In the closing sequence of Justice League, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) voices over, “Hope is real, you can see it.”
I really wish I had seen it during 80% of this movie. I wish the bulk of the movie had matched the upbeat tone of the final 20%. But unfortunately, the vast majority of the movie crawls along at a sluggish, depressed pace, as though each of our heroes has just woken up from a nap and wishes very much to not be bothered right now.
This is a real shame, since DC Comics has traditionally been excellent at telling true hero stories. These are the stories that explore human questions we all have about how to live well, including, “What makes a hero?” “What kind of person do I want to be?” and “What defines good and evil?”
Wonder Woman creator and psychologist William Moulton Marston put it in much better words than I can in an article in The American Scholar:
“Shall we teach our children that the heroic thing, the deed for which they will attain desired kudos, is killing enemies and conquering their neighbors, à Ia Napoleon, Hitler, Genghis Khan, and others of their ilk? Or shall we make the great stunt in a child’s mind the protection of the weak and the helping of humanity? The Superman-Wonder Woman school of picture-story telling emphatically insists upon heroism in the altruistic pattern. Superman never kills; Wonder Woman saves her worst enemies and reforms their characters. If the incredible barrage of comic strips now assaulting American minds establishes this new definition of heroics in the thought reflexes of the rising generation, it will have been worth many times its weight in pulp paper and multicolored ink.” [emphasis mine]
Historically, this has been DC’s heritage. Superman of the late 70’s and early 80’s, portrayed by Christopher Reeves, really embodied “truth, justice, and the American way,” in his chipper, confident way of doing so. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy explored fundamental human questions — Harvey Dent’s arc about what makes a good person go dark and how trauma affects a person, the Joker’s cruel game theory experiments about how altruistic humans can still be when their survival is on the line, and Bane’s takeover of Gotham demonstrating the ways in which a well-intended “people’s revolution” can turn sour if taken too far. The CW’s version of “The Flash” has heart and warmth and makes Barry Allen into a person whose empathy we can admire. And of course, Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” truly does keep alive the spirit of William Moulton Marston’s comics — her heroine believes fiercely in seeing the good in humanity and shows mercy on her enemies if she can help it (i.e. sparing Dr. Poison’s life). “Wonder Woman” also explores human nature itself, the debate between Diana and Ares’s worldviews representing whether humans are inherently good or evil.
Which brings me to Justice League. It could take a leaf out of its DC ancestors’ playbook, when it comes to telling moving hero stories.
The tone is not only dark, but lethargic. For the first 80% of the movie, it seems as though most of the heroes would rather be basically anywhere other than saving the world together, it’s unclear whether any of them actually like one another, and we don’t know what motivates them to do good. Their desire to save the world is flat and unconvincing. It’s almost as though we can feel them all collectively groan, get out of bed, and say, “Alright, let’s go ahead and get this over with.”
I’m also not sure why Zack Snyder has chosen to turn Superman from “truth, justice, and the American way” into someone who seems desperately world-weary and, at times, simply hostile. The fight scene between the newly-resurrected Kal-El and the rest of the League seems drawn-out, overwrought, and unnecessary, and the angry Superman who asks Batman while nearly choking him, “Tell me, do you bleed?” hardly seems like Superman at all.
And I was stunned to see Batman early in the movie use an innocent civilian as bait for Steppenwolf’s creatures simply because they can smell fear.
Speaking of Steppenwolf — why is he evil? What motivates him? Why does he want what he wants? And why does he keep calling Hippolyta “mother?” Especially compared to the emotional and psychological complexity of Gotham’s villains, Steppenwolf seems shallow and poorly-developed.
There are a few bright spots, of course. Gal Gadot, as usual, shines as Wonder Woman, and while her Diana Prince is sorrowful and weighted down by events past, she portrays her mourning in a way that is deeply human and vulnerable. The same is true of Amy Adams’s Lois Lane. And the final 20% of the movie, in which Superman is himself again and returns to battle, is a needed ray of sunlight in an otherwise dreary film.
Lois Lane ends the movie with the reflection, “Darkness is not just the absence of light; it’s the conviction that the light will never return.” I certainly hope the light returns to the DCEU. Until then, you can find me watching the old Justice League cartoons on which I grew up.