Okay, word of warning up front. This is going to be an odd one. It’s going to consist of a bunch of semi-random thoughts about (of all things) Superhero movies in general, and Justice League (2017) in particular.
Ah, but there’s the rub. This piece isn’t really about movies, or Superheroes, or Justice League….
But to figure out why, you’re going have to read all the way to the end.
Insert malevolent chortle here.
Right, I don’t like superhero movies. I don’t like them because, well, I’m too much my physicist father’s son, and it bugs me that physics seems to stop working in superhero movies. I mean, how exactly does Superman fly at Mach 10 without wings or jet engines or whatever. And, then, there’s the little issue of sonic booms.
But, willing suspension of disbelief and all that. (Though, Dude, this takes a heap o’suspending.)
Still, over the last few days, I seem to have watched most, if not all, of Justice League 2017, which is a superhero flick pure and simple. A lot of it is on Youtube, btw. Warner Brothers, not to mention fans, post clips there on a regular basis.
And, to my own vast amazement, I found myself thinking about the film. And, more, even writing about it.
Will wonders never…etc.
Background: Justice League tells the story of a team of comic book superheroes who band together to save Earth from a nefarious alien who looks and acts so much like a demon that you might as well just call him the Devil and settle it. The team in question is Bruce Wayne/Batman (played by Ben Affleck), Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Barry Allen / The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and, as a late entry, Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill).
Justice League, as I understand it, was a mess from day one. The original director, Zack Snyder, left the project following a tragic death in his family. Joss Whedon then stepped up and completed the picture. However, some fans were not satisfied by Whedon’s version, and there’s been a concerted push to “release the Snyder cut.” Worse, Ray Fisher, who plays the Cyborg, tweeted that Whedon had been abusive and unprofessional on set.
But none of that really matters, because, as I say, I’m not really writing about Justice League. Right now, I just want to talk about Superhero movies as a genre.
And what strange animals they really are.
Superhero films are not really fiction in the normal sense. I would suggest that they are myth. That is, they play on the same parts of the human psyche as do myths. They have the same larger than life characters…heroes and demigods…fabulously powerful…in some cases (as with Superman) coming close to omnipotence.
And they face the same challenges— super-beings who plot the demise of all humanity. They don’t want to rob a bank or something. They want to control, or annihilate, the whole world.
Oh, and you have pretty much the same plot. In both myth and movie, you have a (perhaps unwilling) hero called to action…there is a dreadful struggle…and then, with or without fearful sacrifice…Good wins and Evil is contained (though never entirely eliminated).
Moreover, I would submit that there is a particular sort of mythology at work here. This isn’t just gods of Olympus or Asgard here (though Thor does show up in comic books and the movies as a caped crusader). This is a very specific mythology —i.e., Judeo-Christian mythology, by which I mean that collection of ideas and folklore which is mostly non-Biblical, but which have grown up around the stories of the Bible, and which have apparently outsized impact on popular culture. (The Anti-Christ, for instance, appears only twice in the New Testament, Matthew 24:24 and Mark 13:22. yet, from all the books and movies and sermons about him, you’d think he, and not Jesus, was at the center of Christianity.)
I would submit that Superhero movies, and particularly Justice League, take a lot from that sort of myth. In this film, the good guys face “Steppenwolf,” as played by Ciarán Hinds. And, as I said before, he is the Devil for all intents and purposes (his helmet even has horns) and he wants to take over the world and make it hellish.
Better to serve in hell, than serve in etc.
Now, all superhero films face some fairly insolvable problems, and I give the writers, directors, actors of Justice League credit for trying to resolve them as best they could.
Number one of such problems is that if your characters really do have superpowers then you don’t have a plot. That is, Superman is …well…super. He can do almost anything. So, if the villains attack, he could just whack ‘em around a bit, and then go to the credits. It’d be a ten minute movie, max, and the thing would be over by the time you got back from the concession stand with the popcorn.
Justice League deals with this conundrum by having Superman safely dead, or alienated, for the most of the film. Of course, he shows up in the final act to mop up the floor with Steppenwolf, but his absence is long enough to give the rest of the cast time to have, you know, a movie.
(Hey, don’t knock it. Having your main character dead or missing can be a successful strategy. Some religions have used the same dodge for generations.)
This is a story about a pantheon of demigods — Superman, Batman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the Flash. There is lots of stuff in the flick about them learning to get along together and be a team.
But…Batman is mortal. He has no superpowers, other than (as he says at one point) that he’s rich. He is superhuman in the sense that he’s fanatically devoted to Truth and Justice, he’s an athlete, and he’s the team’s leader (sometimes), but, unlike the others in the tale, he can get badly hurt, and, eventually, he’ll grow old and die.
The film makers address this a couple of times. At one point, when he’s been recently beaten up, Wonder Woman says to him, “You know you can’t do this forever.” He replies, “I can barely do it now.”
There could be an entire movie just in that line…but, alas, only those of us “of a certain age” would pay to see it.
Third problem, people who go to these movies are not looking for great plots, insightful commentary, or even particularly good acting. They are looking for thrilling action sequences. This makes it difficult for the actors. They know on some level that they are present merely to provide filler between the special effects.
