‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’: The Postmodern Struggle for the Mythic

April 1, 2021 Updated: April 8, 2021

The legions of keyboard warriors and hardcore comic-book fanboys finally have their victory over the Hollywood horde of mass-entertainment executives. “The Synder Cut” has been released. Justice prevails. The world can now stream “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a superhero film unlike any other in its shameless length and sheer spectacle that packs, perhaps, the biggest punch to date toward making comic-book heroes less comic and more mythic, and whose seriousness should be of serious cultural concern.

The theatrical “Justice League” (2017) was reviled as one of the most specious entries in the superhero film genre and deemed a $300 million failure that died on the cutting-room floor after director Zack Snyder left the helm due to a family tragedy. Rumors of a “Snyder Cut,” however, led to a vociferous campaign for its release, and three years later, with the film industry gasping under pandemic restrictions, Warner Bros. succumbed to pressure and funded the completion of Snyder’s original vision in all its gritty Wagnerian glory.

Besides the unrestrained artistic precedent that “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” sets with its four-hour runtime streaming on HBO and slow-motion magnificence, there is also a deeper bow here before the will of the consumers when it comes to what they want to consume, no matter how bombastic. It also gives a new burst to the streaming platform as the movie theater slips into the mists of the past.

And further, another cinematic stone has been set on the strange and serious foundation of the temple being built up by a myth-starved multitude, who are yearning to elevate comic-strip pulp into a grand and gorgeous postmodern mythology.

Why So Serious?

The self-important superhero films of the last few years have left many asking the question made famous by the late Heath Ledger’s menacing, anything-but-funny Joker: “Why so serious?”

The motivation behind this trend of grounded and grueling seriousness—begun by Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies, canonized by Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, and given even sharper edges by Zack Snyder’s films—is a desire to make the superhero more realistic, more relatable, more flawed, and more psychologically divided. Struggling to fight crime in a world where the line between good and evil is grayed, the hero is caught in the calamity of moral judgment.

Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) canonized the grueling seriousness of our modern mythos. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

People have always established fictional archetypes to echo society and the souls that make it up, and their mythologies have always been diagnostic and didactic. As such, they fervently seek answers to the cosmic questions arising from the primal and mystical sensitivity of the human spirit. What are the secrets behind the mysteries of nature? What is the purpose of life? How does man relate to the divine? These are serious questions that deserve serious consideration.

Traditionally, mythical heroes are solemn types. There is nothing lighthearted about Heracles. Sigurd is no wag either. Beowulf is brutal. Lancelot is a paradox of imperfection.

One explanation for this serious trait in the ancient heroes is that the ancients took their heroes seriously. This serious tone in superhero movies like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” may signal a kind of artistic evolution. Even if they are just entertainment, there seems to be an attempt to capture a poetic tone that aligns more with the form and function of classical myth.

Making Myth Meaningful

The current tendency to depict the heroes of our culture more seriously may indicate a traditional longing and its reaction, whether conscious or unconscious, to make our heroes more meaningful. If comic-book superheroes, however, are a contribution to the folklore of the human race, representing the ideals of the age, there is cause for some concern.

The Fantastic Four do not hold a candle to one Fionn mac Cumhaill, as Irish tales will tell. Compare the multiverse episodes of Green Lantern to the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh and the discrepancies in gravitas are clear. Batman and Superman are no Hector and Achilles, though they strive to be. Even so, superheroes stand as the imaginative expressions and embodiments of postmodern men and postmodern ideologies.

gilgamesh statue
Postmodern heroes reveal our incomplete worldview compared to that of ancient heroes. Pictured is a statue of the ancient Sumerian king Gilgamesh, who was believed to be a demigod with superhuman strength. (D. Gordon E. Robertson/CC BY SA-3.0)

That an artistic propensity should arise to dignify them by making them more representative of the way the world is perceived is understandable—even laudable, in a culture where cynicism is fashionable. The problem is that the sickness of cynicism is too advanced to depict heroes untouched by its creeping nihilism. This emptiness or shallowness is what sets our “mythology” apart from even the most fatalist strains, like the old Nordic chronicles of Ragnarok.

Ancient myth, no matter how dark, has always been animated by a sort of divine hope, which is a hard chord to strike in sagas arising from societies where the divine is forgotten.

Godless Heroes

The defect of the modern mythical worldview, then, is that it is a deficient worldview. While the old heroes were godlike and god-fearing, the new heroes are godless, and one may well consider whether a mythology is truly mythological if it fails to present a holistic vision of reality.

A principal element in any mythology is to encapsulate a comprehensive philosophy by delineating the relation between the natural and the supernatural. In our time, the former has swallowed up the latter to form a new paganism that is more like atheism. The creative result is the god-man—the superman—and the first catalog of heroes that are not heroic for being religious.

Our modern superheroes, such as Batman and Superman, cannot compare with, say, the noble hero Hector. “Hector Admonishes Paris for His Softness and Exhorts Him to Go to War,” 1786, by Johann Tischbein. Augusteum in Oldenburg, Germany. (Public Domain)

Ours is not a mythology of gods and heroes, but of hero-gods. Ours is a mythology of materialism (which is a species of nihilism) and will necessarily be dark if taken seriously.

Even though Snyder’s “Justice League” incorporates characters called the “old gods,” like Zeus and Ares, hearkening to the mythical importance our superheroes wish to inherit, there is a bizarre reductionism in these classical borrowings and translations. The “gods” are consistently made technological or archeological, more like faraway races from faraway planets or cultures rather than present spiritual entities demanding and requiring worship.

Ray FIsher as the Cyborg in Zack Snyder's Justice League
Ray Fisher as the Cyborg, a technically enhanced hero, in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Though it is all in good fun, and it is better to have the vestige of gods than none at all, there is a loss here, for what had once been depicted as mighty deities are now mere aliens.

What’s at Stake

The struggle of postmodern myth is to portray greatness and grandeur in a world that has grown too small for the heroes we want to be inspired by. The world has certainly changed in the past few millennia and, consequently, so has the reality and understanding of heroism. Mankind needs heroes and, though the heroes of our age are not the heroes of antiquity, they may be the very heroes we need. People still uphold their heroes to idealized standards. Though the standards are not the same, nor as high, the principle retained is that good should overcome evil.

Whether or not postmodern mythology holds a key to cultural preservation is, in all fairness, yet to be seen. There is cause to be wary, however. The concepts of moral consequentialism are slipping with the times, and the optimism that shines from an understanding of objective truth, goodness, and beauty is getting harder to grasp. Good and evil themselves are growing more confused in our mythology because they are more confused in our society.

Our mythology, insofar as we can claim one, reflects our world. Entertainments like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” in all their silly seriousness, are the closest thing that we have as a culture to the classical myths, but they are emblematic of a world that has fallen short of the fullness of truth, though it retains fragments of it. While these movies are flashy fun in spite of their stern tones, like so many myths of old are, their aspiration to be more than cheap (or expensive) escapism is delightful even if it is dubious.

When the world is pathetic, desire for the epic will be keen. When vice predominates, men will grope for virtue. When heroism has lost its clarity, there will be a struggle to depict heroes. And these are issues to take seriously because, after all, the human race still needs to be saved.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.