Seatbelts, friends, we're talking climate change. If you heard our Jurassic Park episode a few months back, you probably already know that I'm pretty passionate about the issue, and that I look for climate change narratives everywhere. But it's no secret that the human race faces an existential crisis--one much larger and higher stakes than the one I'm grappling with since realizing I actually liked DC's Justice League...
Most audiences and critics don't care for this one. It's sitting at a cringe-worthy 41% on Rotten Tomatoes (hey, that's up 5% from the last time I checked?), and reviews have been pretty painful to read across the board. Full disclosure, I am a Zack Snyder hater. Like, I straight up hate that guy's movies. And I carry such disdain for Batman v Superman that I went into this movie (against my will, mind you) excited to hate it. But I didn't. I thought it was really pretty good. The story was clear and compelling, and I felt the writers were strategic and smart about how they chose to sketch in the new characters so that they fit this big ensemble piece with maximum emotional bang for your buck. But if you didn't feel the way I did, if you threw tomatoes at the screen, good for you--this is not a review, and I respect and validate your experience. I'm just here to point out a few observations that left me in a pretty good place about this movie.
Justice League, against all odds, delivers a rather well-articulated critique of humanity's response to our existential crisis--the threat of a changing climate. As Bruce Wayne so poetically puts it, mankind likes to act like the "doomsday clock has a snooze button." (It's two and a half minutes to midnight, by the way.)
The major rallying threat of Justice League is Steppenwolf, a very tall, ironclad demon (god? demigod? I don't know, put me in my place, DC bros) who's homesick for the hellscape of his origin, and who yearns to turn Earth, and any other pesky world he might encounter, into a blazing inferno. That nightmarish imagery mirrors our own fears about our planet's future, unbearably hot and uninhabitable. Join that with several references to rising sea levels, the existence of "mother boxes" (like Mother Nature, get it?), and constant questioning of techonology's role in human progress, and you've got yourself a man vs nature conflict structure, albeit an allegorical one.
Here in the real world, the President of the United States just withdrew from the historic Paris Agreement--a non-binding, universally agreed upon as not-good-enough-but-at-least-it's-something, global initiative to reduce carbon emissions--to send a message that market deregulation is more important than safeguarding our planet and our future. That today is more important than tomorrow. Here in the real world, we may not be facing alien insects and hellbound titans, but we are facing devastating natural disasters, and we stand on the brink of global disaster if we don't act immediately, and by some measures it may already be too late to undo the damage we've done. What's abundantly clear to climate activists and scientists, though, is that in an era of heightened division and political tribalism, half the battle is in convincing the immovable fossil fuel lobby/religious right/rabble of climate change-deniers to join the fight.
This is where superheroes come in. Yay! Here's a fun thought experiment for those of us who sometimes find ourselves completely paralyzed by the overwhelming anxiety and despair of a superobject like climate change: what would the Justice League do if faced with this problem? (Also, what would the Avengers do? I'm all up for this being the new Marvel vs DC standoff, which team of heroes would be better at saving the earth from itself?!) And that thought experiment is part of what grounds this movie. It's about "getting the band back together" to fight a global disaster--one that closely parallels the one we currently face. Superman is dead, the world is divided, and we can't move forward until we come together. Right now. Over me.
In this experiment, we have to view each Justice League character as an archetype or a certain player in this worldwide game. Let's break it down!
Aquaman! In touch with the ocean and blue collar folk, Arthur Curry makes a surprising splash as the everyday climate change denier. Even though he would literally be the first to know if sea levels rose (or if the water suddenly started boiling, as Bruce suggests), Aquaman insists that wouldn't bother him. He reminds us of the coastal fisherman who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, can maintain skepticism to avoid giving any political ground. And yet we cannot win without Aquaman, or the fisherman. We need the intimate knowledge of aquatic ecosystems and the firsthand experiential data. We need that guy to recognize what's at stake, and get in the game, or we'll drown.
Batman! His superpower is that he's rich. Okay, he's also a master sleuth, but most of Batman's material advantages lie in his access to resources, and Bruce Wayne's advantage lies in his influence over institutions. It's no shocker that the Dark Knight represents the powerful aristocracy that holds so much sway over the body politic. As the head of a major corporation and a noted philanthropist, Bruce has serious capital. He literally buys a bank. And while Bruce shares leadership in this film with Diana, his is the guiding voice that reminds us again and again of our responsibility to our world. Now, this is only a fraction of Batman's appeal, but it's so inspiring to see a rich white power broker pursue nobler aspirations than controlling the fossil fuel industry. Love you Bats.
