Batman v Superman teaches us about mercy
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
“This is the time for mercy,” said Pope Francis when explaining his reason for the Jubilee of Mercy. In the new movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, even director Zach Snyder seems to be on board.
Snyder’s movie culminates in acts of mercy by both Batman and Superman. Batman is able to show mercy to Superman when he discovers a bond that he shares with him.
Superman then vanquishes evil by offering a loving sacrifice. It is an act of mercy directed at the humans who have misunderstood and reviled him.
Ironically, the movie is being reviled and misunderstood by critics. It has also started tanking at the box office. The word-of-mouth denunciations are keeping people away from the theaters.
The critics should reconsider their revulsion. The movie itself anticipates their arguments, because its main theme is about how we reject superheroes when they don’t live up to our expectations.
Snyder must find it hilarious so many people are trashing the film when it doesn’t deliver the feel-good nostalgia they associate with their childhood heroes. They’re upset, as if these heroes were substitute deities for them. They complain the director does not worship Batman and Superman with enough reverence.
But again, that’s the deliberate theme of the film. No superhero can supplant God, Who alone is omnipotent and perfectly benevolent.
In the film, both Batman and Superman have to learn this lesson. They learn it by discovering the only truly effective way for them to wield whatever power and goodness they do possess. That way is mercy.
Acting as a proxy for director Snyder, the super-villain Lex Luthor is able to manipulate Batman and Superman into fighting one another precisely because neither one of them is all-powerful or all good. That’s how evil works, implies Snyder: namely, by misdirecting the good, and by inciting resentment against it.
Lex Luthor knows people will inevitably resent Batman or Superman whenever their power or goodness fails to eradicate evil. So he will try and use that evil fact of life to defeat whatever power goodness does possess.
Luthor deconstructs the idea of a perfect superhero by saying: “I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you be,” implying that ultimately only evil can be all-powerful. Luthor acts to demonstrate his atheist thesis by manipulating Batman into destroying Superman.
Philosophy students who see the film will recognize Luthor is repeating an argument from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume finished the book in 1776 but it was published posthumously in 1779. Hume attributes the famous argument to the ancient Greek atomist and atheistic philosopher Epicurus:
“Epicurus’s old questions [about God] are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
As the Hume quote has been passed down through the centuries, a further two questions have been tagged on the end: “Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Hume apparently relied on Pierre Bayle’s influential Dictionnaire Historique et Critique. Bayle quotes the Latin of Lactantius, a Church Father and adviser to Emperor Constantine, in which the questions are attributed to Epicurus:
“God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?” (Lactantius, De Ira Dei 13.19, “On the Anger of God,” translated by William Fletcher.)
But a highly similar passage actually does survive from antiquity, in the ancient Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Skepticism. In that passage, the skeptic concludes that the Greek gods cannot possibly exercise providential care for the human race.
Like the Greek gods, stories about superheroes can inspire. But they all fall short of the glory of God, unless their power and goodness is deployed in the same way that the one true God Himself deploys His power and goodness: i.e., with mercy.
“Only where there is mercy does cruelty end, only with mercy do evil and violence end,” as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his recent interview.
On their path to sanctity, Batman and Superman realize that only divine mercy is able to defeat evil and bring about a greater good.