If you’re a DC fan like me, then you probably had veiled and desperate hopes for this month’s Justice League—anything to replace last year’s Batman v Superman. And if you’re like me, then you were perhaps pleasantly surprised by the latest film. It maintained the seriousness of the DC comics, as well as the darkness of the threat its main villain carried. And since the threat is darker, the team assembled to fight it is darker. But thanks to Joss Whedon’s influence, we got more comedy in the balance. The overall disappointment with this film was the blatant male gaze that uplifted the macho and the overbearing, and belittled the feminine and the powerful. I will point out things the film did well, but unfortunately, that aspect tainted the majority of the storyline, so much so that it wrote the title of this article itself. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at areas where this film succeeded and failed, starting with the team itself.
Watch out for spoilers after the cut!
I Like my Protagonists Flawed
The characters in the Justice League are far from the confident members of Marvel’s Avengers. Diana Prince works from Paris and London to protect civilians, while Bruce Wayne fights by night in Gotham to knock off “bug scouts” that feed off fear and have increased since Superman’s death. Barry Allen works multiple jobs to try and help his father (whom he visits every week) released from prison. He foils robbery attempts with his super speed, but never engages with the villains directly. Victor Stone hides in shame and embarrassment as he works to comprehend his bio and mechatronic identity, a result of his father’s experimental attempt to save his life. Arthur Curry lives in a remote northern fishing village, saving fishermen from the sea and serving a godlike status for the town. Diana and Bruce must work to convince these three men that they are needed to defeat Steppenwolf. None of them are eager, save for Barry, who is still uneager to engage in actual combat. Diana effectively persuades Victor after much trouble, and Bruce fails to convince Arthur—he joins the team last only after he understands the threat from his home in Atlantis. There are deep, personal issues at work under the surface in all of our heroes, except perhaps Aquaman, inside whose head we see the least. It is Barry and Victor who form a quiet alliance as the ones least confident in their identities and their place in the League.
Their differences in conflict stem not from their individual strengths butting heads, but from their individual stages of identity process. Their concepts of right and wrong, worthy and unworthy, are all at vastly different places. One of the central fault lines threatening to rupture the team is in the decision to resurrect Superman. Bruce is the only member fighting to make the call. Diana, Victor, Barry, and Arthur all oppose this action. It is wrong and it is dangerous, and it is not worth the consequences that would ensue if it goes wrong. Bruce has his way, though, and Clark is resurrected, though questionably out of commission for a time. The decision was not an overwhelming success. They weren’t acting in unison. All of the members of the team come from vastly different places in life, and their approaches to handling threats refuse to sync naturally. Though they eventually come together, as all superhero teams must, their journey to get there is psychologically and philosophically compelling.
Wonder Woman and Lois Lane Rise Up
This film is not Wonder Woman. I am a firm believer that it will never be topped, though I would love to be proven wrong. Diana had a large part to play in Justice League, though—far more than her cameo in Batman v Superman. In her opening scene, the robbers ask her who she is, and she answers “a believer,” harkening back to her stance in Wonder Woman, where she tells Ares that it is not about what humans deserve, but about what she believes. She proves an invaluable asset to the team immediately because she is the only one who recognizes the message from Hippolyta that Steppenwolf has stolen the Mother Box from Themyscira. Hippolyta knows that Diana will see the ancient flame in the temple and understand its meaning. I was pleasantly surprised to see how much screen time the Amazons received, and to see that they were still holding up their reputation as the badass women we first saw in Wonder Woman. During the fight to move the Mother Box out of the vault, the Amazons are selfless in their mission, sacrificing themselves without thought to ensure Hippolyta could get through the door before they let it close them in. As I felt during Wonder Woman, I could have stayed on Themyscira for the entire film.
Diana also shows great wisdom and understanding in her attempt to recruit Victor. She comprehends the risk, telling Bruce, “We’re asking people we don’t know to sacrifice their lives.” She knows that Victor is there watching them at the lake, but she lets him listen instead without tipping her hand. “If I wanted to hurt you,” she says later, “I would have done so at the lake.” She fulfills her motto of “never raise a hand without first extending it.” Victor agrees to meet with her, and she appeals to his pathos in a way only someone as discerning as she could. She too, faced loss and shut herself out from the world, but eventually, she says, “I had to learn to open myself back up again.” She says she’s “still working on it” and that it’s okay if Victor is too. To Victor’s surprise, she calls his mechatronic integration a gift because “there is no one else who can do what you do.” Her insight, as always, is astounding. Later, when he joins the team, she assures him that she has his back: “If you go under, we will be there to pull you out.”
