Contemporary movie culture has seen a significant shift over the years regarding the sub-genres of films released. While action and adventure films have been reigning supreme for years, it is only recently that the superhero sub-genre has become dominant in terms of number of films released, and the budgets and profits of these movies. Most of these films – most notably from Marvel Studios – offer little more than excitement and a sense of adventure, though a few attempt to offer something that is not superficial.
One such film is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), directed by Zack Snyder. In what is a rarity in all contemporary films, and especially so in superhero ones, Snyder’s purpose in constructing the narrative goes beyond simply furthering the plot and telling the in-universe story. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, specifically the “Ultimate Edition” with a purer directorial vision (henceforth referred to as BvS), is no different as Snyder has given a deeper meaning to the film.
Prior to the events of BvS, in the prequel film Man of Steel (2013), Batman sees the alien Kryptonians fight amongst themselves – Superman versus a faction led by General Zod – and realises that humanity has no means to stop an apocalypse engineered by their species. Therefore, Batman decides to pre-emptively kill Superman in BvS in case the Kryptonian ever turns against Earth. Throughout the film, there is a constant diegetic questioning of Superman’s ‘alien-ness’, his true intentions, and the need to even have a Superman: all borne out of a fear of his power, despite him always having been a champion for Earth.
Amidst the climactic battle with Superman, on the verge of killing him, Batman realises that Superman’s upbringing has made him as human as anyone. The two join forces to defeat a larger threat to the world. In the process, Superman gives his life to save the world he calls his own, despite the public opinion about him.
Much of the iconography in scenes pivotal to the characterisation of Batman and Superman is based on historical artworks. These allusions to these artworks showcase how differently the two supremely powerful titular figures are treated. Through this essay, I will attempt to show that Superman is depicted as the alien other, and Batman as a member of the powerful elite, given the constant depiction of Superman as the devil and Batman as the saviour. This is an important distinction, as the film is a greatly underappreciated work with heavy symbolism that reflects humanity’s hopes and fears and allows viewers to better understand their reactions to these hopes and fears. Utilising the perspectives of those paintings to build the iconography in the text will thus allow me to distinguish between the ‘other’ Superman and the ‘human’ Batman.
Through this project, I aim to answer two key questions that may seem straightforward, but could instead have layered answers – how has Snyder used historical artworks to build the iconography in BvS, and what do these uses signify? I posit that Snyder uses these artworks to ‘other’ Superman and showcase how Batman views Superman as an alien outsider, and in a violent response to this fear, seeks to eliminate him. I feel that Snyder’s reason for showing this othering through these grand messianic artworks is to mirror the story of the conflict between Batman and Superman in the story of Jesus and the Pharisees – with Jesus reflecting the ‘dangerous’ other and the Pharisees the incumbent establishment respectively.
In the essay “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art”, published in Meaning in the Visual Arts (pp. 26-54, 1955), Panofsky writes that in the analysis of any scene, there are three key steps to be carried out. The first is the identification of “pure forms, that is: certain configurations of line and color … as representations of natural objects such as human beings”. Following this is the secondary level of analysis, where the motifs identified in the previous step are described and classified at a basic level, such as the recognition of allegories. Finally, the third step is the study of what Panofsky defines as “iconology” – the investigation of the “genesis and significance” of the iconography (pp. 35-37). Notably, Panofsky defines a clear division between “iconography” and “iconology” even though the two terms are often (erroneously) used interchangeably. According to him, “iconography” is the simple study of the subject matter in the visual arts, while “iconology” is the analysis of the significance of that subject matter (p. 34).
Due to the nature of film, a complete pictorial image is built not simply through a single frame but through multiple frames shot at different angles to construct the entirety of the scene. It is through these multiple frames that emotional weight is given to the scene and subsequently to the film, and iconographical and iconological analysis is necessary to understand the scene and its implications. Panofsky himself agrees with this claim that the full meaning of a scene is not just comprised through one camera angle or one frame when he states in “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures”:
… the “soulless camera” relieves the artist of many phases of the imitative processes normally associated with the idea of art, yet leaves him free to determine much of the composition and, first and foremost, the choice of subject. We find, therefore, even in snapshots not only an interest in “fragments of reality for their own sake” but also an enormous amount of emotional coloring, as in most snapshots of babies, dogs, and other vessels of sentimentality. This, I think, accounts for the very early appearance of sentimental or sanguinary narratives in films as well.
