Why did you say that name?
If you don’t instantly know what the title is referring to, I’d suggest you back out now. If you are worried I am either going to be fanboyish over the ‘Martha moment’ or unduly harsh, keep reading. Have faith I will take this relatively seriously. This piece isn’t about why the moment ‘works’ or is ‘terrible’. I will instead be looking at why this moment was the most divisive cinematic moment of 2016.
Up front I feel it important to say that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a semi-butchered film. It suffers from an eccentric approach to an already novel idea. I feel that Zack Snyder’s film was intended as a melodrama. The characters speak in pseudo-philosophic and exaggerated ways, the conflict is overblown, and the music (DUM DUM-DUM-DUM DUMMM) is even more overblown. The emotions are overwrought. This is already a difficult mode of thinking for a modern audience to engage in and it’s a nuance I feel many missed, including critics. It doesn’t then help that WB forced Zack Snyder to release a cut of the film he was not entirely comfortable with. The Ultimate Edition cut of the film is a truer and much better, if bloated, version of the intended film. However that was not the version audiences were given as the first step into this story. Batman v Superman is hindered by its theatrical cut. It is also hindered by the name Batman v Superman. I feel Dawn of Justice is a better title. It is neither a Batman nor a Superman film, nor is it a team driven superhero film like The Avengers. This title compounds the already present issues with audience expectations, but let’s gets back to the issue at hand.
I will generalise and divide the audience reactions into two main branches for the sake of simplicity. On one hand you have people who read the ‘Martha moment’ as Superman reminding Batman of his roots as a hero (to channel the trauma over his parents death into crime fighting) and to allow Batman to see Superman as a human being. On the other hand you have people reacting to the moment as a ridiculous piece of coincidence driving a very sudden change of characterisation of Batman: “He’s been murdering people the whole film and now he’s gonna stop because Superman’s Mum has the same name as his Mum? LOL!”
To analyse these two very different reactions we have to establish the story and themes of BvS. The film has two main threads. The first is that it is about how the world would react to Superman or a Godlike figure, the conclusion being that humanity would fear and want to kill this Godlike figure. For this figure to be accepted he would have to literally die for humanity before being appreciated. I feel this is also a commentary on how humanity treats heroes. This brings us to the other plotline. Batman is a fallen hero, arguably representing the collapse of humanity’s noble values in this world (and maybe our own). Batman is portrayed as a man who longer cares, like the rest of humanity he no longer believes in heroism. Once the ultimate non-killing vigilante, he now murders his opponents when taking them alive is still an easy option. He speaks of killing Superman because Superman might be evil or turn evil. He even knows this is bollocks, but he wants to do it anyway because he is concerned with his own legacy as his own nihilism and detachment from humanity increases (this sounds a lot like a tragic melodrama doesn’t it?). If you doubt this reading of the film, rewatch the film with this reading in mind and it should become clearer. I feel this is also why Superman doesn’t really have much of a story or an arc: he isn’t supposed to. Again, the title muddles this intention completely.
So if this is the story why doesn’t the ‘Martha moment’ work for some people? Logically speaking the story does lead to that moment. Superman calls Batman ‘Bruce’ throughout their fight, so he knows his mother is named Martha, it is obviously a ploy to play on Bruce’s emotional in a last ditch effort to survive and save her. The film also opens with the last word on Bruce’s father’s lips being ‘Martha’. It even ties this in with a brief flashback during the ‘Martha moment’. So why does this obvious piece of set up and pay off not work? Because every other piece of set up and pay off in the film is underdeveloped.
The Ultimate Edition has frequent references to Batman being a murderer being a new thing; these are all cut from the theatrical version. It just seems like Batman is an evil murdering dick. One thing I like about this film is how it forgoes excessive set up for Superman and Batman. It knows these are cultural icons and we know who they are. So it is confusing to see Batman wantonly murdering people when he is known as a hero who does not kill. Yes, he has killed in pre-Crisis comics, Elseworld comics (but not The Dark Knight Returns as Snyder and others falsely claim) and other Batman films, but that was usually out of a sense of necessity. The very recent Christopher Nolan directed films also reinforced the no-kill rule (technically Detective Gordon killed Ra’s Al Ghul), the popular Arkham Asylum video games also reinforced this and post-crisis Batman comics in general have experience resurgence in popularity in recent years and his no-kill rule is a staple of that era. It is also worth mentioning that the theatrical cut removes the subplot of Lex Luthor having the Bat-branded villains killed in prison, not Batman.
A general audience is expecting Batman to not be a killer and if you expect a general audience member to be aware of the nuances of all the stuff I just said about different DC continuities above, you have problems. So Batman killing needs to be set up properly. All you would arguably need to set up his misanthropic mindset is to know that someone important to him is dead visually, maybe with a piece of well known iconography. Like Robin say? So when you put Robin’s costume in the Batcave with Joker scrawl all over it you better make damn sure the audiences gets that. What doesn’t help is when you don’t use the iconic Robin costume (that everyone would recognise the significance of) and instead use an all black costume that no one is going to recognise. If that Robin costume had been the traditional green, red and yellow this entire film would have worked much better. Zack, it didn’t even need to be bright green, red and yellow, you could have had your love of dour colour schemes without making it actually completely black.
