Like any decent art, (or Pop Art), the movie Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice (2016) speaks to the audience of its times. In subtle ways, parts of our reality are reflected to us, helping us to understand and navigate our unique era.
It differs from other genre superhero films in that this time there is an underlying commentary about the corruption and decay of the modern world. Aside from having to fight evil monsters, our superheroes are also weary of humankind. The film could also be an allegory of how the ‘Western world’ deals with modern terrorism, corruption, and crime.
3 Superheroes are weary of humankind’s corruption
- BATMAN. Reflecting on 20 years of fighting criminals, a despondent Batman wonders what was the point: “You get rid of one, another one grows in its place.” He succumbs to Lex Luthor’s manipulations, becoming hateful of Superman and losing the attribute of mercy – as he starts to ‘brand’ criminals with a ‘Batman’ stamp.
- SUPERMAN. Superman’s heroic actions in saving Lois (again) from some desert location are misinterpreted in the media. Superman is revealed as vulnerable to ‘fake news’ and the public turn on him, labelling him an ‘alien.’ Others ask: “how can Superman act unilaterally in a democracy? Surely he should be subject to US laws?” There is discussion about putting administrative constraints on Superman.
- WONDER WOMAN. The third Superhero who expresses dismay about humanity is Wonder Woman. She tells Batman that she saw the dark side of Humans in WW1 and decided then she could not openly exist among them.
Superman has had a gutful
Actor Henry Cavill can be commended for capturing Superman’s despair. He realises his own simple and pure ethics of “doing good” don’t fit on Earth. He seems an emblem of the good guy who is overwhelmed by the rottenness around him and who cannot stand it be around it.
In the end, Superman dies wielding the cryptonite spear which is the only thing that can kill Lex Luthor’s new monster. However, it is hard not to read it as an act of suicide. Superman says his goodbye to Lois before battle, he has made his mind up. He could have had Batman wield the deadly spear or found some other way to lodge it into the creature, but it seems Superman wants out. He has had enough of the ugliness of Earth. As his mother tells him, she knew he was too good for this planet. He dies, there is a funeral and Lex Luthor declares victory:
“The bell has been rung… The word has got out across the Universe… Earth no longer has Superman to protect it.”
Humankind is weakened by its own corruption and bureaucratic entanglement; it is also now unprotected and every badass in the Universe is going to move in for the kill.
Symbolically, we see the death of the good man. He cannot exist in this world. However, as the soil on top of Superman’s coffin tremors, there is a hint that his energetic force still lingers. He is likely in hibernation, for a long slow rejuvenation. He may come back, if things change, if humans reveal themselves as worth saving – perhaps. For now, however, Superman is out of action.
What to do next?
The saving grace of the film is that Superman’s purity has restored Batman to his good self. This is seen when Batman decides not to brand Lex Luthor with his ‘Batman’ stamp. But Batman, having travelled the same lonely superhero road as Superman, now realises he cannot do it alone. Especially with Superman demoralised and disillusioned, and needing to retreat to his man-cave, perhaps to never return, Batman realises he needs to recruit a team.
The next film – due in late 2017 – Justice League sees Batman recruit a multi-skilled, and dare I say, diverse team: Aquaman; Cyborg; Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern.
How could we read this as a statement on modern security?
At a stretch, some might wonder if the death of Superman is a metaphor for the death of the US as the “good global policeman.” This would be a strictly US perception, and perhaps is taking things too far.
Also, we must be wary of equating Superman to represent the military, as Wonder Woman says, “humans do not know how to honour Superman, they can only treat him as a soldier.”
He is not a soldier, but perhaps what Superman represents is the ethic of the strong using their strength to protect others and for good. This is an ethic that drives and inspires people in many fields of work, but especially protective jobs, like the military or police force. Perhaps modern people fear that this ethic is dead.
In this film, we see the weariness of people who had wanted to do good, but saw their ideals crushed under the weight of corruption, moral decay and bungling administrative ineptitude in numerous areas. Like Batman and Superman, the modern human, reflecting on the messes of the modern world, can see how they got taken in by lies and misrepresentations – the Lex Luthors of the world.
