Justice League (2017) opens with a shot from a camera phone of Superman (Henry Cavill) rescuing people from a burning building. It’s daytime, and Superman’s costume looks conspicuously like a Halloween costume, its airbrushed textures and fake muscles clearly evident. He’s about to fly away when a child, the one filming this, asks if he could answer some questions. Superman begins to give him a polite brush off when the child explains its for their podcast. “Well, if its for your podcast…” The little boy and his friends proceed to ask Superman a number of questions – “Does that ‘S’ really stand for hope?”, “Have you ever fought a hippo?” – before finally asking what Superman’s favorite thing about the human race is. Silently, Superman thinks. Then he smiles. Cut to black. This opening shot, about a minute long, is easily the best part of Justice League, and is probably the best Superman movie since 1981.
Justice League is a mess of a movie, a Frankenstein monster resulting from hasty reshoots, studio meddling, conflicting artistic visions, tight deadlines, and shoddy special effects. It’s sloppy, stupid, cheap-looking, and a lot more fun than it has any right to be. And one thing it gets absolutely right is Superman.
Despite being one of the most iconic fictional characters of the twentieth century, filmmakers and studio executives have struggled to understand the Man of Steel. No one can seem to wrap their heads around what makes Superman work, operating under the conviction that this is some corny, irrelevant piece of pop culture ephemera that must be radically retooled in order to be popular. But Superman is already popular. People love Superman; they have his insignia tattooed on their bodies, adorning their cars, their shirts, their underwear. All over the world, children are still tying blankets around their necks and jumping off the stairs pretending to fly. Words like “kryptonite”, “Bizarro”, and “Brainiac” are part of the common English vernacular. People discuss flight and x-ray vision in everyday conversation. We don’t need to be sold on Superman; we’ve already bought in, and anyone who hasn’t isn’t going to be swayed by seeing the character brood and get blood on his knuckles.
In a way, Justice League marks the first appearance of Superman in the “DCEU”, Warner Bros’ shared “cinematic universe” for the denizens of DC Comics. This continuity began in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) but it would be hard to mistake the protagonist of that film for Superman. Snyder’s character is a bully and an idiot. He makes out with his girlfriend in a pile of human ash before snapping his opponent’s neck and encouraging the audience to join the military. Superman’s defining characteristic, more than flying or super-strength or changing in phone booths, is that he always does the right thing. As soon as the character stops doing the right thing, he stops being Superman. Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are either wary of or uninterested in this. It’s too simple. It isn’t cool. The fantasy of power abused is, on the surface, more compelling and relatable than power used righteously. But that’s not the story of Superman. Superman represents a kind of apotheosis of humanity, human flaws discarded in the Daily Planet storeroom so that human virtues may be elevated to godhood. Superman is devoid of human flaws like doubt, jealousy, and anger. Those are Clark Kent’s problems. Superman is all-encompassing good, selflessness with the infinite capacity to commit selfless acts. This is something that many of the older cinematic adaptations understood. The Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s, the film serials of the same decade, and the classic 1950s television series were all in close enough proximity chronologically to the character’s creation to not really questions any of this, to not feel the urge to deconstruct or retool the formula. Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz , the creative minds behind Superman (1978) grew up on these adaptions and the comics of that era, and consequently, Superman understands the character perfectly. Beautifully portrayed by Christopher Reeve, this Superman is kind, chivalrous, charming, polite, friendly, while Clark Kent is awkward, shy, bumbling, uptight, and also charming. This was more than just the Superman from the comics. It was like the character had stepped out of our shared cultural imagination and understanding of who Superman is.
It would be unfair to expect as shaggy a dog as Justice League to pull all of this off, and it doesn’t. But it does manage to give us the best cinematic version of Superman in decades. Here, Superman smiles. He actually laughs. A great, big belly laugh. His big entrance line is “I believe in truth…and I’m a big fan of justice!”, delivered by Henry Cavill (who had previously been confined by scripts that had him sulking in front of green screens) with the kind of cornball conviction that would do Kirk Alyn or Buckaroo Banzai proud. The line got a big laugh. It was ridiculous, but in a sincere, joyous way, and this was the biggest, happiest surprise – and achievement – of the film. Superman radiates joy, not just fun or entertainment. Joy. It’s something that’s missing from most other modern superhero movies, including many that are much better than Justice League. But that small, simple quality is worth celebrating.
So, bring your kids to see Justice League. They’ll probably love it, warts and all. And they’ll finally get to see Superman on the big screen.