This article was first posted on Cultural Conversation on November 19th, 2017.
We are living in the Age of Superheroes. Cinema has been transformed over the last decade, largely since the inception of what became the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), by the ongoing adventures of men (and occasionally, though not often enough, women) in costumes fighting theatrical villains and thwarting global doomsday scenarios. These archetypal creations have been leaping off the comic-book panel onto the silver screen since 1978’s Superman adaptation from Richard Donner and have never looked back, but in decades past they jostled for supremacy with action stars or major science-fiction franchises. Now they dominate. Now they’ve started to become more than just heroes; they’re becoming modern, mythological Gods.
Or, at least, that’s what filmmakers like Zack Snyder would like you to believe. Justice League, his culmination of the DC Comics attempt to emulate Marvel’s transformative ripple effect across blockbuster cinema, builds on ideas he has played with across a career where he has grown increasingly fascinated with finding the Divine extraordinary in the ordinary. 300, his take on the myth of the Spartans mostly remembered for Gerard Butler and his surely CGI’d abs, uses a striking, otherworldly visual palette to mythologise the band of warriors against a hegemonic enemy. Watchmen too, a decent stab at adapting Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1980’s anti-war tract, plays with concepts of inhuman, all powerful Godhood in Doctor Manhattan.
Then we get to Man of Steel, Snyder’s enormously divisive reimagining of the Superman origin story, and the God complex hovers fully formed into view. Donner’s take on Superman emphasised a man whose innate humanity helped him save those around him, and fall in love, a take modernised but later essentially repeated by Bryan Singer in the slightly misjudged Superman Returns. Snyder’s Clark Kent is a brooding, haunted shell of a man with the kind of lingering introspection that worked for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins but feels utterly at odds for the Smallville farm boy, while Snyder’s Superman is distant, all-powerful and ultimately feared by the very people he stayed on Earth to protect. Snyder doesn’t see the last son of Krypton as a man, but a God.
Perhaps the better description would be Christ, given how keenly Superman’s return from death factors into the salvation in Justice League. If Man of Steel suggested the idea of Superman as a Divine figure for humanity to fear, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice—the true instigation point for the ‘DCEU’—actively hits the concept head on. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) quite literally describes the conflict between Superman and Batman as “Man vs God”, and his character is central in attempts to characterise Superman amongst the American public as an unchecked force of cosmic power, certainly following his destructive takedown of sinister Kryptonian Zod across Metropolis.
Now, honestly, the idea of exploring a superhero like Superman as a Christ or God-like figure isn’t remotely a bad one. Superheroes by their very nature have skill sets and specific demographics they protect as vigilante crime fighters or defenders of justice, but Kal-El operates on a scale beyond almost any other ‘superhero’ in all of fiction. Justice League is built around the very idea that an ultra-powerful, galactic alien threat targets Earth after the death of Superman, knowing despite all the tooled up, powered heroes such as Batman or Wonder Woman etc… no one even comes close the ‘man of steel’ in terms of providing an adequate defence. When God abandons Heaven, who is left to protect it from the hounds of Hell?
Gods and mythological heroes are becoming more and more common in fiction, perhaps as we increasingly become a secular, science-driven society. It feels like creatives such as Snyder are looking for a saviour, a way to reshape the traditional superhero story into a battle of archetypical, universal and mythic proportions. We’ve come a long way from Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, which cast the caped crusader as a haunted, brooding, animal spirit defender of a lawless Gotham City in the thrall of a chaotic, cartoonish Joker. Now our Bruce Wayne is a man beyond the limits of his city or own career, having suffered loss, introspectively battling his own fear of a bigger, cosmic world around him. When asked in Justice League by excited Barry ‘The Flash’ Allen what his superpower is, Bruce replies: “I’m rich.” It’s a gag but it underscores an uncertainty about Batman’s place in a new world.
This has almost felt inevitable for Batman, to some extent. Following the cartoonish, retro-1960’s style of the Joel Schumacher-led sequels, following Burton’s own dark fantasy crime epics of the early 1990’s, Christopher Nolan’s exemplary Dark Knight trilogy explored the man behind the Bat, and crucially Bruce Wayne himself, from the beginning to the end of his career as a hero. Nolan’s approach was grounded, earthy and far more about socio-political revolution in the face of crime and terrorism than looking at the stars, but it led Batman to a point of no return. Any future film attempting to tell the Bat-story would just feel like they were treading old ground. Where else was Batman to go but to become part of the greater tapestry comic-book adaptations are now exploring?
Justice League reflects these same anxieties, through Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne. He laments not just how wrong he was about Superman and his power, but alongside trusted butler Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) pines for simpler days when all he had to think about was “exploding penguins”. Alfred admits he no longer understands this world and Bruce replies: “I don’t need to understand it. I just need to save it”. Whether from Snyder or Joss Whedon, drafted in to complete the picture and conduct reshoots after Snyder departed for tragic personal reasons, this is a Batman not just anxious about his own place among the team he’s assembling, but writers anxious about Batman’s role as the archetypal superhero in a comic-book lexicon where Riddler’s & Joker’s are in the past, and cosmic, alien warlords with their demonic armies are in the future.
