As the DC Extended Universe of movies grew, the audience had one constant in the form of Henry Cavill’s Superman. He was our window character into this dark and dangerous world, from his first appearance in 2013’s Man of Steel. We watched as the Kryptonian found himself on Earth, struggling to find his place in the grand scheme of things, wondering what kind of man he could be for the entire human race. It’s a search for identity and purpose that was carried over into 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, where we witnessed the entire world reacting to the idea of “The Superman.”
Clark Kent spent the better part of this sequel taking the blunt of humanity’s hate. Although he presented himself as nothing but a savior, he was pegged as a an unwelcomed meddling force akin to a god that shifted the entire paradigm of life and power in society. On top of that, his international actions made his relationship with the US government all the more difficult. Dawn of Justice truly presented us with a bleak world, one that was both cynical and judgmental. It was a world wary of saviors, no matter where they came from: the bright skies of Metropolis, or the dark streets of Gotham. This world, where aliens attack and supervillains manipulate the narrative, was one devoid of hope. That is, until the arrival of Justice League.
Near the end of the movie, Lois Lane’s voiceover tells us that we have finally managed to emerge out of the dark, that the world has been saved and that it can now look to the light, an anti-thesis to Bruce Wayne’s grim monologue at the start of Dawn of Justice, when he said that the light was nothing but a lie. When the credits roll on the superhero team-up film, it’s clear that the world these characters live in has been changed. No longer is it the dark and hateful world of movies prior. No longer are the people tied to the ground with their heads hung low. No longer are they desperate. Instead, they now know that they can look to the skies, hopeful for a better world that is entering an age of heroes.
This is a shift that began in the closing moments of Batman v. Superman, and was carried over and deepened in the Wonder Woman film. After Superman sacrificed his life to defeat the unstoppable monster known as Doomsday, the world was left in mourning, finally accepting Superman for the hero he was meant to be. But with him gone, this simple spark had faded into despair, the only possible source of hope for a better tomorrow extinguished by a world that stomped on it repeatedly.
This is something that was very apparent in the opening sequence of Justice League, a montage that showed us how void, hopeless and ultimately angry ordinary people were. Superman’s departure had left a sort of vacuum of good, and there simply wasn’t anyone up for filling it by stepping out of the shadows.
Wonder Woman managed to start seeding the idea of hope in the DCEU, but Diana was still very much stuck in a world at war. That very message was delivered by Ares himself — even if she manages to defeat him, man will always strive for war. There was this underlying theme that war simply couldn’t be vanquished, no matter how hard one would try, no matter how powerful. But this bleakness came with the first hints of hope in Diana Prince, who would strive to believe in the hearts of man, and their capacity for love. But, as Batman states in Justice League, Diana, in over a hundred years, was never one to step out of the shadows. She saved people, but from a distance, under the blanket of secrecy and anonymity.
Over the course of the first half of Justice League, we learn that Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, Arthur Curry, Victor Stone, and Barry Allen are all, in their own ways, loners who live on the fringes of society. They help the people, but they are not exactly of the people. They keep them at arm’s length, and they are disconnected for it. Although they are heroes in their own right, they could never fill the void that Superman left. Not by themselves.
However, all of that changes with the return of Clark Kent. Thanks to Superman, all of these heroes step out of the dark and into the light, showing the world that they are not alone — that they have people out there willing to fight for them, to inspire them to be the best that they can be. United, the Justice League defeats Steppenwolf and his invading army of Parademons, and they do so while discovering that they are much stronger together, that they don’t have to be alone. Each of them emerges from this adventure fundamentally changed, as we can see in the closing moments of the film.
Barry, Arthur, Victor, Clark, Bruce and Diana go their separate ways, but they do so as newly inspired and hopeful superheroes: Barry gets a job at the Central City crime lab, Victor reconnects with his father, Arthur returns to Atlantis ready to face his birthright and Diana interacts with strangers in the streets — strangers who are inspired by her. Bruce looks to the future of an expanding Justice League, and finally, Clark returns to Metropolis as the beacon of light he was always meant to be.
Through four years of the DCEU, from the arrival of the Man of Steel to the formation of the Justice League, we witnessed a world adapting to the idea of superheroes. What started out as a dark exploration of the idea of god-like characters in the modern world of man eventually became what the world truly needed, and what we as an audience needed as well: a source of hope. Justice League ends with bright notes that look to a future that is filled with hope and possibility, not only for the universe these characters exist in, but the DCEU movies themselves.
In theaters now, Justice League stars Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Henry Cavill as Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ezra Miller as The Flash, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Ciarán Hinds as Steppenwolf, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor and J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon.