— WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Justice League —
To the relief of DCEU detractors everywhere, Superman’s rebirth in Justice League delivers the shared universe’s best take yet on the character — though not without making a few mistakes along the way. To label Henry Cavill’s first two outings in the role as divisive would be putting it mildly. Man of Steel nearly split critics right down the middle (it’s sitting with a 56% over on Rotten Tomatoes), while Batman v Superman was actually roundly criticized by reviewers (it was ultimately saddled with a 27% on RT). To be fair, the majority of the negative reviews honed in on the tone of the films rather than Cavill’s individual performances. Lost in a sea of unrelentingly grim melodrama and enough CGI explosions to blind your average moviegoer, the DCEU’s Superman has had little time to become the hero we’ve come to love in the pages of DC Comics.
That’s the crux of the criticisms that have been leveled at this iteration of the Big Blue Boy Scout. Man of Steel was a strong action film overall, and BvS certainly had its share of epic moments, but the hope and optimism we associate with Superman have taken a backseat to spectacle and Batman-level brooding in the DCEU’s opening acts. The hero’s brutal sacrifice in the final battle of BvS should have devastated the fanbase, but most merely shrugged, assured that he would return in short order. Some even cheered his demise, believing that the true Superman would emerge upon his inevitable resurrection.
He may not have returned sporting the black suit many were hoping to see, but the Superman we see in Justice League is the most comic-faithful iteration we’ve seen in years. It’s evident from the film’s opening flashback scene — in which a smiling Last Son of Krypton takes a beat to talk to some kids — that this will indeed be an entirely new Superman. You won’t find the Big Blue Boy Scout regaling citizens with charming anecdotes about hope in either MoS or BvS. The filmmakers may be rewriting history a bit here, but it works, and it’s in keeping with the character.
Kal-El’s eventual return from the grave is less than peaceful, but even the staunchest DCEU detractors would be hard-pressed to deny either its overall awesomeness or the fact that his confused outburst makes complete sense within the situation. After being brought back from the grave by the Justice Leaguers, a shirtless Clark Kent flies off to his shattered statue in an attempt to wrap his head around the fact that he’s suddenly alive again. Cyborg’s involuntary defense systems are what light the fuse of the brawl, but despite being way more powerful than the heroes he’s fighting, Superman manages to get through it without heat visioning anyone to death or snapping a single neck. That’s a win in our book.
Of course, the arrival of Lois Lane is probably the only thing that allowed Batman to make it out of that confrontation alive. She and Clark then fly off to Smallville, where Lois helps remind her would-be fiancee who he truly is. Some Kansas air, a pep talk, and a hug from Ma Kent later, Supes is back in action, joining the team overseas in the final battle against Steppenwolf. It may have taken over 7 onscreen hours (5 and a half from BvS and MoS combined, and at least an hour and a half in this one), but it’s here that the true Superman finally emerges.
In the end, our hero’s final act heroics may even make the long wait feel worthwhile. The Man of Steel bursts on the scene and delivers a brutal blow to Steppenwolf as John Williams’ classic theme swells, and it’s friggin’ epic. After beating on this hopelessly outmatched evildoer for a bit, he flies off to lift a building full of civilians to safety. (Yep, this Superman not only chats with the commonfolk, but he even saves their lives mid-battle!) Supes then returns to the fight to deliver another quick Steppenwolf beatdown before saving the day with Cyborg, striking up a bromance with Bruce, and ripping a perfectly good dress shirt in order to execute a rousing final frame that fans could identify with. And he does it all with a damn smile on his face for once. It’s great.
But you’ve got to take the bad with the good, and for all the good Justice League does for Superman, it makes one monumental misstep — one that’s emblematic of the movie’s biggest shortcoming.
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