The Shakespearean Tragedy of Batman v. Superman
“Batman is basically the American version of Hamlet,…” – Ben Affleck
Based on the above quote from an Entertainment Weekly interview, you might have deduced that the tragedy of Batman v. Superman that I’m writing about has nothing to do with Rotten Tomatoes scores or box office numbers, but rather I am exploring the tragic elements and connections between Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s no surprise that there are similarities between the character of Batman and the character of Hamlet. These similarities are made very prevalent in Batman v. Superman. What is somewhat surprising is just how much this movie resembles the Bard’s tragedy. The similarities even extend beyond Batman himself to other characters, most notably Superman.
Let’s start with the most obvious parallel. In one corner you have Hamlet, Prince of Denmark who dresses in black, broods, and seeks vengeance tempered with justice for the murder of a parent. In the other corner you have Bruce Wayne, the “prince” of Gotham who like Hamlet is “to the [Wayne] manor born,” and is no stranger to brooding and a dark wardrobe. Bruce as Batman also seeks justice as a result of his parents’ death. Then of course there’s the whole sanity question. Both Hamlet and Batman undeniably have keen intellects, but are they crazy? You be the judge.
One thing that is interesting about Batman v. Superman is how it takes the tragic hero elements of Hamlet and applies some of them not only to Batman but to Superman as well. This version of Superman does a bit of brooding and introspection of his own that is characteristic of Hamlet. Superman contemplates his place in the world and the reason he is here. He also faces the world’s expectations and his own mortality in a way that even Batman doesn’t in this film.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his dead father. Superman sees a paternal “ghost” or two as well. In Man of Steel he saw the ghostly hologram of his Kryptonian father Jor-El while in Batman v. Superman, Clark Kent imagines a conversation with his deceased earthly father Jonathan Kent on a mountaintop.
Like Hamlet, Superman also has a girlfriend who drowns, but unlike Ophelia, Superman saves Lois Lane from her watery grave, perhaps demonstrating that Superman’s devotion to Lois whom he refers to as “my world” exceeds that of Hamlet’s for the “fair Ophelia.”
Furthermore, Superman gives his life in true tragic hero fashion. When Batman and Wonder Woman comment on Superman’s funeral service, they remark that he is treated like a soldier because they do not know how to honor him. The burial of Hamlet is similarly worded:
“Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage,…
The soldiers’ music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him”
In Batman v. Superman we see Lex Luthor take on the villainous role of King Claudius. As the CEO of LexCorp, Lex is the monarch of his own kingdom. He also exists in the same class of wealthy “royalty” as Bruce Wayne. Lex inherited his kingdom from his dead father as Claudius inherited his from his dead brother. While Lex doesn’t marry anyone’s mother like in Hamlet, he does kidnap Superman’s mother, Martha Kent. Batman would later rescue Martha which like Ophelia is a bit of a twist on Hamlet. Martha Kent escapes with her life from the evil king’s machinations while Hamlet’s mother Gertrude fell victim to them. It is also Lex’s plans that fan the flames of Batman’s hatred of Superman and manipulates the two of them into fighting each other much like Claudius added fuel to Laertes’s rage and orchestrated the duel between Laertes and Hamlet. In Hamlet, Claudius’s weapon of choice was poison. In Batman v. Superman, Lex poisons Batman’s mind to pit him against Superman while supplying the literal poison in the form of Kryptonite to weaken and kill Superman, although like Claudius he lets others like Batman and Doomsday do his dirty work for him.
In Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be…” soliloquy he speaks of death and dreams.
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,”
In Batman v. Superman we see a Batman plagued by dreams. There is his dream of falling into the cave, into the underworld, the realm of death if you will. There is his dream of the blood coming from his parents’ graves (another place of death) where he is attacked by the Man-Bat creature. There is the entire “Knightmare” scene in which Batman sees a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with death and destruction which foreshadows an invasion by Darkseid. In this dream/vision, Batman sees all of his fears of Superman made manifest as the Man of Steel has become an evil god. Finally, Batman experiences the dream (or was it?) of the Flash warning him about the future. Even Superman is haunted by a dead man’s dream as he speaks of his father’s dream for the kind of hero he hoped Clark would become for the world.
Then there’s the whole mother thing. One of the themes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that of mothers and sons. Hamlet is somewhat mother obsessed. He agonizes over the fact that his mother has married his paternal uncle. Some would even categorize Hamlet’s preoccupation with his mother as something of an Oedipal Complex. In Batman v. Superman we also see the running theme of mothers. The film opens with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother and father, but unlike other movies’ versions, the focus is less on father Thomas Wayne and more on mother Martha Wayne as her name is the last thing whispered by Bruce’s dying father. In the next scene, Bruce Wayne saves a child during the destruction of Metropolis caused by the battle between Superman and Zod from Man of Steel. Bruce’s first instinct is to ask the little girl, “Where’s your mom?” The mother theme continues to play out as Lex Luthor kidnaps Martha Kent and mocks Superman with “every boy’s special lady is his mother.” It would be Superman’s utterance of his mother’s name that gives Batman pause during their battle. Although the scene has been much maligned and criticized online and off, it fits perfectly with the mother theme running throughout the film. “Martha” is a rather uncommon name in this day and age. To hear that name come from Superman’s mouth and then to discover that this “alien” has a mother that he loves humanizes Superman in Batman’s eyes in a way that he hadn’t been before. Batman realizes that he is now the thug in the alley letting the mother of an innocent boy (Superman) die.
I completely understand that this movie is not for everybody. The negative critical response and mixed reactions from audiences is evidence of that. The film itself is polarizing just as Superman himself is made out to be in the movie. It’s not exactly a fun movie. It’s a tragedy that’s more akin to a literary work than a summer blockbuster. I know that’s not appealing to everyone. Some people find such lofty ambitions when it comes to superhero comic book movies to be boring and pretentious. They have no room for an interpretation that goes against the comfortable and easily digestible formula we’ve become accustomed to. Perhaps therein lies the real tragedy.