Raising the Stakes Is Lowering the Stakes for Justice League

From Justice League expert Jeremiah Lawson, here is an insightful look at the recent holiday season […]

Guest Contributor / 11.29.17

From Justice League expert Jeremiah Lawson, here is an insightful look at the recent holiday season blockbuster.

It may be a law of blockbuster cinema that there is an inversely proportional relationship between how high the stakes are raised in explicit and implicit narrative terms and the actual significance of said stakes. In a phrase, when everything is at stake, you can be relatively confident nothing is at stake, and this is, in sum, a weakness that the film Justice League can’t shake off.

The plot is as follows: in the wake of Superman’s death through Kryptonite exposure and injuries fighting General Zod, who was revived as the monster Doomsday, Batman and Wonder Woman work together to recruit heroes to stop Steppenwolf, one of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, from finding three cubes called Mother Boxes that will form a Unity, which will terraform Earth into a haven for parademons who serve the god of Apokolips, Darkseid. After the newly formed Justice League fails to stop Steppenwolf from obtaining the Mother Boxes, Bruce Wayne decides that what they have to do is use the Kryptonian technology that Lex Luthor used to create Doomsday to bring Superman back to life so that the Man of Steel can more or less single-handedly take down Steppenwolf and help the Justice League save the day. Having said all that, there’s absolutely no room for any suspense as to whether or not all of that works out.

While nominally better and more watchable than Batman vs Superman, Justice League is a film that manages to traffic in the vices that are characteristic not only of Zack Snyder but of Joss Whedon as well. We’ve managed to get a film that is suffused with Snyder’s stentorian gloom on the one hand and Joss Whedon’s self-impressed glib quips on the other. While Whedon has had a few decades to demonstrate that, in the hands of actors and actresses who are better than the lines he writes for them, his work can fizz with fun, no one in the cast of Justice League can make the would-be witty patter come off.

It’s almost axiomatic that nothing less than the fate of either a city or the entirety of humanity is at stake in superhero films. We expect superhero films to consider the nature of the human condition in the most direct possible terms, but one of the easiest mistakes that can be made in this genre is to focus on power against power and forget that what is really enjoyable about a superhero story can be power against principle, or rather power vs ethics. With the exception of the first two Donner Superman films, we have never gotten Superman films that focused on what I would consider to be the character’s real challenge, which is that with so much power, who he uses it for is the real test of his characternot who he can stop in battle. Ever since Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel opted for brawn over brain, Superman has been set on a path where the battle is about who can best take and give the punches and less about why someone could or should do so.

Years ago we found out that Christopher Nolan’s original aim in Man of Steel was that Superman would dump Zod in the Phantom Zone and that nobody in Metropolis would end up as the civilian casualties of an intra-Kryptonian grudge match. It was David Goyer and Zack Snyder who prevailed in arguing that Zod had to be killed so that Superman’s aversion to killing could be explained. If that was the actual plan, then showing us that the reason Superman has an aversion to mere killing didn’t have to start with killing General Zod. He could have had an aversion to killing as a farm boy living with his adoptive parents the Kents, but the real aversion to killing is an aversion to murdering humans and humanoids. It might be more accurate to say that no matter how powerful Superman may be, his aversion is not merely to killing in some abstract sense but an aversion to being the executioner. He prefers to bring people to justice administered by an institution rather than execute justice himself.

Yet in a way, what Man of Steel tried to get at was an aspect of Superman’s character that was more successfully explored in an animated series twenty years ago. The real question lurking behind a character like Superman is whether he, with all his power, could use it for the wrong cause. Superman is at his best when he’s constantly navigating between his earthly and Kryptonian legacies, trying to preserve what is best and defeat what is worst in both of them. Killing Zod in the wake of a “Krypton had its chance” line removes that perpetual quest for balancing dual legacies and places Superman firmly on the side of humanity. But of course killing meant that there was no reason Earth could trust that a Superman willing to kill one of his own might not choose to kill all of them, too. Thus the perfunctorily plausible set-up was established for Batman vs. Superman, a film that aspired to the grandiosity of mythological and epic narrative in a way that betrayed a failure to grasp the concepts in the canonical texts of the Bible on the one hand or the vaunted Frank Miller comic book The Dark Knight Returns on the other.

Which is to say that by merely giving us a standard unmemorable villain, one with an out-of-the-box, off-the-shelf destroy-the-world plot, Justice League couldn’t go very far wrong but it wasn’t on a footing to do very much right. A comparison with The Avengers may be instructive—there was very little doubt our heroes would defeat Loki but the suspense was in how long, and not even if, they could set aside their legitimate animosities against each other to see how Loki was exploiting them to advance his plans of world conquest. Exploiting the character flaws of heroes to pit them against each other turns out to be the winning strategy in Marvel blockbusters, whether we’re looking at the first Avengers film or Captain America: Civil War. With Justice League, and probably too with the forthcoming Infinity War from Marvel, the heroes are such known quantities that the ultimate outcome is never remotely in doubt. At least in the animated series, the Justice League had to contend with alternate dimensional versions of themselves who were cheerfully murderous, totalitarian despots ruling an alternate Earth.

Now having stories in which the heroes inevitably prevail against evil won’t stop being satisfying. That story is the core of a story that is eschatological in scope, namely the book of Revelation. But that story comes with the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, not constantly saving this current earth. Within this current earth, it’s easier to root for heroes who prevail because they have temptations toward corruption inside them that they have to fight. Just as a memorable villain is often someone who could have chosen the path of a hero, a hero is easier to root for who could have chosen a path of villainy. If the enemy thinks humans are unworthy of divine love, for instance, the hero has to in some way genuinely struggle with the question of whether or not it’s worth it to save people. Thus, Wonder Woman was as much about Diana’s own struggle to keep choosing what she believed was right despite being shown, as well as told, that the humanity she was fighting to save didn’t even deserve her help. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy gave us a Bruce Wayne who recognized how much murder was seething in his heart and how there was no legitimate outlet for that desire to shed blood in a quest for revenge. His struggle included recognizing that the surrogate father figure who volunteered to train him in his war on crime was himself a master criminal with plans of genocide, whose methods would prove ultimately worthless in confronting the real evils lurking within Gotham, and whose path had to be altogether repudiated before Bruce Wayne could really save the city he loved. Similarly, Christopher Reeve’s Superman had to discover that his greatest challenge would come from a seeming joke of a man whose buffoonery masked a calculating criminal with the power to kill him.

In other words, in each of these other, better superhero stories, the suspense derives from the question of whether the hero will discover too late how closely they’re being drawn into a trap set by a villain that will not necessarily just kill them physically, but permanently ruin their moral compass. In other, better superhero stories, the suspense is in whether or not the heroes can set aside their own character flaws to work together for the common good. Justice League isn’t one of those kinds of superhero stories.