Hear me out: why Whedon & Snyder’s Justice League isn’t a bad movie

Let the present author preface this review, with the remark that I have no shrift whatever for inconsistent critics who demand ‘complex motivations’ and ‘subtle, realistic bad guys’ in fiction, yet are content with simplistic explanations in fact. Such a double-standard would seem to require greater complexity in fantasy than in reality, and yet is pronounced in the same breath as the oft-repeated and not quite correct assertion, that the mind of a real person must be more complex than that of a figure on the stage.

Such critics can never be content, as long as they demand to see ‘flawed heroes’ and ‘subtle, realistic bad guys’ in one and the same film. As the hero’s mental inner-workings become more ‘complex’; — which is to say, less admirable; — its enemy’s inner workings become less so, and in some cases disappear altogether, until the rôle of the villain is reduced to that of a fresh challenger, sent into the arena to be cut down by the reigning champions for the entertainment of the masses. Whedon/Snyder’s murderous treasure-hunter ‘Steppenwolf’ is an example: he has no ‘motivation’ as such, but, even more obviously than stage-villains usually are, is an automaton programmed to attack the heroes, and (in the final act) a moving target for them to strike. The purpose of his presence in the story is the same as that of the story itself: to show the heroes displaying their powers, as if they were athletes at a sporting-event. Insofar as the character of Steppenwolf has any motives, they are motives of honour: the recovery of a set of relics lost by him in a previous campaign.

If Steppenwolf has an equivalent in the decade’s other superhero-film-saga, the soi-disant ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’, it is not the archfiend ‘Thanos’, but the frost-giant ‘Farbauti’, the rival of Odin for both the rule of the universe and the loyalty of the double-dealing Loki: for Steppenwolf, like Farbauti, is a disgraced officer come to redeem his honour by the recapture of an enchanted casket, lost by him as afore said, which when opened may transform the surrounding landscape into a likeness of his own domain, and thus give him the victory in the war. The archetype of such caskets is, of course, Pandora’s Box; and its rationale, if any, is the same as that of nuclear weaponry, or superior firepower of any sort: that is, to devastate the battlefield, and thereafter overpower a stunned enemy. That it is not infallible, in fiction or in fact, may be taken as an allegory of the unreliability of this tactic.

At the time of publication, to make the heroes’ motivations more ‘complex’; — which is to say, less admirable; — was widely held as a mark of sophistication: an example of progress from the supposedly simplistic models of antiquity, toward a sort of psychological novel. As the heroes’ motivations become more complex, and the villain’s less so, the resulting story is that of a simple-minded monster opposed to a penitent hero who embarks on heroism to atone for some past misdeed: precisely the scenario of the Labours of Hercules, or the Journey to the West. Far from making a psychological novel, this style of narration has produced a neoclassical myth, and reverted to exactly those ideals its makers sought to defy.

Be that as it may, the effort to make a hero’s motivations more ‘complex’, is misguided in other ways. When we can no longer admire the hero as a personality; — that is, for its moral standing; — we are left with nothing to admire but its strength, in whatever form that strength takes. This would seem, supra, to be how the Hercules myth came to the low moral state in which we find it in the Argonautica or the plays of Euripedes; and how, indeed, the majority of superhero-comics have ceased to be comic or heroic in any meaningful sense of either word, and become, as another cartoonist famously remarked, ‘Incredibly stupid’. The pursuit of ‘complexity’, or of unadmirability in the characterization of ‘good’ characters, as an end in itself, is responsible for this, and goes somewhere toward explaining the scorn such films receive, in spite of public demand for ever more of them.