The Hermeneutics of Justice League

SPOILER FREE! And don’t take the following too seriously.

img01Justice League is out, and it’s been controversial in a completely different way than the previous entry in DC’s film oeuvre, Batman V Superman. Strangely, a lot of folks are now clamoring to see Zack Snyder’s original vision for the film, rather than the one Joss Whedon retooled and finished. For those of you that might be unaware, Snyder (director of Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, Watchmen, 300, etc.) stepped away from the film due to a personal tragedy, but not before already commissioning Whedon (Avengers, Avengers 2, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story) to cover reshoots, editing, and general clean-up and polishing duties. Again, Whedon was contracted before Snyder’s unforeseen departure. Reshoots were astronomically expensive and insiders suggest that Whedon changed about 20-30% of what he was handed, though Ben Affleck still insists that this is Snyder’s film.

It’s this issue of dual authorship that has viewers in such a furor, and which seems to have dominated the reviews of the film. Which parts are Snyder’s? Which are Whedon’s? Did Justice League fail because it tried to “go Marvel” rather than remain true to the more mature BVS vibe? What was Snyder’s “original vision” for the movie, and does that vision exist in viewable form somewhere?

Holy Higher Criticism, Batman!

Biblical studies people might feel a strange sense of familiarity with the whole conversation. Drawing lines between varying sources with differing intentions, contrasting between a “pure” original kernel and a late redaction, attempting a “Quest for the Historical Superman” … in a very strange way, the methods and concerns of source criticism have been brought to bear upon a piece of pop culture.

There are those who insist that the pre-Whedon Justice League was the “true” Justice League, that Snyder is a cinematic genius forced out of his own process by the imperializing and greedy powers of the Studio (read here Roman Empire or Ecclesiastical Authorities), whose interests lie not at all with the beauty of film but with holding on to box office power. Whedon has thus diluted and commodified Justice League, introducing alien concerns.

On the other side, there are those who see in Snyder’s dark and brooding picture of superheroes a backwards worldview out of touch with the needs and desires of the contemporary world. Clearly, everyone knows Marvel’s movies have succeeded in large part by being light and fun, yet Snyder insisted on a burdened Superman and a cynical Batman, a tone which would have continued into Justice League if some reports are to be believed. As such, Whedon’s happy touch was absolutely necessary to avoid the evils of BVS and speak to modern culture. Here, the “original manuscripts” were hopelessly antiquated, violent, and alienating, and needed to be reinterpreted in order to be meaningful.

A third category, perhaps less ideologically motivated than academically curious, have sought to detect by various means the seams between the “Whedon” elements and the “Snyder” elements. Evidence of Superman’s CGI-elided mustache is a clear indicator that this shot comes from the Whedon pickups, when actor Henry Cavill was contractually obligated not to shave his face for Mission Impossible 4, rather than Snyder’s original footage. Snarky one-liners and sight gags are highly suggestive of the “W” school.

In like manner, more “epic” footage found in trailers released while Snyder was still at the helm, but now missing from the final product, obviously demonstrate that certain scenes have been redacted by the W source to address contextually-motivated concerns. The Junkie XL-penned soundtrack of the “S” school, now replaced by the perky Danny Elfman themes of the W school, also points in the same direction. “Extra-textual” sources such as Instagram posts, crew interviews, etc. can give important insights into the original form of the S author,  and provide bases for theoretical reconstructions.

But all of these discussions beg methodological questions. What is the “canonical” form of the film? Is it the final form, the version that people actually see in theaters? Is it the form as originally conceived in the mind of the S author? Can we speak of a meaning to Justice League as a whole, or must we restrict ourselves to discussions of meanings of its constitutive elements, or even to affirming Justice Leagues rather than a single authoritative film?

snyder whedon justice league theology

Forget JEDP, this is where the real scholarship lives.

A Question of Canon

I don’t want to be one of those people who are content to criticize without constructing, or to pose questions without answering. So I’d like to evaluate Justice League not from a source critical, but from a canonical context. And given the fact that Justice League is not divinely inspired, my approach will be a bit different from that laid out by guys like Kevin Vanhoozer and John Peckham. But first we need to understand the concept of canon, which governs whether a superhero movie is a good and faithful one.

The idea of “comic book canon” is a well-established one. Despite the fact that both canonical and non-canonical stories are equally fictitious, the former reserves more reality than the latter. Why is this? Perhaps because canonical materials are created by duly authorized figures imbued with the power to create canon. But such power is not intrinsic; rather, it is derived from the mutual consent of the readers. A DC Superman story is canonical and a Bollywood crossover is non-canonical because the community of interpretation deems it so. The canonical reality of Action Comics stems from the recognition of a “good performance” of the community’s implied standard for what the character means. In this we follow Lindbeck, Hector, and others.

Over time, a semi-independent concept of the character’s identity forms, and itself begins to exert influence over the community of interpretation. I’ll call this the “archetype.”

