I’ve never cried during a movie in my life, but the Martha scene in Batman v Superman? That’s about as close as I’ve ever come. I don’t know what I expected before walking into that theatre to see BvS for the first time. Whatever it was, it wasn’t what we got. But when you think about all the build up in Man of Steel, in BvS itself, it seems so fitting that it was Clark’s desperation to save his mother that brought him and Bruce together. The DCEU is about family. It’s practically an ode to mothers, and that can be seen from the very beginning.
The opening of Man of Steel is set on Krypton, with Jor-El and Lara, and even though much of the scene centred around Jor-El, Lara was still a significant player. Her devastation at having to give her son up so he could live was palpable. She was terrified for him, but she did it, because at least he’d have a chance on Earth. Even after they launched the pod containing their infant son, even after Jor-El’s death, the scene continued with Lara. We saw most of the destruction of Krypton through her eyes. She even got the last line before the end of the planet: Make a better world than ours, Kal. He was long gone and never heard those words, but that’s what he did.
Clark never knew Lara. The mother he knew was Martha Kent, and she is one of the two most important figures in his life. He loves his mother to bits. We saw that all throughout Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. The sheer warmth of the scene where he came back home. The fury when Zod threatened her. The terror and anguish when he learned that Lex had had her kidnapped. The way he called her late at night just because he wanted to hear her voice. The quiet comfort of the two of them standing in the fields under the stars after he flew to visit. Clark adores his mother. Martha grounds him. She can get through to him when he’s overwhelmed, and there are times when she’s the only one that can bring him peace of mind. She’s his family, and from the time Jonathan died to the time he met Lois, she was all of it.
Just as important is Martha’s love for him. Martha’s love for Clark is beautifully pure and unconditional. We see that every time the camera is on her, from her expressing her fear that someone would take him away from her in MoS to her dropping the coffee pot when the Capitol blew up with him inside. He’s her only son, and we’ve seen again and again that she’s always there for him when he needs her. She rushed to his school to help him through his sensory overload. She picked up the phone immediately when he called. Her biggest fear is something happening to him – he’s all but invulnerable, but the thought of him being hurt terrifies her.
Bruce’s relationship with his mother isn’t as positive. Not because he doesn’t love her or because she didn’t love him, but because he’s haunted by her. When he thinks of his mother, he thinks of the most traumatic experience of his life, of a person he couldn’t save. His parents were murdered in an alley right in front of him. He never had the chance to really get to know them. Martha put herself between Bruce and the gunman, just as Thomas did – Bruce had to watch both of his parents die to save him while he was helpless and scared, just like he would feel helpless and scared in Metropolis all those years later, unable to stop the devastation.
That mugging scene focused on Martha. Not Bruce, not Thomas. Martha: his mother’s name, his father’s final word. The only thing that could get through to him, through that haze of anger and fear. Bruce couldn’t save his own mother, but he could damn well save Clark’s. Bruce embodies regret. He couldn’t save his parents. He couldn’t save Jason. He couldn’t save all those people that died in Metropolis. All those people in Bruce’s life he couldn’t save, and Clark reminded him that there was someone he could. And it was thoughts of his mother that made him understand that. Thoughts of one dead woman that mattered to him more than any words could describe.
For all the action and bombast and fantastic elements, BvS remains a gentle, very human story. It’s a story about love, fear, and the human experience, disguised as an action flick. It feels peaceful in a way that no other superhero movie I’ve seen has matched. It’s a story about the Power of Love, but not in the romantic sense. Yes, Clark’s love for Lois played a major role, but beyond that, it was the story of Clark and Bruce’s love for their mothers.
I’ve never loved a superhero movie as much as I love Batman v Superman. The first time I watched BvS was the first time I ever really felt seen by a director of a superhero movie. Zack Snyder cared about telling a real story. BvS isn’t glib or flippant. It never shies away from dark, serious moments through quips or away from real feelings through macho posturing. Superman is universal. He’s a story that we can all relate to. So many action heroes just become white male power fantasies. That’s not what Superman is, and not what Superman should ever be.
Snyder recognized the universality of Superman, and instead of making him a generic, nerdy “nice guy” that Lois doesn’t see outside of him as Superman, he focused on the fact that Clark is deeply and truly loved. That he’s a hero that loves his mother, loves his girlfriend, experiences self doubt, cares about doing the right thing and struggles to figure out what that is. Snyder embraced the idea of Superman as an immigrant, as a refugee. He depicted with loving care that Clark’s adoptive parents are his family, and that the lack of blood ties does not in any way mean they’re unimportant. Superman isn’t just unrelenting optimism no matter what – he’s finding ways to be resilient and push forward in the face of adversity. He’s love and compassion and human decency.
The running theme of love for and by mothers is a huge part of what makes the DCEU special. It’s the very heart of the universe, and it contributes to the creation of one of the most beautifully heartwarming fictional universes ever brought to film.