[Parent’s Content Advisory at bottom of review. If you want to jump straight to my section about the “problem of pain,” you can scroll down to the sub-header for that section. To visit Kevin’s personal blog and read about his upcoming C. S. Lewis/U2-themed book about finding Christ’s joy amidst sorrow and adversity, go here to KevinOtt.net.)]
Finally, it’s happened.
And no I’m not talking about the appearance of Batman and Superman in a film together. (Though that’s awesome, too.)
I’m talking about something I’ve always wanted to see a filmmaker do. Let me explain. It goes back three years ago to Man of Steel, when, in the final 30 minutes of the movie, we see Superman and General Zod demolishing an entire city during their fight, throwing each other through skyscrapers, demolishing them in the process, and likely killing thousands and thousands of people in the process–all in the name of an epic showdown for the climax of a film. And when the fighting is over, Superman and Lois Lane merrily kiss, and the film moves on to other scenes as if the recent slaughter and maiming of thousands of people at the hands of Superman/Zod was about as consequential as someone accidentally stepping on a line of ants.
Like most mainstream action movies, “Man of Steel” never really showed in detail any of the victims or the aftermath of all of that destruction. It’s not a new thing. From the Marvel films to the over-the-top Michael Bay films to every other tent pole action film, all of the screaming “extras” running around and ducking for cover in the final fight scenes–all the faceless people in the falling buildings–are like cattle slaughtered for the sake of a film’s final wow factor.
And I’ve always wondered: what if a filmmaker made a sequel to a big action movie and took one of those random extras and built an entire story around that extra’s suffering that occurred because of that big flashy showdown at the end of a blockbuster action film?
What if instead of treating cities like giant movie sets and playgrounds that heroes and villains can freely blow up as they please without any visible consequences–i.e. no detailed exploration of the intense suffering, death, and emotional grief that the event caused the “extras” in the scene–what if a film actually dove headfirst into the story of one of those peripheral people seen running through the streets?
Well, that’s exactly what “Batman v Superman” does (well, to an extent). The film, after a few expository scenes, begins back in “Man of Steel.” Though this time we’re seeing the final showdown/carnage through the eyes of those “extras.” And that extra happens to be Bruce Wayne. We see how that big showdown–which was so “thrilling” to watch–between Superman and Zod caused real pain and suffering in people’s lives–real gritty grief and ugliness that big flashy action movies usually don’t bother examining because it’s not glamorous enough to fit in a big sweeping climax. Sure, Superman wasn’t responsible for Zod’s actions, but from Wayne’s point of view, it’s all one and the same. Superman is indeed responsible. Zod wouldn’t have been there if not for Superman.
And so, from the very beginning of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we see the pain that Superman has caused for these “extras,” including Bruce Wayne.
I know 70% of the critics did not like this movie (according to Rotten Tomatoes) but I think the way “Dawn of Justice” begins the story is brilliant. It’s something I’ve been wanting to see in a tent pole action film for years.
Now let’s move on to a more detailed look at the entertainment value of the film, and then take a look at some of the worldview themes, including the film’s exploration of God and the classic theological question called the “problem of pain.”
Entertainment Value, Film Craft
If you read the critics, they complain mostly that this film overly dark.
Did any of these critics remember “Man of Steel?” What were they expecting, a sudden change in tone into a bright shining, happy clappy 1980s version of Superman? I watched “Man of Steel” again before “Dawn of Justice” to jog my memory, and the exact tone continues into “Dawn of Justice.” The tone hasn’t changed. And many of these critics gave “Man of Steel” a glowing review in 2013, but MoS was, if you’ll recall, just as dark and depressing as “Dawn of Justice,” if not more so: Superman’s Krypton mother having to watch her husband get murdered in front of her, and then she has to say goodbye forever to her only son, and then she has to watch her world explode? Superman watching his dad die in a tornado when he could have saved him? An entire civilization blowing up? Superman having to kill the only remaining Krypton citizen in existence in the universe, making him truly alone?
Yeah, sure, critics, as if “Man of Steel” was an uplifting walk in the park. So why suddenly turn on the series now when (almost) 60% of you same critics liked “Man of Steel?” And with the Dark Knight thrown in, were they really expecting some happy shiny Superman sequel?
Or it could be the other primary complaint: that “Dawn of Justice” had too many sub-plots going and was just way too disjointed.