A fascinating phenomenon: sometimes, bad stories set in the official continuity are collectively rejected on the grounds that they were inauthentic representations of the characters depicted in those stories. Most often, however, the pressure of canon still exists to such an extent that an in-universe explanation has to be given for the change. As such, the archetype, though arising solely as a contingent element of the community, now stands in a semi-authoritative relationship over against that community. Characters have an identity from which any faithful story cannot depart too severely. If we begin to detect a swerve from the archetype, the board will often be reset (rebooted). How many times have Superman and Lois Lane been married and then un-married?

At the same time, writers and audiences expect continual novelty. Creators must show us new things about our beloved characters, reveal new sides to classic figures. But Superman is almost 80 years old, and has appeared in thousands of stories. What else is left to be said? This is the tension comic book canon faces: the work must be familiar enough to be recognizable as a faithful interpretation of the archetype, but fresh enough to be exciting.

And here enters Justice League.

Justice League: A Canonical Reading

First, while it may be amusing to do the source critical thing, we should accept that the final form IS the canonical form. Snyder, the original author, authorized Whedon’s interpretation, so barring some popular uprising (which may be in the process of happening) we ought to accept and evaluate the film as it stands. Likewise, any future extended “Snyder cut” will also be canonical.

In my opinion, Justice League is a basically faithful interpretation of the archetypes, but an insubstantial contribution. By contrast, BVS was a less faithful interpretation but a weighty contribution to the social discourse. Someone in a comment section somewhere described the difference between BVS and Justice League as “flawed cinema vs. solid movie.” This seems right to me.

Like most Marvel movies, there isn’t really anything wrong with Justice League. The character motivations are clear, the pacing is excellent, there are minor arcs for each member, and the plot isn’t overly complex. Yet I left this film wanting more; I was not as satiated as I had been for Man of Steel or BVS. This film seemed to lack the weight of significance.

What does Justice League mean? One could very well say what happened, but what the film is about is a different question. Like most Marvel movies, it’s solidly constructed but without a lot of subtext or thematic depth. At least Snyder’s movies were about something. In Man of Steel we grapple with what it means for Superman to be “for the world” rather than a private individual, and in Batman V Superman the tug is between hope and pragmatism. I struggled to find such a theme in Justice League. The closest thing would probably be the movement from individualism to teamwork.

Marvel-esque movies have succeeded because they are inoffensive, while Snyder’s movies have polarized audiences because they make statements.

Superhero stories succeed because they tap into archetypal cultural themes, and package them in exciting trappings. We can use them as lenses through which to reflect on the shifting importance of such themes in a society. Darowski demonstrates this with Superman, and Boudreaux and Latta reflect on why our culture seems to be fascinated with heroes fighting other heroes rather than villains.

The fact that the most divisive DC films have been about Superman signals something important, at least to me. Superman differs fundamentally from virtually every other comic book character because Superman is the most transparent stand-in for pure goodness. Which Superman is “right?” Is it Snyder’s burdened savior, Whedon’s “itchy” McGuffin, Morrison’s olympian sun god? The way we decide the question is already decided by our concept of what a pure hero looks like.

We disagree about Superman because we disagree about the nature of the good. Whether moviegoers are satisfied with a Superman that smiles or a Superman that feels mythic is in large part a result of their metaphysics.

The archetype of Superman combines two seemingly opposite qualities: gravitas and joy. Superman is important, he’s not some popcorn flick poster boy meant to spout witty comebacks. There should be a certain heft to his appearing. This was what Snyder’s previous two films cashed in on. But Snyder often neglected the other side of the equation. Superman, unlike the Hulk or even Batman, likes what he does. He is honored to be a hero, to have the opportunity to help people. It’s not forced upon him, it’s something he deeply longs to do. Snyder’s Superman finds the weight of the world on his shoulders and wishes to be rid of it. Peter Jackson’s Aragorn is in almost exactly the same situation compared to his canonical version, though he fares better in the joy department. We can have gravitas without much joy, or joy without gravitas. But we as a culture are too ideologically fractured to be able to hold both together very easily.

Only Christianity, that faith of paradox, can hold both in constructive tension. Only Christianity finds its source of ultimate importance in that self-existing, eternal fount of infinite joy and love, the Triune God. Only Christ the King and Savior, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, can properly model what it means to be Superman.

aquaman

Ocean metaphor? Why not Aquaman?

A world that rejects objective standards for justice and goodness for the shallowness and shifting waves of culture will find that if it attempts to please everyone, its cultural offering will not be very deep or lasting. Those who attempt to wade into the depths may leave behind those too afraid to take the plunge, and without a Lifeline may find themselves going off the deep end. Do not conform your object to everyone, rather conform everyone to the object of faith. This was the dilemma upon which Justice League foundered.

Then again, it’s only a superhero movie, right?