Consider this my defense of Justice League, the movie that kids have been dreaming about since Gardner Fox invented the team-up in March 1960, or at least since my generation watched the Wonder Twins and their better-equipped posse in Super Friends from 1973 to 1986. We’ve longed for a film that would take the skills and personalities Grant Morrison and Mark Waid wrote about in their various story arcs; we’ve appreciated the way that Arrow, The Flash, Smallville, and Gotham showed us what a few of our heroes could look like when joined together. And now, after The Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Wonder Woman, here they are.
Was it perfect? Well, of course not. Critics point to the uncomfortable paring of Zach Snyder (gothic, dark, and visually focused) with Joss Whedon (cleverly humorous and character driven), with the late edits to the film and the strange CGI editing of the villain Steppenwolf (Ciarin Hinds’ voice) or the removal of Henry Cavill’s ‘stache in ways that leave his mouth unfortunately disjointed from the rest of his face. They’ll tell you about the way that there’s too much going on, what with the introduction of new characters Cyborg (Ray Fisher), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), or the worst-kept-secret bit [ripped straight from the comics] about a little resurrection that happens before you can say “mother box.”
You can read all about those criticisms on RottenTomatoes or at any other outlet carrying Justice League reviews. But what if they’re all wrong? What if this isn’t the beginning of something different for DC, the beginning of the laughter stopping over at industry rival Marvel, the beginning (or renaissance really) of superheroes who know they’re actually called to be heroic, who choose to stand in the face of darkness and fight back?
In Justice League, there’s a power vacuum left by the death of Superman [see the final chapter of Batman v Superman] that has repercussions throughout the world, no, the universe. People are literally mourning Supes loss all over the world, kicking it to the World Without Superman storyline from the 1980s. There’s desperation, depression, hopelessness that reeks off of the screen as the film opens, and we can make a not-too-far leap to see what a post-cross/pre-resurrection world might have looked like for the first disciples. The Good, the God, has died, and there’s no calvary coming, right?
Sure, Batman (Ben Affleck) has his own shame and guilt to bear, because Supes wouldn’t have been weakened enough for Doomsday’s deathblow. But inspired by someone who had world-destroying power and wasn’t a jerk, and recognizing that there are bigger forces at play in the world, Bats calls up Diana Prince AKA Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, screen stealer), Cyborg, The Flash, and Aquaman to set up a group of loosely-associated, powered folks to fight big baddies.
One of the most terrific things about the film is the way that the team forms up, coming together to be a superhero-infused Island of Misfit Toys. Batman is the most human and least human member of the league; Wonder Woman had lost her hope for humanity and gets it back because of the league – even while being the one we most recently heard saying, “I choose love”; Cyborg is the half-human, half-robot creation of his father, who struggles with what it means to be human, survivors guilt for the death of his mother, and blending his new mix of technology with his human soul; The Flash is just a kid who runs fast (when we start) who brings the “are you kidding me, this is cool!” moments; and Aquaman is the brooding son of the sea, stuck between two worlds, neither one of which seems inclined to fully accept him. It’s these characters we love, and have loved, for quite some time.
Just to be clear: the CGI deal that is Steppenwolf is my least favorite part of the film. Seriously, could’ve that looked more fake? Thankfully, the Injustice League as a follow-up seems much more grounded, powerful, and approachable. For the time being, it’s Wonder Woman’s purity, Superman’s goodness, and Batman’s objectivity that seem to keep the film aimed in the right direction, even as we wonder what will happen now that Snyder is out and Whedon is in…
So, this new collaboration realizes Steppenwolf and these mother boxes seem destined for worldwide destruction. This isn’t Batman vs. Joker or Superman vs. Lex Luthor; this is all-out destruction on a worldwide level. This is a problem the Avengers haven’t faced (yet), and one that no superhero can face alone, or even in a loosely-formed group of five. It needs a sixth.
Out of this rises one of the most chill-enducing moments of superhero cinema: the resurrection of Kal-El, the first son of Krypton, Superman. There’s funky science here (Kryptonian science with Flash speed and mother box power) that I don’t care to try and explain. But the truth is that out of the good need of humankind, Batman and company engage in something so utterly fantastic: they raise a man from the dead. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? We just had a resurrection in a superhero movie?
Of course, while Supes is resurrected, his ‘soul’ may not come back a la Flatliners or something of the ilk. There’s a terrific moment where his memories come back, jumbled, and it’s Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who sets it all right again, with, you guessed it, love. It’s remarkable how many times “love” (read: relationships, family, selflessness, sacrifice) rise up in a movie that’s been written off as muddled or too busy. It’s strange because the film itself isn’t always linear, only accomplishing one thing at a time like (cough, cough, Marvel) other films of its type. Maybe Justice League tries to do too much, but it’s not flat or lacking in dimensional depth.
And when push comes to shove, these superheroes act like heroes, with a minimal amount of twenty-first century angst. When Superman comes back, with a bit of help from Lane, he realizes that he likes being alive but that he’s there for one reason: to speak truth with justice, that he’s called to stand against the forces of evil that would destroy humanity. The heroes rise, take evil’s best shot, and realize that they’ve found a family in their joint vision. These are the heroes of my childhood, who knew who they were and what they stood for, who were not perfect but were driven to be the best they could be.
In a world that seems inclined to paint everything in hues of gray, Justice League shows up with an alternative, and claims that there are white knights, who don’t ride horses, but run fast, fly, or drive as fast as they can into the face of evil – and refuse to give up regardless of the cost. It’s an actual Christ-like character(s) that makes the film look and feel different, because they’re actually looking to be good, not backing into it or acting all angsty about it. They’re not antiheroes, which we’ve allowed ourselves to accept into today’s dumbed-down morality. They’re good and they actually mean to save the world, thanks in large part to their moral leader, Superman. It’s refreshing.
This is Justice League. Welcome back, heroes, we’ve been waiting for you.