Batman v Superman, Religious Imagery, and Nietzche

Disclaimer: I’m not religious. My family is loosely Hindu, but I don’t believe in any god. Nor do I have an emotional connection to any religious text. Therefore, my understanding of religion – both as a concept and in regards to the specifics espoused – is limited and strictly academic, and even that academic knowledge doesn’t come from formal study. Similarly, I have limited understanding of Nietzsche, and this interpretation of his work is strictly my own.

Batman v Superman interestingly presented both themes where Clark represents a god, or a divine entity, and ones where he’s just a man. The story itself clearly takes the position that he isn’t a god, though perceived as one, while the visuals alluded to the divine, which I thought was a brilliant storytelling technique – we, as humans, see the symbolism and see the ways in which he could be seen as a god or Jesus figure, and through the story, we understand that he’s very much not. Both these angles are used in Batman v Superman to craft a loving analysis and intelligent critique of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Clark was raised on Earth as a human by human parents. He has a regular job, one in which he’s a much more confident and assertive person than he is while in his Superman suit. He shares a regular apartment with his human girlfriend. He has extraordinary powers, but he’s just a regular guy there to help. He’s a Moses figure, the child sent away from his parents so he could be safe, the one that will guide his people to a better future.

Familial love – especially in regards to adoptive and found families – is an important motif in the DCEU, and in DC in general. Clark and Martha. Bruce and Alfred. Bruce and Robin. Clark and humanity. Earth is Clark’s world, and humans are his people. His adoptive family means everything to him, and when he’s forced to choose between his adopted people and the Kryptonians, he chooses Earth. That shifts the depiction of Clark a bit away from Moses, as he stands by his adopted people against his fellow Kryptonians against Kryptonian aggression, whereas Moses’s adopted people were the aggressors, but the loose parallel still stands. This idea – Clark representing a very human religious figure, rather than a divine one – helps illustrate Nietzsche’s points about God.

Creating a God

Nietzsche believed that man created God in his own image. I’ve seen it argued that BvS turned this neatly on its head by having man, Lex, literally create the Devil, Doomsday, out of his blood. While I do agree that this is a fair interpretation, I also think that BvS interpreted it in the figurative sense that the idea was originally intended, and in a more direct fashion, through Superman.

Clark Kent is a man. He has powers and abilities beyond any human, but he was raised not as an alien or a god, but a regular human being, and that’s exactly how he views himself. And other people see him that way, too – just a regular guy, trying to do the right thing. But when he introduces himself to humankind as Superman, we elevate him. He is worshiped as a god, even as people know he’s an alien. We create an idea of what he is that has little to do with the actual person.

batman-v-superman-statue

Statue of Superman. Credit: Warner Brothers

God Is Dead

Nietzsche, of course, did not mean it literally when he claimed that God is dead and we have killed him, but in BvS, that statement was illustrated in both literal and figurative senses. Superman died by Lex Luthor’s hand. And when Clark Kent died, the world recognized that Superman wasn’t a god, wasn’t some omnipotent being. They finally accepted him as a man that was trying to do the right thing. The idea of him as a god was killed. Not through scientific advancement or better comprehension of the universe, but through greater understanding of and compassion for other people. And that was a very good thing.

And despite all of this, despite how much BvS illustrates Nietzsche’s philosophy directly and literally, it also challenges it, because God’s death isn’t also the death of humanity’s morality. It’s the cause of its return. Nietzsche discussed mankind’s dependency upon religion to define morality, which was alluded to in the montage of interviews and news clips. Superman’s existence challenges everything humans thought they knew and believed. But his death shifted them to a better way of thinking. Clark inspired Bruce and Diana to become heroes again. People weren’t dependent on him to define morality. They look to him as an example, as someone to help guide them to become better, to become the best they can be. Superman is the literal übermensch – he’s the man from above, the alien. By existing, he challenges all belief systems on the planet. Him being good enough to sacrifice his own life for a people that feared and ostracized him made people realize they didn’t have to be afraid – that they could be better, should be kinder. Mankind doesn’t rely upon Superman to tell us the difference between right and wrong, but he can help guide us so that we can join him in the sun.

