Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t just a superhero team-up movie — it’s also an exploration of grief and a reflection on parenthood.
Of course, given its rather straight-forward storytelling and its glut of superheroes, it’s easy to see Zack Snyder’s Justice League as just your run of the mill superhero team-up story.
Or, if you took into account the supersized runtime of four hours and two minutes, the mythological feel of its storytelling and the many grandiose set pieces, we might go so far as to call it an epic tale of gods and monsters.
Both are accurate ways to describe Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
However, neither description fully gives credit to the emotional storytelling that is truly at the heart of the film.
Because while the film is about a disparate group of strangers joining together and finding that they are stronger together than apart, and as much as it is about those whom we might call gods banding together to defeat demons, all we’re really talking with either of those descriptions is plot.
And a plot is not a story.
Instead, the story that Zack Snyder’s Justice League aims to tell is one of grief — of the ways it changes us, pushes us apart and brings us back together — and of family.
And, more specifically, of parenthood.
One of the things that I’ve always liked about the universe of superheroes that Zack Snyder has built with the DCEU is that it is a universe in which individual actions mean something. They hold weight. They don’t occur in a vacuum and the ripples of them reverberate throughout the different films.
In short, it is a universe with real stakes and actual consequences, specifically — perhaps even especially — for its heroes.
For example, though we as reasonable audience members might recognize that the monumental destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel was unintentional and, perhaps, largely unavoidable, in Zack Snyder’s universe, intention is not enough. Actions not easily excusable. The pedestal of heroism is not a shield from consequences.
That destruction is not forgotten by the next film in the series — Batman v Superman — but is instead the focal point of it. It is that destruction that radicalizes Batman into the warped and twisted version we see throughout much of that movie; it is Superman’s display of power that mobilizes Lex Luthor and sets him on his path to villainy. Batman v Superman, in many ways, showed a world that was forever changed by the appearance of The Superman.
In the same way, Zack Snyder’s Justice League shows us a world that is traumatized by his death.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League attaches weight to Superman’s death, showing us the aftereffects of loss.
As a matter of plot, the death of Superman means that Earth is vulnerable to forces that now see it as weak and ripe for the taking.
As a matter of storytelling, the loss of Superman allows the movie to explore the heavy weight of grief.
While the world mourns Superman as a symbol of goodness and heroism, those who knew him beyond that symbol — who knew him as a friend, a son, a lover — must learn to live in a world without him, must learn what that actually means.
The film’s four hour runtime shows us quiet moments of grief and loss. It shows us what it feels like when the world seems to have moved on but you cannot. It shows us the different ways grief is felt by the people who carry it.
For Bruce Wayne, grief does what is has always done: it gives him new purpose. The death of Superman, though, is not a new cornerstone of a mission of vengeance but an acute moment of metanoia. It is, in fact, the moment that turns him from the path of vengeance and abject rage and gives him a new mission based on unification — a mission in which, as he tells Alfred, relies on faith.
For Lois Lane, grief is at first a lonely burden to be shouldered. It is a bed that’s half empty, a house that’s too quiet, a future that can never be. It’s clothes that will never be worn again.
Then, grief is a bridge — a pain that can be shared, that can bring two lonely people together, that can keep a memory alive. And through that bridge and because of it, a new source of strength is found.
We see this last one not just with Lois Lane and Martha Kent (where Lois’ emotions were genuine, even if the meeting was not), but we also see it with Vic Stone and Diana. Though Diana only knew Clark briefly and Vic not at all, witnessing his death — and perhaps, more importantly, witnessing Lois’ reaction to his death — brings back her own memories of loss and grief. And because of her own experiences with grief, she’s able to connect with Vic about his own loss.
With Diana, Vic is able to meet with someone who understands his loss and his reaction to it, who has been where he’s been — but is also able to show him that he doesn’t have to be there forever.
Grief, however, is only half the story. Or perhaps, only one story that Zack Snyder’s Justice League seeks to tell. After all, Superman returns by about midpoint through the story and the team rallies through their own personal grief to unite as one.
The other story — the one that runs throughout the film and is woven through all the narrative threads and subplots — is focused on parenthood.
A few years ago, I wrote that the DECU has firmly set its foundation on the importance and presence of mothers.
Zack Snyder, who began the DCEU with Man of Steel, showed the sacrifice of fathers, yes — but he also took great pains to show the enduring support and love of mothers. Subsequent DC films — from Zack Snyder, James Wan and Patty Jenkins — continued this idea.
