An Appeal for the Reconsideration of Justice League

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Superman turned 80 recently and the NY Times went with a dad joke to mark the occasion.  For my part this seems an opportune time to offer up one of my more unpopular film opinions: 2017’s Justice League, widely panned by critics[1], is a better movie than the critical consensus would have you believe.  This is largely because the movie eventually starts to get Superman right and that is important.[2]

First, though, the caveats:  Don’t misunderstand me – this is far from a perfect film.  To be totally clear, there are very real problems with Justice League, perhaps none more severe than the problem of characterization.  Cyborg, Aquaman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman have decades of character development, vetted commercially by the fact that the characters continue to resonate with new generations of readers.  The DCEU (as a franchise) has thus far largely cast aside that characterization in favor of… novel… presentations of the characters’ personalities.  Suffice it to say this has not gone well, commercially or with the fans of the comic tradition.[3]  The roots of this departure show up from the earliest days of what we now know as the DC Extended Universe.

Bad Root, Bad Fruit

A scene between a young Clark Kent and his adopted father Jonathan comes about 30 minutes in to 2013’s Man of Steel.  The conversation between Clark and Pa Ken frames Superman’s origins, the boy’s burgeoning powers, and Clark’s relationship to his adopted world.  Pa Kent approaches Clark’s gifts as if Clark should be scared of the broader world finding out his unique abilities. Not a few have (rightly in my opinion) described the scene as Pa Kent closeting Clark.[4] Pa Kent is so committed to the importance of keeping Clark’s identity in the closet that Jonathan dies as a martyr to the ideal rather than allowing Clark to use his powers to save the life of his adoptive father.  This formative conversation and catastrophe could not be in more stark contrast to the historic presentation of Pa Kent imparting to Clark the values of traditional life (often referred to still today under the heading Midwestern Values), most prominently that a man’s gifts should be used in service to his neighbors.[5]

There is a similarly distorting conversation in Man of Steel’’s sequel, Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice.  After a particularly devastating experience Superman flies off to seek emotional footing in a conversation with his mother.  There Ma Kent tells Clark, “People hate what they don’t understand. Be their hero, Clark, be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be… or be none of it! You don’t owe this world a thing, you never did.”

You don’t owe this world a thing, you never did.

Again, this cannot be set in harder contrast to the historic characterization of these characters.  Historically the Kents raised Superman to see his adopted homeworld as a place to be loved and his gifts as a stewardship to be used for the good of the people who populate it. In a real sense Ma and Pa Kent’s home and their adoption of Clark is the fundamental paradigm for Superman’s understanding of his world and his relationship to it.  As an adopted child Clark grows to be the ideal son and a true child of his parents and their household.  By extension Superman grows to be the best of humanity even as an adopted alien and he is a faithful son within the household of the world.

This historic narrative vision of who Superman is and how he relates to the world couldn’t be further from Zack Snyder’s vision of a morally and missionally conflicted Superman presented through the movies of the DCEU.

Of course, Ma and Pa Kent are fictional creations and their voice only speaks from the creative mind writing their stories.  So while the odd characterization of Superman begins narratively in the odd (and inferior) characterization of the Kents the ultimate root of the characters’ failure is the creative vision of Zack Snyder.  Snyder, by all accounts a fan of the comic genre, made a name for himself as a director first with 2006’s 300, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book telling of the story of Spartan King Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae.  Snyder moved from that film into the superhero genre explicitly three years later with Watchmen, a film adapting Alan Moore’s legendary – and deeply dystopian – deconstruction of the superhero genre.  The world of Watchmen is populated by incredibly powerful characters who ascribe to themselves godhood, use their power to exploit and abuse, and culminates in a staged alien invasion designed to give the super-powered central figure global control over humanity.  It appears that Snyder was profoundly shaped by this takedown of the superhero genre and never again able to see the genre through any other lense.

When Authenticity Isn’t

Snyder thus appears to be exhibit A of a common, simplistic, and weak form of storytelling that presents itself as authentic and realistic but is in reality naïve and oversimplified.  Doug Wilson calls it Lowlife Authenticity and here is his description (note: the underlining is mine):

One of the central, axiomatic assumptions of contemporary culture (in music, fiction, film, clothing, and several more times around the block) is that goodness is not real. Goodness is thought to be inherently artificial and contrived. That which is grimy is more authentic, or basic. Thus some poor sap of a sophomore watching films with subtitles and lots of French nudity at two in the morning is somehow thought to be more “real” than a loving dad reading Green Eggs and Ham to his four-year-old daughter, especially since the daughter is clutching a flop-eared bunny with big brown button eyes.

