Spoilers for Justice League ahead!
The very heart of Justice League isn’t Diana’s strange fear of leadership, Barry’s desire for acceptance, or even a certain mustachioed good guy’s resurrection. It’s a Russian family living in the shadow of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant where Steppenwolf has established his lonely, Mother Box-powered castled. We get to look in on them occasionally as they’re menaced for days on end by Parademons while hiding under their kitchen table and hoping against hope that someone will save them.
They seem like an odd addition to the flow of the film as Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but the anonymous Russian family (credited as Russian Mother, Russian Father, etc.) put a human face on the otherwise desolate wasteland where the big bad built his Upside Down tentacle-generation machine. The unnamed family is one of a very small group of people in immediate danger, and without them, the potential end of the world wouldn’t feel as threatening.
The problem is that the film doesn’t even bother to name them. It’s the same shortcut to human empathy that Joss Whedon turned to in Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron when he included a random busload of passengers caught in the Battle of New York, as well as the young Sokovian sister and brother saved from Ultron by Quicksilver’s sacrifice. Even though the human stakes can make or break a superhero story, these brief flashes of real people are about all modern superhero movies have time for anymore.
In Iron Man, Tony Stark is the only one with super powers until Obadiah Stane inserts himself into the picture using Tony’s tech. He goofs around with soldiers in Afghanistan, learns from the imprisoned scientist in the cave, chums around with Happy Hogan, gets menaced by the press, and generally inhabits our world. By Iron Man 3, even Pepper gets super powers. In subsequent movies, superheroes are spending most of their time with other superheroes, leaving less and less time for them (or us) to hang out with non-powered people. Origin stories make it easier to feature regular people, but DC has moved away from them in favor of getting to Justice Leagueearlier, and Marvel now peppers their new origins with supercameos (see: Ant-Man).
It’s not that there aren’t normal people in these movies; It’s that they get extremely limited screen time, which is a matter of simple math. When you have one superhero in your movie, you’ve got a lot of room for regular people. When you’ve got a half-dozen or, close to 30 if you’re Avengers: Infinity War, the spandex takes over. As more time gets spent punching through concrete walls instead of talking, opportunities for regular people get crunched even further. There are exceptions, of course: Spider-Man: Homecoming is notable for leaving Peter Parker with one Converse in the real world and one utility boot in adventure land. Wonder Woman, too, is directly about her interactions with human beings.
However, the larger shifting trend comes with a cost. The central purpose of normal characters is that we need people to connect with when something as large and abstract as the end of the world looms. We’ve seen the destruction of the entire world placed on the line dozens of times each year for two decades. When all existence is at stake, it’s also harder narratively to have smaller skirmishes along the way. For Justice League, the ramp up to global domination involves a gigantic ax-magician from space fighting two mythical races of people and Superman fighting his own crew.
Without regular people, we’re depending on the superheroes to be human beings and living Gods, which is good for character building but does not establish the magnitude of the threat. They fight and debate among themselves, more and more disconnected from anything resembling normal life. There’s a paradox there, too, since the vast majority of superheroes in these films are never in any danger of dying or even getting a single scratch on their impenetrable skin. If they die (like the curiously clean-shaven Superman), they almost always come back. No problem. No sweat. The stakes couldn’t be lower for them; meanwhile we’re the ones that really need protection.
Justice League, like most modern superhero adventures, spends the bulk of its time with super-people figuring out how to solve a super-problem to defeat a supervillain. Zack Snyder (or Joss Whedon) recognized the need to have real people somewhere in the movie, but didn’t see a way to weave them into vital roles.
Lois Lane is the magic tool that snaps Superman out of his murderous rage but she’s relegated to solely that function. She and Mrs. Kent are grief puppets. We understand who they are in this movie solely through their relationship to Superman and response to his death. Even the humanized backstories of the heroes have to be done quickly and superficially. Barry’s dad is in prison but wants him to move on with life. Aquaman’s mom abandoned him. Cyborg lost his mom. (A lot of mommy/daddy issues in this one, too, eh Martha?) The extent of these human connections can be written on a postcard. They’re Cliff’s Notes versions so we can get to the fighting, which needs an anonymous family in a shack to feel significant.
In Wonder Woman, plenty of real people guided and challenged Diana. As opposed to a hero leaving the normal world behind in order to become a crime-fighter, Diana leaves a mythical land behind to be a part of ours. Her rag-tag group of misfits gave the war and her mission human stakes that we could create a deep connection with — whether it was to the manic Scotsman sharpshooter who couldn’t take a shot, the Native American smuggler, the Muslim romeo, or Steve’s harried assistant.
Yet in Justice League, Diana’s arc explicitly calls upon the lack of human companionship as a hurdle to her achieving the height of her leadership prowess while refusing to give her any human companions. Instead, it replaces the messy, regular people from her WWI-fighting past with, you guessed it, superpeople. “I know you miss Steve,” Batman seems to say, “But we’re your people now, and the studio won’t let us die like he did.”
Whether its Wonder Woman’s grief, Batman’s hidden identity, or Aquaman’s exile, every superhero’s story in Justice League says that, if you have powers, you either remain alone or create a community with other superpowered people. There is no grey area, and that works against the film. Even Superman, the most human among them, is alive with the love of his life only long enough to tell her he has to go on an adventure with his building-punching pals. We, the people they’re saving, are an afterthought.
Images: Warner Bros./DC