I don’t think “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was a good movie, but like a lot of Zack Snyder movies, the incoherent clash between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) has lingered in my brain in the nine days since I’ve seen it. And though I’m a critic, not a screenwriter or director, I’ve thought a great deal about what might have rescued the movie from itself.
One of the reviews of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” that has stuck with me most is by my friend Alissa Wilkinson, who, I would submit, is the best critic currently working from a Christian perspective. Wilkinson goes to town on the careless way “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” trots out theological pondering and imagery.
“Lex Luthor (Jr., technically) gets the lion’s share of the religious lines, trotting out God—or his vengeful and ultimately weak tribalist idea of God—as a metaphor for Superman. He declares loudly that God is dead, or isn’t dead, or will be dead, or ought to be dead; I wondered briefly if the ‘God’s Not Dead’ franchise filmmakers had indulged in product placement,” she writes. “I guess you could find that offensive, but mostly it’s just lazy, because it’s not there to do anything, to make any actual statements about good and evil and God.”
I agree that the treatment of religion in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” doesn’t work, exactly. But as I’ve gotten more distance from the movie, I’ve found myself wishing that Snyder had stripped down everything else jumbling up his superhero extravaganza and talked about religion instead.
There’s no question that Superman’s arrival on Earth, and the revelation of his existence and capabilities, would pose profound questions for both science and religion. Snyder’s inclination in both “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” has been to keep those challenges to the established order in the background in order to juice the stakes in the stories he’s telling about national security and human safety.
But in a way, that decision ends up shrinking “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” rather than expanding them. The same old skyscrapers get knocked down, and monsters rampage through the same old industrial parks. But Snyder’s movies don’t manage to communicate how profoundly life on Earth must have changed amidst all the chaos.
So rather than giving us occasional crowd shots of political protests or members of a crowd reaching out to touch Superman as though he’s an icon, why not make those changes the story? Show us how the pope and Catholicism’s belief in miracles make sense of Superman, and contrast that with mainline Protestantism. Take us inside the new religious movements that inevitably grow up around Superman himself and look at how Silicon Valley’s so-called lifehackers respond to the presence of an actual Superman in their midst.
Rather than trying to give Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy) some sort of convoluted backstory involving Wayne Enterprises, why not give him some sort of theological motivation for his bombing of the U.S. Capitol? Moving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to the religion beat in this context would both tie her to the movie’s core in a sensible way and be a more practical decision than anything else Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) says in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which set new standards for insanity in the depiction of the practice of journalism.
And focusing more closely on the radical changes society would experience in the wake of Superman’s appearance might even pave the way for a rational alliance between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).
Trying to pivot Luthor from a tech genius into a man experiencing a gibbering theological breakdown didn’t quite cohere in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but it suggests two directions that Snyder might have chosen from. Snyder could have abandoned Luthor altogether in favor of a character who had a coherent theological opposition to Superman’s existence and wanted to exterminate Superman in order to protect his doctrine. Or Snyder would have preserved Luthor as a hyper-rational genius who witnesses the unrest that Superman’s presence has caused, and recognizes that the existence of more superhuman beings, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), might cause the social order to crack entirely.
Under the latter set of circumstances, it would actually make a reasonable amount of sense that Batman might begin the film agreeing with Luthor before coming to believe that it’s impossible to return to a pre-Superman world, and that it’s better to manage superheroes than to eradicate them. Tell a story like this, and you don’t need any incomprehensible manipulation schemes, or any coincidences based on the name “Martha,” because the characters’ motivations actually make sense. (This also would have let the movie dispense with its nonsensical and weirdly crass subplot involving a completely wasted Holly Hunter as Sen. June Finch, who wants to regulate Superman as though he’s some sort of nuclear weapon.)
I think filmmakers and showrunners often tend to shy away from addressing religion explicitly because they’re afraid of doing it wrong or offending believers. But “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a great example of a movie that would make more sense and feel less manipulative by going straight at its theology, rather than trying to sneak it in.