Zack Snyder’s follow-up to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has none of its predecessor’s thematic ambition and theological inclinations. The crowd-pleaser we get instead is consistently entertaining, even if lacking in a central, grounding theme.
Unpopular as it may be for me to say it, the previous DC films (excepting Suicide Squad) have been rich films that explore the inherently theological idea of superheroes. Man of Steel directly engages Superman as a Christ figure and the Messiah of humanity, an idea that is more than likely embedded in the character’s original creation. Batman v. Superman, although a flawed film, continues this idea by pitting Superman and Lex Luthor against each other as deity and skeptic, with an agnostic, bitter Batman pitched in the middle, at war with both of them. Wonder Woman continued this idea in ways that are less analogous to Judeo-Christian theology, but still exploring Christian ideas, with a just goddess who learns to look at the ugliness of fallen man, and still show mercy in spite of it.
That context is important to understand what Justice League, and by extension the DC comics universe itself, is really about. While Marvel tells stories about the everyman rising above and ultimately transcending his (or her) ordinary humanity, DC is about the gods descending to the world of Man, plus a guy who dresses up as a bat. Justice League, to its credit, still understands this. The film wisely opens with a callback to the great hope that Superman was, before moving into the grim future that Batman is now scrambling to find a way to avert. Superman’s godlike status is the reason Batman is still struggling with guilt and shame over his death, a subtheme that could have been much more effective if more than five minutes in the film were devoted to it.
But if there’s one thing that Justice League gets right, it’s the sense of scope. Just as Superman was a cosmic force for good, Steppenwolf is a cosmic force of evil, albeit one that looked like it walked out of a Skyrim DLC. Since Earth is devoid of Superman’s protection, he storms Earth for cryptic boxes of sheer power . . . or . . . something. Any connections this comparison could have had for the nature of the cosmic forces in theological terms is quickly swept aside from this point on – the plot becomes a bare bones big battle buildup, with simple team assembly taking the forefront.
Once that transition takes place, the theological metanarrative is replaced by smaller arcs for each of the characters. Cyborg believes he’s a monster. Flash has no sense of belonging, and has no community. Aquaman is a loner who has to learn how to work with a team. All of these characters make an enjoyable and balanced team dynamic, and the comical relief, which (mostly) isn’t disruptive, effectively lightens the oppressively dark aesthetic of Zack Snyder’s vision. Much of this is no doubt thanks to Joss Whedon, who took over directorial duties for Snyder following a family tragedy, and ordered enough reshoots to gain himself a co-writing credit. This mixture of visions doesn’t always work well, but it’s on point more than it is off, and the melding of grim stakes and fun superhero action is what makes this film as enjoyable as it is.
The team together also corrects some of the ethical missteps of previous DC films, namely the lack of focus on ordinary civilians in the midst of great tragedy. In a couple of moments, the film almost feels like it’s going out of its way to show critics that it’s not making the same mistake again, rather than using the ordinary civilian as an opportunity to show the mercy of the gods among men. Still, that is a nice touch when it’s there, and gives some sort of rallying point for us to view these characters as heroes as well as warriors. And the very idea of heroes, especially from these godlike characters, brings with it an element of theology, even if implicitly so. In the words of Ben Affleck himself, from an interview with USA Today: “We certainly are in need of heroes in 2017. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world, from natural to man-made disasters, and it’s really scary. Part of the appeal of this genre is wish fulfillment: Wouldn’t it be nice if there was somebody who can save us from all this, save us from ourselves, save us from the consequences of our actions and save us from people who are evil?”
Because that very idea as at the heart of the superhero genre, it continues to be fertile ground for Christians to engage with. But I also can’t help feeling that some potential for greater depth in Justice League was truncated by a fear of negative reviews, and the desire for an audience-friendly film to catch up with their great competitor, Marvel. So what we have is not a bad film; it’s a fun superhero team-up film that hits a lot of the right buttons. But it also suffers from a weak villain, a bare bones plot, and comparatively shallow thematic depth. But alas, we can always say, at least it’s better then the, erm, Academy Award-winning Suicide Squad.