The Symbolic Structure of Movies – Batman v. Superman (2016) – Part I
Although the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS, 2016) only came out a few days prior to this analysis being initially written, critics had already judged the film to be inferior to those in the Marvel universe. It was said to be ‘incoherent’ (Ty Burr, Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly), to have a ‘dime-store philosophy’ (Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice), to be a ‘confusing mess of a movie’ (Drew McWeeny, Hitfix) and so on. In other words, the critics believed the film to lack the internal structure that would allow it to be a coherent and enjoyable whole.
The structure of this film is to be found on a different level than that which critics seek to analyze; for them, the entire film must be analyzed in the first degree: the literal degree. If the literal aspects of the film, that is to say the sequences and cinematographic images, do not respect the canonical conventions of cinema, then the film is considered “incoherent”. However, this film attends to a different kind of structure: the symbolic structure.
Therefore, the goal of this two-part article will be to show that it’s possible to both make movies from the symbolic viewpoint and to interpret them towards that end. What will concern me therefore is the symbolic and semiotic unfolding of Zack Snyder’s work.
At the outset, I adopt Greimas’s view that symbolic systems allow “layers” of signifiers to overlap, that one thing can mean several other things at different levels of semiotic analysis 1. I also take the view that the symbol is, as in Lacan, a “knot of meanings” that must be undone, little by little, in a deep undertaking 2. For this in-depth (but incomplete) analysis, I make use of hermeneutics and Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the object as an interpretative focus 3. In particular, my method is heavily influenced by the “hermeneutic circle”, which says that the part helps to analyze the whole, and the whole to analyze the part. My overall method will be that of Jacques Pierre’s religiological analysis for film interpretation 4.
To do this, I will apply such an analysis to three main aspects of the film before going on to a summary conclusion. The first aspect to be addressed will be that of “materials”, that is to say the material borrowed from other works or other films that has been deliberately inserted into the film by the director and the writers. The second aspect will be the symbolic structure, looking in particular at time, space, objects and characters. Finally, I will analyze the function (morphology) of the film in its relation to our own living reality.
In order to produce this in a digestible format, I will be dividing the article into two parts: the first from the current introduction up to the analysis of objects in the symbolic structure, the second from the exploration of characters (the main focus of the article) in the symbolic structure up to the conclusion.
Note that a complete analysis would require a longer study, especially if looking at more than the four aspects of the symbolic structure analyzed here. It should also be noted that I will not take a purely Lacanian approach (and some might find it either irritating or insufficient), or a symbolic analysis approach: the goal is simply to rethink the way that we view this movie.
In terms of materials, it’s important to note that the concept of Batman vs Superman (BvS) itself is taken from a series of comic books. Not being a reader of comic books, I will not be able to judge or interpret these in relation to the film: in other words, they will be left completely aside from my analysis and could potentially reveal additional interesting elements, especially in the choice of directors / writers or items that have been changed or added to the original material.
The most important material is of course the film Man of Steel (2013, MoS) by Snyder who introduced us to the figure of Superman in his present constitution. I will use it in a few places here to clarify symbolic elements: the present film under study making direct references (see even shots or images borrowed from MoS), it seems legitimate to integrate it into the material under study since obviously the director wanted to build on it.
The film also uses mythological or religious references. For example, Prometheus is often mentioned in a positive light for the film’s main antagonist, Lex Luthor. In addition, the name of God is mentioned several times. Even more interestingly, I don’t remember any mention of Jesus Christ, while as we will see, he is the major symbol of the movie; once again, we must not see on the surface of the narration and the materials borrowed but look deeper.
The film occurs in a universe parallel to ours. I say parallel in the sense that certain facts are modified (for example the existence of superheroes and fictitious cities like Metropolis or Gotham), but which has the same constitution and the same history as our world (on the surface).
Superman itself is material (like Batman), in the sense that he is borrowed. This fact is not trivial, since Snyder himself mentions this:
I think the relationship between Jesus and Superman is not a thing we invented in this film, it is a thing that has been talked about since the creation of Superman. And in a weird way, probably was talked about more when Superman was created than it is now. It’s one of those things mythologically you take for granted, a little bit.
Already on the internet, several analyses abound on the links between Christ and Superman, for example at the level of their original name (Kal-El being the Hebrew for “Voice of God”), their “operative” age (around 30 years), and so on. The aim of the present article is to focus on the film itself and its internal symbolic structures above all.
The film takes place mainly in autumn, as we can see on the one hand by the ambient temperature and the festivities which take place there (the Mexican festival of the dead). This period does not seem at first sight very important, except for the fact that autumn is the “dead” season, the darkest, which leads to the birth of the “undefeated sun” at the winter solstice, that is, the return of light to men; in other words, the birth of Christ. But also, it is the season of the “fall” of the leaves, of the death of nature.
With regards to time, the film uses a classic cinematic effect: slow motion. When the time slows down in the film, it is generally for ceremonial uses (funerals) or used with relation to a form of sacredness, a mysterium or a numen which gives rise to an “Other”, an “elsewhere”. For example, the introduction plays on this theme for the death of Batman’s parents; the same effect is used when Superman realizes the uselessness of having relationships with men after the bombing; the same effect is used in the battle between Batman and Superman; and so on. Even if time does not stop, we understand that “what does not change”, or “which changes less”, is closer to a form of sacredness, of revelation.
What is interesting is also the choice of the film’s release: Easter Thursday in the West. It is the beginning of the Roman Catholic triduum which marks both the death and the resurrection of Christ. This is far from trivial as we will see later.
