art criticism batman v superman

Batman v Superman: can power be innocent?

5:06:00 PMJoseph Anderson

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Batman v Superman has a rating of 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. That counts as a critical flop, but the movie is far from a financial flop (and if you're going to be one or the other, the powers that be would rather the latter). It's sold over $500 million worldwide and climbing. Clearly, people love watching their two favorite, caped-crusaders duke it out among the decrepit streets of Gotham.

Critically the movie may not be a success. But since when did we start judging superhero movies based on their critical merit? Just because the superhero film has become a staple doesn't mean that they have done anything all that artistically amazing. Some of their storytelling might be better than their peers, but should we really go to superhero movies expecting some sort of masterpiece?

What Batman v. Superman does do well is explore not one individual hero's identity crisis or personal struggle. Rather, it takes a look at the essence of superherodom, and explores its inherent meaning. Does being "Superman" make the superhero a Nietzschean “ubermensh?”

To Nietzsche, the ultimate goal of human evolution was the ubermensh, or the “overman” or “superman.” Nietzsche philosophized that in the world there exists such persons who are greater than normal men and women. These people are driven by purpose and destiny, and their own superiority, towards changing the world. Because of this, they also are above moral law, and their morals can be imposed on others. In Batman v Superman, we find many “overman” characters — ironically, though his name shares a similar root as Nietzsche's ubermensh, Superman is the only one among several characters who does not believe his moral code is above  the societal norm. Batman is another one of these possible overmen, which is the reason that Clark Kent first has a problem with him and his less-than-wholesome ways of dealing with criminals. Batman is a vigilante who has declared himself “justice” after witnessing humanity’s failure to enforce moral order. Lex Luthor is another “overman,” only he is more vindictive than the Bat. It is ironic that Lex feels himself so much greater than humanity that he must take down the only person who could possibly oppose him — the real superman.

But at the beginning of the film, neither Lex nor Batman believe that someone could be so much greater than humanity and still be good. Lex Luthor says that, because of the problem of evil in the world, either God can't be all good if He is all powerful, or that if He is all good, He can't be all-powerful. And if you think about it, that’s not a bad argument. Because if God was all powerful and all good, wouldn’t he be able and willing to stop all bad things from happening in the world? Lex Luthor thinks so. His disbelief in superman is also his disbelief in God. And because Luthor doesn’t believe in benevolent power, he fears anyone who has power over humanity. He feels himself to be one of Nietzsche’s overmen. Superman is not only a personal threat to Luthor’s own status as overman, Luthor also believes that it is his duty to guide society —and that means destroying superman.  Which is why he fears these “demons that come from the sky,” which is an almost direct reference to Nietzsche's proclamation that the new “overman” will come from the sky:

“I love all who are like heavy drops falling one by one out of the dark cloud that lowers over man: they herald the coming of the lightning, and succumb as heralds.

Lo, I am a herald of the lightning, and a heavy drop out of the cloud: the lightning, however, is the SUPERMAN”― Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Turns out that Luthor's claim is true about Superman. Superman may be all good, but he isn't entirely all-powerful (Batman makes him bleed, after all). But despite Luthor's qualms with God, Superman more importantly shows us the power of goodness. At the beginning of the movie, Batman cannot believe in an all-good Superman, because, basically, absolute power corrupts absolutely. He has seen too many good people go bad, so experience tells him that Superman is just another one of these corruptible figures. The disillusioned Batman, played by Ben Affleck, doesn't believe in the goodness of his fellowman. It's up to Superman to change that.

Eventually, Batman discovers that Superman is good. Superman shows him that despite the Nietzschean idea that being superior makes you above moral law, power can in fact be innocent. And while that may not be true about human institutions, it can certainly be true about individuals and ideals. Superman is an ideal that points to a higher force in the universe than human evolution or utilitarianism. Superman recognizes his place in the universe, and instead of becoming a god of his own, he bends to the moral law — he is willing to lay down his life for "his world", because he loves the people in it. He shows us that might does not equal right. And he’s a great depiction of a truly good guy amidst an overwhelming number of flawed superheroes who take center stage in the majority of contemporary, superhero flicks.

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