'Justice League' Finally Gets Superman Right

Justice League, the latest adventure in the muddled DC Extended Universe, has problems. But, surprisingly enough, Superman isn't one of them. After two movies that misunderstood what makes the Man of Steel tick, Justice League finds fun new ways to let Superman be Superman again. All it took was a brutal death and a sudden resurrection.

Spoilers for Justice League follow.

How do you screw up Superman? Ask the DCEU – they've previously managed to do so twice. Stripped down to his core attributes, Superman isn't the most complex of characters – he's the super-powered ideal that we can all strive for, a representation of the very best of humanity, while not being human himself.

"Superman is bigger than the comics that birthed him, bigger even than the films and the television series that have infused him throughout our culture," author Glen Weldon wrote in Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. "He is the first, the purest, the ideal. As long as character traits such as selflessness and perseverance manage to retain any cultural currency whatsoever, we will need a Superman to show us what they look like."

Superman is the Big Blue Boy Scout. He's hopelessly square, and in that squareness is a hopefulness. While Batman broods and lurks in the shadows, Superman steps out into the sun. "Look, up in the sky!" began the cry made famous in the live-action TV series The Adventures of Superman. That was Superman up there – someone for humanity to look up to. Which is why the Superman on display in the DCEU has been so confounding, so baffling.

Justice League, the latest adventure in the DCEU (or whatever it's really called) does a lot of things wrong – its editing is choppy; its storyline is threadbare; its villain is painfully forgettable. But one thing Justice League surprisingly well is revitalize Superman. It finally lets Superman be Superman; not the brooding bore that we've been stuck with for two previous movies, but a dorky, glint-in-his-eye hero. A hero who enjoys saving the day.

Before we get into that, let's take a quick look back at what went wrong.

man of steel

Meet The Man of Steel: A Neck-Snapping Jerk

"You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards," says Superman's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) in Man of Steel. "They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun...In time, you will help them accomplish wonders." It's a stirring speech; one so powerful I remember it giving me goosebumps when I heard it in the trailers for the film. But it was a lie. That's not who Man of Steel's Superman is.

Physically, Henry Cavill was great casting for the part. His handsome looks and chiseled physique made him look as if he had jumped right off of the page of a comic book. But Man of Steel never gave Cavill an opportunity to shine. The script, written by David S. Goyer, with Christopher Nolan receiving a story credit, seems to think the best way to approach Superman is by following the same path as Nolan's Batman franchise: turn him into a brooding anti-hero. It's a fatal miscalculation, and the majority of Man of Steel involves Superman/Clark Kent struggling to accept his superpowers. He does do heroic deeds: he saves a bus full of drowning kids; he rescues workers on a burning oil rig. But there's always the sense that he's doing these things grudgingly. Almost as if the problems of the world are inconveniencing him.

It doesn't help that he had a pretty lousy role model in the form of his adoptive father, played by Kevin Costner. Costner's Pa Kent goes so far as to tell a young Clark that he probably should've just let that bus full of kids drown instead of revealing his powers. And later, when Clark could easily zip off and save Pa from an approaching tornado, his father instead holds his hand up and stops him. It's...bizarre, to say the least. The message, again and again, throughout Man of Steel is that Clark would be a whole lot better off if he just avoided being Superman.

When Clark finally accepts his fate, he doesn't become heroic. Instead, he blunders into a cataclysmic battle that causes massive devastation, leading to the deaths of potentially millions of people. His fist-fight with villain General Zod crashes through Metropolis, toppling buildings and laying waste to city blocks. When the battle eventually ends, Superman vanquishes his foe by snapping his damn neck. Needless to say, this didn't go over well. Superman should not be snapping necks, no matter what the reason. What kind of ideal is that? Is this what we, the people of earth, should be striving towards, as Jor-El suggested? Neck snapping?

The plain and simple fact is that no one involved with Man of Steel – particularly director Zack Snyder and writers Goyer and Nolan – understand Superman. There's always room for interpretation with a character, and no film should ever adhere stringently to its source material. But if you're going to miss the entire point of a character, why bother at all?

batman v supes

Batman v Superman: Do You Brood?

The Superman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice fares a little better, but not much. In the battle between the two heroic titans, Superman is supposed to be more of the protagonist, while Ben Affleck's bitter, xenophobic Batman is the antagonist.

The problem is that director Zack Snyder is clearly much more interested in Batman and the film spends more time focusing on him as a character than it does Superman. As a result, Superman drifts into the background, and remains a mystery to us. And he continues to be a reluctant hero. There's also a dream sequence where Superman is presented as a crazy, evil murderer who blows people up with his laser eyes. Why? Why does this exist? Get lost. 

In one sequence, the U.S. Capitol explodes with Superman standing inside it. Rather than immediately zipping around the wreckage to see if anyone is still alive, Batman v Superman simply has Supes stand there with a puzzled look on his face as the fires burn. It's stunning in how bad it looks. In the extended cut released on Blu-ray, we do get a scene of Superman carrying some injured survivors to safety, but since this was cut out of the theatrical cut, that implies Snyder and company were fine presenting Superman in this unheroic, do-nothing light. 

Since Pa Kent is dead (although he does pop-up for a dream sequence), Superman now gets his terrible parental advice from his mother, Martha (Diane Lane). "Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be... or be none of it," she tells him after the Capitol incident. "You don't owe this world a thing. You never did."

