This article contains spoilers.
We are defeated. On a good day, we can ignore that fact. But it is still true. The good team lost.
That is the spirit of Justice League‘s opening scenes. Norwegian singer and songwriter Sigrid sings a more earnest, mournful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” as audiences view a melancholic montage of troublesome images, beginning with Superman’s funeral and progressing through scenes of realistic social injustice. A white man harasses Muslim shopkeepers, and a homeless man sits quietly behind a small sign that reads “I tried.” Sigrid’s smooth voice bellows over haunting, repetitive piano riffs: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That’s how it goes / Everybody knows.” This glossy, semi-grayscale, post-Superman world is bitter and scared. As a reporter notes, “The world remains in mourning . . .”
The melancholic existentialism of the film’s opening montage plagues everyone. Even Lois Lane, an award-winning reporter for the Daily Planet, resigns herself to writing meaningless articles, thus shunning productivity and purpose. Why work hard to change a world that (suddenly) seems so fundamentally flawed?
This is the psychological state of Justice League‘s world. The global existential crisis that was sparked by the loss of Superman permeates the psyches of those in Gotham, Metropolis, and elsewhere. When Superman dies, the world loses—perhaps permanently—its otherworldly distraction from inconvenient realities. No other hero can fill Superman’s role: Batman lives in the dark, and Wonder Woman has not yet accepted her role as a global icon. The pervasive darkness of casual hate and day-to-day violence is difficult to ignore without the interference of a Kryptonian red-blue blur. Life is more complex and frightening without tunnel-visioned hero-worship.
The plot of Batman v Superman—this Bat-fleck film’s underappreciated predecessor—focuses on Batman’s attempts to protect the world from this crisis. Batman tries to open humanity’s eyes to the violence and pain that continue to exist while Superman gains celebrity status, but most eyes remain fixated on the symbolic winding river of hope on Superman’s chest. The citizens of DC’s cinematic universe cherish their newfound optimism. (Optimism is easy when you only see heroes.) Batman’s problem with Superman in Batman v Superman is related to concerns about global security, yes, but it is also fueled by a desire to de-deify the world’s idol. In Batman v Superman, Batman serves as the world’s iconoclast, and he does so in an attempt to soften the future emotional repercussions of Superman’s inevitable missteps.
But Batman’s mind changes. Batman is figuratively reborn (compared to Superman’s literal rebirth) in Justice League, and he attempts to rid the world of the fear he helped to create when he vilified Superman. The apprehension Batman felt about Superman in Batman v Superman was rational (especially when considering the film’s odd dream sequences), but it was incomplete: confrontation is not the only appropriate response to perceived danger. If apprehension is the result of ignorance, enlightenment will dispel it. Batman achieves his enlightenment presumably at some point while struggling to fight the fear that feeds openly on the fearful in the aftermath of Superman’s death.
Batman’s willingness to lead a team of superheroes in Justice League implies that he recognizes his inability to deal effectively with the fallout of Superman’s downfall on his own. When Superman dies, the zeitgeist shifts. Like one of the skyscrapers in Man of Steel, the world’s collective hope collapses—violently. And as seen in the opening scenes of Justice League, humanity does not have the emotional or conversational tools to repair shattered hope. (This mood continues throughout most of the film. When Bruce Wayne visits Barry Allen for the first time, the semi-nihilistic Rick and Morty is playing on a TV in the background.) Thus, DC’s world changes fundamentally. More violence. More distrust. More despair.
“I don’t recognize this world,” Alfred tells Bruce Wayne in an early Justice League scene, and this quote likely resonates with many citizens of the World of 2017, a post-fact world in which previously hidden prejudices parade loudly. Incredulity is a common emotion in today’s world.
As a fictional character, Superman represents hope in whatever form is most applicable. For some, hope is the promise of progress or a more fruitful life. For others, hope is the anticipation of social justice. And some find hope in the karmic idea that helpful deeds are eventually rewarded and harmful deeds are eventually punished.
For many citizens of 2017, hope is disappearing. Superman has died.
Luckily, the plot of Justice League does not end with Alfred’s quote. And that is why Justice League is such an important movie for today’s audiences.
“We don’t have to recognize it. We just have to save it.”
Instead of allowing the world to collapse under the weight of its own despair, Batman and Wonder Woman create a team of superheroes and eventually resurrect Superman, the role model who literally wears a symbol of hope on his chest. Batman’s first scene in the movie includes a fight with a physical representation of fear, and the movie ends with the entire group—Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, Flash, and Superman—turning fear away from humanity and guiding it toward the greatest source of humanity’s pain.
Justice League maintains its status as a mass-appeal blockbuster superhero film by limiting its social commentary to quips and subtext, but the film is peppered with allusions to real-world issues. Batman discusses climate change with Aquaman, and Cyborg’s hoodie has reminded some critics of Trayvon Martin. The film’s explanation of the villain Steppenwolf includes a flashback to a large-scale battle (reminiscent of the expositional scenes in Fellowship of the Ring) between Steppenwolf’s minions and a host of heroes, including Amazons, Atlanteans, Green Lanterns, gods, and humans. When presented with the challenge of defeating Steppenwolf a second time, Batman assumes that those groups will refuse to work together again—and no one (including Aquaman and Wonder Woman) corrects him. The DC universe is as fractured as our own.
In Batman v Superman, a man on television notes that “on this earth, every act is a political act.”
With this in mind, I argue that Justice League makes a bold sociopolitical statement: The world today—real-life 2017—is stuck in a state of collective fear and bitterness. And we should resist the temptation to sugarcoat our despair. We are, in many ways, defeated.
But resurrection is just one Hail Mary pass away. And it is our responsibility to save ourselves, even if we don’t understand why.