Theodore Dalrymple puts it this way. “He was under the influence of the idea that some aspects of reality are more real than others: that the seedy side of life is more genuine, more authentic, than the refined and cultured side — and certainly more glamorous than the bourgeois and respectable side. This idea could be said to be the fundamental premise of modern popular culture” (Theodore Dalrymple, Life At The Bottom, p. 119, emphasis mine).

The assumption surrounds us on every side, but thirty seconds thought reveals that the assumption is ludicrous. A thanksgiving dinner right out of Norman Rockwell is real. They happen. People take pictures of them, and have wonderful times at them. We could gather two or three witnesses after the fact to testify to the fact that they did in fact occur. We compare these events to some domestic tragedy (spousal abuse, say) that happened in another home across town on the same day, and we see that both things happened in space and time. So why do we think that one is authentic and real, representing what things are really like, and the other is trite, cliched, and boring?

It is this overly simplistic lowlife authenticity that corrupts even the parts of Superman’s mythology that Snyder understands.  Snyder understands that Superman is a messianic figure, a spandex-clad type of Jesus Christ.  And make no mistake, that messianic component of Superman is hard-baked into the character.  To explore that reality is not my purpose here but I recommend reading the following articles on the subject if you are interested: Mensch of Steel: Superman’s Jewish Roots (Den of Geek),  The Messiah From Krypton: Superman’s place in U.S. culture (America Magazine), and The tragic real story behind Superman’s birth (The Telegraph).  The latter piece introduces the reader to Brad Meltzer’s provocative theory about the creation of Superman as a personal savior alongside his broader messianic motif:

The long held belief was that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the geeky teenagers who invented Superman in the 1930s, dreamed up the powerful hero as a way to attract girls at their Ohio high school.

But now it is appears that personal tragedy rather than a quest to win over their peers could be the real story behind Superman’s birth.

On June 2, 1932, Jerry Siegel’s father Mitchell, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, died during a night-time robbery at his Cleveland second hand clothes store.

The 60-year-old fell to the ground during the robbery. According to the police report, gunshots were heard. Siegel’s family and the coroner, however, said he died of a heart attack.

Was it the sudden loss of his father that pushed a distraught 17-year-old to invent a bullet-proof super-being to avenge evil and fight for good?

“In 50 years of interviews, Jerry Siegel never once mentioned that his father died in a robbery,” Mr Meltzer told USA Today.

“But think about it. Your father dies in a robbery, and you invent a bulletproof man who becomes the world’s greatest hero. I’m sorry, but there’s a story there.”

But because Snyder’s artistic vision is polluted with moral relativism (the kind that is so much at the core of the Watchmen narrative[6]) he doesn’t understand the Christ whose imagery Superman (at his best) should reflect.  So Snyder understands Superman as a savior figure but the sort of savior who hovers over flood victims reaching out for him to save them from the rapidly rising waters.  Superman is not committed to the good of mankind, at least not until ¾ of the way through Snyder’s first three presentations of the character – Superman is still figuring out where he stands on that whole issue and, as we’ve already discussed, his counselor (mom) isn’t doing him any favors in coming to a conclusion.

Leaving Just When It Gets Good

As a result the crowds who were willing to show up and pay for a movie named Batman vs. Superman found a Superman so conflicted that Lex Luthor’s point about having a gun to use against Superman, should he go rogue, didn’t sound like the idea of a sadistic despot so much as idea of potential merit.  This is entirely consistent with the trajectory Snyder established in the previous film, Man of Steel, where Superman kills Zod.  It isn’t hard to do the math – a Superman willing to kill might become Zod at any moment.

A Superman that isn’t the best among us, the most committed to our greatest ideals, the most servant-postured resident of the planet is a terrifying Superman.  Sure, sometimes comic creators give those kinds of stories – the video game franchise Injustice is one example – and people resonate with it but they do so only as a provocative alternative to what they love about the character in the main.  We don’t want to root for the terrifying and thus it should be no surprise that Snyder’s Superman is a hard guy to cheer.  Those crowds that turned out (and handed out their money) to see Batman vs. Superman only to find a terrifying kind of Superman doing battle with a similarly morally reduced Batman (willing not only to kill but even sadistically brand the criminals he captured alive) weren’t going to make the same mistake when Justice League, the latest installment of the story they had already rejected, came down the pike.

