We are quickly approaching the three-year anniversary of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. With that, I thought it would be the perfect time to take a closer look at my favorite element of the film, Ben Affleck’s portrayal as the Caped Crusader. There is an untold number of essays lying in wait to be explored from the opening to closing credits, but for this examination, I will narrow things down to Batman and his story arc and interpretation in the film.
I’m a lifelong Batman fan. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t absolutely love everything about the World’s Greatest Detective. Though I don’t know and haven’t read everything about him (hopefully one day) I will say with certainty that I understand the core of the character. And one thing I know for certain about Batman v Superman is that it also so wholly understands Bruce Wayne. This movie presents a very different Batman to the one we’re accustomed to seeing, and it’s shocking, but when you really get down to it, he is still very much the Batman we all know and love.
I’ll take it to the beginning before we get too far down the rabbit hole. The film opens with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Crime Alley, intercut with a young Bruce running away at their funeral. This is easily my favorite rendition of the Wayne deaths, not only is it exquisitely shot and scored, but it sets up a crucial narrative point in the story. What is the last word Bruce hears either of his parents say? Martha. We’ll get back to that. Right after this, we’re thrust into arguably the second most traumatic event of Bruce’s life (I’ll say the death of Robin is two or three on the list of traumatic events) in the arrival of Superman to Metropolis, and the destruction he rains down.
We are immediately introduced to Bruce’s motivation for the rest of the film. First, we see what drives him to become Batman, and then we see first hand why he has such a burning hatred for Superman. All Bruce knows Superman to bring is death and destruction to those he cares about and the innocents around them. From here on out every scene we see of Batman or Bruce is to further his goal of eliminating Superman.
In his first appearance on screen as Batman, he is dealing with thugs in the hopes of gaining information on where the ship carrying kryptonite will be. And what a first appearance it is. Horror like in the way the sequence is filmed and the tension ramps up until we finally see Batman lurking in the shadows before he dashes out of view at almost supernatural speeds. The GCPD officer even reacts as if he’s seen a legend, “I saw him. I’ve never seen him before.”
The next time we see Bruce is one of the most important interactions in the film. Alfred confronts him in the Batcave about his increasingly violent behavior, to which Bruce shrugs off saying that they’ve always been criminals and nothing’s changed. Alfred won’t have it.
Everything’s changed. Men fall from the sky, the gods hurl thunderbolts, innocents die. That’s how it starts, sir. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men… cruel.
Alfred knows Bruce is going down the wrong path and he knows the exact reason why. He sees what we do, that this is not how Batman should act. This is too far over the line and before long he’ll be passed a point of no return.
Fast forward a bit and we see possibly my favorite sequence in the entire film, there’s no dialogue but we see Bruce walking towards the Wayne crypt with flowers in hand, he’s there to visit his mother tomb. His mother name is the one we see prominently and it’s the one where a literal Bat demon bursts through to grab at Bruce. We then see Bruce awaken in the “glass house” he lives in since the destruction of Wayne Manor, an unnamed woman by his side and pill and wine bottles littering the nightstand next to him. He is still haunted by nightmares of the loss of his mother, and he’s constantly in physical pain due to his years as Batman. This is the second time the film has made an effort to display just how prominently Martha still weighs on Bruce’s conscience. Put a pin in that.
Before Bruce departs to Lex’s party, we see him in the Batcave staring with desire at the Batsuit, and then at the defaced Robin suit displayed in the center of the cave. He has an aching need to be Batman, to let out his rage and hatred, to force the world into making sense with his fists. And we see what that’s cost him in the past. At the party scene, we get the first confrontation between Batman and Superman. It’s a verbal conflict between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent where they challenge each other as to which of their alter egos, if either, is just in their actions. We get some more insight into Bruce’s feelings for Superman, claiming he could just burn the entire city down if he wanted to, and we could do nothing to stop him. We’re also given a reference to the Joker and that “freaks dressed like clowns” lean into Batman’s distrust of Superman.
The next pivotal character moment for Bruce comes in the form of another nightmare (Knightmare this time) sequence. While decoding Lex’s files Bruce slips into a dream and has a vision of an alternate timeline and future where Bruce’s worst fears have come true, the world is in ruin and Superman appears to be a tyrant dictator. Superman captures Batman and his allies, executing them in front of Bruce, before finally punching a hole in his chest. Bruce then wakes up to an unknown man (The Flash) appearing in the Batcave out of nowhere warning him, “You were right about him! You were always right about him! Fear him!” Can you honestly blame Bruce for interpreting this the way he does? He’s just had a vision that was so close to real confirming all his worst fears. If he wasn’t already dead set on killing Superman this was the pat on the back reassuring him that he’s doing the right thing.
A little later from this Alfred finally confronts Bruce about what the “White Portuguese” is (Bruce has been saying the White Portuguese, a ship, is carrying a dirty bomb into Gotham). Bruce admits that it’s kryptonite and that he wants to use it to kill Superman. He even calls it a weapon before clarifying that it’s a rock, which shows exactly where his mindset is at.
If there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty, and we have to destroy him.