While DC Comics seem to be struggling with quite how to deal with this issue and make it work for their traditional superheroes, Marvel Studios in their MCU appear to be grappling with the evolution of the superhero in cinema in an entirely different way. Ironically, the issue is brought into clear focus with their most recent entry, Thor: Ragnarok, released not three weeks before Justice League; a film which deals pointedly with the titular Thor, the ‘God of Thunder’, and his own attempts to save his heavenly realm Asgard from Hela, the ‘Goddess of Death’. These concepts are entirely as arch and cosmic as those faced by Earth and the formative JLA against exiled alien conqueror Steppenwolf, but the approaches could not be more different.
This is clear from even the very first scene of Ragnarok. We find Thor chained up, the prisoner of demigod Surtur – demonic, glowing fire, with devilish horns protruding, who decries the apocalyptic end to Asgardian civilisation in grand, theatrical, cliched terms, before being constantly interrupted by Thor as he awkwardly spins in his chains. It’s played for laughs which work well, but immediately sets the tone for Ragnarok – this may feature ‘Gods’, monsters, galactic civilisations in peril in terms of stakes, but you as the audience are in on the joke and not meant to take it all very seriously. Parallel Surtur with Steppenwolf—another towering alien who speaks in theatrical terms with demonic horns on his head—and Justice League chooses to take a patently ridiculous threat seriously. Surtur can destroy worlds in the blink of an eye but he’s almost never more than a recurring comic gag – Steppenwolf is never laughed at, by anyone, and consequently he saps the life out of an already drained picture.
Perhaps the tonal differences lie in the fact the MCU leans far more to the polytheistic depiction of mythological Gods than the DCEU’s monotheistic approach. Marvel has no Christ figure, no ‘one’ God to be kept at respectful arms length, and instead presents a broader galactic universe where the Gods of human mythology are simply aliens with super-powered tools and abilities, such as Thor with his magical hammer and command of lightning. The Thor movies, indeed, have been the most pointed at depicting the idea of Gods in the Marvel universe, with Odin the wise, old magician or Loki the trickster all functioning in relatable roles linked to their mythological, real-world Norse antecedents who Stan Lee & Jack Kirby incorporated into Marvel comic legend. The rest of the MCU steers clear – heroes and heroes, aliens are aliens, and that’s essentially it.
Recent DCEU movies have become consumed with the Christian depiction of God or the risen Christ allegory through Superman, and it’s oddly a lot more restrictive. Especially when the message is muddled, as we saw with Wonder Woman’s solo film outing earlier this year. The character of Diana Prince, introduced theatrically in the climax of Batman vs Superman, has become (in no small part thanks to Gal Gadot’s spirited, heartfelt performance) the soul of the formative JLA, but her origin story is not just supremely mythological but rooted in the same polytheism the Marvel universe have seemed far more comfortable with from the get go. Amazons, Atlanteans, ancient human Kings, all speak to a pre-existing historical world with multiple sources of Gods and beings of worship; heck, the villain of Wonder Woman ends up being Ares, the God of War.
So if the DCEU can’t make it’s mind up whether it wants to embrace monotheism or polytheism, Marvel appear to have judiciously chosen the latter and decided the very concept of Godhood is one to lampoon as much as embrace. The Gods of Thor: Ragnarok are supremely powerful but Thor spends much of his time being an absolute klutz across the entire movie; in a comical moment, the serious and focused sorceror Dr. Stephen Strange runs space-distorting rings around a clumsy Thor while aiding him in his quest. These aren’t Gods to fear in the way Snyder plays with humanity fearing Superman. These are Gods to enjoy as super-powered versions of us, with all the same quirks and fallibilities. Though it took Marvel a while themselves to truly embrace this.
Cast your mind back to the first Thor. As much as Kenneth Branagh did infuse that film with self-effacing humour once Thor became stranded on Earth, guzzling beer and stumbling about like an oaf, much of the Asgardian drama was treated like a Shakespearian court with theatrical dialogue and a sense of its own self-importance. By the time Taika Waititi has his hands on the Thor mini-franchise, his Asgard has Loki pretending to be Odin lounging around like a fey Roman Emperor, watching courtiers mocking the events that happened at the end of lambasted previous film Thor: The Dark World. The message is clear as day: we’re not taking these characters all that seriously anymore, and nor should you. Just because they’re Gods, it doesn’t mean we can’t relate to them.
