Batman v Superman: Film & Philosophy with Mark D. White

Batman v Superman poster
Image Source: Warner Bros.

Last weekend, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opened worldwide, pulling in over $170 million in North America, making it the biggest film opening of 2016 so far. APA member Mark D. White, editor of such books as Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (with Robert Arp, 2008) and Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do? (2013), is here to discuss some philosophical themes of the film.

What is Batman v Superman about? And why are they fighting?

At the end of Man of Steel (2013), Superman was involved in a cataclysmic battle that left a tremendous amount of destruction in its wake. In Batman v Superman, we discover that Batman witnessed this tragedy and is concerned about the threat to humanity posed by this strange visitor from another planet with unimaginable power and questionable judgment. Superman, at the same time, is troubled by the increasing brutality of the vigilante fighting crime in Gotham City. Add to this the machinations of Lex Luthor—and what passes for creative decision-making at Warner Brothers—and you get Batman v Superman.

Were there any philosophical issues raised in the film that stood out to you, and that philosophers could draw upon and include in teaching?

There were three in particular, and these are common to many superhero films. One is the nature and danger of unaccountable power, represented by Superman in the current film and by other heroes in an earlier Snyder film, Watchmen (2009), and in the upcoming Marvel film Captain America: Civil War (2016). Two, there is the question of the appropriate response to immeasurable and uncertain threats, which we see when Batman invokes the precautionary principle when explaining why he needs to deal with the threat posed by Superman. And three—most interesting to me—we see the problem of moral judgment shared by superheroes and normal people alike, especially regarding the use of violence and lethal force, which was an issue of particular controversy in Man of Steel, as well as the ongoing question of why Batman hasn’t killed his mass-murdering foe the Joker.

Director Zack Snyder’s portrayal of Superman in Man of Steel has been criticized because the character does not live up to the iconic “Boy Scout” imagery. How does the latest movie compare?

Most of the debate centered around the climactic scene at the end of Man of Steel, in which Superman kills a renegade Kryptonian, General Zod, in an act that many people (including myself) felt was inconsistent with the essence of Superman’s longtime characterization of an aspirational hero or moral exemplar. With Batman v Superman, the focus will likely shift from Superman (who is fairly restrained, other than in a dream sequence inserted to satisfy fans who want to see brutal heroics) to Batman, who is depicted as even more violent than we have seen him before, and who is apparently completely unconcerned with whether he takes life or not (and is positively determined to do so in one case).

While Batman and Superman have different motivations to fight for justice, traditionally both heroes go to extreme lengths to avoid taking or even risking lives—an emphasis that is clearly devalued in the most recent films. This is to the detriment of both heroes, who derive their inspirational power as much from what they refuse to do as from what they do to help people. I think the most powerful superhero stories are those in which the hero faces a seemingly impossible situation in which he or she will be forced to violate a deeply held principle but, in the end, finds another way to solve the problem. In other words, the hero faces a tragic dilemma but refuses to accept it—instead, he or she ultimately finds a way to escape “with clean hands.” This may not always be realistic, but neither are people who fly and shoot rays from their eyes—but at least we can aspire to better moral judgment!

The Batman character has been around since 1939, and Superman since 1938. Why is there such enduring interest in superheroes in general, and in these two in particular?

I think superheroes satisfy a desire for the fantastic, as science fiction and fantasy stories in general do, but also a need to believe in the concept of heroism. Of course, there are heroes among us, real-life people who sacrifice their own well-being to an extraordinary degree for the sake of others, but often their efforts go unnoticed. While more could certainly be done to highlight actual instances of heroism, superhero stories help to reinforce this basic idea—with the addition of capes, power rings, and hammers to make them more appealing. But the best superhero stories, I feel, are the ones that shine a light on average people being heroes as well. To that end, it is notable that Lois Lane comes out of Batman v Superman as perhaps the most heroic character of them all.

Superman and Batman are enduring because they represent two basic urges: to maintain hope and to overcome fear, respectively. Superman is the ultimate hero and symbol of the good. He is the perfect being sent from above (with obvious analogues to messianic figures from religion), whom we can count on always to do the right thing. Batman, on the other hand, is more like you and me. Although fantastically wealthy, he is otherwise a normal human being who trained himself to almost-superhuman mental and physical standards in order to help make sure no one has to suffer the same loss he suffered when his parents were killed in front of him as a small child. None of us can be Superman, but we can still aspire to his moral example; by contrast, any of us could be Batman (in theory), and even if we’re not willing or able to make the extraordinary sacrifices required to do it, we can emulate his determination and resolve within our individual capabilities and resources. What both heroes have in common is devotion to a cause greater than themselves. This is not only an essential component of heroism, but also a widely cited element of meaning and happiness—although Batman clearly has yet to experience the latter!

Mark D. White is Chair and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island /CUNY, where he teaches courses in philosophy, economics, and law. Find out more about Mark on his website here.

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