This is all tragic[7] because Justice League was the product that began to create some needed distance from Snyder’s *ahem* vision.  Yes, Justice League is a cobbled together film.  Yes, the seams definitely show.  Yes, the hand of Snyder is still present – the Superman who died while reconciled to Batman[8] is inexplicably angry with the world in general and Batman in particular when he rises from the dead[9] and Superman apparently still thinks the only transcendently good thing about Earth is Lois Lane… but there is hope…

By the time we get to the final conflict of Justice League Superman is again the character that caused generations of readers to fall in love with him.  For example, in the midst of battle Superman learns that a group of civilians are in danger.  He rushes to their aid immediately.  Later, after having returned from the dead only a handful of hours prior, Superman faces a task that will save the Earth but might very well cost him his recently-regained life.  He does not hesitate, leaping into danger in the name of greater good.[10]  It is the Superman who shows up in the final conflict of Justice League that makes that movie re-watchable and worthy of reconsideration.  That Superman reminds me of the Christ that Superman’s staying power has always depended on.

I don’t know what realistic looks like when you tell stories about superheroes.  Maybe that aim wasn’t any great shakes from the beginning, despite how much I loved Christopher Nolan’s presentation of Batman.  Or maybe Batman has some hope of being realistic in story form but The Last Son of Krypton doesn’t.  Here’s what I do know: the thing closest to Superman descending from Krypton that has happened in real history is the Second Person of the Trinity taking up human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  What really happened wasn’t an internal moral conflict about whether to serve or abandon humanity.  What really happened wasn’t the death of His enemies in open combat for all the world to see.  Jesus came as a servant and laid down His life for His enemies.  And when He rose from the dead He did so not in anger and wrath but with regal benevolence.  Yes, there will be a day of judgment which Christ executes in the future but it will be the fixed, just, and good opposition to sin characteristic of a holy God rather than a fit pitched against those who did Him wrongly.

A lot of what the DCEU has done with Superman fails to reflect those glorious truths about Christ and has been rightly rejected as a result.[11]  A little, right at the very end of the most recent film, has started telling us the truth about who Christ is.  Superman is one of the cultural points of contact that help people see Christ even if they don’t believe in Him.  So it is important to get those stories right.  And, thankfully, Justice League starts to do that.  That bend in the right direction makes the film better than the current critical consensus and definitely worthy of reconsideration by those believers who followed the critical line.

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[1] Currently sitting at 40% positive in Rotten Tomatoes poll of movie critics at the time of this writing.  Having said that, closer to what I think is a more accurate evaluation of the movie, audiences gave the movie a positive score to the tune of 75%.  This is alongside a CinemaScore of B+.

[2] Relatively speaking, of course, since we’re talking about a pop culture movie about a fictional character.  Nonetheless, Superman is pretty important cultural artifact and that means getting his stories right is more important than one might consider

[3] Although it must be noted that the DCEU has a number of deeply committed fans.

[4] An example from Screenrant: “Man of Steel posited ideas that are wholly relevant to the here and now. By way of the reboot, Superman is made a symbol to any kid who feels closeted, ostracized, unsure of their identity or is simply impatient for a greater purpose in life that awaits them.

[5] In fairness, 2013’s Man of Steel has Superman receive a version of the commission to serve mankind.  It must be noted, however, that Jor-El commissions Superman to be a savior and guiding light, a better calling than Jonathan framed but one that sets Superman apart and above humanity in a way opposed to the comic’s tradition of Clark seeing himself working for the good of humanity from within the human race.

[6] While I have never read Snyder addressing this explicitly I conclude that Watchmen is the key to understanding Snyder’s creative vision.  This comes through very clearly in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice – when Snyder thinks of Batman he sees Rorschach and when he thinks of Superman he sees Dr. Manhattan.

[7] Again, relatively speaking.

[8] “Martha!

[9] Did I mention that Snyder gets the outward components of Superman-as-Christ-figure right but doesn’t actually understand Christ?

[10] I know some point to Snyder’s alleged five-film vision of establishing the Superman we know and love as an indication we would have gotten to this Superman eventually.  What that theory misses is that a Superman who kills and ambivilates about humanity can’t become the Superman that has been so historically compelling.

[11] To be clear I’m not here saying that everyone who disliked Snyder’s films did so because they self-consciously knew they were rejecting Snyder’s inability to picture Christ in the character of Superman.  Rather, consciously or unconsciously, Christ’s reflection is what generations like about Superman, even if the individuals don’t realize it, and when Superman doesn’t reflect Christ well Superman is easy to reject.

This piece was originally published on our Patheos site.

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