Flash! Ezra Miller's performance is certainly a standout in Justice League. He provides welcome levity, but also acts as an audience stand-in and brings a lot of heart to Barry Allen. He's a millennial. He's awkward and antisocial, but also charming and vulnerable. He's whipsmart, he's dedicated to vindicating his dad, he watches Rick & Morty, and he's in the market for some human connection. Us millennials are so socially isolated by our snapchats and our hashtags ya know. Barry is also afraid to get in there and fight. Until now the work has been hypothetical and bubble-bound, like so many of our personal crusades. The battles waged on Facebook and Twitter aren't always meaningless, but they're rarely more meaningful than IRL activism. At the very least, social media movements need to transcend the medium and reach outside the screen. Likewise, it's only when Barry bursts his bubble and is introduced to a team of powerful individuals--who elevate his abilities--that he's able to make a significant impact.
Cyborg! Victor Stone is literally a man merged with technology, so it's fairly obvious that he represents the role of science and technology in facing this global threat of climate change. But Justice League introduces an internal conflict early on. Victor struggles with his existence and his place in the universe. He’s supposed to be dead, and his survival is the result of unnatural, unwanted tampering by his scientist father. Victor and Barry refer to themselves as “the accidents” of the group. In the fight to reverse the effects of climate change, technology plays an undeniably important part. Scientists and innovators have dedicated countless hours to researching methods and applications for clean energy and waste reduction. But too many—fossil fuel companies and individuals alike—place starry-eyed hope in the idea of a tech fix, a magic solution just around the corner. In reality, there is no basket to put all our eggs in. Solving this problem will take work. It will take energy from both man and machine. Cyborg epitomizes the marriage of technology and humanity while serving us the inherent tension of that union.
Wonder Woman! My favorite of the Leaguers, Diana takes on a leadership role alongside Bruce in this flick. While dedicated to love and justice, she’s also still in the shadows as a hero. She’s still paralyzed by the pain of losing her loved one, overwhelmed by the task at hand, and reluctant to allow Bruce to bring her out of the darkness. I identify her as the beaten down environmentalist, and I relate to her pretty hard in this context. All my passion and blogging often feel like a scream into the void, and I’m so shut down by the seemingly hopeless situation that it can be difficult and painful to look directly at it.
And then there’s Superman. He’s largely absent (dead) from this film, existing as a memory or a shadow over the characters and their actions. With him gone, we have “a world without hope.” Journalists can’t figure out what to say, rural moms sell their houses, and bigots taunt minorities in the streets with no repercussions. I found him a little harder to pin down in this metaphor, but I’ve settled on pairing him with political leadership, both symbolic and literal. His removal from the world sends the message to the rest of the universe that Earth is undefended from alien attacks—much like Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement signals businesses and foreign governments that our priorities no longer include carbon reduction, aka it’s a free-for-all for pollution and pipelines. And Superman’s return—the return of strong, positive leadership—restores balance and inspires others to keep fighting.
By bringing all of these individuals together, we create a team that has a chance. Each character faces tremendous internal conflict that hinders their ability to face a major challenge, superpowers or not. And in the context of this allegory, I’m more interested in the human side of the characters than their super-side (which I think gives points to the movie for development!) We’re in the same spot with our challenge. Slacktivists can’t fix it alone. Neither can rich white guys or a decent president. But in the final battle, each and every presence is ESSENTIAL. With one cog missing, this machine fails. Maybe that’s our answer too.
We should also look at the significance of the final battle’s location: Chernobyl. The whole of humanity is at stake in this fight, but most urgently, the Justice League is responsible for the lives of a few civilians left in the abandoned nuclear disaster site. We are reminded that those hit first and worst by Steppenwolf’s terror—and by the effects of climate change—are those who contributed least to the causes, and those too vulnerable to defend themselves. Consider the small country of Nauru, an island in the South Pacific that’s been plundered for resources, used as a dumping ground for refugees, and bombed over the generations. WIth a total GDP of only $160 million and no major carbon contributions, Nauru could literally sink in the coming years, turning its 10,000 into desperate climate refugees. An entire country could sink.
It’s because of the Chernobyl detail that I think Justice League advocates for something more than an end to dangerous divisiveness. That’s an important part, of course. Never underestimate the impact of a super simple message like “tribalism isn’t so helpful, come together y’all.” But I think there’s a subtle globalist message hanging out right beneath the rallying cry. Justice League, as I see it, urges us to not only join forces with other sectors, countries, sides, but to work proactively. Pro-activism. To advocate for those who don’t have the resources or political power to do it themselves, even if that means putting our necks on the line for a country that’s not Murica. The fate of humanity just might depend on it.