lets Batman go and defend it; thus, he makes the transition of his focus from his mother towards Lois Lane while he confesses his unconditional love to her 7. This admission occurs on several levels: on the literal level we understand that the love of Superman is so great that he is ready to sacrifice himself for her 8. In the symbolic sense, however, we can use his father’s speech to thus substitute the Other (Lois Lane) for the World. Thus, Superman confesses his unconditional love for the World and his desire to save it: the female figure being a substitute for the ideal to be attained to complete his objective. We then proceed to the sacrifice of the “living God” in the face of the forces of darkness; the manifestation of the principle of virtue is sacrificed in order to resolve the spiritual conflict which occurs at this time between the forces of order 9 and the forces of Titanic chaos unleashed by a single broken man driven by a Promethean hubris and totally closed to the relationship with the divine. This fight of order against chaos is exemplified in the references to Saint Michael that are made in the film, such as the icon in the tomb of the parents of Batman, where the saint is shown in red and blue, like Superman. 10 Saint Michael is shown, in the crypts of Batman’s parents, defeating the Dragon—the force of chaos par excellence since long before Christianity—with a sword, a piercing weapon, in the same way as Superman will defeat his enemy at the end of the fight 11. Thus, with Superman, the resolution of Oedipus occurs at the very end, in his death, by the crystallization of the World in the person of Lois Lane (love) for his destiny.
Thus the conflict is also resolved for the entire film with regards to his second inner conflict, the enduring question of “what justifies the power to act in the world?”. The answer is given here: it is the selfless love of others, of recognition in the Other of the Same which is at the foundation of human substance—which is capax dei and imago dei.
Capax dei because Lois Lane, by personal devotion and love, comes close to the divine, as does Batman through his participation in the conflict against internal and external demonic forces . Imago dei because they are called to share this same internal flame and this divine dignity.
In the figure of Superman, imagery of Christ abounds, especially in his sharing in both the divine and the human. His two natures are united in his death—only his divine aspect is strong enough to kill Doomsday, but at the same time he is fully human when he dies weakened by kryptonite. His resurrection and the ceremony of his death also echoes this double nature of Christ: there are two ceremonies that are performed for him, and it is in the fully human (in his family) that we see the implication of his resurrection. His body being, like the Christian saints, incorruptible by death, his sacred status is demonstrated.
The Function of the Story
The function of the movie is complex. On the one hand, we are talking about a Hollywood film which, obviously, wants above all to serve as “entertainment”. Its director has never shown a great interest in spiritual matters publicly. At the same time, on a structural and symbolic level, the film presents a Christic story to us, as is revealed by the director himself in the following interview: https://www.cbr.com/batman-v-superman-kryptonite-spear-explained/. There he says, “In fact, in Christianity, the blind Roman Longinus, after stabbing Jesus, would receive a few droplets of Christ’s blood on his face that would allow him to see again — a miracle that would convert the centurion to Christianity. Similarly, it was only when Batman would use his kryptonite spear on Superman that he would eventually come to see the light, and recognize him as the savior that he is.” Note that my analysis was written well before this information came out, which, in my opinion, strengthens my interpretation.
Christian film or Christic film? A Christian film would have served to present an edifying Christian narrative, which seeks above all to substitute the reality of the film for ours to educate us spiritually and morally (either literally, anagogically or morally). Here, the film is rather Christic because in the end Superman appears to be an allegory of Christ. If Superman had remained dead, it would have been a Christian film, showing us how to behave ethically and what imperatives to follow. Here, it is above all a Christian allegory which seeks to explore the spiritual questions linked to the passion of Christ at the time of Easter.
In the case of the two protagonists, the resolution of their Oedipus complex leads to a bond which allows the Other to become intelligible by the Same (the bond of love with the mother and the ideals of the father in both cases). This link is what allows the recognition that goes through virtue (the strong link of the film as demonstrated in the accusations of Luthor towards Superman conceived as “virtue incarnated”).
Superman therefore succeeds in fully manifesting a “Principle” (symbolically) in his disinterested love for the World (symbolized by Lois Lane) which effectively makes him, in that sense, a Superman: the primordial man who, as a new Adam, allows the redemption of the human race. This could be even exemplified by Batman’s humanist discourse on him, when the inhabitants of Metropolis are shown assembled with candles, mourning Superman / the sacred: this scheme is the same as within the Church triduum or Easter Vigil where the Easter baptismal candles foreshadow and announce the resurrection of the Light of the world. This discourse is of course tinged with the social ideologies of the time, anything else would be very surprising. Nonetheless, by remembering the analysis of Northrop Frye, that the Bible is the “Great Code” par excellence on which all the arts of Western society are based, we see that this Great Code is still not over and continues to give metaphysical and anthropological material to discuss through the ethical and existential reality presented in this film 12.
This Christic film touches in particular the different levels of Christian love, which culminates in agape, brotherly love, for all as prescribed by the figure of Christ who here in the film exemplifies it by his sacrifice. Even if it is a love of all, it is not a love of “the all”, an abstract love of a universal. It is the love of each particular through which we can reach that universal. This is exemplified in the movie by the juxtaposition of a person (Lois Lane) and the World.
