This post isn’t primarily a review of Justice League, so I’ll condense my review to a paragraph. If I’m being honest, while it was visually impressive and had compelling moments, Whedon’s needlessly vacuous and quippy dialogue and Elfman’s largely irrelevant score sabotaged most of the film. If you want to watch a good movie when you see Justice League, consider watching it without any of the original audio, as a silent film, while reading a plot synopsis and substituting Elfman’s score for the Batman v. Superman score. I promise you it’ll be a better movie. Maybe we’ll get a director’s cut. This problem was, I believe, primarily because of Snyder having to step out toward the end of making the film and giving the reigns over to Joss Whedon.
But there were some really interesting things going on in the movie regardless. As a quick warning, discussing any art requires a thorough examination of the story structure and content, so as a result, this post may have spoilers. If you care about that kind of thing and haven’t seen Justice League, maybe steer clear of this post until you see it!
In the moral calculus of the DC film universe, we live in a hopeless world of frequently evil humans for whom the only salvation is the surrender of their will and trust to a righteous person. This theme may be the result of Snyder (not as much Jenkins) and his view of the world, or maybe it’s a consequence of any thorough examination of the characters he is dealing with (perhaps a comic book fan could tell me if this is consistent with the more thorough examinations of these characters). For most of the movies, though, particularly the ones Snyder has been involved in, the stories demonstrate a fascinating approach to how power and righteousness works that has, I believe, come to its most explicit incarnation in Justice League.
In these movies, people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. This theme is deep within just about every installment of the DC universe, but particularly is present in Batman v. Superman and Justice League. Every scene without a superhero becomes a corrupt scene, where the cruelty of humanity overcomes whatever decency is there. This corruption is always hinged on the absence of a superhero, however. In Batman vs. Superman, Superman serves as the figure that holds back the evil of humanity, even to the point of being near-worshiped as the savior of the world. The central question of Batman in the movie is whether or not Superman is righteous enough to hold his absolute power. While everything seems to point to Superman being a perfect exemplar for humanity, Batman, fully believing in the nature of humanity as wicked, cannot trust Superman to hold the absolute power that he does. This is because Batman, who has labored fighting Gotham’s crime, sees justice as a beautiful lie, and an impossibility. Batman is so a part of the status quo that he cannot help but distrust any power stronger than himself. Humanity is so doomed that, to Batman, there can be no moral answer.
Batman v. Superman proves that Superman is the morally perfect person, and exists as the sole exception to the nature of the world, perhaps because he both is alien to the world by nature, but at home in the world by nurture, a figure who dwells in both spaces, an incarnational figure. He is the example to humanity of a just figure, and as a result, he becomes the method of redeeming the world of its nature. While superheroes from other* film universes primarily are there to protect the world and maintain the status quo, Superman is there to dramatically alter the world for the better. His death, while it brings about the world’s security, is also seen as a signal that the world’s immorality will continue to go unchecked now that Superman is gone. This is explicitly portrayed at the beginning of Justice League as we are taken through several scenes of human cruelty juxtaposed with Superman’s memorial.
*By this I mean the MARVEL universe, the ultimate conservative cinematic universe, where every villain wants to change the world and every hero wants to keep it the same.
This portrayal of human cruelty extends throughout the entire film, but is unique in that Snyder seems to be setting these actions of depravity directly in the conflicts and anxieties of our present world. The first scene of wickedness is an angry group of people looting and tearing up the shop of a middle-eastern woman and son, a clear portrayal of xenophobia.* Later, there is a blind homeless man, seemingly as blind as humanity, sitting in an apathetic crowd with a sign that reads “I tried,” a perhaps melodramatic representation of human failure. The next threat is a group of suicidal terrorists who, through their racially diverse targets, “ethnic purgation” language, and 40’s Nazi styled attire, are clearly representative of current anxiety over the rise of new white supremacy.**
*Xenophobia is discussed in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, but always in the context of Superman and his foreignness, never as explicitly modern and political as this iteration.
**You could almost see the Tiki Torches
The impending threat of Steppenwolf is compared to anxieties of global warming repeatedly, and when the parademons and Steppenwolf make their outpost on earth, it is in the heart of a decaying nuclear plant. This reflection on the nuclear worries of the world is most explicitly shown in a scene where a helpless family watches as hordes of the parademons pour out of the top of the nuclear plant like a cloud of locusts.
Even the new characters introduced (those not previously inspired and reformed by Superman) feature particular problems that reflect modern anxiety. The Flash represents the disconnected youth, a character who cannot be a part of broader society because of how uncomfortable he is with social customs and how difficult he finds connecting with other people. On the other side of the millennial spectrum you have the more grave Cyborg, who is terrified of just how connected he is to the technological systems of his time.
He fears being overtaken by the technology that saves his life, reflecting the current social fear of the widespread reach of technology. Finally, Aquaman is the apathetic isolationist who runs away from global problems by contenting himself with a quiet life of indifference. These figures show the current moral failings of our world, no one else’s. The movie Justice League doesn’t seek to answer just any moral faults or depravity, it exclusively is presenting solutions to our moral faults and depravity.
The solution is different than the solutions usually given to our world’s issues. Instead of asking society to band together and defeat evil in a democratic fashion, instead of being given figures who are concerned with the will of the world, we are given figures who adamantly do not care for what people want. Rather they are willing to make decisions that seem to run contrary to the will of humanity in order to save humanity. If humanity is as evil as these films portray, this makes perfect sense.
Batman decides to resurrect Superman against the will of the majority of his peers. He defies their will, saying instead that they just need to do the right thing. Wonder Woman, in Batman’s absence, overrules the will of the league to amend their current plan of attacking Steppenwolf and return to help Batman fight off the parademons. As the Flash puts it, “She didn’t put it up to a vote.” The decision to resurrect Superman alone is a direct removal of agency from the hands of the league and placement of that agency into Kryptonian hands. They resurrect Superman not because he will accomplish their will, but because he is, to their understanding, more righteous than they are, and will make a better decision regardless of their will.
The answer to the world’s problems is, in these films, to surrender our will and agency and place it into the hands of the righteous person. The tragic element of this plot point is, however, that there is no such righteous person to be found. Snyder’s heroes are so desperate to see the righteous person rule that they are willing to trespass on all lines of decency, to the point of grave-robbing and using alien destructive technology to bring Superman back to life, a decision that in almost any other movie would have horrible, evil consequences. But here, in order to be under the rule of the righteous Superman, in order to have a ruler over humanity that can save humanity, we need to be willing to do anything.
Instead of seeing humanity band together to save itself, we see the only salvation of the world, which is directly seen as our world, to be found in an impossible figure, a morally perfect, nearly invincible alien. This moral structure runs counter to all of our current cultural narratives and ideas. It runs counter to the ideal of democracy, the progressive narrative of humanity improving over time through knowledge, and the idea of the salt-of-the-earth decent people holding the true salvation for the world. It runs counter to our cultural narratives because it is directly anti-human. As a Christian, this theme resonates with me. After all, the idea of submission to the perfect incarnate figure who will provide me salvation regardless of my own wickedness is shockingly similar to the faith I believe in. That being said, without this comparison, the story is surprisingly hopeless to our society. We don’t have that morally righteous hero, and as scandal after scandal comes out of Hollywood, Washington, and even some churches, the longing for a righteous leader is palpable. The moral structure is self-damning, but it tells a narrative that is shockingly different than what other superhero films have tried (I’m directly, angrily looking at you, MARVEL), and I’m overjoyed it’s out there.