Justice League Analysis: The DCEU and Righteous Authority

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Wonder Woman” Review

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, an Amazon warrior, chooses to fight for a perpetually warring humanity that does not deserve her aid. In a similar fashion, it might be said that we as the audience do not deserve Patty Jenkins’ genuinely wondrous Wonder Woman. Audiences and critics have pummeled Zack Snyder’s bold figurings of the two foremost male superheroes in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. A public enamored with distraction from our ever-darkening social climate shunned Snyder’s aesthetically and narratively daring explorations of the present cultural zeitgeist, instead preferring to laugh the violent roots of society’s ills away in a slew of Marvel sequels, films that thwart any serious engagement with theme or emotion by constantly undercutting themselves with ironic humor. Given the thankless task of following up the obnoxiously kitsch Guardians of the Galaxy-clone Suicide Squad, Jenkins rights the momentarily listing DC ship not only by firing a shot across the bow of an industry beholden to masculine fantasies but also by engaging questions of war, innocence, and emotion in a film invigorated with dynamism and vibrancy.

Echoing Man of Steel’s jaw-dropping space opera opening, Wonder Woman begins by planting itself firmly in Greek myth on the island of Themyscira, embracing a world of gods, goddesses, and Amazons that is bursting with both color and life. Stunning blues and greens combine with massive white cliff faces to create an Edenic haven for Diana’s matriarchal warrior people. Jenkins showcases a command both of visual place and directing physicality, and early training sequences are clear, precise, and involving. Not enough can be said for Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana, as she balances innocence, charisma, and earnestness with an expansive emotional range that Jenkins uses to great effect throughout. This early chapter (featuring excellent bit parts from Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright as Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and aunt General Antiope, respectively) foregrounds the film’s unwavering commitment to the reality and genuineness of its mythology (Diana was made by Hippolyta and Zeus and, refreshingly, that’s that) while also introducing broader questions of allegory and the materialization of ideals. The impetus that gets Diana off the island is to literally find and kill the god of war, Ares, and thus end the perpetual warring of humankind.

The war of the moment, World War I, is introduced via Steve Trevor (the ever-dependable Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British who crashes a stolen plane into the waters of the island, German ships hot on his tale, and is rescued by Diana. The initial combat between the Amazons and longboat crews is involving, shot with clarity and precision, but the best is still to come. World War I proves a curious and intriguing setting for Wonder Woman’s venture. Known as “the war to end all wars,” this particular conflict is historically regarded as a European struggle of unique futility and horror. The war, however, is figured not with close attention to historical specificity but rather as a universal avatar for war as horror, the actualization of the principle that Ares represents. The cruelty of war on humans, animals, and the Earth itself is compacted into a stirring composite that culminates in Diana’s refusal to ignore suffering in one particular village and charge across no man’s land. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score works wonders here, as Jenkins’ steady action choreography echoes a smoother and steadier version of Snyder’s colorful and dynamic constructions.

It is within the contradictions that this mythic and allegorical figuring of war brings about that Wonder Woman is at its most interesting. Unlike the Marvel or Disney Star Wars films, where theme is a coldly calculated and neatly arranged commodity, Jenkins plays out a number of the tensions inherent in Diana’s desire to be a warrior for peace. Her own strong conscience is held a hair’s breadth away from her immense martial skill, and the film wisely places a constant emphasis on Diana’s moral decision making that fuels her actions. It is in those actions, and the actions (or lack of actions) of her fellow warriors (both women and men) that Diana’s idealism is necessarily complicated, and the relative honesty with which the film handles these complications is one of its strongest elements.

Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman were both preoccupied with the complications arising when ideals of goodness and truth become embodied in physical forms on Earth, and Wonder Woman follows this thematic exploration by emphasizing the tensions between cosmic and physical values, the realm of allegory and the realm of realism. During the climactic battle, Steven says to Diana that he will “save today” while she will “save the world.” Juxtaposed against each other, then, are the cosmic values that larger than life heroic figures such as Wonder Woman and Superman embody and their intensely personal struggles and attempts to enact those values in a physical space as Diana Prince or Clark Kent. This is further emphasized by Diana’s goal of ending warfare in the universal by killing the god of war himself, a lofty desire complicated by both individual victims and perpetrators of militant violence. Humor, interpersonal conflict, and narrative beats continually revolve around humans as beings with bodies, part of a tangible, physical world. Couple this with the mythic figuring of World War I, a specific war figured in a universal aspect, and Wonder Woman under Jenkins’ direction furthers Snyder’s interest in questioning the stories by which we organize our lives, whether they be tidy narrative ideals or acknowledgement of an irreducibly complex reality, suggesting that the two polarities must not and cannot be dichotomized.

Wonder Woman does have a few weaknesses of note, chief among them being two campy villains, an evil German general and an evil German scientist, who echo the flippancy of a standard Marvel villain rather than project the ideological menace of General Zod or the Satanic machinations of Lex Luthor. Thankfully, the final act reveals these two to be red herrings of sorts, playing them off of the true threat in some interesting narrative and thematic ways. While a solid narrative turn, and a natural extension of the film’s themes, this final showdown does lack some of the visual punch that Snyder so effortlessly provides, but Jenkins infuses the climax with her own sensibility, orchestrating several heart-rending character moments along with lovingly-composed images bathed in the light of a rising sun.