Therefore, I will sometimes analyse multiple angles as required to give what I will henceforth refer to as the ‘three-dimensional’ (3D) scene – the 3D mental image – of the events occurring in the film. These “snapshots” that Panofsky refers to are the individual frames that make up the ‘3D scene’, which with their composition and choice of subject, give meaning to the narrative.
Despite the brilliance of Panofsky, “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures” does have a few gaps. As noted by Thomas Y. Levin in “Iconology at the Movies: Panofsky’s Film Theory” (1996), Panofsky’s essay is surprisingly scarce on “questions of ideology [and] alienation”. I will thus attempt to use Panofsky’s own methodology paired with my own interpretation of BvS’s iconography and iconology to plug these metaphorical holes and analyse where and how the film uses art.
Construction of the Scenes in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
To start off, I will first look at the reasoning behind Batman’s decision to use a spear (tipped with Kryptonite, an element that can damage Superman) in his climatic battle with the Kryptonian Superman. Batman’s use of a primitive weapon is at odds with his immense wealth and technological prowess, but the choice to give him a spear instead of a gun (which he used in other sequences in the film) to deal the killing blow was very much intentional. On 4 April 2018, on the social media platform Vero, Snyder shared a screenshot of the 1620 painting Christ on the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens with the caption “Why with all the technology at his disposal would Batman build a spear… here’s why”. Christ on the Cross depicts the Roman soldier Longinus piercing the side of Jesus as the Messiah hangs, crucified.
Here, the identification of line and colour, and the recognition of allegories has already been carried out by Snyder. Therefore, it is possible to move on to identify the significance of this usage. With Snyder’s confirmation, it is clear that Superman in BvS is an allegory for Jesus. Superman has long been regarded as a Jesus-like figure, with filmic allegories going as far back as Superman (1978). These allusions were noted in Kozlovic (2002), and Snyder has evidently not shied away from doing the same in BvS. While not a direct visual allegory, the metaphor is important as it establishes that Snyder is giving his own meta-commentary outside of the film’s plot. In this case, Batman is being depicted as Longinus, who had stabbed Jesus in an apparent attempt to verify his death given that it had happened far quicker than expected. Furthermore, according to Malcom Godwin (1994), Christian legend has it that Longinus had been blind but became a believer after Jesus’ blood fell upon his eyes and healed him. Very similarly, it is only after Superman’s death later in BvS that Batman believes in him as the saviour of Earth, and the analogy is extended when Superman is resurrected in the sequel, Justice League (2017).
Far from being the only Biblical reference in BvS, it is however one of the few to have been explicitly identified by Snyder and thus provides an even stronger foundation for the claim that various scenes’ iconography in BvS alludes to historical artworks.
Next, I will be examining the usage of Gustave Doré’s Paradise Lost (1866) as a key tool used to build a significant portion of the BvS iconography. The painting is first alluded to in a scene with Lex Luthor – the canonical principal antithesis to Superman – who points to a painting stunningly similar to Paradise Lost and claims that “[It] should be upside down. Now, we know better now, don’t we? Devils don’t come from hell beneath us, no. No, they come from the sky.” In that fictional painting, just like in Paradise Lost, the top half of the painting depicts a brightly lit winged creature descending from the sky to attack a horde of creatures in the dark.
While Doré’s painting is specifically about the fall of Satan, in the fictional painting, these creatures are presumably one or more of the Devils referred to by Luthor. By writing Luthor as wanting the painting inverted, and having the painting resemble Paradise Lost, Snyder clearly wanted to portray that Superman (and his fellow Kryptonians) is (are) the Devil in Luthor’s eyes despite being considered a heroic, messianic figure by many others. The parallel is even strengthened considering that he and the other Kryptonians quite literally came from the sky. The combination of the ‘devils coming from the sky’ and the reversal of the painting seems to work towards othering Superman – not only is he not a human or a saviour but an extra-terrestrial alien being, but he is also an antagonist to humankind and God. As such, his alien nature is made very stark, and he is further removed from the ‘normal’ human society.
Following that, I will analyse the sequence in BvS where Batman is about to deliver the killing blow to Superman. While there is no painting involved in this film, the configurations of line Panofsky referred to can be read as the blocking of the scene (blocking being the physical arrangement of characters and objects in the scene). Therefore, the first step – even if a bit obvious – is to look at the arrangement of each character in the scenes.