I get that. I can see where they’re coming from, but the entertaining quality of the film was not as bad as these critics made it out to be. The rapid cuts to all sorts of sub-plots actually worked for me, and for one reason: Lex Luthor. This film does a good job of hiding Lex’s hand of cards. You know he’s up to no good, but you can’t see all the pieces moving. And the hasty jumps to the many sub-plots keeps you on the edge of your seat because you’re trying to connect it all together to whatever Lex is trying to pull off. It almost feels like a detective game where you’re looking for clues in every corner.
And it’s fun, actually, because of that. Lex Luthor’s mad genius sort of hovers over the entire film and sucks you in so, at all times, you want to know what will happen next.
And the acting performances are just wonderful: Ben Affleck as Batman, Henry Cavill as Superman, Jeremy Irons as Alfred (especially awesome!), Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Laurence Fishburne as the Daily Planet chief, Diane Lane as Martha, and all the other actors–all superb performances that give the film exactly what it needs.
Does ‘Dawn of Justice’ Give a One-Sided View of the Theological Problem of Pain? Does the Film Side with Skeptics who Attack People of Faith or Does it Affirm Faith? (And Do We See a Powerful Symbol of Christ in Superman?)
All of that being said about the film’s entertainment value, the film also presents the view of naturalistic evolution (as we see when a character rattles off a list of indisputable facts, and then mentions the origin theory of macro-evolution as one of those non-debatable facts). And then the film dabbles in some complex worldviews and heavy theological content–most notably with its (somewhat one-sided) inclusion of the classic problem of pain, the argument with which many a skeptic has used to criticize belief in the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible (i.e. a God who is both all-powerful and all-good, but who has created individuals with the free will to reject God and choose evil).
I have to hand it to Dawn of Justice for even attempting to go into deeper streams of thought about philosophy and theology–things that are not exactly top shelf, in-demand conversation topics in today’s shallow pop culture–but it comes off a little one-
sided, as if it is quietly backhanding the worldview of faith. Though, frankly, I’m still processing the film. (I just saw it, and I’ve only seen it once. It usually takes a couple viewings to really digest everything being presented.)
But at one point, Lex Luthor actually states the problem of pain in full (something I’ve never seen in any film) when he explains why he thinks there is no such thing as an all-powerful, good God. He uses the whole narrative as a clever way to present his antagonism toward Superman, whom Lex keeps referring to as God. Lex repeatedly declares that he has come to kill God. And they’ve written Lex to be so mentally shaky that you’re not really sure if he’s limiting his words to a metaphor about Superman or if he really does believe that he can kill God. In other words, the script gives Lex a very Luciferian outlook–a man who hates God, resents God, is jealous of God, does not want to surrender any control to God, and in general wants God dead. He even refers to “the devil” coming down to kill God at one point (though he’s again using metaphor–we think–to refer to some other yet-to-be-revealed monster from space who will appear in a sequel).
However–and this is why I’m still undecided about this film–because all of the anti-God lines are put in the mouth of Lex and directed at Superman–who has always had a symbolic relationship with Jesus Christ and God from the very beginning of his comic book days–you could actually make the argument that this film is quietly presenting a worldview that affirms faith in God rather than having an acrid skepticism and mockery of faith and God.
I could even launch into how this film posits a symbolic presentation of Christ’s primary mission during His earthly ministry, but that would involve major spoilers. I won’t do that to you.
So it’s possible that this film, in a subtle and symbolic way (that is quite powerful if it means what I think it means), actually affirms faith and portrays Christ’s ultimate mission on earth. You might even say this film is the most off-the-wall Easter-themed movie ever made–yes, a movie that actually fits, in a very zany, vaguely symbolic way, with the Easter story–and this makes me wonder if the studio intentionally released it on the weekend of Easter. (And that suggestion will make absolutely zero sense unless you’ve seen the movie. And even then, I will grant you, it is a huge stretch, which is why I used the word “might.”)
But again I say all of this with a cautious reservation. At the same time, the film shines a bright spotlight on the skeptic’s version of the problem of pain, the argument that people often use with derision to attack people of faith, without giving the same overt attention to one of the many good answers to the problem of pain. In other words, the film plants in the minds of moviegoers the seed of a one-sided portrayal of a complex theological question.
