Despite being panned by critics, the box-office success of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has much to teach us about engaging people in spiritual, moral, social and cultural questions in general – and the Philosophy of Religion in particular.
Right from its release date, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice confounded the critics by becoming a resounding success at the box office. With ticket sales of $166m at the opening weekend in the USA this film not only came top of the top ten, but also took over twice as much as all the other nine films added together. Globally, at $420m, this film had the fourth-biggest opening weekend in history, and the highest ever for a superhero movie. From a financial perspective these figures clearly justified the film’s $250 million production budget and assured the subsequent Justice League film franchise that it clearly heralds. But for those of us who are more interested in what films say about the spiritual, moral and social issues in our culture there is a deeper question to be considered.
When fans praised the film with simple words such as ‘awesome’ and ‘must-see’, why did film critics fall over themselves to create clever condemning epithets such as a ‘stink bucket of disappointment’ (Vox Culture) and a ‘superhero-smorgasbord [that] melts into an electric soup of CGI’ (The Times)? And, for those of us who are engaged in spiritual education, what can we learn from the fact that the film’s audience was largely male (66%) and aged 18 to 34 (63%)?
Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president responsible for distribution at Warner Bros commented on the disconnect between the critics and the fans by offering an explanation that ‘[the film] doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s just an enjoyable afternoon at the movies.’ But possibly there is more to it than that, because there is serious content in this action-packed film. In fact, it is worn visibly on its sleeve rather than hidden in subtleties of imagery and dialogue. The audience are not just offered dramatic fights and vivid explosions, but also clear thought-provoking statements.
So, for example, when the camera zooms in across the crowds in one significant scene, we read the words ‘If you seek his monument, look around.’ OK, so the scriptwriters have borrowed the phrase from the grave of Sir Christopher Wren in St Paul’s Cathedral, but the fact remains that the action pauses for a moment and the audience is given something profound to think about. And perhaps this provides spiritual educators with a lesson and an opportunity.
Clearly most of the audience have not turned out and bought their tickets because the film raises spiritual questions, they have come for the superheroes, and the fights, and the explosions. But the fact remains that the producers have not held back from raising spiritual, moral, social and cultural questions for fear of alienating this audience.
The film is full of God-talk which is very obvious and explicit. Mostly this is in the words of Lex Luthor who is played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg (despite being ridiculed by some critics who dismiss him as ‘waxing crazily pedantic, like no one told him he’s not in a Sorkin movie anymore’). For example, in a central scene Luthor carefully and clearly expresses the theological conundrum: ‘if God is all powerful then he can’t be all good, and if he’s all good then he can’t be all powerful’.
In another scene he questions whether the ‘god’ Superman is doing what is good because it is good or deciding what is good because he wants to do it. Any philosopher or theologian will recognise these as two of the key questions of the Philosophy of Religion, which have been well-worked for thousands of years.
The first, known today as the Logical Problem of Evil, dates back to the 4th Century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus but is best known in the form expressed by the 18th Century philosopher David Hume who said in his Dialogues ‘Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’ The second, known today as Euthyphro’s Dilemma, comes from Plato who, in his Socratic dialogues says ‘is the pious [good] loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?’
Neither of these two well-worked questions from the Philosophy of Religion are explicitly named in the film, but they are clearly expressed. So, perhaps a lesson we can draw from the film, and its appeal to 18-34 year old men, is to not be scared of raising and exploring such profound questions for fear of alienating an audience. And perhaps an opportunity is to help such film fans to continue to think about these questions as they leave the cinema and return to their everyday lives.
I for one, now eagerly anticipate the forthcoming films in the subsequent Justice League film franchise. Not because I personally like superhero films; nor because I relish the idea of sitting through more hours of CGI special effect explosions; but because these films speak the language of today’s generation and effectively raise some of the biggest spiritual, moral and social questions in today’s culture.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice releases soon on DVD and Blu-ray. Order your copy from Amazon.