- Opening logos and music
- First scenes in Man of Steel and BvS
- Superman as a public figure (echoed later by Wonder Woman)
- Shooting video in portrait mode
- Kids asking Superman questions
- Hope from two fathers
- Favorite thing about planet Earth?
- Naming the trilogy
Contributors: @ottensam @raveryn @derbykid @wondersyd @NBego
In our last episode, we gave some overall thoughts about the themes and character arcs in Justice League. And now in this episode we are going to start our scene-by-scene analysis, covering the opening company logos and then the first scene, which is the kids’ cell phone footage of Superman. Then, at the end of the episode, we will give an update on where we stand with regard to naming the trilogy that includes Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League.
Alright, so the movie opens with the studio logos and Danny Elfman’s music. We are going to have a lot more to say about the music later, but for now we’ll just point out that this first cue is a new musical piece that does not seem to incorporate any elements of the prior Hans Zimmer or Junkie XL score. To us, the first part over the WB logo is actually kind of reminiscent of a Star Wars theme, and then the latter part over the DC logo reminds us of Batman 89 mixed with a sort of animated television series feel. But the main thing is its deviation from the music of the first two films in the trilogy, with even the instrumentation and tone of the orchestra sounding different.
Now speaking of logos, as we mentioned at the beginning of our Wonder Woman analysis, we tend to like it when the WB logo is stylized or incorporated into the movie itself rather than just the standard logo. But here in Justice League, like Wonder Woman, it’s a standard WB logo. So just a few seconds into the movie, we already have two indications that this isn’t going to be the perfect conclusion to the trilogy, because Man of Steel and Batman v Superman both had unique ways of incorporating the logo into the visual style of their opening scenes.
Next comes the RatPac logo about which we don’t have much to say other than we hope that we won’t have to see it for very much longer. And then after that is the DC comic book sequence, which was introduced with Wonder Woman, and it still looks good, and this acknowledgment of the long history of the characters in comic books, together with the Elfman music -- which sounds good here, don’t get us wrong -- it actually gives us hints right away that the music going to have a bit of a throwback style. And one thing about this DC sequence here is that it is even more special for a Justice League movie than it was for Wonder Woman because it reminds us of the Justice League animated series opening sequence, and we are about to see several of these characters together on the big screen for the first time. So it’s a pretty nice lead-in for the movie.
Superman Cellphone Footage (0:45)
Alright, let’s get into Scene 1. This is a short scene but one that has stirred up quite a bit of fuss. Yes, many people can tell that Henry Cavill’s mustache was removed digitally and in our opinion, that is unfortunate and it is a distraction from the content of the scene, but there’s not much more to say about that and we don’t see the point of fixating on it. There is still the actual dialogue and meaning that we can try to focus on from the scene, and in fact, I know of several people personally who didn’t even notice the lip issue on Superman. So perhaps it’s only bad if you’re really looking for it. And as for me, when I went back to see the movie again, I just chose to focus on his eyes rather than his mouth, and that actually helped a lot all the way through his scenes in the movie.
Now, we won’t talk about the lip any more, but even putting that aside, our team of contributors do have to admit that we were initially disappointed in the scene. Since then we’ve come to see some redeeming features, and we’ll describe those in a moment, but it just really hit all of us that this opening scene did not carry the emotional weight or the visual craft and beauty of the prior films in the series. It’s not so much that the Cell Phone Superman scene here in Justice League is bad so much as it’s a let-down when contrasted with the amazing openings of both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. In the former, you have the pain and beauty of childbirth, and you get this rich otherworldly setting where the birth ends up having profound meaning because it is the first natural birth in Krypton for centuries, and as Man of Steel Answers and the Man of Steel Thesis on YouTube showed, the theme of birth is connected all the way through the movie. And then with Batman v Superman, the opening sequence is visual poetry with the portrayal of the formative moment in Bruce Wayne’s life, with his world getting turned upside down and that opening scene beautifully establishing the theme of falling, which connects with Bruce’s character arc throughout the whole movie.