Obviously there were audience members the ‘Martha moment’ worked for without them being hardcore DC comics’ fans. Maybe these people were able to infer the character subtext from Alfred’s attitude to Bruce and Bruce’s drinking and pill popping. Maybe they recognised the look of dread Bruce gives the Batsuit in the cave. I personally feel that Ben Affleck is a very good Batman and Bruce Wayne who smoothens over a lot of the cracks in the film. I feel that if given a chance he could be the closest version of Batman to the comics that we’ve ever had. And that’s why the ‘Martha moment’ works so well for a lot of other people, but for others there is perhaps too much to be inferred rather than shown.
I am not the average cinema goer. I have a very large Batman comic collection that stretches from the Golden Age through all the way to the new and current post-Rebirth era. I know the story of Jason Todd, the Robin who died at the hands of the Joker. I know that some iterations of Batman do have him killing and engaging in severe levels of torture. I see how well Ben Affleck captures the look and some of the magic of the Animated Series Batman and sometimes even looks like an Alex Ross painting.
I love how we finally have a cinematic version of the actual comic book grey and black batsuit. I cry every time during the ‘Martha moment’ because I feel the weight of the tragic figure Batman has turned himself into. But Batman isn’t just for me, Batman is for everyone. It’s also for people who enjoyed Tim Burton’s version of Batman, it’s even for people that like Joel Schumacher’s version. It’s even for the people that think that Batman was only ever the camp ‘60s version (which I own all of and also adore).
So to appeal to both sides of this issue I want you all to imagine the film with a different cutaway sequence to the Mad Max meets Batman apocalypse sequence we were given. Imagine Batman remembering fighting alongside Robin. Imagine Batman wearing the silver age blue and grey Batman comic fighting villains in colourful ways without killing them. Then imagine Robin being killed by the Joker and the tone of the sequence changes. We see Batman shift into crueller and crueller methods until he takes a life and then more lives and eventually he stops even doing that for the right reasons and then he wakes up to the time travelling Flash’s vague warnings of the future. Wouldn’t that have been better than Zack Snyder’s misreading of The Dark Knight Returns? (Read what he says and then the comments underneath that take his reasoning apart with pictures from his own ‘sources’.) It would set up Bruce’s status as a fallen hero. It would lay out the nature of the interpretation of an icon that has been interpreted in so many different ways. Hell, this would even provide an older audience, who only know the ‘60s show, a way into the proceedings. Batman is for everyone. His murdering needs to be a tragedy everyone understands. It could be something like this:
I honestly believe that Batman’s arc in the film is him learning to care again and to stop killing by being inspired by Superman’s example (no, he doesn’t kill anyone in this film, pay attention properly or fuck off to Cinema Sins with that shit). Just listen to Bruce’s speech at the end of the film if you don’t believe me. Zack Snyder unfortunately doesn’t understand his own film and muddled this issue by giving his confusing interviews that don’t even make sense when compared to the film he is talking about and directed or the comics that inspired him…
As a final note I think it is important to address the problems with the title fight sequence itself that leads to the ‘Martha moment’. Superman is angry at Batman for getting people murdered (although his motivations for this are completely cut from the theatrical cut) and he is being forced into fighting Batman by Lex Luthor taking Martha hostage. Superman briefly tries to explain this to Batman, who instead ignores him and attacks him. This makes sense. However there are giant pauses before the fight gets real where Superman says nothing. He had time on the roof to say something.
The opening of this fight should have been Superman holding his own and trying to explain to Batman constantly, before getting frustrated (he’s on the clock here) and deciding to take Batman down and then explain it to him. This is probably the intention of the opening of the fight, but the lethargy of how it is executed makes this not entirely clear. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that sense of lethargy in the second half of the fight. It’s great when it turns out not to be a fight, but Superman slowly realising he is on the losing end of a chess match made of traps.
But before Superman is worn down the fight should be urgent and desperate. He should be trying to hold Batman down and screaming at him to listen. He shouldn’t be walking slowly and creepily towards Batman without saying a word. So when Superman does finally say ‘Martha’ it is robbed of its urgency because why didn’t he say it before? Or to put it another way:
Why didn’t you say that name?
I’d like to end this piece on a positive note even though I know I haven’t addressed the other problems the film has aside from ‘Martha’. I’d like to mention how recent interviews with Zack Snyder make it sound like he has seen the light on Batman killing people. Ben Affleck is co-writing The Batman film with Geoff Johns who undoubtedly knows the importance of Batman not killing. I’d also like to talk about the best sequence in the film. That sequence is when Batman saves Martha.
I think we can all agree that bit is awesome right? Both cuts of the film set Batman up as this lethal force of nature in combat. The only snippets of him in combat up to this point were screams from off screen. So when he blows a hole in that floor and shoots upwards and then takes apart that room piece-by-piece it is perfect. It shows what Batman is capable of with martial arts in tandem with gadgets. It shows what he is willing to do to save Superman’s Martha and his own soul. Yes, he kills people in that sequence, because Superman hasn’t died yet and shown him a better path, but we see a glimmer of hope as Batman uses his murderous ways for good. It’s an explosive action sequence that tells the story of Batman’s first step on the road to recovery.
Batman endures because he is one of the most versatile characters in fiction, you can drop him into any plot line, genre or tone and he’ll work. Batman is for everyone.