I wonder how that feels.
Speaking of acting…how is it in Justice League? I didn’t have any problems with it, particularly. Still…I have heard some rumbles on the ‘Net about the performances. Someone posted that Ezra Miller, as the Flash, was going to have to wear a back brace after carrying the whole movie, while the other actors phoned it in.
I don’t know about that. However, Miller is genuinely appealing in the role, and he is perhaps the most approachable of the characters. He plays the Flash as the awkward adolescent in us all. He is, effectively, the prototype of the sort person who Hollywood thinks goes to such movies — the teenage boy, say, about fourteen.
Oddly enough, the Flash is also the character who comes closest to being a true equal to Superman. The Cyborg character is similar to Superman, and can match him in most things, but Flash alone can dodge the Superman’s haymakers when he starts punching.
Perhaps that’s not an accident. Maybe the film makers wanted to present their ideal movie-goer as their ideal superhuman. A lovely bit of self-reference there, don’t you think?
But, then, it isn’t unusual. All films…all fictions!…present a mirror to the audience. It is just that in these kinds of movies, it is a fun house mirror, distorting the image of the viewer. The good news is that the mirror is convex rather than concave. And the audience sees itself as taller, thinner, and more adult than it could possibly be in harsh reality.
Fourth and final problem, and one related to but not quite the same as acting…
There is actually not much room for Character in a superhero movie. Oh, you have characters, of course. But, again, that’s not what the audience is there for. They know who Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman are from the beginning. They know the personalities of the people involved. They know that Batman is avenging the death of his parents (for which he feels guilty). They know that Superman is haunted by the destruction of Krypton and always trying to make sense of his relationship with his adopted planet, Earth. They know that Wonder Woman grew up on the isle of Amazon and, perhaps, has difficult choices to make.
But, other than their gaining new confidence or discovering more about themselves, the audience doesn’t want or need these characters to change too much. There is a certain comfort in the continuing sameness of our heroes. We don’t want them to be radically different people from when they began the story. That might be unsettling. It would be as bad, oh, as having Mickey turn into a serial killer, or Donald Duck suddenly sporting orotund vowels and doing Richard III (“Now are the feathers of our discontent”).
Which isn’t to say that Superheroes don’t change. In fact, they have changed dramatically in the last half century. When I was a kid in the 1960s, they were clean-cut, All-American boys and girls. That’s long gone. They struggle now with angst and self-doubt and guilt and every neurosis to be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), plus maybe one or two more yet to be invented.
Indeed, there is a sense of group therapy about Justice League. The characters each address their personal demons in one way or another. Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) wrestles with her fear of being the team’s leader, something Bruce Wayne/Batman pushes her to do. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) comes to terms with who he really is. And so on.
The question, does this reflect the psychology of the expected audience of this film (adolescents are struggling to figure out who the hell they are all the time anyway)? Or does it reflect the way we all live now? When even the therapist’s couch no longer seems a safe-haven?
Which leads me to a handy segue.
I said I don’t like Superhero movies. Truth be told, I’m not that fond of this one, and I wouldn’t have watched any of it… much less written about it!…except…
Except I’m just like you.
I’m in quarantine. And I am afraid.
I’m doing just exactly what you’re doing at the moment. I’m waiting and trying not to be afraid.
Texas is in the midst of its second wave of the virus. All the horrors have hit. The ICUs are full. The morgues are full. They are bringing in refrigerated trucks to handle the overflow of bodies.
Now, we spend a lot of time at home. We can go out, some. There are two or three restaurants and coffee shops we can visit for brief periods. We can go for walks outside…but there are only so many trails you can explore…and Texas heat in the summer is such that you really can’t get out except very early in the morning or near dusk.
So, I sit here in my office. I write. I play with my graphics software. I try to video and audio. I cruise the web.
And I worry…
I worry about the future. I worry about the virus. So far, it has avoided us (we think) but will it do so forever?
I worry about politics. What happens if Trump is returned to office in the next election? If that happens, will there ever be another election?
I worry about the future.
I worry about what sort of world my granddaughter…beautiful, and innocent, and barely a year and a half old…will come to inhabit.
I am afraid.
Just like you are.
Which is why, then, I think I find myself watching this film, and thinking about it. It represents what we all want right now. We fantasize about having the power of Superman or Wonder Woman. We dream of being able to leap tall viruses in a single bound, and impose health the world over…
Or, if not to be superheroes ourselves, then we dream of being in their care. We want a Batman in the White House. We want someone in the Oval Office who is intelligent, and thoughtful, and fanatically driven to make the world better… not “Great Again.”
And we want most of all to be “on the team,” that is, in community, and to find ourselves, like the Justice League, united in friendship and in noble purpose.
Will we ever achieve that? Obviously not. Superheroes are fantasies. We will none of us be Superman. We will none of us meet Wonder Woman. Aquaman will never appear in our swimming pools.
If we can, somehow, stand together, and get through these next few years…
Maybe we can really change things for the better.
And thus become not just fantasy, but genuine heroes…
Who make the world ashine.
The Real Heroes Are In The Mirror