Alfred again tries to reason with Bruce claiming that Superman is not the enemy, to which Bruce responds, “Not today, but we know what promises are worth. Twenty years in Gotham. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?”. It’s tragic that Bruce doesn’t realize he’s talking about himself here. Alfred sees it, we see it, but Bruce is too blinded by hate to realize the folly of his actions. He’ll go through with this plan even if it’s the last thing he does.
After this, we see Batman’s first attempt at stealing the kryptonite from Lex’s possession. This is also the first time we see on screen kills from Batman, and while he kills people throughout this chase, I wouldn’t consider it intentional murder. He views these hired thugs as collateral damage on his path to destroying Superman. He’ll use any means necessary to achieve his goal and if a few thugs have to die so he can have the ability to eliminate Superman then so be it. Batman’s attempts are cut short here by the Man of Steel himself, but even when face to face with Superman, Batman doesn’t flinch. Asking “Do you bleed?” and answering his own question with, “You will.”
Though Batman is on his own way down the wrong path, he’s not without some guidance from our evil friend Lex Luthor. Luthor manages to set up and put in motion many of the events throughout this film, but the most genius one is the orchestration of the Capitol explosion, and Bruce Wayne reading the returned checks from his former employee with ominous messages on them, the last one including a clipping of the destruction of Wayne tower with the text, “You let your family die” sprawled across it. This is the final tipping point for Bruce. He just saw Superman walk into the Capitol and moments later a massive explosion shook the building resulting in an untold death toll, all while seeing his efforts to help even those lives not taken during the arrival of Superman were fruitless. Superman has again proven to Batman that he brings destruction and death, and he must be stopped.
The night of the Capitol explosion Batman steals the kryptonite from Lex’s research facility and begins training and preparation for his inevitable fight with Superman. Before he leaves for the fight, Bruce has one more scene with Alfred. Bruce reiterates that this may be the only thing he does that matters. When Alfred asks if twenty years fighting criminals amounts to nothing Bruce responds by saying criminals are like weeds, pull one and another takes its place. But defeating Superman is about the fate of the world. Bruce is world-weary and broken. He’s been through and lost so much during his time as Batman. Everything he has fought for was made insignificant and inconsequential by the arrival of Superman, but if he can defeat him it might all be worth it. Before walking away, he tells Alfred a quick story about the first generation of Wayne’s being hunters.
So falls the house of Wayne.
And here we are. The moment finally arrives for the showdown between these two titans. While there isn’t much narratively that takes place during the fight, besides the two musical themes for Batman and Superman shifting beautifully depending on who currently has the upper hand, it does culminate in arguably the single most important moment in the film. The infamous Martha scene works phenomenally for a multitude of reasons. Just before Batman is going to deliver the killing blow to Superman, Clark croaks that by killing him, Bruce is “letting him kill Martha.” Naturally, Bruce is immediately taken aback and thrown off balance.
So much happens here so quickly. We see visual flashbacks to Bruce approaching his parent’s crypt with flowers and to his father whispering “Martha” with his dying breath. As someone who has lost their father, I think Bruce’s immediate reaction is completely normal. At this moment Bruce thinks he’s about to do the single most important thing in his life, maybe the only thing that really means something, and now the person he’s about to kill utters his parents’ name? I would be in a state of shock as well. As he starts yelling at Superman asking why he would say that name, Lois sprints in revealing that it’s his mother’s name. We see Bruce realize for the first time that Superman can have a mother.
Up until this point, it was irrelevant to Bruce where Superman came from. He was the enemy and he must be stopped, it didn’t matter what his history was. But with this revelation, he now sees Clark as a human for the first time. He sees him as a son who loves his mother. And Bruce sees that he has become the very thing he swore to fight against as Batman. If he does this, he’s not only an executioner, but he’s sealing Clark’s mother’s fate, and Bruce more than anyone knows how terrible that is. Batman more than anything represents the fight to prevent anyone from going through what he did in that alley and he had become the man standing there with the gun.
After this revelation, Batman begins the path of redemption. He’s immediately given the chance to save Martha, something he wishes he could do for his own mother. And with his battle for justice now pointing in the right direction he joins Superman and Wonder Woman in the fight against Doomsday. It’s here that he sees Superman make the ultimate sacrifice, which is something that fuels Batman’s inspiration and the road to redemption further.
Throughout the film we’re treated to some of the best Batman visuals that have ever been put on the silver screen. The Batsuit is ripped from the pages of The Dark Knight Returns, the Batmobile and Batcave are revamped and look as awesome as ever, and his arsenal of gadgets certainly doesn’t disappoint. We see his prowess as a combatant in his fight with Superman and the warehouse fight scene that is essentially a challenge map taken straight from the Arkham video games. All of these help to elevate this Batman as my favorite on-screen interpretation of the character, but the one thing that seals the deal is the fundamental understanding of who Batman is.
While this isn’t the Batman I expected I’m more than thankful for the deconstruction and absolutely fresh take on the character. I didn’t realize how much I would love seeing what a Batman at the end of his rope could look like. Bruce in Batman v Superman is incredibly layered and though he’s broken when we meet him, as the film ends, we see him walking through the fields with a sense of direction for the first time, with a rekindled hope.
Men are still good. We fight. We kill. We betray one another. But we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to.