‘Justice League’ Unites Its Heroes to Save an Erratic, Uneven World

DC’s answer to the MCU wants to show that surrounding darkness can only strengthen heroic light. It only kind of succeeds.
‘Justice League’ Unites Its Heroes to Save an Erratic, Uneven World
Image: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

This article contains light spoilers for Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League.

DC’s superhero team-up film Justice League unites Batman, Wonder Woman, and new heroes onscreen. With relative ease, they overcome their different backgrounds and come together to save the world from an evil galactic overlord and his army of flying demons.

And that’s pretty much the story in full.

Justice League’s simple structure and quick pace may please more audiences than the first two installments of this DC film series, the often-maligned Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Both films strove to explore several meta-themes on a popular philosophical level; they sought to bring into the story-worlds themselves the very conversations fans share about superheroes, such as the reasons people reject or embrace Superman or compare him with Jesus Christ. But in place of these grander ideas, Justice League instead presents several fun characters with smaller journeys of their own—though its lightness loses some of the earlier films’ dramatic weight.

Officially, Justice League shares those films’ director, Zack Snyder. Few aspects of Snyder’s hallmark style actually feature in the final product, however. In his previous films, Snyder favored a “tear-down-and-rebuild” approach in which minimalist, struggling protagonists bulk up, confront critics, scream loud, and punch hard in the dark to become heroic in a world that doesn’t always respond favorably to them.

Many critics and fans, however, didn’t respond favorably: While some viewers argued that these stories’ darker worlds present greater moral challenges for their heroes to overcome, others associated Snyder’s images of physical strength, cultural turmoil, and humanity’s mixed responses with vapidity or nihilism. Many also assumed that superhero movie “rules” required a film with a lighter, self-aware structure, interpreting Man of Steel and Batman v Superman by comparison as “grimdark,” cynical, or even “hateful” to the characters or their fans.

DC’s producers thus summoned Avengers director Joss Whedon to boost the lighter side of Justice League (which Snyder was, to some extent, already planning). In an extraordinary change for a blockbuster film, Snyder also stepped away from finishing Justice League himself due to a family tragedy. Half a year later, the onscreen result is part Whedon (some dialogue moments, especially character-driven humor) and part Snyder (some stylized action and provocative ideas).

But even in its lighter state, Justice League defies the binary “fresh” or “splat” Rotten Tomatoes ratings some viewers expect of movies. Superhero movies often succeed or fail based on the viewer’s personal preferences for hero tales and film genres: If you prefer a short and entertaining story with fun characters and overall suitability for children, Justice League mostly works. If you prefer a story of heroes struggling fiercely to act as light in a cynical world that does not comprehend it, you may need to adjust your expectations.

Justice League opens with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) doing what he does best: protecting Gotham City. But here, Batman has a different reason to string up the evening’s crook du jour. This time, the victim’s fear attracts another creature of the night—one of many Earth-infesting insectoid beings called “parademons.” Offscreen, Batman knows this fulfills his vision (in Batman v Superman) of an alien invasion, so he decides to assemble a team of warriors to stop them.

Naturally, Wayne first recruits Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot) as introduced in previous films. She’s returned to occasional heroics and winsomely deflects enemy (and film-critical) fire in a great little action scene that’s vexingly cut short. For the most part, though, she continues her acclaimed journey from previous films, inspiring others while learning to be a leader of new heroes. (Unfortunately, the camera tends to objectify Diana and some of her Amazon sisters more than in earlier films.)

Joining their “justice league” (the film never names the group) are newcomers Arthur “Aquaman” Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry “The Flash” Allen (Ezra Miller), and Victor “Cyborg” Stone (Ray Fisher). Each follows his own hero’s journey, but the film severely edits their stories. In one conversation, Barry even concedes that an acquaintance has given an “abridged version” of how he gained speed powers. Victor’s transformation is barely shown and leaves to our imaginations the realistic consequences of a 21st-century athlete suddenly becoming a “technopath” who can never disconnect his brain from the world’s information technology. Even Arthur’s ancient past as a long-lost ruler of Atlantis is drowned by a torrent of elements that can’t afford to linger long.

Aside from an epic flashback to a Middle-earth style battle in Earth’s history, Justice League’s fragmented editing and reshot scenes often forego the meta-realistic cultures of previous films in favor of tinier—and often empty—settings. This may allow viewers to track their favorite heroes more closely; but after the previous films’ backdrops of endangered civilians, active military forces, and media pundits debating if the world truly needs a Superman, this omission of onlookers reduces the world’s scope.

As for the film’s villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, enhanced by creature animators), he steps in just enough to serve antagonism at the end of a big fiery stick. Steppenwolf hails from Apokolips, a Jack Kirby–created hellish planet ruled by the evil brute Darkseid. They both command legions of demonic armies who can convert other beings into more of themselves; Darkseid, however, fancies himself a god and seeks to become omnipotent.

Silly names, pop-mythology, and all, Justice League could have dared to risk taking these ideas a little more seriously. Its story invites exploration of the spiritual clash between heroic metahumans and Luciferian tyrants who literally want to turn Earth into Hell. But the film seems reluctant to portray such potential Lovecraftian horror. With few exceptions, Steppenwolf is not scary. Our heroes quip about resisting this devil, but they don’t fear what he can do. (Of course, this will help parents who prefer their older children’s favorite super-films have fewer terrifying images.)

Fans of an overall “lighter” take may be pleased with Superman’s (Henry Cavill) turnaround in Justice League: He banters, he smiles, he wisecracks before punching an enemy in the face. His arc from the previous two films, however, feels cut short. Previously, Snyder explored the idea of Superman and reminded fans of the original superhero’s potential. In Man of Steel, Superman feels alien on Earth but called to rise above his flawed humanity and become the example of a just man. In Batman v Superman, Superman still struggles, and the wider world around him either fears or praises him. Only after he dies to save the world do all mourn his sacrifice.

These events had set the stage for a finale to explore, in part, the meaning of his return and the completion of his hero’s journey—to conquer death and story deconstruction and become the virtuous hero whom Superman fans wanted. And in Justice League, yes, Superman returns, but neither theme is developed much further. It’s great to see him back in action; however, his perfunctory treatment seems more like an apology for the earlier films’ putting Superman through a truly difficult hero’s journey in the first place. Audiences may not connect Superman’s victory to his struggles in the earlier films.

Ultimately, all this makes Justice League the superhero movie some fans feel they deserve but not the one other fans needed—especially fans who prefer their tales to grow with them. In the right creative hands, even “childish” superhero characters can challenge their fans. Superhero films can also mature beyond formulaic expectations, dark palette and all; they can add thematic layers and spiritual significance even to tales about an alien man who shoots fire from his eyes or space-devils with odd names.

For Christians who enjoy fantasy, however, films like this can also serve as part of the training—even discipleship—of our biblical imaginations. In a sense, Christians actually do believe in evil extraterrestrial entities. We also believe in a perfect hero come from another world, born into our world, and sacrificed to save his enemies before being resurrected to defeat the devil. When popular stories try to adapt these spiritual truths more seriously into a world like ours, Christian fans can at least respect this attempt. Here’s hoping, then, for more DC super-flicks that blend the best of both worlds for wider audiences.

E. Stephen Burnett writes about biblical truth and fantastical stories at Speculative Faith and Christ and Pop Culture. He lives with his wife, Lacy, in their Austin-area home.

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