Those two opening scenes are aesthetically rich and lay a foundation of meaning that the remainder of the film builds upon. And people might also think of other Zack Snyder films like Sucker Punch and Watchmen that have visually rich, stylized sequences right from the start. But Justice League’s opening scene is a poor quality cellphone image, and it’s shot in portrait mode of all things! Yes, we obviously know this is because of the idea that it is true footage from someone actually talking to Superman, and people with their phones do use portrait mode sometimes, but the fact remains, it’s a poor quality image in a terrible aspect ratio and that’s the first thing we see in the movie. And I admit, the issue of a portrait orientation rather than landscape may just be a pet peeve in my case, but it just doesn’t make sense to me how often people record with their phone in profile/portrait orientation. Not only are all computer screens and TVs laid out in landscape orientation, but most importantly, our own human eyeballs are laid out in landscape. So that should definitely be your default way to record video… even kids should know that!
That’s kind of a personal mini-rant. But the point is that in comparison to Man of Steel and BvS, it’s kind of an underwhelming opening scene here in Justice League. And furthermore, with respect to the context of the audience coming to see this movie, it’s arguably a misstep in that regard too. For over a year, we’ve been anticipating the return of Superman, and Warner Brothers carefully hid him in the marketing materials. So the whole point leading up to the film was to not show Superman. But then they just go ahead and show him right away in the first scene. Now we know it’s a flashback to when he was still alive, so it’s not the reveal of his return, but a critique would be that they should have emphasized his absence and talked about him but not shown him until later in the film when he’s actually back.
In defense of showing him right away, maybe they were thinking that this is like what people do when they are mourning a lost loved one. It’s common for people to go back and watch home videos as a way to bring out those memories and let the emotional grief flow out. So that sort of makes sense here as a motivation for the filmmakers, but that purpose wasn’t really achieved because his face was in the uncanny valley. When you watch old footage of your dearly departed, you want it to actually look like them -- not a slightly creepy version. And it also might have been more effective if we knew who in the film this footage was meant for, like if Martha or Lois were watching it and we saw them reacting to it sorrowfully, remembering and missing him, then we would better know what to make of the clip and how it fits in with later parts or characters in the movie. Or another idea that we think might have made it more effective and more connected would be if this scene with civilians admiring a still-active Superman immediately cut to the montage of the world without Superman, then that would be a nice emotional punch. But instead, we have a Batman scene that interrupts the emotional flow there.
So all of this is just to say that we initially had some criticisms of this opening scene. But we do want to acknowledge that it has plenty of advocates. Tim and Scott on the Suicide Squadcast really liked this scene as a way to remind the audience that Superman was a positive hero for quite a while on Earth before Lex ruined things in BvS. And here we will point out that the date is visible at the start of the scene. This footage was shot by the kids on February 12th, 2015, which means it was well after the events of Man of Steel but before the events of BvS. So this is Superman right in the midst of humanity’s love affair with him.
There are other fans of the scene, too. Like @stargazer0118 on twitter who liked it because it was a touching personal moment and set a tone of optimism that would pay off by the end of the movie. And Nathan and Mark on DC Cinematic Minute also thought it was a great way to give the audience a taste of Superman right away since we wouldn’t be seeing him until much later. We acknowledge those opinions but just reiterate that the early appearance of Superman is somewhat counter to the feeling of absence that should maybe be consistent throughout at least the first act.
Moving into the content of the scene, we actually do find some redeeming qualities about it. Superman has helped out with what seems like a fire of some kind, and he’s still around talking to the fireman, which connects with the longstanding notion that Superman is like a fireman while Batman is more like a policeman. And it’s showing that Superman was down with the people before the controversies of BvS. It’s also a clear response to the critics of Man of Steel and BvS who said that they wanted to see more of the positive Superman that existed in the universe between those two movies.
