Justice League opens on a world without hope. A haunting song, “Everybody Knows” by Sigrid, accompanies the open credits, where a montage shows the whole world mourning the death of Superman and everything he stands for. We see a man harassing store-owners who are middle-eastern and wearing turbans, and we see a homeless man whose sign simply says, “I tried.” We learned back in Man of Steel that the “S” on Superman’s chest is actually a Kryptonian symbol for hope. With the events of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, that hope is gone. Batman begins a quest to save the world from an alien invasion, but in truth, he is fighting against his own hopelessness and the hopeless vulnerability of a world open to attack. As the Justice League begins to form, it’s formation is a sign that hope might be found in togetherness, symbolic meaning, and overcoming fear.
To be sure, this is a most generous interpretation of this movie. Along with Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder has not only bitten off more than he can chew thematically – his films are actually choking on their own potential. Justice League has more levity and fun moments than MoS and BvS:DoJ combined, but they belong to a different movie than the action scenes. They likely belong to a different director too; Joss Whedon was brought in to finish the film after Snyder stepped down for personal reasons. Whedon’s influence is clear in contrast of the rest of the film, but rather than adding to the overall product, it makes the moments without his influence seem that much more unnecessarily lifeless. Scenes with the villain are so devoid of humanity, in part because of the choice to not even have a human stand-in for the performance. Actor Ciaran Hinds only gets a voice credit for the villain; everything else is CGI, and the lack of presence is palpable. It is a microcosm that represents well the problematic role of CGI in this film.
It’s worth noting, too, that the movie’s fixation on Gal Gadot’s body is troubling. Like a few gratuitous shots at the end of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this film again frames, costumes, and leers at Gadot in a way that objectifies her presence on the team while pretending to elevate her as the team’s leader (a nod to Wonder Woman’s box office success). Yet this film doesn’t even approach what made Wonder Woman successful, because it’s more interested in shortening the skirt on her costume and putting her in low-cut or skin-tight blouses/dresses (and pretending she has chemistry with Affleck’s Batman.) While the flood of allegations of sexual assault against men in Hollywood continues to rain down—including against some men involved in this film—we can look to the depiction of Gadot’s Wonder Woman by Snyder versus how she is filmed by Patty Jenkins and see how far we still have to come.
All of these things distract from or actively work against Justice League’s message about restoring hope in hopeless times. Some welcome new characters, (Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash, especially) bring some life and also signal hope. Batman and Wonder Woman find hope in the emergence of new heroes willing to step out of the shadows and risk themselves to save the world. Each character is weaker than the villain on their own and maybe even together, and at various points along the way their mortality is startling to them. And yet, each character gains hope and strength from the vulnerability of the other. No character is allowed to brood alone (even if it’s kind of their thing – I’m looking at you, Batman).
More than suggesting that a community needs to work together to solve a problem (like The Avengers), Justice League suggests that such a community can offer hope in a hopeless time. This community comes together united around a symbolic higher power (Superman, in this case), overcomes fear to save the world from invasion, and begins to save it from its hopelessness. And since the signs of hopelessness at the beginning of the film (racism, homelessness) strikingly represent our own super-hero-less culture in the real world, it wouldn’t hurt us to look to those same three offerings ourselves to find hope in these troubling times. I, for one, think that more togetherness, humility before a higher power, and overcoming fear would bring a lot of hope right now. Justice League might not save our world, but it’s thinking in the right direction.