This is a terrible interpretation of the character. It's also something taken directly from The Dark Knight Rises, where Catwoman says pretty much the same thing to Batman. It makes sense there – here, it's ridiculous. Having a character tell Supes, "You don't owe this world a thing," is a shockingly bone-headed approach to the character of Superman. Perhaps sensing their Superman was continually on the wrong course, the DCEU proceeded to kill him off at the end of Batman v. Superman. We all knew the character would come back, of course. The question was: would he come back better?

Justice Superman

How Justice League Gets Superman Right

Alright, enough negativity. The biggest, most pleasant surprise of Justice League is that it shows the DCEU finally had a epiphany and said, "Here's our chance to fix Superman!" Of course, they don't get it entirely right.

Now, of course, you should beware of spoilers.

After the Justice League resurrects Superman in a surprisingly ghoulish sequence that involves grave robbing and Superman's cold, lifeless corpse, the character explodes back to life and immediately goes on a rampage. When the Justice League tries to calm him down, he proceeds to attack and beat the shit out of them.

"This is bad," I thought.

But thankfully, after this sequence ends, Justice League then sets about getting the character right. Here's how.

Superman Hero

Superman Enjoys Being Superman!

The best scene in Justice League comes at the very beginning, before the credits have even rolled. We're treated to cell phone footage, being shot by kids off screen, of Superman before his demise. The kids pester the Man of Steel with a bunch of cute questions about his life as a hero, and Superman obliges them.

This, right here, is the film's way of signaling that things are different from the very start. The Superman on display in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman would have absolutely no time for these kids and their questions. He'd probably frown at them before flying off. Here, however, we get Superman playfully interacting with kids who idolize him.

It culminates with a moment that's handled so deftly, so powerfully, that it caught me completely off guard and made me think I was in for a truly fantastic film (I wasn't, sadly, but still). After a barrage of questions, one child asks Superman, "What's the best thing about planet Earth?"

Superman is taken aback by this, and the camera lingers on him. Cavill does this wonderful thing here where he looks off to the distance and lets a slight, knowing smile creep onto his face before the scene cuts to black. We never get to hear Superman's answer, but the power in that scene comes from the fact that Superman takes the time to consider the question. He mulls it over in his super-brain, and even comes up with his own unique answer. We may not hear what it is, but we don't need to hear it. We can just take comfort in knowing that there is an answer.

up in the sky

Superman Does Heroic Deeds!

After Superman comes back to life, he flies off to his family farm with Amy Adams' Lois Lane. He gets his bearings, readjusts to being alive, and he and Lois share some touching moments. Then Lois tells him he has to put on his super-suit and save the day.

And what does Superman do? I can tell you what the old Superman would do – the one from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. He'd throw a fit, and complain, and demand reasons. "Why should I save the day?" he might say, frowning and crossing his arms. The Superman in Justice League does none of that. Instead, he agrees that he does, indeed, need to be a hero. He flies off to help his new friends in the Justice League battle the annoying villain Steppenwolf. And he does it with gusto!

There's no collateral damage here. There are no scenes of Superman accidentally destroying a city block, or snapping a neck. He fights Steppenwolf heroically, and he even gets to use his ice breath – something we haven't seen the character use in these films before. It's a big, bold, sort of dumb moment that resonates because it's fun to watch Superman be Superman. It's fun to see him actually saving the day instead of pummeling Batman or slamming a CGI Michael Shannon into the side of a skyscraper.

When he's not battling Steppenwolf, Superman is saving lives. He picks up an entire apartment building and transports it to safety at one point, in a scene that's meant to be played for laughs. Again, it's dumb, but it works anyway because we're just so relieved to be spending time with this helpful, non-gloomy Superman.

Superman art

The Man of Tomorrow

You could make the argument that the DCEU had been building towards this redemptive arc for Superman the entire time. That this was the plan – to introduce an insecure Superman and build him up to become the hero he was always meant to be. But I'm not buying it. There's no evidence to support this, and even Cavill himself has admitted the series has had problems.

"There was a style they [DC] were going for, an attempt to be different and look at things from a slightly different perspective, which hasn't necessarily worked," the actor said in a recent interview, adding: ""I feel like now the right mistakes have been made and they haven't been pandered [to], and we can start telling the stories in the way they need to be told. It is even better to come back from a mistake or stylistic error into the correct vein because it will make it seem that much stronger. Wonder Woman was the first step in the right direction."

I don't know what the future holds for Superman in the DCEU. They will undoubtedly keep making these movies, and perhaps they'll give Superman a chance to lead his own movie again, one free of him playing second fiddle to other characters (he's very much a supporting character in Justice League). And the funny thing is, I'm actually interested in seeing those future adventures of Superman now. Perhaps that's the greatest feat Justice League accomplishes: it makes us want more of Superman.

After Batman v Superman killed Big Blue off, I honestly could've cared less if he ever returned. After Justice League, I want more. I want Cavill to have the chance to shine; to step out into the sun in his own adventure again. One free of doom and gloom, and neck snaps. I want to believe in a better tomorrow, and it would be nice if Superman is one of the characters that helps guide us there (you know, when Wonder Woman is too busy). It's a tall order, I know. It's a lot of weight to hoist upon one character's shoulders. But he can take it. He's Superman, after all.