And next in the scene it becomes clear right away that these are kids shooting the video for a podcast, eager to get some footage of the famous Superman that they can post online. Superman comes over to the kids and is willing to talk with them for awhile. This is a small gesture for Superman but it might be a hugely impactful and memorable moment for the kids, and it might be inspirational for the people who eventually watch the footage, too. So Superman being inspirational and in direct contact with the public connects to a theme that we’ve identified for Justice League, which is that inspiration is a better way to lead than through fear. Seeing Superman be an inspiration and a down-to-earth leader like this with the fireman and then the kids is a setup for a great payoff later in the movie. Bruce accuses Diana of being withdrawn, of not being the public figure that Superman was, and then at the very end of the movie, we see that Wonder Woman has taken that message to heart and is trying to do better. Just like Superman at the beginning, we see Wonder Woman at the end stepping forward with the children and working with the police, even letting them use her lasso. So that means she was listening to Bruce, just like Bruce was listening to Diana about the importance of heart, and that Wonder Woman moment in the final montage is a great echo to this opening scene. Making that connection is one of the things that improved this scene in our estimation.
After Superman comes over to the kids, their first question is, “How many people have you saved?” Superman starts to say, “I,” and seems to be searching for an answer, but then the kid cuts him off and says, “Nevermind. Does your thing really stand for hope?” Before we get into that hope question, I just have to personally share a nitpick here. The way this bit of dialogue was written really struck me as unrealistic, like it was scripted rather than natural. I have kids and I work in education, so I know that kids can be excited and can sometimes dart around to different topics, but to literally cut Superman off in the middle of him answering your question and to do it by saying “Nevermind” as if you lost interest in your own question within two seconds. That doesn’t make sense to me. Having the kids be young and really excited is fine, but realistically then, he would just move right into another question; he wouldn’t say, “Nevermind” and then ask the follow-up question.
But anyway, that’s a minor personal quibble. The more important thing is the actual question about the symbol standing for hope. Superman responds, “Yes, it does.” And one of the kids says, “But it looks like an S.” This is a nice connection back to Man of Steel and the interview between Superman and Lois Lane where she said that it looks like an S and he said that it was a symbol for hope on his home world.
Superman is not at all bothered by the kid saying it looks like an S. He says, “It’s meant to. It’s meant to wind, like a river. It comes and goes.” And he runs his finger across the emblem. Then Superman continues, “My--, a man I knew used to say that hope is like your car keys. Easy to lose, but if you dig around, usually close by.” He was probably going to say, “My dad,” but he caught himself and rephrased it. It lets us know, however, that he has made an important connection between both of his fathers. Jor-El told him that the emblem was the symbol for hope, and from Krypton Superman took the idea of hope winding like a river, ebbing and flowing. And then Jonathan Kent made a similar point using an Earthly metaphor -- hope can be lost for awhile, but you can find it again if you look for it. In this way, Superman is showing that he’s found a way to bridge the lessons that he’s learned from both fathers, which is a nice resolution to the story of two fathers that was Man of Steel.
We also noticed that Superman specifically says “if you dig around” for hope, you can find it again. This is a nice connection to the fact that there will literally be a scene later where Barry and Cyborg are digging up Clark, and he is a key part of their hope for defeating Steppenwolf and bringing the world back from its downward spiral.
So in this sense, hope is sort of personified in Superman, and even though he’s lost, he can be revived. Just like the river of hope comes and goes, the character can have birth, death, and rebirth.
It’s also just cool that this trilogy of films has drawn together a rich mythology for the Superman symbol itself. It was meaningful when he put it on for the first flight scene, it was emblematic when Doomsday stabbed him through the chest, and now it has a new meaning for us if we think about it as a river and connect it with the idea of rebirth and also finding hope anew.
After Superman gives this nice response about hope, something that greatly redeems the scene in our view because it lays some groundwork that we can connect to later in the film, there’s a nice moment where one of the kids asks if Superman ever fought a hippo. That is a nice touch just in terms of the playful interaction between them, and it’s funny to hear the kids shushing each other and the little one saying that hippos are the most deadly. And then the main kid asks his final question, which deals with the fact that Superman is known to be an alien. He asks, “What’s the best thing about planet Earth?” Superman pauses, kind of looks to the side, and then starts to smile as he’s going to answer it, but the video cuts out.
Now, we’re not sure what the in-universe explanation is for the video cutting out right there, nor are we sure why the filmmakers wanted to cut it off before he gives the answer. Obviously we’re supposed to wonder what Superman’s answer was going to be, but then the film never actually explicitly provides the answer later. Cutting off the answer here kind of reminded us of Lex’s “oldest lie in America” but with that one we got the explicit answer later in the movie. There’s also The Dark Knight Rises with Alfred’s early conversation about the cafe, and that pays off explicitly in the end. But for the best thing about planet Earth, what is the implied answer? For me personally, I’ve seen the movie three times already and I’m not really sure what the answer is in terms of the movie, and I’m even less sure of what Superman was about to say to the kids. For Superman personally, we know that Lois Lane is his world, but he’s probably not going to say that to the kids. And he may not even realize it himself yet because it’s kind of a realization that hits him at the end of BvS, which is more than a year after this video footage was recorded. Maybe it’s having the chance to live on planet Earth that’s the best thing about it, because the movie kind of has that idea by the end, but I doubt that’s what Superman would say back in 2015. It’s only something he might say after being dead and experiencing a rebirth. Maybe it’s the people of Earth that are the best thing? That seems like the most straightforward answer that anyone might give. But then the movie wasn’t really about people in general after the World without a Superman montage. It was about the specific team coming together. So maybe it’s the idea of collaboration and teamwork that is the best thing about planet Earth -- that definitely seems to be one of the main messages of the Justice League film, but it doesn’t make sense that that’s what Superman would have as an answer back in 2015 when he was basically an individual superhero.
So for me, this was a question that just kind of dangled there and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. However, that’s why it’s important that I don’t do this analysis alone. Alessandro did have an idea pretty early on about what the answer was. And he’s going to share some thoughts on that now.
<<recorded>>I feel like the implied answer to What’s the best thing about planet Earth is the actual movie itself and what we see in it. In a way this cell phone video is kind of meta in it’s a completely different format from the rest of the movie and stands by itself before the movie begins. Then the movie starts in response to the question. And although the footage was filmed before Superman died, it sort of plays out as if Superman is remembering and accounting the story of the time these really great people came together and resurrected him, and together they saved humanity.
Basically the best thing about the planet Earth is the people on it and their camaraderie and strength against adversity. Charles Roven, producer of Justice League, writes about how he was inspired by the Justice League’s ability to conquer adversity no matter what was placed in their path in the book The Art of the Film. Afterall, isn’t the whole point of the movie, its story and major themes, about individuals who have suffered and found strength in others to overcome their own personal struggles as well as a threat from another world which aims to take our humanity away? In essence, Superman finds the best thing about Earth in its humanity and all that it encompasses: mankind, benevolence, compassion, brotherly love, fraternity, sympathy, and tolerance. And we can see humanity as an overall motif in the film as it pertains to each character. It permeates the entire movie through the story and characters as each face their own humanity and fight to defend all of humanity against a global threat. Superman’s ultimate sacrifice in Batman v Superman is a result of his own humanity for the sake of humanity. So it would be natural for that to be what he believes is the best thing about Earth.
According to Executive Producer Wesley Coller in the book The Art of the Film, Superman’s sacrifice renews Batman’s faith in humanity. This is obvious in Bruce’s words “Men are still good” and echoes Superman’s own sentiments of optimism seen in his desire to reason with Batman during their fight, rather than simply overpower him from the start.
Superman came from Krypton, as seen in Man of Steel, whose civilization was very cold in comparison to Earth’s, breeding through machines, and divided into opposing factions. As Quentin Tarantino pointed out in Kill Bill Volume 2, Superman wakes up as Superman. Clark Kent is the costume he puts on. So he consciously and actively chooses to wake up each morning and live like a human, among us, something which Bruce even addresses to Alfred in this movie. This speaks to how much he values humanity.