Look at how the Hulk too has progressed. While not considered a God in the same sense Thor and the Asgardian retinue would be in mythological terms, the Hulk traditionally has been a fearful representation of the beast within, a comic-book version of Robert Louis Stephenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’. By Ragnarok, we’re a long way from Ang Lee’s tormented indie drama posing as a blockbuster action picture in 2003’s Hulk; the big, green guy here is played entirely for comic effect, bouncing off Thor’s earnest conviction in the manner much more of a Riggs and Murtaugh than Jekyll’s Hyde. The Hulk is to be feared but he’s not kept at arms length, and he’s never considered truly alien and impossible to understand. The monster has, to an extent, been tamed and brought down to earth. It’s telling, indeed, that the Asgardians by the end of Thor: Ragnarok look to Earth for their salvation; the Gods no longer are in the stars when it comes to Marvel’s future.
Steps are actively taken within Justice League to try and humanise this approach to Godhood, and no doubt that comes from Joss Whedon’s input. He was a good fit for Marvel because he’s never entirely believed that heroes should be held aloft in mythological terms; his Avengers Assemble—one of the finest comic-book movies ever made to date—has the team on the ground in New York by the end, fighting amidst the people, in much the same way Nolan’s Batman does during the revolutionary climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Oddly enough you get the sense Snyder doesn’t believe in God either, much as he’s fascinated by the concept; he casts Superman in the role of deity as a flawed, complicated and dangerous individual. God-like Superman commits murder, after all. In many ways, that was the act which sealed the DCEU’s death warrant before it began.
Justice League, therefore, plays out the risen Christ allegory for Superman. He is restored in order to save the world, though you get the sense Whedon’s changes to the production could well have altered Superman’s return to something far more engineered by man than by God. In trailers for the film, there was a strong suggestion that a shadowy Superman appears to Alfred, but this scene does not appear in the finished product, and Superman is very much revived thanks to the combined efforts of the entire team of heroes. Was Superman originally meant to rise from the grave in nebulous, Biblical terms, much like the body of Christ vanished from his resting place? Would his return under Snyder have played with the Second Coming concept in deeper mythological terms?
It’s an open question. Press interviews with members of the cast have stated how by the end of Justice League, Superman is the man we remember from older movies, TV shows and the comics. Justice League works hard to try and create a level of intertextual continuity with the movies of old with characters such as Superman and Batman, down to Danny Elfman’s score incorporating his own legendary theme for Burton’s original two movies and John Williams’ iconic Superman theme. In a reactionary way, the DCEU is actively now trying to serve all the fans who were turned off by Snyder’s millennial approach, one where he attempted to darken the pallet and question specifically – what is the modern superhero? How would the common man or woman see a figure who can fly, has inhuman strength and can travel faster than the speed of light?
The resolute answer seems to be, from many, that they want superheroes to be entertaining and escapist. For all the faults of the later Christopher Reeve movies, that’s what they ultimately were. The MCU never delves too heavily into dark introspection, with the majority of serious conflicts coming from established character beats (such as Captain America: Civil War – a film which came out roughly the same time as Batman vs Superman and portrayed a similar conflict in much more successful terms). The Nolan Bat-trilogy to some extent operates as the exception, and its fair to say few people look back on the candy-coloured exuberance of Batman & Robin favourably. It all comes down to execution, tone and script.
Justice League in the end wants to have its metaphorical cake and to eat it. On the one hand, Snyder’s creative legacy still heavily concerns the modern interpretation of mythological Gods in relation to the established ides of the superhero, and quite possibly Whedon’s input attempts to add back the humanity in the performances, characters and ultimately the destination the DCEU is heading. The fact both aspects never quite gel comfortably—Barry Allen’s clowning and Steppenwolf’s humourless conquering feel like two separate pictures—is a major reason why Justice League seems to encapsulate the existential crisis the DCEU is suffering, a crisis Marvel never quite faced due to a stronger level of consistency in terms of its own continuity and tone.
Whether Justice League is a commercial success or not, it looks almost certain Zack Snyder’s association with the extended universe of DC Comics is done. His approach certainly has its fans but they aren’t nearly legion enough for Warner Bros to allow him anything close to the role of a steward going forward, and even with comic legend Geoff Johns overseeing the DC movie department, there has been little talk about ensuring the DCEU continues in the same vein as was originally planned. James Wan’s Aquaman is filmed, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 2 is assured given the success of the original, and Matt Reeves’ The Batman continues to swirl around the rumour mill, but everything else remains in the ether. Waiting to see where and how the other shoe drops.
What will be interesting to see, whichever way the DCEU ends up facing, is whether the superhero genre will continue its growing obsession with tying these modern mythological heroes into historical mythology and Divinity. If the Snyder experimentation with Superman proved anything, it’s that many movie lovers and comic-book fans want their heroes to be much more human and relatable, for all of their otherworldly gifts and curses, than figures to be deified. Perhaps that says as much about our own world and how we face the notion of worship and belief as it does the superhero genre. We’re willing to believe in a hero. We struggle to believe in a saviour.
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