Again, this is a story that could be applied to many aspects of the modern world: the global financial crisis, the seemingly impersonal brutality of globalisation in benefiting some yet ravaging the livelihood of others; or corruption and drugs in sporting bodies. However, in this BLOG, let us consider it from a military and security perspective.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw many good people seek to do ‘good’ but even when they sometimes managed it, other events could quickly overthrow such efforts. Corruption, misinformation and moral decay eroded the purity of the mission at multiple levels and in numerous countries. Good people struggled with these dimensions constantly. The spectrum stretched from those who lost their lives seeking to protect locals, to those who took pot-shots at civilians. The book ‘No good men among the living‘ tells the story of how Afghan people sided with different groups – the Taliban, various warlords or the US depending upon, mostly, pragmatic survival reasons. Other books, from the US perspective, like The Good Soldiers and We Meant Well tell of the seemingly impossibility to get things to go right at the ground or operational level. When strategic settings are off course; the dogs of war are already out of the cage and you throw some psychopaths randomly into the mix, it becomes harder and harder to hold up the cause of goodness; right can be overwhelmed in the end.
What are we left with? Can Batman offer any clues about where to go next?
It seems the first step is to confront the deep injustices of the world and the fact that there are few who will remain pure-hearted enough to genuinely uphold good. Batman’s answer is to recruit a super team of the good and strong.
Recruit a Super Team: the Good and Strong
In recruiting a large team of ‘the good and strong’, there are echoes of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable mythology. In Arthurian mythology, Arthur came to power after a long period of insecurity and restored order by virtue of superiority in both ethical matters and fighting strength. Yet these two issues are revealed as interdependent. For example, Arthur the Good King, can only stay in power in a grubby world if protected by a ring of good Knights. Additionally, the purity of Arthurs’ mission attracted the best fighters. For example, in one of the many versions of the Arthurian myths, Lancelot travels far and wide to search for King Arthur and offer his services to him. Lancelot is one of the best fighters around and, like Superman, he only wants to fight the good fight. Thus, Arthur attracts the best.
These classic heroes – the good fighters – are discriminating and careful about who they fight for and how they fight. They are the direct opposite to the ‘security contractors’ in the Superman vs Batman film who are shown to fight for anyone and kill anything – as long as they are paid. They are strong, but they stand for nothing.
Just War Ethic
There are many who discuss the Just War Ethic and its importance for gaining consent of the populace. However, there are two other aspects to consider.
One is the impact upon the individual fighter. Unless wielding the sword with mercy, fairness and in accordance with justice, the double-edged sword will bite you back. The ‘good fighter’ will be crippled by an unethical mission. They’ll have two choices, feel the pain or suppress the pain and dehumanise themselves. The result of an ill-conceived war, in a modern-day military sense is that the Lancelots and Supermen will be reluctant to participate fully, or if they do, they may feel they must sacrifice or kill off that part of themselves. Thugs can win short-term battles, but they rarely win wars, and this is because of the second point: the mysterious laws of the Universe.
Two, alignment with the mysterious laws of the Universe
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Martin Luther King Jr.
Outside the realms of science and fact is the idea that in the long run, justice is done. Truth is revealed. The good cause naturally, and eventually, attracts more support from people. Some view this as a natural and just law of the universe, whereby karma rules. Others, less mystically inclined, view that for a wide range of ethical, psychological and survival reasons, people prefer to live with fairness and justice. A fair order is a more stable order and a happier order. Hence, while it is hard to explain exactly how, but an unjust war may likely backfire upon proponents.
There is an easy lesson in all this for modern militaries and, more so, their political masters. Giving a military an unethical mission must be regarded as a death trap, which will be sprung eventually. In readying for the future, people and Governments need to consider these deep ethical dimensions of conflict. They apply equally to the “do nothing” scenario. Turning a blind eye to atrocities and desperation, like those of people in Rwanda; Bosnia or Syria and not intervening may draw as much ‘bad karma’ as acting unethically. In all cases, the use of the sword and justice must be considered from a pure view point. Government decision making down to the behaviour of the individual soldier needs to be infused with this very sharp awareness that when the swords slips, if it is not wielded justly, it can bring unseen and horrendous troubles.
In the face of widespread ethical meltdowns, and the loss of the pure and good Superman, Batman takes what must be regarded as the best course of action. His strategy is revealed in the names of both films: “Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League”. He seeks to find the leaders and fighters who can restore justice and fairness to the world.
It’s a simplistic cry many have made before – “more law and order!” but the true art is establishing fair and respected law and order, not draconian or corrupt justice systems. As ‘Black Lives Matters’ activists across the world know, achieving fair law and order is no easy feat. The “justice” mission could be applied very broadly, way outside law and order. It could be applied to salaries and job-creation, for example, or the way the elderly are treated.
More broadly, the film is a cry out for fairness, and what it suggests is that the establishment of fairness requires super heroic strength and goodness, by many people across many areas.