Macrocosmic space primarily opposes Gotham – the dark, corrupt and decaying city – to Metropolis – the city ruled by the Superman. The characters themselves refer to this dichotomy when they meet as Superman criticizes the way Gotham manages its crime. You never see Gotham in broad daylight, while Metropolis is more often (but not exclusively) shown in broad daylight. In the tomb of Batman’s parents, we can also see this shaping up: we see a glass icon of Saint Michael, representing behind it a city. As if Saint Michael was the savior of the city against the demon; an element that will later be important with Superman.
Each of the two protagonists both has a profane space and a sacred space. For Batman, secular space is his Batcave and house, where he chats with Alfred, and spends most of his time preparing for it actively on a material level. This is where he sleeps, eats and has sex; in other words, it’s “normal” profane space 5. On the contrary, he possesses a sacred space: the tomb of his parents. This can be inferred from the reverence he owes it, such as laying flowers there, and the integration in his subconscious of that space by subsequent prophetic / premonitory dreams. For Superman, his secular space is the apartment where he eats and spends most of his time with Lois Lane. His sacred spaces are symbolized by “mountains”, such as the one where he meets with his deceased father’s apparition / spirit. These are places far from all traces of man, it is his divine “kingdom” which when entered, even allows him to have conversations with deceased and symbolically charged figures like his father.
The mountain is a symbol of the sacred in the Christian tradition – especially with Horeb, or Mount Sinai – foreshadowing Christ on the mountain in the Gospel of Saint Matthew 6, or when ‘he goes up a hill to pray to the Father’ 7. In BvS, the mountain is also the landmark where Superman discusses with his father the way forward. What is even more interesting is that his father makes a comment distinguishing the people of the mountains (which are symbolically both the dead ancestors, as well as his Father) from the people of the plain (the “Humans”). This distinction between the summit and the plain, the higher and the lower, between the father and the son, between the son and the race of men is characteristic of the rest of the film. It’s something that’s repeated as the virtue of Superman is questioned. Does not the distance which separates man from the “superman” guarantee a submission which would cause an imbalance in the order of things? Isn’t this a problem that must be resolved by regulating its “divine” character? The problem here is that on the plain, the rules only apply to men; Superman and the opposing evil forces are not subject to these same rules.
This verticality we just illustrated is not the only vertical symbolism in the movie. Objects and characters both fall and rise. Batman himself, in his speech at the very beginning of the film, speaks of the “fall”, a Christian and platonic reference, where things before time were, “diamond perfect” as he himself says. Things then did not suffer the corruption of the world; but in our world everything is falling. It is a concept akin to the “long defeat” of Christianity profusely present in another fantastic universe, that of Tolkien 8. Besides those occurrences, the film itself shows us these elements in a cinematic way: Batman who falls into the hole, the pearls necklace who falls to the ground, his parents who fall to the ground, and so on. On the other end, Superman always seems to be rising, one who seeks the top of the mountains. What is falling is humanity; but there are still possible elevations, like Batman’s bats in his dream that lead him to sunlight at the top of the well where he fell. Or Superman who elevates Lois (or at least keeps her from falling). This discourse of Batman on the devolution of time could be contrasted with the finale. There, Batman conceives an opening with the divine (because of an inner conflict resolved, as per what we’ll see further). This opening, without denying the Fall, suggests a possibility for humanity not to build a paradise (which would be Promethean, like Babel), but to rebuild what is destroyed by their downfall. The movie proposes a voluntary correction brought to the world. For the Orthodox, this is the priestly calling of all Christians.
The objects in the film are associated with men and not with the divine: Superman’s Kryptonian father did not leave him weapons or significant objects (excepting perhaps his costume), nor did his human father. In reality, objects (and the science / techne behind them) are the hallmark of humans. They are constructs that allow them to partially bypass their own weakened nature, exemplified here by the use of technology by Lex Luthor to achieve his ends. In Batman we have the same paradigm at work; the difference here being that his objects also make use, at the end, of a loan from the “Other”, from the “sacred”, kryptonite (which, paradoxically, is provided by Lex Luthor).
The role of kryptonite inside the film is ambiguous: sometimes salvific, sometimes destructive 9. It is easy to see why: the film makes us interchange the human (Batman) and sacred (Superman) points of view; for one and for the other the effects are drastically different. This point of view is carried out in particular by the opening scene borrowed from MoS, where we see the divine combats from the point of view of men (Batman), of those who suffer the wrath of the sky without being able to act. The same technique is used elsewhere while we observe the actions and reflections of each of the main characters in their separate world. Inside the film, the characters (especially Lex Luthor) recognize this dichotomy between divine and human in Superman’s opposition to Batman.
Kryptonite is in particular forged to make it a weapon, a spear. This detail is not trivial since the lance of Longinus is what pierced the sides of Christ in his passion, from which escaped water and blood. Water and blood are both linked to the lance when it is lost in a puddle of water before being found on the one hand, and on the other it is tinged with Superman’s blood by Batman’s cut.
We could also invoke two other minor elements in Batman: the pearl of his mother’s necklace which falls with him in the well in his dream, thus referring to the link between his fall and his mother; and the use of the rifle against Superman who, because of the father’s hubris scene with his fist closed, makes a metonymy between Batman and the criminal (who had also used a rifle); except that amongst the criminal, there was not this surge of empathy, this recognition of the Other as we will discuss in part 2.
As we have seen, the movie binds together (symbol) meanings and characters so as to create a picture or painting of different forces both within and without characters, at the micro and macro level. In the next part, we will take a look at how those things unfold and how they allow us to infer the meaning of the function of the movie itself.