Hollywood makes America look small. With “Justice League,” the fantasies we see on screen just got smaller. I’m old enough to remember when America could boast two kinds of superhero movies, the Marvel variety, with all the sarcastic patter, and the DC variety, with all the brooding silences. It made sense to have two variants—comedy and tragedy—as this is the human condition ever since Homer’s two poems.
Well, that’s over. America, evidently, is no longer big enough for two. Marvel has won and the new DC film, “Justice League,” is a Marvel movie.
Yes, there are post-credit scenes, because we cannot tolerate the psychological impact of a movie. We have to be distracted from our own experience with previews of coming attractions. Yes, there are sarcastic lines intended to deflate heroic pretensions with the dialogue equivalent of fart jokes. Yes, they even got Marvel man himself, “Avengers” director Joss Whedon, to finish the picture.
This makes sense in a way that should worry you. As with so many things, we seem to believe there can be only one—one Facebook, one Amazon, one Apple, one Google. Are we unwilling to be a part of anything making less than billions of dollars and mobilizing less than a billion people?
Well, what alternative do we really have? Why can’t the filmmakers and the studios show some intestinal fortitude? Why cannot they keep with us when they take the billions of dollars we have thrown at them every time they made something that’s not Marvel—Nolan’s Batman movies, Nolan and Snyder’s Superman movies, Ayer’s “Suicide Squad,” and even Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman”?
So maybe this is the death of tragedy in America. I, for one, will mourn it because it made us more serious and more aware of our limits. Instead, we get “Justice League” which is a simple puzzle that you can do, half paying attention while watching an episode of “Seinfeld.” You could pad it to TV drama; long with bitter dialogue and recriminations between characters. But there’s no reason for this to take two hours and cost $300 million.
I’d warn you against spoilers, if only there were any. The plot is: get Superman to solve all your problems. The worthless villain is completely unknown; his motivations are alternately inscrutable and boring; you might be interested for a few minutes, but then you just want it to be over. The only worthwhile thing is the genius of Zack Snyder’s action sequences—that’s what art looks like and all blockbusters could stand to learn something from him.
Now let’s go back to what used to make DC movies special. Over a dozen years, they showed you how America can be the stage of the most complex dramatizations of the themes and teachings of Greek tragedy and political philosophy. You had Aeschylus and Plato before you on the big screen and the American audience loved it. If you want to see the best advertisement for a liberal arts education, for thinking about the classics to understand ourselves today, Christopher Nolan’s work is it. We should be teaching people about this and trying to support it. It elevates us without being preachy.
All the people who complain that kids don’t read anymore or that popular culture is garbage should have spent the last dozen years applauding Nolan and his many collaborators, because they did America a great service. They also proved that the comic book genre is not just a hobby for children who don’t have friends or just a way for corporations to exploit kids. It’s an avenue into a public imagination, where myths can do the hard work of making the questions of justice and sacrifice powerful enough to penetrate through all the obstacles our society sets to deep thinking.
Let’s start with the first signs of genius in comic-book movie-making. The Nolan brothers and writer David S. Goyer made the Batman movies, a trilogy that put to shame all the meaningless sequels of our times. We experienced each film as a complete story and nevertheless knew that each lacked something it needed from the others. The working out of the question of justice and the ground of the law over three movies showed us how the same city looks like three different cities as regimes change; it also showed us the unity of law in the souls of the people; we saw the police move from corruption to sacrifice and a man almost become a hero, almost a god of punishment, only to then turn into a private citizen again.
The storytelling didn’t just take three long movies; it was spread out over eight years, giving the myth time to grow in the imaginations of the audience and in American culture. Nothing was throwaway, nothing was a joke at our expense or a disappointment to our hopes. This daring enterprise cost astounding amounts of money and made even more money in return, so that the studios and corporations could be happy about the business side. It even won comic book heroes and villains Oscar prestige. And throughout we faced evil as an audience in a way we haven’t really done almost at any other time.
The crisis of confidence in America that showed itself in terrorism and failures of government was articulated in a unique way in the Dark Knight trilogy, by writers who were more familiar with Greek tragedy and political philosophy than most of the people who act like snobs and look down their noses at comic books.
Then came Zack Snyder, who made—with Nolan and Goyer—“Man of Steel,” the first serious Superman story to address America as an audience and as a nation. Our Christian hopes and our fear that powers beyond our imagination could destroy humanity were brought out and made into a myth that could attract our attention and reward thinking at the same time.
This defense of popular art requires thinking through the teachings embedded in the movies, whether as plot or as symbols. If you want to hear more about these topics, listen to the American Cinema Foundation podcast:
- The Batman-Superman-Wonder Woman episode deals with law, with the problem of republican politics and Christian faith in America, and learning the lesson of Solzhenitsyn, that the line between good evil cuts through every human heart.
- The Marvel & DC episode deals with the various movies of the franchises in terms of plot and symbolism and genre.
- The Nolan Bros. episode is about the development of the artists and how their movies try to grasp what it means to be human through drama.
- The Marvel & American society episode will give you a Tocquevillian sociology to help understand America through the movies.
“Man of Steel” explicitly presents Superman, the all-American hero, as a potential heir to Plato’sRepublic—a book he reads as part of his education and at the same time his birthright. Americans could see on screen the catastrophe of a philosophical-scientific aristocracy destroying the world that gave birth to it. And we could see how that legacy of political philosophy is confronted with the Christian faith in personal salvation. America itself was presented as a mix of the two.
That’s when the studio reasserted itself and destroyed the Nolan-Snyder myth to get a cash-cow. It is not possible in our world for even the most successful combination of poetic genius and capitalism to mix. It didn’t matter how many billions of dollars the Nolan-Snyder movies made. Their work was ruined. Still, the subsequent movies—”Batman v. Superman” and “Wonder Woman”—had the Snyder touch and made the attempt to show that the burden of heroism is the reaching out to meet the limits of human beings, where monstrous things await.
They could no longer write an intelligent plot, but they could still work the symbols of morality in a way Americans could find enlightening and persuasive. The fight between Batman and Superman is about the political crisis in America, and almost explicitly a dramatization of the Bush v. Obama conflict about self-defense and integrity. It was the best treatment of 9/11 on film, too, and it treated respectfully the claims and the weaknesses of liberals and conservatives both. It even brought in the desperate hope that politics could be replaced by something more reliable, something that can create a future: a trans-national, multi-billion dollar tech corporation and, with it, a new god: Lex Luthor.
As for “Wonder Woman,” it again confronted the Greek and Christian roots of American life. The revelation of the story is that the god of war is not a part of the chaos unfolding in our search for ever more freedom and power—far from being a source of glory, it is the evil in ourselves, tempting us to achieve victory at the expense of our humanity. It was all-American in its insistence that moral heroism guarantees the equal dignity of all human beings, just like Superman is supposed to stand up for the dignity of all Americans.
We have to somehow learn to defend popular art and start preaching the gospel of middlebrow if we want to offer the American audience something worthwhile, and the first step is to understand what we had and have now lost. The divisions in America run deep and they cut through entertainment same as everything else. But here we have popular art that’s both profound and unifying: isn’t that worth something?