Thus, the function of the film is to present a soteriological and tropological reflection on the Christ figure at Easter 13. We are presented with a Christ related to Saint Michael who destroys chaos by his death, thus restoring the balance which culminates in his resurrection for the accomplishment of the manifestation of the Principle of immortal virtue which crosses time and space.
In conclusion, we saw that the film touched on themes linked to morality, Christology and soteriology to bring the characters to resolve their internal Oedipal conflicts that prevented them from putting their internal psychic and spiritual life in order. This effectively plunges them into ignorance or inaction, causing their external fight against each other when they should (and will eventually) unite to overcome the forces of chaos. So in the end, we are told that redemption does not lead to abandonment of the world, but rather to its redemption and its defense: God is quite clear in the book of Job that he is not one that does “nothing” against evil 14.
Just as Lois Lane is human but shares the life of Superman daily, Batman is purely human but ends up sharing the ‘salvific’ space of the divine. The difference is that in reality, humans do not have to wait for the Other to open the existential discourse; humans only have to open themselves (which paradoxically involves closing themselves to the world). It’s therefore possible to understand Batman’s act against Superman as an echo of ‘taking heaven by force’.
In (Orthodox) Christianity, we are saved in our weakness 15. That is to say, it is in our errors, our wanderings and our ignorance that we are presented face to face with our pure humanity and that we thus tend towards an internal resolution which leads to the possibility of purification, contemplation and theosis, but most notably, of redemption. This same kind of view is expressed in the film as Batman reaches his redemption when he is going to have an excess of hubris / revenge and Superman (the sacred) is dying. While Man of Steel presented to us the birth of Christ and his mission on earth through an analogy with Superman, BvS wants us to recognize the passion and redemption of Christ to whom we have been brought to share as humans.
- Perhaps this is due to his hatred of the father-figure. In his speech about the agency of God against evil, he reduces God to his anecdotal, political and social action, saying that God never helped him in his struggle against his father. We could postulate that, in contrast to the two protagonists, what makes Luthor passive is precisely this non-resolution of the Oedipal problem (see below).
- Whatever one might wonder if this is even possible without the intervention of an event as powerful as his fight with Superman that echoes also the fight of Jacob against the Angel in the Bible. In other words, the opening towards the divine requires a certain grace or liminal experience which can come, in particular, from spiritual or traumatic events.
- The greeks would have used the term “aristocratic”
- This complex is clearly introduced within the story by the antagonist, Lex Luthor. He mentions that the fundamental female figure of “any boy” is his mother. Through a clever use of voice-over narrative, Luthor speaks of it in reference to Superman to make it known to the viewer that this complex has a critical symbolic relationship with the narrative. It is not trivial that it is Luthor who speaks if it first: on the one hand he is the antagonist (the Oedipal complex is the psychic antagonist of the protagonists); on the other hand, this is a (probably involuntary) nod to the author of this complex, that is to say Freud. Freud, like Luthor, was above all a scientist, a materialist and an anti-religious figure.
- Note that blood and inner turmoil are also two elements that indicate the humanity of Christ in the Gospels.
- Which also supports my theory that Superman is a father figure for Batman
- To whom he was preparing a marriage, thus a covenant before God of Superman (the divine) and the Other (the human), the world). With regards to this, Superman says, in the movie “This is my world … You are my world”. In the first sequence, Superman looks towards the world, but also the spectators, briefly; in the second piece of the sentence, he transposes his gaze to Lois, thus completing the shift and recognition of the jOther in the World and of the World in the Other for whom he bears his love.
- John 15:13 “There is no greater love than to give his life for his friends”
- It is important to note that those forces of Order have resolved their internal conflict at this point: Wonder Woman accepting her destiny as a fighter in the service of the world rather than his own service; Batman recognizing the Same in the Other and founding a spiritually superior ethics (because soteriologically influenced) which puts him at the level of the divine; and Superman recognizing his destiny as a Principle manifested to protect the World.
- Saint Michael is a complex figure: he is one of the archangels, protector of the gates of paradise, chief of the armies of heaven, and the one who drove out Lucifer (the Promethean spirit in Christianity). Saint Michael’s name, in direct transliteration in Latin, means “Quis Ut Deus”, which can be taken as a rhetorical question or an affirmation: “Who is God”. Similarly, the kryptonite name of Superman, Kal-El, means “voice of God” in Hebrew approximation.
- On swords, see this recent article by Gareth Boyd on The Symbolic World: “The Symbolism of Sword & Shield”
- Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Penguin Canada, 2014
- Note that Superman is a figure of Christ, he is not Christ. The film makes it very clear on numerous occasions, notably by the fact that he is in error and requires a transformation. Christ God does not need a transformation.
- On that, I suggest reading this little article on the subject: https://www.gornahoor.net/?p=6883
- Fr. Stephen Freeman, “Saved in Weakness”, Glory to God for All Things (Ancient Faith Blog), 2018