Steppenwolf hails from a place which is a direct contrast to Earth populated by a legion of uniform creatures, mindless and in servitude to New “Gods”. This is why Steppenwolf’s desire to convert the people of Earth into drones is so relevant to the story. It would strip the Earth of what makes it so special, the life on it. For me the question pays off explicitly by showing the league standing together at the end of the movie, side by side in fellowship, after all they’ve been through, together and individually, and with Lois saying “We are not alone” as in we all stand together.<<recorded>>
So that is definitely one coherent way to look at it, and it ties together with several aspects of the film overall. It’s also possible, or at least open to interpretation, that Superman personally might be thinking of Lois, but that she is still sort of a representation of the broader humanity. This connects with both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. In both of those movies, she was such a strong character and a connection for Clark that she gave him the courage to take the leap of faith for humanity and then to sacrifice himself to save humanity. So it’s possible that she is not only the key and his world, but also the best thing about planet Earth, in his opinion. Though yeah, in a broader sense, it’s her humanity and the fact that she helps Superman be connected to humanity in general.
We’ll close by pointing out one additional thing we like about this opening scene, and that is that it does serve as a bookend with the very last shot of the movie. By having Superman here at the start, and then ending the movie with Superman returning up to the sky, it does provide a certain bit of symmetry. The discussion of hope here in Scene 1 also connects well to Lois’s closing narration. She talks about how the “truest darkness… is the conviction the light will never return.” So she’s basically talking about the absence of hope, but then she says that “the light always returns,” just like Superman said that the river of hope comes and goes. And then continuing on with the idea we mentioned earlier about Superman specifically being a personification of hope, Lois finishes by saying that, “Our darkness was deep, and seemed to swallow all hope, but these heroes were here the whole time, to remind us that hope is real. That you can see it. All you have to do is look. Up in the sky.”
End of Episode
So that is our analysis of Scene 1 of Justice League. For our next couple episodes, we will continue on with the Batman rooftop scene and then the World-without-Superman montage, before we might shift back over for a few scenes in our Wonder Woman analysis.
I want to thank Alessandro, Rebecca, Sydney, and Nick again for their contributions. And we will close here by returning to the issue of naming this trilogy -- Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League. We mentioned in our last episode that we were kind of leaning toward calling it the Dawn of Justice trilogy. And we ran a twitter poll that confirmed our inclination. https://twitter.com/JLUPodcast/status/933696310842183680
The Dawn of Justice trilogy won the poll (at 55%). In a distant second was the “Zack Snyder Superman” trilogy (at 24%), but with Superman’s scenes being largely reshot by Joss Whedon in Justice League, I don’t think that title works out as well as maybe we thought it would after Man of Steel and BvS. But the Justice League characters and the team overall were well established in this film, and it was on the foundation laid by Superman, and we think the title “Dawn of Justice” reflects that.
There’s also kind of a meta-textual level that this makes us think of. In the universe of the films, Superman started things off and laid the foundation for superheroes in the world. (Man of Steel Answers covered this well: http://www.manofsteelanswers.com/43-a-beautiful-truth-you-are-not-alone/) But eventually, it has to grow beyond him and we have these new characters with their own styles and personalities that are added to the mix. And even Superman himself dies and is resurrected in a slightly different form as part of the team. One could almost view this as a meta-textual reflection of Zack Snyder, where he laid a foundation with Man of Steel and BvS and set a particular tone, but it was always going to have to grow beyond him, bringing in new personalities and styles of other filmmakers. And it culminates in Justice League where, yes, Zack Snyder is involved, but it ends up being a bit different than it was before. So just as Superman is in the universe of the films, Zack Snyder kind of played a similar role on the filmmaking side of things.
But anyway, we’re going to refer to the trilogy as the Dawn of Justice trilogy and we invite you to join us. Maybe it will catch on. And anyway, we’ll just keep calling it that until we get a different name from some official source.
That will be it for us in this episode. Thanks for listening, and feel free to also check out the Suicide Squadcast and the Man of Steel Answers podcast.