Or can you?
The following contains spoilers about the movie, Justice League.
It took me a while to figure out how I felt about the new Justice League movie. Walking out of the theater, I felt pretty neutral. I didn’t love the movie, but it was ok. It was certainly miles better than the dumpster fire that was Batman vs. Superman, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. It had a good deal of humor, and I’ll happily pay to see Ezra Millar as The Flash. The plot was fine- nothing that exciting or interesting, but not terrible. The villain was boring and forgettable, and while an interesting bad guy is often what makes me love a particular story, I’ll admit that there have been some highly enjoyable superhero movies where the villain was the weakest part. (I’m looking at you, Iron Man and Obidiah Stain.)
Overall, it seemed like a perfectly serviceable, if not terribly interesting superhero movie, but I left feeling like something had bothered me and I couldn’t quite explain what it had been. Then, a few days later, I heard the guys from one of my favorite podcasts, DC on Screen, give their review. They loved it, for a lot of reasons I can understand, even if I disagreed with some of them. But what really hit me was when they said how much they loved Superman’s return- the return of hope. That was when I realized what had been bothering me all along- that I have such a different understanding of hope, and had such different visions for what a movie about the Justice League that was starting without Superman, would look like.
I will admit from the start, that Superman is not my favorite superhero, and hasn’t been for almost 30 years. As a kid, I adored the Christopher Reeve movies, and the caped crusader was absolutely my hero. But all that changed the first time two guys named Tim Burton and Danny Elfman told me about a rich guy who dressed up like a bat. Superman quickly faded for me, though eventually I came to love him as part of the larger whole in the Justice League. He provided such a wonderful foil, especially for both Wonder Woman and Batman, and I came to really enjoy the way all three of them played off each other.
But essential to those dynamics was always the idea that, while Superman could do some things better than almost anyone, he was still only a part of the team. He was far stronger and resilient than Batman, but he often needed Batman to figure out who was behind the evil plot, so Superman knew who to beat up. He and Wonder Woman had different skills, but were fairly evenly matched as fighters, generally going to a draw when mind control or some other factor caused them to fight. Superman was critical to the Justice League, and he was often the leader, but he was still just one part of that larger group. He wasn’t their only hope.
Going into the Justice League movie, I was excited to see Bruce and Diana try to build the League in a world without Superman. I had seen those rising rocks at the end of BvS, and I knew Superman would come back at some point in this movie. But I liked the idea of the team coming together in a world without Superman, having to find their own way and learn their own strengths without him.
The death of Superman was clearly a crushing blow to so many in that fictional world, and with good reason. He was the literal savior, a man with immeasurable power who had come to earth to save it, again and again, from unimaginable dangers. In the wake of his death, I can understand why so many people felt so lost, and dejected, and fearful.
And yet, there is a way in which that story can tell of the danger of putting all of your hope and faith onto one man, no matter how super he is. When we come to rely on someone else to save us, someone we see as so much better than we are, we wind up subtly telling ourselves that we can’t do anything to save ourselves. The more we rely on a superman to arrive out of nowhere and miraculously save the day, the less we try to figure out what we ourselves can do. In this way, superhero stories are a wonderful mirror for our own lives, and it is a topic I was looking forward to seeing this movie explore.
I hoped for a movie in which the League came together, shocked and saddened by the recognition that they no longer had Superman to come to their rescue, and trying to figure out how to fight the big bad on their own. I wanted to see the Justice League realize they could do great things on their own, so that when Superman returned in some dramatic fashion for the final battle, he was a key part of the team, but not their only means for survival.
To me, that is a story of incredible hope. It is a story that teaches us we can hope for saviors and heroes, but we can also find hope in the knowledge that the stories and memories of heroes can inspire us to do great things as well. It’s a story in which Superman is as much the inspiration for all of us to be super, instead of the one who teaches us to just sit back and wait, because he’s going to save us and we’re too weak to help anyway.
That was the story I thought Justice League was going to give us, but it wasn’t the story we got. Instead one of the first things the League does is to decide they can’t do it all on their own, and they need Superman. So they try to bring him back and it doesn’t go well- the whole team together can’t take him down. So they go into the final battle without him- and it soon becomes clear that this isn’t a battle they can win. They are holding their own but are slowly being overwhelmed- right up till Superman shows up to save the day. The villain, Steppenwolf, who had been doing serious damage to every one of our heroes, is no match at all for Superman. I don’t think he landed a single punch on Superman, certainly not one that mattered. Which was in marked contrast to everyone else, including Wonder Woman, to whom Steppenwolf had been able to do some real harm. At least Superman needs Cyborg’s help to break apart the magical energy boxes, but other than that, it seems like Superman could have won this whole fight by himself.
That’s not the story I wanted to see. It makes me wonder why Superman needs the rest of the league going forward, and it teaches the wrong kind of hope. It teaches us to not try and do it ourselves, but instead to wait and hope that someone from outside will come in and make everything better. My own hope lies, not in Superman the savior, but in Superman the inspiration.
Now I can only hope we find that some other superhero movie gets right what Justice League got so wrong.