Spoiler Alert: the “surprise” plot twist of Batman v Superman is mentioned in this post.
Yesterday morning I wrote a mostly negative review of Batman v Superman, having watched it with my family on Thursday night. I just didn’t leave the theater with an overwhelming sense of enjoyment. In fact, I probably felt worse after watching the movie than I did before.
After writing my review yesterday morning, I attended a Good Friday service at noon. It was an Episcopalian service that focused on a reading of the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and the passion narrative from John 19:1-37. The brief homily was essentially a retelling of the horrors of the passion, with a conclusion that connected it to the horrors of our own day.
Without naming it, the preacher was leaning on the increasingly popular understanding of the atonement based on the philosophical and anthropological theories of René Girard. Girard postulated that ritual sacrifice developed as a scapegoating mechanism that provides a cathartic release to defuse violent conflict that arises between people who find themselves desiring the same objects. The sacrifice is rendered guilty while a fiction is preserved that the people are innocent.
Understood sacrificially, the death of Jesus reverses this model because a truly innocent victim—God’s own son—is sacrificed in place of a truly guilty people. Even more, the sacrifice of Jesus reveals that the scapegoating mechanism is and always has been a sham because the community is always guilty. The violence rendered upon Jesus exposes the violence that characterizes all of human society, including the violence (ritual or not) that we mistakenly believe will contain or even put an end to violent conflict.
As I listened to this Good Friday homily calling out the violence, anger, hatred, and power-mongering that pervades our world like a sickness, all I could see in my mind were the images of senseless destruction that fill the screen in Batman v Superman. Slowly it dawned on me: this film is a cinematic rendering of the horrors of Good Friday. Like the passion narrative, it reveals and amplifies the horrors we see and/or experience in the world every single day.
Following this Girardian reading, I began to wonder if Batman v Superman exposes the superhero genre for the sham that it is: the popularization of the myth of redemptive violence. By ending with the death, burial, and implied resurrection of Superman, the film sets up the possibility of an entirely new kind of superhero to be born from the carnage of Batman, Superman, and Doomsday—something I have pondered and dreamed of for years.
I even wondered if this could have been director Zach Snyder’s intention. Could he have really spent three years and over $400 million to subvert and deconstruct the superhero genre? Curious, I went back to see it again yesterday afternoon. Sadly, I don’t think this was Snyder’s intent at all. I think he was trying to create the biggest and darkest superhero movie ever made. In this, he succeeded. Further, I anticipate that what we will get on the other side of Superman’s grave is simply more of the same.
Even more sadly, I found myself enjoying it the second time around. Perhaps I was numbed to the horror, but on this second viewing I better appreciated the archetypes and found more nuance in the performances.
But if I’m honest with myself, I mostly fear that the sickness—the myth of redemptive violence—was once again working its way into my heart.