“Why did you say that name?!”
Now that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has become a cultural phenomenon, it’s the perfect time to revisit a classic moment from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and look at it with new context. Whether you loved that film or it wasn’t your cup of tea, we all remember the infamous “Martha moment,” but many viewers completely misinterpreted it. For five years pop culture has had a blast making jokes about how Batman stopped fighting Superman because he found out both of their mothers had the same name (I’m looking at you Teen Titans Go! To The Movies). I’m certainly not one to stand in the way of a good joke, it’s never a good look when we as fans can’t laugh at ourselves, but the Martha moment is so much more than that. In fact, I’d argue that it’s one of the most important turning points in Zack Snyder’s cinematic DC saga. Without Martha, we wouldn’t have Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Fun story, I took a nine-year-old to see Dawn of Justice in theaters back in 2016 and when the Martha moment happened, he turned to me in shock and said “They’re brothers?!” While that revelation would have been mind-blowing, the true meaning of the scene was much more heartfelt. Before we get to it, though, let’s set the stage. I’ve been a Batman fan since I was a kid and I’ll admit I’ve become desensitized to seeing the Wayne murders. I’ve seen that pivotal moment play out in so many different ways that it’s something I’ve come to expect in a Batman origin story. We’ve all seen the moment so often that it’s easy to forget the impact of it. But try to put that aside and just imagine the trauma of seeing your parents gunned down when you’re a young boy.
When the moment is reimagined during the introduction of Batman v Superman, Thomas Wayne quietly says “Martha” as he bleeds out on the floor. Consider the significance of this—Superman wasn’t just saying the name of Batman’s mother, he was saying Thomas Wayne’s last words. One has to wonder, can Bruce hear someone say the name “Martha” without flashing back to his father’s last breath? This was the moment that created Batman, as Bruce Wayne vowed that no child would have to lose their parents the way he did.
Flashforward to the present (or 2016) and Batman has lost sight of his original purpose. He’s still saving people, but he’s clearly shed a great deal of his humanity. He’s branding criminals and has left Wayne Manor in shambles. Batman’s war on crime has shattered Bruce Wayne’s psyche. As a result, he sees Superman as a threat and decides to go after him. The Dark Knight prepares for the fight, but when it’s time to go in for the kill, Superman stops him by saying, “You’re letting them kill Martha!” and “Save Martha!”
So, if you’re Batman, you’ve witnessed the murder of your parents as a young boy and heard your father say “Martha” as he bled out. You’ve relived that moment in your nightmares for years, carrying it with you. You’ve often wondered if you could have done anything differently. Could you have saved your parents? You don’t talk about this to others, but you’ve silently carried this burden. Then in a tense battle, your enemy says “Save Martha” seemingly out of context. Let’s be real, if you were Batman, you would angrily shout, “Why did you say that name?!?” too. For someone who probably blames himself for the death of his parents, hearing a stranger say, “You’re letting them kill Martha!” would feel like someone was reading your soul.
Thankfully, Lois was there to explain the situation to him and everything changed for Batman. For the entire movie, he had been looking at Superman as a dangerous alien invader who had to be stopped, but now all he sees is a man begging for his mother to be saved. Notice how Ben Affleck takes in this information—his entire body reels as he processes the ramifications. Not only was he wrong about Superman, but he was wrong about everything. In a sense, Superman and Lois held up a metaphorical mirror to Batman, showing how far he had strayed from his original mission, and it horrified him. He didn’t become Batman to hunt down and kill people like Superman or brand criminals. He became Batman to save innocents—to save people like Martha Kent.
Superman’s words remind Batman of why he became a vigilante in the first place and what it felt like to be that little boy in Crime Alley. Of course, with Lex Luthor still in the picture, there isn’t much time to dwell on the moment. Batman is ready to get back to work, but not before making a vow to Superman: “I’ll make you a promise, Martha won’t die tonight.”
His choice of words is intentional. Instead of saying “I’ll save your mother,” he says, “Martha won’t die tonight,” and it feels like he’s saying it as much for himself as he is for Superman. For Batman, saving Martha Kent is more than a rescue mission. It’s a way to redeem himself for how far he strayed from his original mission, a way to make amends with Superman, and a way to deal with the demons that have haunted him since he saw his own mother die.
Consider how things would have played out if Superman hadn’t shouted “Martha.” Batman would have killed the Man of Steel, putting the Dark Knight past the point of no return. He would never have gone on to recruit Aquaman, Flash or Cyborg, leaving Earth vulnerable to Steppenwolf’s attack. While Wonder Woman would have given the battle her all, if Zack Snyder’s Justice League has taught us anything, it’s that we fail unless we’re united. I love Diana, but even with the others by her side, the battle would be unwinnable without Superman and Batman.
While Flash told Bruce that Lois was the key, I’d like to argue that Martha was as well. Bruce needed to save Martha in order to save himself. In fact, Batman has another “save Martha” moment during the epilogue of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Using his financial influence, Bruce Wayne buys a Smallville bank and stops Martha Kent’s eviction. It’s a sweet moment between Batman and Superman, but it also brings things full circle. Bruce saves Martha—twice if you want to be technical. But she absolutely saves him as well.
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Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." For more from Josh, check out his recent column on how Ben Affleck redeemed Batman.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.