At 2h 11m 19s in the film, Batman raises his Kryptonite-tipped spear above his head, with the gleaming Kryptonite bathing his face in light. He stands with one foot upon Superman’s throat, with the weakened Kryptonian warrior lying supine on the ground, his face in the darkness of the ruined building. The next step is to conduct an iconographical identification, and it can then be seen – with reference to Snyder’s allegories to Christ on the Cross and Paradise Lost – that this scene alludes to Luca Giordano’s St. Michael (1663). In the painting, the Archangel Michael places his right foot on Satan’s chest as he pierces Satan’s side with a spear – his own face glowing in triumphant radiance while Satan’s is darkened and grotesque.
Upon close comparison of the 3D scene from BvS against St. Michael, it is clear that Batman represents Michael while Superman is – from the perspective of Batman – the Satanic figure destined to be destroyed. With this established, Panofsky’s third and final step can be implemented – the divination of a possible meaning from the use of this allusion to St. Michael. Noting how both Batman and Michael’s faces are illuminated brightly, while Superman and Satan are on the floor, with their faces in darkness, it can be interpreted that Snyder wants to showcase the perspective of Batman: specifically, how Batman views himself as the saviour of the world against Superman, the alien other, akin to how Michael was victorious against the devil, as shown in St. Michael.
Slightly before the St. Michael allegory, however, another allusion to a historical art piece appears. At 2h 09m 50s in the film, as Superman lies weakened, Batman drags the limp form of Superman using a cable mounted to his gauntlet. Again, the first step would be to conduct a basic identification of line and colour. Here, Batman drags Superman out of the light and into the darkness as Superman trails behind – out of focus in one of the angles used and cut out of the frame in the other. Batman, on the other hand has half his mask shattered, and has his face flit in and out of the light. Continuing onto the iconographic identification, it can be seen that this scene alludes to The Triumph of Achilles (1892) by Franz Matsch. In the painting, Achilles – the greatest warrior in Homer’s Iliad – drags the body of Trojan prince Hector behind his chariot. Achilles holds Hector’s galea aloft, himself bathed in sunlight while Hector’s body is in muted light, with the fallen prince’s face shadowed.
Comparing the film’s 3D scene with The Triumph of Achilles, it is plain to see that Batman represents the victorious Achilles, and Superman the fallen Hector. Before obtaining an iconological interpretation, however, it is key to note the story behind Hector’s galea as it could offer a better interpretation. Hector’s galea was, in fact, not his own. It was instead Achilles’ own galea that his apparent lover Patroclus had worn up until his death at the hands of Hector (at which point Hector had claimed the galea for his own). In that sense, in The Triumph of Achilles, Achilles is also celebrating the reclamation of his own galea. As such, one possible perspective that Snyder could have wanted to portray was once again Batman as the supreme warrior against Superman, the other. Shrouding Superman in relative darkness like Matsch did for Hector seeks to disillusion viewers from relating with them, and thus others them. Factoring in the story behind the reclamation of Achilles’ old galea in the painting, Batman’s victory can be interpreted as Batman seeing himself as the saviour who reclaimed the safety of Earth – at least from his perspective of Superman being a threat.
Interestingly enough, one of the other uses of art is in a literal nightmare scenario for Batman. Dubbed the “Knightmare sequence”, it begins when Batman falls asleep in his chair and – either through the machinations of his own mind, or through some unnamed power – sees a vision of a dystopian world with Superman having gone rogue. After being captured in the dream sequence, Batman is knocked out and wakes up to find himself hanging by his wrists in a darkened chamber, flanked on either side by what seem to be his lieutenants.
He is then approached by a rage-filled Superman, who walks past a line of kneeling soldiers and slaughters Batman’s lieutenants. Both his lieutenants are shown to be hanging by their wrists as well, and both die in anguish due to Superman’s laser vision. Through the arrangement of the 3D scene alone, it is clear that this is an allusion to the late-1450s painting Crucifixion by Andrea Mantegna. In Mantegna’s painting, Jesus is shown to be crucified next to two other unnamed men, just like how Batman is hung next to two unnamed lieutenants. Furthermore, while Mantegna depicts Jesus being crucified high up above the reference point, Batman is instead hung underground.
