What could a fictional billionaire/vigilante and a former U.S Vice President possibly have in common? In one of the latest DC films, Batman v Superman, Bruce Wayne aka Batman is adopting and implementing a doctrine that has been made famous by Dick Cheney in the Bush Administration’s ”War on Terror”. In BvS Bruce Wayne states categorically, in reference to Superman, that:
‘’If we believe there’s even a one percent chance he’s our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty’’.
Dick Cheney summarized the Bush Administration’s doctrine against terrorism after the attacks on the twin towers stating that:
‘‘If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response”.
This has come to be known as ”The One Percent Doctrine” and its driving force seems to be fear and retaliation as a result of that fear.
Batman’s attitude towards the man of steel has been characterized as far-fetched by many critics but it might not be that much of a crazy approach from the bat vigilante’s perspective after all. Bruce witnessed the terrifying power of the Kryptonians and the destruction of Metropolis provided him with a coherent story, a narrative in his mind, in which a similar event cannot be ruled out.
In Bruce’s mind the potential losses from Superman destroying or enslaving the human race (however unlikely by the behavior demonstrated by him thus far) outweighs by much the potential benefits (saving lives, protecting the planet etc.), which is the most likely outcome (again, based on his actions thus far). So, Bruce prefers not to take the gamble. And that can’t be dismissed as illogical or even hyperbolic.
Bruce is definitely not the only man wanting Superman gone but he is one of the few that have the resources needed (well, except Lex Luthor), the abilities and experience to tackle what he finds to be a terrible threat. And that is exactly what he does; he takes action.
Apart from the obvious need for a justification for the movie to pit its two protagonists against one another the reasoning for the conflict is not that flawed.
The filmmakers, in their attempt to ground Batman’s decision in the real world, adopted a doctrine that has existed and in a way is still in force and has consciously or unconsciously made this film a reflection of the real world. Beyond any doubt, one can see that the world of BvS is a post 9/11 world, with an analogous pessimism and fear. The collapse of the twin towers ruptured the sheltered psyche of Americans and created a terrible trauma, one that is evident to this day. Modern day America has been, for the most part, a sheltered nation that had one major conflict (the American Civil War) on her grounds after the nation’s formation. World War I and World War II (the attack on Pearl Harbor and some minor incidents excluded) left the country’s mainland untouched. The fictional attack of the Kryptonians has clear real life parallelisms with the traumatic experience of the 9/11 attacks.
Another parallelism is the xenophobia and fear towards Superman. It is clear that America’s decline from her former indisputable place in the world has produced a loss of balance and an uncertainty echoed in the xenophobia that a large part of her population demonstrates as a symptom of a society in unrest (see the signs outside the Capitol when Superman is audited and the signs in Donald Trump’s rallies). Humans have always feared anything alien (pun intended) and in difficult times people turn against anything that feels foreign. The irony of all this is that the country was built on immigration.
Those are not the only parallels that can be drawn between the film and real world. God vs Man is a core element of the film. For the last 100 years, god has been in a steady decline in all of the Western World. Yet, at the same time mankind seeks a messianic figure. That may lead to the rejection of god and the adoption of ‘’false gods’’ in his place (see 2016 U.S Presidential election). As a result, two poles with opposing magnetic fields are created. People want a god/savior as demonstrated in the film by those who seek Superman’s help in times of need but at the same time a feeling of fear and detestation is present and acting. People of ancient civilizations feared god (or gods) and would appease him/her (or them) with sacrifices and gifts. On the contrary, the western man of today may feel inadequate and powerless in front of a hero, a godlike figure or god and as a result rebels against him (as Bruce did). Those are all psychological roots of the treatment Batman has in store for Superman.
Comic book films as Mythology and Art
But why is there such a strong reaction to this movie? Many films have been characterized as good or great for being representations of their contemporary world. One reason could be that in a mythological world (as modern comic book movies are) one doesn’t expect or want to see brutal reality. Of course, mythology is based on the realities and aspirations of people, but the problem with this movie might be that it presents the realities but fails to fully present the aspirations of these people. A hero should be the personification of these aspirations; a utopian model of man. A flawed hero can go so far.
Films are art. Comic book films are no exception. And if good art (films, painting etc) stems from reality, great one transcends it. Of course, there are many definitions of art but it can be argued that art can (and should be) uplifting and cathartic. So the DC universe could of course project America’s (or the world’s) anxieties, but at the same time, it could be a better mythological world and a better piece of art by combining what is with what ought to be.
Americans saw themselves in the movie (and most probably didn’t like what they saw) but didn’t get to see what they want to become materialized through the film’s heroes.
Admittedly DC movies are flawed as all things created by man tend to be and part of the problem quite possibly stems from the comparison with Marvel movies. Quite frankly I find the comparison inept. Marvel takes a rather different approach. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, they both are fruits but how can you compare two different kinds? On what grounds? For too long now DC hasn’t been able to make consistently good interpretations of its heroes on the big screen. Since Marvel was able to do that it seems like DC is always dragging behind. That shouldn’t be the case. DC started comic book films and should be judged on its own merits. It is indeed possible for a big improvement but that should come naturally as DC finds its own pace.
Having said that, another big problem is the critics. I do believe that some healthy criticism is essential to any progress in any line of work, but… like Jay-Z aptly rapped:
‘’ And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it
Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it’’.
 Among other causes, Bruce’s obsession over Superman appears to be a result of loss aversion, a psychological phenomenon of the human mind in which losses weigh heavier than potential gains. This phenomenon has been described by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky as Loss Aversion (which in turn leads to Risk Aversion) as part of Prospect Theory. Kahneman and Tversky argued that losses loom larger than gains for the human mind. One gets more satisfaction when not losing 30$ than when gaining the same amount of money. For a better understanding see ”Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. As far as the story that Bruce built in his mind from the destruction of Metropolis, in that same book one can find a description of how people create coherent stories from events so that they can get a better understanding of the world and have a reference point. When an event, however unlikely, takes place the human mind prioritizes it and makes it appear having a higher possibility to happen (again) than originally.
- Wikipedia: Loss aversion, Risk aversion, ‘’The One Percent Doctrine’’ book by Ron Suskind
- David Kahneman’s, ‘’Thinking Fast and Slow’’