Even Lois Lane shows advancement in this film, as she is the only one who is able to reach through to Clark once he is resurrected. She takes control of the situation and leads him away. She does what four other super beings couldn’t. Diana tries, appealing to his Kryptonian identity by calling him Kal-el, securing him with the Lasso of Truth to force him to remember who he is, but to no avail. It is only when he hears Lois call his name, sees Lois standing there, that he backs down and follows her. As Lois does in Man of Steel and other Superman film adaptations, she is the one who, more often than not, saves the hero.
They Don’t Rise Far Enough—Thank you, Male Gaze
Unfortunately, for every step forward the women make in this film, the male gaze forces them to take two steps back. Lois is seen sitting with Martha Kent in her office at the Daily Planet when a reporter comes in and asks for the name of Lois’ contact, assuming the contact is a man. She says that she will get “her” name for him, to which the man responds with raised eyebrows and a cocky smirk. Once he leaves, Lois turns to Martha and says, “It’s not a she.” Later, once Lois is back at the farm with Clark, she says that Clark would have been disappointed with her. She’s sorry that she wasn’t stronger, as if there is only one kind of strength in the world. By denying her virtues and her fight to keep going when the man she loved was dead, she bends under self-deprecation and confesses her inferiority to Clark. Furthermore, when Bruce saves the farm from foreclosure at the end of the film, it is to a shot of Martha and Lois carrying boxes back into the house in an undeniable image of the women happily re-entering domesticity.
Even Diana had moments of disappointment for me in this film. Once she is taken out of the spotlight and thrust into a team of men, she falls victim to sexist jokes. Alfred and Bruce discuss the development of the team, and Bruce chokes out that “Dian—Wonder Woman” is the only member so far. He returns Alfred’s knowing smile with “I’m only interested in her skillset.” Alfred, naturally, has to follow with, “Of course you are.” When Diana opposes resurrecting Clark because of the irresponsibility in it, Bruce accuses her of being a coward and hiding in the shadows, and even Victor steps up and calls him an “asshole.” Bruce teases her at the end of the film when she welcomes Clark back officially, saying, “Sure, now she’s happy,” as if the woman is only happy when the man is finally proven right. He insultingly assumes that she is only supportive of his plan to bring back Clark now that it actually worked and Clark helped them save the day. And just as Lois falls into self-deprecation with Clark, Diana also confesses that Bruce was right when he insulted her. She doesn’t like leading and she’s never seen herself as a leader. But Bruce is not the only offensive one. Once Bruce retrieves Barry and brings him in, they step off the plane and Barry’s jaw jobs as he stares at Diana. At one point even during the battle, he pulls her out of danger and lands on top of her, face pressed into her chest armor. Arthur Curry calls her “beautiful” and says though that he’s not interested because “Amazons were before my time.” She returns his tasteless humor by slipping the Lasso of Truth around his foot and forcing him to reveal his fears and insecurities—the only mention we get of them, by the way. Still, her revenge is puny compared to his masculine confidence.
If I had to pick one phrase to sum this up, it would be male confidence. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry screams macho, with his whiskey-chugging, flippant attitude of disrespect and disregard. The number of angle focuses that fixate on his crotch as well as Batman’s is ridiculous, as is the number of shots that explicitly show Diana’s ass. As one friend put it upon leaving the theater, “I should not be able to tell that Gal Gadot is wearing a thong.” The angle of these shots, low and behind, reek with Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze that works to facilitate a strong visual and erotic impact to connote a looked-at-ness. By showing Diana’s backside from a low, rear angle, it does so without her knowledge or approval. It invites the audience to stare at her in a way in which she is unaware and without control to prevent. Whether it is showing glimpses under her armor or lengthy visuals of her tight leather pants, she is put on display and once again returned from the powerful force she was visually in Wonder Woman to the sole female in a boy’s-only group. Even the mid-credit scene of Barry and Clark holding a race to see who is fastest, the dick measuring joke is obscene and unnecessary. I blame all of this on director Zack Snyder. Imagine the tasteful way this film would have handled dialogue and aesthetics if Patty Jenkins had been at the helm. The playing field would have been far more equal, and the insulting and ridiculous male gaze would have been eliminated. Instead, Diana and Lois are forced into undeniable objectification, while the male figure is held up to praise. There is nothing subtle about it, which is almost the most infuriating part of all of it.
