On Imagery in Batman V Superman


One of the biggest issues in Batman V Superman is director Zack Snyder’s lack of subtlety. If you are familiar with Snyder’s previous films, you will not be surprised to hear that BvS is a stunning piece of art, visually poignant, and a pleasure to see. But the film is saddled with blatant symbolic imagery that, at best, suggests that Snyder doesn’t trust his audience. At worst, Batman V Superman is simply Zack Snyder clamoring for attention.

Batman V Superman spoilers ahead.

The imagery never gets as bad here as it did in Man of Steel. In that film, you roll your eyes when a stained-glass window portraying Jesus at Gethsemane shimmers over Superman’s shoulder as he considers turning himself over to General Zod. Later, Superman gently, unnecessarily, awkwardly, floats into space in a crucifix pose after Jor-El tells him he can save humanity. We get it, Zack.

In Batman V Superman, we get things like Superman saving lives at a Day of the Dead celebration and Lois Lane holding Superman’s body as if posing for Michelangelo while he sculpts the Pieta. These examples aren’t as glaring as what we saw in Snyder’s previous Superman flick, but again, it’s not very subtle.

Superman-as-Christ-figure certainly is not a new or unique interpretation and that is part of the problem. Through two films now, Snyder has focused his energy on imagery that says nothing new, that adds nothing to Superman’s lore. It takes very little imagination to see the similarities between Jesus Christ and an alien who comes to our world as a baby and grows up to do miraculous things to save mankind. Yet Snyder treats this reading as if he’s just dug up an important historical artifact and proudly beats us over the head with it.

But Superman is more than Christ here: Snyder compares him to immigrants as well. In the film’s opening minutes, he re-envisions Superman’s battle with General Zod through the eyes of Bruce Wayne. The imagery here — the explosions, cascades of tumbling concrete, and collapsing buildings — evoke memories of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Wayne, having seen this devastation up close, has trust issues with Superman, as do many other Americans. Later, Superman solemnly stands in the remains of a government building after a man unwittingly serves as a suicide bomber. The purpose of the explosion was not to kill Superman but the innocent Americans around him. The media treats it as a terrorist attack and you catch glimpses and hear whispers of people wondering if Superman was involved.

This is the crux of the film. Batman V Superman is essentially a superheroic criticism on America’s relationship with immigrants post 9/11. Should Superman be welcome in America? Can he be trusted? Is he safe to be around? What should the government do?

While this is about as blatant as Snyder’s Christ imagery, it feels tired in a totally different way. We’ve been living this conversation every day for the past 15 years. To his credit, Snyder’s expression of America’s relationship with immigrants is on the nose, but it feels like little more than white noise in a heated argument at this point. Here, as with his Christ imagery, Snyder doesn’t actually add to the discussion. He simply just dresses it up to make it look pretty.

At times, the film falls apart when plot and theme meet. When Batman learns that his mother and Superman’s Earthly mother share the same name, the film implies that Americans and immigrants aren’t all that different from one another. Fine. But Batman’s distrust of Superman is legitimate: at that point, there’s still good reason for Batman to see Superman as a threat to mankind. So while this change of heart makes sense thematically, the sudden 180 is totally ridiculous within the context of the plot.

There’s nothing wrong with all this symbolism. But Snyder wields it irresponsibly: he does his film’s story and characters no favors. Ultimately, Batman V Superman fails because its symbolic imagery boldly and loudly expresses themes that say very little. You would think that Snyder, so eager to make you notice him, would actually add something to the conversation. Instead, he appears to be content being seen and not heard.

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