Justice League, the long awaited first big-screen outing for DC Comics' signature superteam, hit theaters last week, and it's... well, it's a bit of a mess. I found it to be a very fun ride with lots of cool moments, as well as plenty of clunky narrative stumbles. Some found it to be a masterpiece, others found it to be garbage. That's all OK.
But, if I had to pick one narrative achievement that the film absolutely deserves full credit for, it's this: Justice League finally fixed Superman in the DC Extended Universe. Here's why:
*Spoiler Warning: Major (kind of) spoilers for Justice League below*
That Superman was going to return to the DCEU after his apparent death in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a foregone conclusion. The movie signalled that in its closing moments, and Henry Cavill's been doing heavy press for Justice League for weeks now. The big question wasn't whether or not he'd return, but how, and what state would he be in?
The answer of 'how' is rather clunky. It involves the rest of the League just literally digging him up and taking him back to that same damn Kryptonian spaceship (again). Then there's some pseudo-science mumbo jumbo that involves The Flash running really fast to charge him up, and poof, Superman's back. Just as Aquaman feared, though, this is not the Superman we knew. He's confused and irrational and violent, so he briefly does battle with the team and then escapes, but he doesn't go just anywhere.
He goes home.
Yes, the CGI removal of Henry Cavill's mustache looks awful. Yes, even the stalks of corn in the Kents' yard look like bad CGI. I admit all of this, but I also admit this: That shot of Clark Kent standing alone in the Kent family cornfield made me cry. I didn't expect Justice League to make me cry, but it did, and it goes back to something Bruce Wayne said earlier in the film.
"The world needs Superman, and the team needs Clark."
There are numerous references in the film to the world mourning the death of Superman, from news reports to a giant black "S" banner draped over Tower Bridge in London. Man of Steel was, for all its flaws (and oh, are there flaws), a film about a super-powered being coming to terms with what he can do, and perhaps making many mistakes along the way. Dawn of Justice was (for all its flaws), in many ways, a film about that same being coming to terms with what he has to do, while his fellow heroes come to understand that he's capable of being uncompromisingly sacrificing and good. Both films are messy. So is Justice League.
But then Clark puts on his old Kansas flannel and stands in the corn.
Think of Clark immersed in that weird sci-fi water in the Kryptonian ship. Now think of Clark immersed in the corn. If you like the "Superman as Christ Figure" metaphors (many of us don't, but God knows Zack Snyder does), think of it as a baptism. A rebirth. Standing in that corn, Clark was reminded of who he really is. Not just A Good Man, but The Best Man, and The Best Man has an obligation.
In the same scene mentioned earliler, Bruce Wayne tells Alfred that Superman is "more human than I am," because, "despite all that power," Clark Kent became a good man instead of a tyrant. Superman could declare himself Emperor of Earth if he wanted, and put his fist through anyone who stood in his way. He doesn't do that, because Jor-El taught him that he can save people, and Jonathan and Martha Kent taught him what it means to be kind and generous and helpful to your neighbor. It's why you can just as easily picture him pulling a cat out of a tree as stopping a volcanic eruption.
It's not a coincidence that Superman was created by two Jews from Cleveland as Hitler's anti-Semitic regime was rising in Europe. Grant Morrison talks about how we're all afraid of nuclear war because we can't stop the missiles with our bare hands. Superman can. He represents an ideal. He represents the best of us. It's right there in the name: Super Man. He doesn't have to help. He helps because he can, and because he knows he should.
However long the journey took, and it did probably take too long, the Superman we got in Justice League is the best of us. It's Henry Cavill quipping and smiling as he carries an entire building full of civilians to safety. It's him beating down Steppenwolf while asking Wonder Woman "Is this guy still bothering you?" It's him winking and calling Flash a slowpoke.
A common criticism of Superman is that he's just too powerful to be interesting, because there's so little for him to overcome. But that's the point. He's not Batman. He's not supposed to constantly brood and dread the battles he has to fight. He's an aspirational figure. He's the best of us, and that means he's what we're supposed to fight for. In a world of debates about healthcare and gun violence and terrorism and all of the other horrors we wake up to, we need to be reminded of what we fight for.
Justice League, for all its faults, did that.
The world needs Superman, and the team needs Clark. We're the team.