Of course, a long dialogue about theology at that moment would have made the film boring for the millions of action film fans, but if I had been standing on the platform with Lex Luthor when he made his grand speech against God, I would have presented him with some of the arguments I made in my essay “How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?” You can read the full essay here, but here are the three main points I cover in it:
1. The skeptic’s view assumes that if evil and suffering appear to us to be pointless, then it obviously must be pointless. (And that is not necessarily a true assumption.)
2. The fact that you admit that there is terrible wickedness in the world actually provides a better argument for God’s existence than one against it.
3. But what about when we’re just plain angry with God because of something that happened, even if we agree with all of the above?
Although it is probably debatable about whether or not “Dawn of Justice” really attempts to land firmly on any conclusions, its rapid fire mentioning of very deep topics stirs up plenty of questions. Some people will laugh that I’m even trying to find such depth of meaning in such an overtly commercial product, but the nature of comic books tends toward these kinds of discussions, actually, which is why plenty of very intelligent people still love comic books even into their adult years. And the mythology of Superman and Batman–and the devotion to the comic book world from the director Zack Snyder–brings in plenty of innately deeper topics and themes that even crass commercialism (i.e. Warner Bros. is desperate for this movie to succeed financially, as is Wall St.) cannot bury or keep down.
Conclusion: ‘Dawn of Justice’ Is Better Than the Critics Say, and It Dives Into Unusual Theological Territory
As I wrote earlier, I have to give “Dawn of Justice” credit for even attempting to dive into deeper topics such as theology and philosophy. I like films that try to get moviegoers to ask deeper questions (even if I don’t agree with the film’s conclusions) instead of just floating happily along the endless cycles of consumerism and the surface pleasures of day-to-day life. I think the problem of pain could have been presented in a more balanced fashion, perhaps with Superman or Batman having lines that give a more clearly defined oppositional view to Lex Luthor’s grand speech against God, but the actual events that follow Luthor’s speech speak very loudly, and, in my opinion, the final events of the movie suggest symbolically that Luthor’s lopsided conclusions about God and suffering are flawed.
That being said, like “Man of Steel,” it is still a very dark movie, and it’s not exactly the kind of thing that will just lift your spirits into the skies and edify your heart with abundant joy. But if you’re a Christian and you’re already a huge comic book fan or fan of superhero movies in general, you will find some deeper-than-usual material here–even just that might point your attention to the hope of Easter (buried beneath a ton of fighting and grimness).
(To visit Kevin’s personal blog and read about his upcoming C. S. Lewis/U2-themed book about finding Christ’s joy amidst sorrow and adversity, go here to KevinOtt.net.)
Content Advisory for Parents for this PG-13 Rated film…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality: Clark Kent climbs, fully clothed, into a bath tub with a nude Lois Lane (no nudity is seen), and sex is implied.
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: Loads of superhero punching, smashing, throwing, kicking, and crushing. Many people are shot dead, though no bloody gore. We see a boy’s parents get gunned down (though the blood happens off-camera–no graphic gore). A character gets impaled by a sword-like weapon. A human-like body, possibly part cyborg, hangs in pieces on a wall, and then suddenly comes to life. A character survives a nuke explosion, but the character’s body momentarily looks dead (and perhaps a little creepy). A huge screaming monster crushes everything in sight. In a dream, a scary demon-like creature jumps out of the casket of Bruce Wayne’s mother and attacks Bruce. It’s horror movie-like. Characters breathe gas and get poisoned. Criminals are branded by a vigilante after they are caught. The actual branding isn’t shown, but the bad guys are seen beat up, bloodied, and with the charred/scarred brand in their skin afterward. A woman is seen gagged and slightly bruised and in distress. A bomb blows up an entire room full of people. In general, the film is not gory, but there are a wide array of violent acts. The bloody visual aspect of it rarely happens on-camera, however, with the exception of the impalin
g scene. All of that being said, the violence, while not especially gory, can still be psychologically disturbing and intense. Abide by the rating guidelines and don’t bring kids under 13.
Language: A scattering of the usual swear words (no f-words): s-words, a-words mostly, d-words (and maybe one or two b-words). A couple misuses of Jesus/God’s name.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Characters drink wine at a ritzy gathering in a mansion (like a James Bond mansion party scene).