Lex wanted to prove that Superman was neither all powerful nor all good. He sought to disprove the myth of Clark being all powerful to himself, by forcing Clark to bend to his will, and to disprove the myth of him being all good to the world, by framing him for the slaughter in the desert, implicating him in the Capitol bombing, and forcing him to kill Batman. And even though he did succeed in killing Superman, that Superman died for mankind convinced the world that he was good. By proving that Superman isn’t all powerful and is still willing to defend humans against threat, Lex demonstrated that there was nothing to fear. Clark’s neither a vengeful god nor some kind of Jesus figure – he’s flawed, he’s human, but he’s tries so hard to be good. He wants to help other people and be the best person he can be, and that – much more than his Kryptonian heritage or his powers – is what makes him Superman.

A Meaningful Death

God is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.

Clark’s death has a lasting impact. We as an audience know that he’ll return, but the people in universe don’t. Nietzsche viewed the shadow of God as a negative and religion as an ultimately destructive force. Here? Clark’s shadow is nothing but positive. The world changed when Superman flew in the sky, then again when he didn’t. He inspired people to be better. His death is going to bring the Justice League together.

batman v superman clark kent lois lane

Clark saying goodbye to Lois, drawing to mind the image of Christ leaving his mother depicted in many works of art. Credit: Warner Brothers

If you seek his monument, look around you. Before the Death of Superman, mankind sought to honour him through massive monuments. After, Diana said that they didn’t know how to honour him but as a soldier, with a military funeral for an empty casket. That’s true, but it’s also true that the government and general population recognized that they didn’t need to erect a statue, because the greatest monument to Superman’s achievements was that the people of Earth were still alive. Bruce chose to honour him by forming the Justice League and protecting the Earth, just as he did. I think this is the closest to a real Jesus parallel that BvS has, and it’s more a criticism of Christianity than anything – yes, there’s a great deal of imagery, but most of it is just that, because the story and Clark’s actions tell us that he’s not a God or Christ figure, he doesn’t see himself that way and neither should we. He’s one of us.

Death of Superman Batman v Superman

Lois holding Clark’s body, similar to Mary holding Jesus in the Pietà. Credit: Warner Brothers

Throughout history, people calling themselves Christians have fought to prove how devout they are through building bigger churches, or fighting wars, or criticizing other people’s faith or other religions, when none of that was part of Jesus’s teachings. To follow Jesus would be to follow his example. The same can be said for Clark – he doesn’t want people to worship him. He doesn’t want statues or monuments built for him. He just wants to live his life, to help people and for other people to do the same. Nietzsche disdained Christianity, but he had a healthy respect for Jesus. As he put it himself, “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” At the end of BvS, the people of Earth stopped feeling the need to build statues. Stopped feeling the need to look up to Clark with fear or awe. They mourned him, the man that cared enough about them to give his life to stop a monster, with respect and genuine love.

There’s something very appealing to me about how decisive BvS is when it comes to making a point. How unafraid it is of going against the grain. I could be interpreting the movie and Nietzsche in a very different way than Terrio and Snyder intended, but the allusions to Nietzsche were clearly deliberate and left somewhat open for interpretation. BvS is never lazy or timid with its philosophy. It delves into the opinions of well known philosophers whose work is commonly known and doesn’t just parrot them at the audience. It’s not fake-profound. It’s legitimately meaningful because it examines and challenges philosophies rather than just repeating them. It comes from people that take care to interpret the text and counter it, rather than referencing these philosophies out of context, and on top of that, themes are presented in a way that forces the audience to think about them and the symbolism rather than just being spoonfed everything. There is something there, and it’s possible to disagree about what that is and debate the different meanings. That’s a good story. That’s real art. That’s why we’re still talking about it, more than a year after the release.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s