It is this care for and sincere embracing of human emotion that lends Wonder Woman perhaps its greatest strength. While Jenkins may still be coming into her own as a constructor of action (not one to rival a George Miller or Ridley Scott at this point) she films her sequences with vibrancy and clarity, which is becoming an all too rare achievement in the overstuffed superhero genre. Of particular note are the moments when she merges an intensely anti-cynical emotional expression to visual and aural storytelling. It is a move out of sync with a genre riddled with irony and desperate to protect the desires and fantasies of fans. Jenkins instead provides a heroic role model (through Gal Gadot’s star-making turn) who intensely feels the brokenness of our world, rather than deflecting it through distraction and flippancy. Perhaps the film’s finest moment is not Wonder Woman at her most traditionally heroic, but rather as she walks through the aftermath of a gas attack, the orange of chemicals swirling around and fusing itself to her mounting grief and rage at the murder of civilians. It is a righteous indignancy, a moral horror, that has no respite or outlet except for heroic action, and it is in that action, the attempted realization of love, that Wonder Woman finds her greatest strength.

“Man of Steel” Review

ManofSteelMan of Steel certainly had some high expectations to meet, following up on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s masterful Batman trilogy, and featuring Nolan himself in the writing and producing role, with Zack Snyder helming in the director’s chair. The reboot had to face the daunting tasks of bringing Superman back to life in a more serious and weighty fashion while also satisfying the Superman mythos and tradition both in film and comic-lore. Though I do not pretend to be an expert on the finer details of the Superman character, from my knowledge the film succeeds at both. Man of Steel is a rousing success because it takes utterly seriously Superman’s role as a shining beacon of hope, a man unlike us, a man far more powerful than us, but a good man, a moral man unshakable in his resolve, an example that we can look up to.

Man of Steel opens up on Krypton’s final moments, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife oppose General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) military coup against the ruling council (which has foolishly doomed Krypton by mining the planet’s core for energy) while also secretly having the first natural child born on Krypton in years (Krypton has instated intense population and genetic controls). In the midst of both military and natural disaster, Jor-El sends Kal-El, his son, to Earth, with the codex of the Kryptonian race infused within his genes.

The story then moves on to tell the story of Jor-El’s son, now known as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), on Earth. Clark is introduced as a man, thirty-three years old, as he discovers the truth behind his past and mysterious powers and abilities on a wrecked Kryptonian spaceship, while the story of his childhood on the farm of the Kents is told in flashback form. Not long after Clark puts all the pieces together and accepts his role Zod shows up, desiring to raise the Kryptonian race to supremacy once again, needing both Earth and Kal-El’s genes to do so, and a showdown for the ages is set.

The execution of this storyline is by no means flawless. Unfortunately, the scenes of Clark’s childhood feel as if they could have been fleshed out more, a situation made unfortunate because those childhood scenes that do appear are done so well. Kevin Costner does an excellent job as Clark’s earthly father, and the inner conflicts within Clark as to his freakish nature, and also his remarkable ability to absorb and take abuse and mockery without retaliation, is fascinating and touching. The flashback style of telling the story also interrupts some of the narrative flow at times. Also, some of the action sequences towards the end of the film go on for just a bit too long. The god-fights between Superman and his Kryptonian enemies are a stunning sight to behold, but one can only take so much.

However, these are small flaws amongst a larger and grander overall picture. The opening sequences on Krypton are some of the most stunning science fiction scenes in recent memory, rivaling even this year’s Oblivion. Breathtaking images of a world in its death throes, accompanied by the powerful choral undertones of Hans Zimmer’s pounding score, captivate the viewer and will thrill any fan of sci-fi. General Zod is an extremely well-thought out and menacing villain, presenting a fantastic opponent to everything Superman stands for and represents, traveling through space and sky in menacing Kryptonian craft (do not even get me started on the body armor he and his fellow defectors wear; some of the scariest stuff I have ever seen). Throw in Zod and company’s drive to preserve their species at all cost, a “survival of the fittest” neo-Darwinian philosophy, and they provide the perfect foil for the morally idealistic Christ-like protector of the weak manifest in Superman.

As a matter of fact, these similarities to Jesus Christ are played up in the film to a remarkable degree, so much so that the film at times feels like a very cleverly disguised allegory. I will not go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that the fact that Clark is thirty-three years old when the events of the film transpire, and that a critical scene in his character progression takes place in a church with the image of a praying Savior prominently featured alongside Clark, suggests strongly that such parallels were intentionally played up. In fact, Snyder has acknowledged that the Christ parallels are a natural part of the Superman mythos, and “rather than be snarky and say that doesn’t exist, we thought it would be fun to allow that mythology to be woven through”. This adds extra weight to Superman’s role and purpose, while also making a few of Zod’s actions and demands echo the Biblical Satan in some intriguing ways.

Ultimately, Man of Steel is a triumph, proving that it is in fact possible to seriously present deep and morally weighty ideas while still holding onto the more thrilling, adventurous and optimistic side of comic book heroes. Snyder walks a fine line in his direction of the film between the oppressive seriousness and gravity of The Dark Knight on the one hand, and the light whiz-bang action of The Avengers on the other. Man of Steel presents a shining moral hero as an example for the audience, a frighteningly understandable villain, a stunningly imagined science fiction backstory, soaring action, and a few spiritual allegories and philosophical concepts to stimulate the mind long after the movie is over. Now that is something worth getting excited about.