This sets up Mantegna’s painting to have its vanishing point high in the frame, while (in the overall 3D scene) in BvS the imaginary vanishing point is very low. According to Stokstad and Cothren (2010), this is known as the “linear perspective” technique, developed in fifteenth-century Italy by pioneers such as Mantegna. Through this analysis, one of the interpretations could be that this is well and truly Batman’s dream scenario. Instead of the traditional view of Superman as a Jesus-figure, Batman views himself as the messiah with the duty to protect his people. His worst fear is failing to protect his people from the threat of Superman, who manifests in the Knightmare to kill him and his lieutenants, and he is depicted as (presumably subconsciously) imagining that death to be similar to Jesus’ death, but happening in the darkness of the underground.
As I have analysed, Snyder has undoubtedly drawn inspiration from multiple historical artworks to build the iconography in BvS. Through these allusions that he has made, he has shown that superhero films need not be superficial and devoid of any commentary. He has attempted to get audiences to re-examine their perspectives of the historically popular Superman and Batman by repeatedly showing the othering of the former through the perspective of the latter and providing a social commentary through them. The question still remains, though – what could Snyder have been trying to say with his characterisation of the titular BvS superheroes – what is the significance of this portrayal?
With such heavy reliance on paintings that are Biblical in nature, Snyder’s allusions are presumably pointing to the story of Jesus, and his relationship with the Pharisees. In this scenario, Batman views himself as a Jesus-like figure, but Snyder instead seems to be attempting to draw the parallel that the caped crusader is more akin to the Pharisees, and Superman is the messianic figure. Just like how Jesus was accused of having the power of Satan when he healed a demon-possessed man (Matthew 12:24 New Living Translation), Batman views Superman as a devilish figure – an ‘other’. The Pharisees saw Jesus’ power and, rather than seeing it as a God-given miracle, were fearful of it. They were afraid of this outsider that had come into their society with immeasurable strength that they thought could destroy their world. That is similar to how Batman feared Superman’s power, going so far as to say, “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.”
The Pharisees thus hated Jesus, being fearful of him, and arrogant in their belief that their way of life – which was threatened by Jesus – was right. Batman, too, feared Superman and felt that his method of protecting his people was right and was enough. He believed, like the Pharisees did about Jesus, that the only course of action was to eliminate Superman. As such, the parallel that Snyder seems to have built in BvS is used to enhance the characterisation of both Batman and Superman, and give audiences a familiar storyline to associate with, thus giving a unique take on two of the most famous comic-book characters ever.
Superman’s othering in BvS can be used as a tool to understand this possible commentary. I achieved this through the comparison of the film’s iconography with certain historical paintings. It is a shame that Snyder’s time with this film universe has come to an end and that he will now be unable to give his unique take on the characters of Batman and Superman through the use of art in his iconography – a technique I feel is overlooked and underappreciated.
Donner, R. (1978). Superman [Film]. Hollywood, CA: Warner Bros.
Doré, G. (1866). Paradise Lost [Engraving].
Giordano, L. (1663). St. Michael [Oil on canvas]. Berlin: Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
Godwin, M. (1994). The Holy Grail (p. 51). New York, NY: Viking Penguin.
Kozlovic, A. (2002). Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah. Journal Of Religion & Film, 6(1). Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol6/iss1/5/.
Levin, T. Y. (1996). Iconology at the movies: Panofsky’s film theory. The Yale Journal of Criticism, 9(1), 27.
Mantegna, A. (1457). Crucifixion [Tempera and Oil on panel]. Paris: La Grande Galerie, aile Denon, Louvre Museum.
Matsch, F. (1892). The Triumph of Achilles [Oil on panel]. Corfu: Achilleion Museum.
Panofsky, E. (1955). Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art. In E. Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts (pp. 26-54). Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Panofsky, E. (1997). Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures. In I. Lavin, Three Essays on Style (pp. 91-128). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Rubens, P. (1620). Christ on the Cross [Oil on canvas]. Antwerp: Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.
Snyder, Z. (2013). Man of Steel [Film]. Hollywood, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Snyder, Z. (2016). Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice [Film]. Michigan, USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Snyder, Z. (2017). Justice League [Film]. Hollywood, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Stokstad, M., & Cothren, M. (2010). Art History (4th ed.). Harlow: Prentice Hall.