Even our villain is a personification of the patriarchy. Steppenwolf, while a characteristically predictable antagonist, brings a far more sadistic threat than Marvel’s Thanos. Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula in a way, he represents a true fear of invasion and assimilation: he replaces the world’s inhabitants by uncannily transforming them into a new likeness of his own image. The threat is not just conquering worlds—it is infesting worlds. He converts the Amazons, and in a horrifying display, they transform into his Parademon servant and take on his physical appropriations, effectively being ripped of their own identities. “You will love me,” he tells Hippolyta. “You will all love me.” Though they put up the greatest fight—far more than the Atlantians—they are crushed under his might. Steppenwolf even provokes Diana by saying that his blade is still “wet with the blood of your sisters.” And even when we see the Amazons, the male gaze presents them in far more stereotypical attire and make-up compared to the genuine authenticity of Patty Jenkins’ vision. Fans did not approve, and the difference between the representations of the Amazons in Wonder Womancompared to Justice League is striking.
In an appropriating disservice, Steppenwolf refers to the Boxes as Mother Boxes, and unites them, saying “praise to the Mother of horrors.” The feminine here is manipulated into a devastatingly destructive force, brought to life only by Steppenwolf. The emergence of the transformative force that begins converting Earth, is shaped with vines and roots like a large heart, suggesting that Steppenwolf has control of the Mother’s heart and alone gives her life. Victor invades the Mother Box with his mechatronic interface, violating it in a phallic demonstration, and Steppenwolf shouts that he “is not worthy to touch Mother.” Not only does the antagonist of this film convert and assimilate life, he does so through his own power in a method that is particularly destructive to the feminine.
Harmony out of Horror = the Age of Heroes
The aspect that ties this film together and helps it rise above the blatant sexist direction of the directors is the way that the characters all come together in the end and reflect their own character developments as well as the League’s. When Diana tells Bruce the story of the Mother Boxes and how Man, Atlantian, and Amazon worked together to defeat the Apokoliptian army, she says it represented harmony out of horror. Bruce says that Man usually has a way of mucking things up (he makes sure to prove that true himself), and that they can’t win this fight on their own. He pushes for recruiting others, but only Diana understands what it means to recruit them into something bigger than just a fight. They’re not drafting soldiers—they’re inviting future family. She dislikes leading because she understands the weight of the consequences. “Leading gets people killed,” she says. She’s not a trigger happy adrenaline junky like Bruce. While the initial act of admitting that she’s not a leader like Bruce suggests self-deprecation, she’s really showing maturity and selflessness to help hold the team together. She’s offering a peace treaty with Bruce even though he doesn’t deserve it. Once again, her motto of “never raise a hand without first extending it” shines through. She’s wise. Barry and Victor become wise, too. Barry learns to show bravery he never knew he had, and Victor sees himself as something other than a monster for the first time since his accident. Even Arthur learns that fighting for others can actually have benefits, and he begins to let the team embrace him. In a moment of reconciliation similar to Bruce’s, Arthur and Diana fight side-by-side in the final scene against Steppenwolf. Diana throws her shield over Arthur to protect him, and Arthur grabs the Lasso to help her topple Steppenwolf. Arthur wises up, and Diana offers forgiveness—the maturity of one over the other is plain to see. At the end of the film, Diana is the one the children rally around to meet. She is the inspiration, the heart and soul of the team. And clearly, she does well with children, because that is how she summarizes her job at the end of the film as Clark and Victor laugh and complain. “Children,” she says. “I work with children.”
The Justice League is largely about Clark, though, and it would have been self-defeating to branch away from that narrative. Superman shows up at the end and helps the team defeat Steppenwolf because that is how the story goes, plain and simple. He is the leader of the Justice League. That’s canon. But even in this, we see him working with the new team members individually, assessing their potential and aiding them like a natural born leader. He guides Barry to cover different directions while speeding to save civilians, and he walks Victor through the process of separating the Mother Boxes together. In the end, the film stays true to the message that we are stronger together than alone. Putting aside differences and finding common unity through a cause to fight for is the only way to promote progress and harmony. By maintaining their individual talents and beliefs, the members of the League strengthen each other. Thanks to Joss Whedon, that hopeful message made it through while maintaining DC’s renowned character complexity. Hopefully next time, though, we’ll get a little more of that #feminism.