With his third DCEU film, Snyder expands on this central idea, reflecting now on the experience of parenthood — on the ways in which parents love their children, fail their children, protect their children and, at the end of it all, try to do their best by their children.
Over and over again we see the bonds between parents and their children, no matter the barriers that separate them.
Though it has been a century since she’s seen her daughter — and there is little hope of a reunion — Hippolyta still prays for the safety of her daughter, still believes in who she is and what she can do, even if she hasn’t been able to see all the ways her daughter has accomplished in the time she’s been in exile. The sense of absence between mother and daughter has not abated, and with the two we see that the love between parents and children is one that transcends distance and time.
Barry, too, is separated from his father — though his barrier is much more tangible than Diana’s — and engaged in a life-long quest for justice that his father begs him to cast aside. Henry Allen pleads with his son to move on with his life, to stop being weighed down by a man who — in his own words — isn’t going anywhere. It’s misguided, probably, but understandable, and highlights the willingness of parents to sacrifice for their children’s happiness.
And though Clark is separated from both his fathers by death, their words still echo in his head and define who he is as both a man and as a superhero. Their love, their hope and their sacrifice are a guiding star to Superman — providing a beacon of light that continues on long past their death.
Finally, there is the story of Ray Fisher’s Vic Stone — aka Cyborg — which intertwines the film’s exploration of grief and parenthood into one spectacular bit of storytelling.
Zack Snyder has said numerous times that in his cut of the film, Cyborg — aka Vic Stone — is “the heart of the movie, the lynchpin, everything turns on him, the stakes that are presented to him and the events that befall him.”
(Indeed, that so much of his story was cut out of the theatrical release is an absolute disgrace and shameful on multiple levels — but that’s another article for another time.)
In terms of plot, Zack Snyder’s Justice League essentially places Cyborg as the protagonist of the film. Without him, the team is not enough — not enough to find the last box nor to defeat the three together.
In terms of storytelling, he is truly the emotional center — the very heart — of the movie. It is grief and loss that shapes much of his story, and his relationship with his parents that define so much of his character arc.
The accident took from him not only his mother, but the life that he had imagined for himself. Though Diana and his father call his newfound abilities gifts, he can only see them as a curse — a reminder of everything that has been lost to him forever. This grief turns inwards and eats at him, manifesting as anger — justified, perhaps, but destructive.
His journey with grief is learning not to close himself off forever. He must — as Diana likewise admits about herself — learn to open back up again. He has to at least try.
And that is really the central theme woven into the film’s exploration of grief.
Loss is sometimes inexplicable. Grief is often inescapable. But we cannot shut ourselves off or away forever. We must open back up again. We must work on it, and continue working on it — even if it takes a lifetime.
With Vic Stone, we likewise see examples of two parents — a mother who is steadfast and supportive, a father who is distant and disappointing.
His mother’s presence shaped his kind heart and generosity, while his father’s absence made him bitter and angry. Later, it is his father’s desperation that forges Vic into something new and unrecognizable to himself, and his father’s sacrifice that allows Vic to better understand himself and his father.
Parenthood, as presented in Zack Snyder’s Justice League is complex and multi-faceted, and parents are never always wrong or right. Parents are flawed and their children imperfect.
The film chronicles not just the successes of parenthood but the failures; it shows the ways in which parental love both is and isn’t enough.
It presents parenthood in all its messiness, in all its heartache and in all its joy.
With Cyborg’s story, we see loss — great, unimaginable loss; we see the heavy grief that follows. We see the way grief endures.
But with his story, we see love, too. We see the way that love also endures.
For much of the film, all Cyborg can see is a body shaped by destruction. All he feels is lost and alone. But because of the love of his parents — the steadiness of his mother, the sacrifice of his father — he is able to see and feel beyond that.
I’m not broken, he says in the emotional climax of the film.
And I’m not alone.
They are the words he says to the phantoms of what once was, to the false promise of what could be.
It is the sentiment that his father tried to convince him of, time and again, that then becomes a belief that gives him newfound strength.
And though I don’t wish to play psychologist to Zack Snyder’s directorial intent, perhaps they are also the words that any parent wants to say to their children when they are struggling: You are not broken, and you are not alone.
It is a simple message but a powerful one.
And while the movie also tells us a myriad of other messages — that we are stronger united, that there is greatness inside us all — it is this simple message that perhaps is most necessary in these grim times and in our darkest moments.
You are not broken. And you are not alone.