I've written before how I felt let down by Justice League. Now, I'm going to take the time to spell out what I think was specifically missing — and how to fix it.
The problems with the film fall into two basic categories: thematics and villainry.
The problem with the film's thematics is simple. The movie doesn't really embody any of its themes. It mentions things like fear and courage and heroism, but little in the movie revolves around those subjects in a way that drives what goes on.
Let's start with fear, as it's central to at least one of the movie's plot drivers — the parademons, since they key off it. That could be related back to another theme in the film that is given decent play — how the team struggles to Come Together.
What happens if we merge the two? What if, for instance, one of the things the parademons do is gather intelligence about what specific people fear so that it can be used back at them? Their fears, individually and collectively, could be projected back at them as weapons. Each of them has things that they feel uneasy about / guilty about / are terrified of. Steppenwolf's biggest weapon wouldn't be his axe; it would be their own failings and insecurities. And then he could say something like, "And you call yourselves heroes? Deep down inside you're as weak as the rest of these primitives."
And so another component of their teamwork wouldn't just be to have each other's backs, but to give each other moral support. They do this a little in the movie, but with Steppenwolf's psyops as a specific framing device, it would have more impact. There are faint hints here and there of something like this — e.g., when Cyborg/Victor is trying to unbox the motherboxes, and Steppenwolf starts doing his little Satan-whispering-in-the-ear thing to him about what he sees, etc. But it's not followed up on in any real way; it's just something the editing left in there as a fragment, like so many other things. So let's follow up on those things.
The other big problem with the movie is the villain: Steppenwolf is a forgettable villain because he poses no real emotional threat to the heroes or the audience.
People like to assume that just because a villain poses an existential threat, he's therefore terrifying. That's true in real life. But in fiction, things are a little different. There, the villains we are most scared of are not just the ones that try to take away our lives, but those that try to also take away the meanings of our lives.
If Steppenwolf kills Superman, that's bad, but also understandable. It's the function of a hero to risk death for the people he loves. It's tragic, but not terrifying. But if Steppenwolf invalidates Superman, that's tragic and terrifying in a way that mere death isn't. It's far more unsettling. Superman's whole thing is that he's a hero to the core, and if you can unseat that, you have a better weapon against him than kryptonite. (This is, in fact, one of the ways Superman has been attacked most successfully throughout his history, and the source of some of the best stories about him.)
What Steppenwolf needed wasn't just a motive other than "conquest!", because "conquest!" is a perfectly legitimate motive. What he really needed was a way of acting out that motive that inspired true dread. He needed to be someone who performed spiritual and emotional conquest, not just physical conquest.
As more thoughts like this accrued, I started taking notes, and before long those notes turned into a full-blown alternative version of the film. What's striking is how this remix/fanfic version of the movie could easily have been made with all the resources of the existing one — it's essentially dialogue and maybe one or two additional action beats.
Here, then, is my Repair Shop version of Justice League. It works best if you have seen the film, of course, as it references many things in context there. See what you think.
The opening scenes are as before, with the footage of Clark Kent/Superman/Kal-el in his prime, and then everyone in mourning over his death. The world feels like a more dangerous and uncertain place than ever now.
Batman, a/k/a Bruce Wayne, dangles a criminal off the side of a building to attract a bizarre alien-like monster called a parademon. They appear to be attracted to fear, and armed with this bit of intel Bats heads back to base. But on the way there, he's attacked by another cadre of parademons. To his own astonishment, he panics, and nearly cracks up the Batmobile, as he's blasted with visions that well up from the remorse and dread and hopelessness that he carries around (although, this being Bats, he does a very good job of keeping a lid on them).
Once back home, though, Bruce consults with Alfred about what just happened. These things aren't just attracted to fear — they amplify it, project it back at you. Bruce has been rattled badly enough by this incident to realize he cannot face down something like this by himself. He needs a team — one where the strengths of each can compensate for the weaknesses of each. Especially the emotional weakenesses. Time to look for the others.
Diana, a/k/a Wonder Woman, stops the terrorists at the Old Bailey, but their talk of a return to the dark ages of healthy fear puzzles her. She uses the lasso to learn more from one of them; his further babbling about fear reminds her of something she hasn't thought about in a long time. Something that makes even Diana uneasy. She decides it's time to find Bruce and work with him.
Victor Stone, a/k/a Cyborg, is the result of an experiment by his father Dr. Silas Stone at S.T.A.R. Labs to save the young man's life. By combining him with an alien artifact called a motherbox (the good doctor calls it a "change engine"), he made Victor into a hybrid of man and machine. Victor is terrified not just that he's no longer human and never can be again, but that he's changing, manifesting new abilities, receiving signals from the beyond that he doesn't know how to deal with.
Bruce Wayne attempts to recruit Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, but is rebuffed.
Steppenwolf, the big bad from worlds beyond, arrives in Themyscira (Diana's homeland) and steals a motherbox from the Amazons. It's revealed here that the head of Steppenwolf's axe is also a fear reflector/amplifier. (This could be further underscored by having some similar design motif in the axe head and amongst the parademons themselves.)
Steppenwolf terrorizes Queen Hippolyta. What she fears most is that her resistance will mean nothing — that she will send so many of her own against him, only to die, and that in the end she will have accomplished nothing but the deaths of her own sisters ... and daughters. That gives Hippolyta pause enough for Steppenwolf to take the box and leave.
After Steppenwolf is gone, one of Hippolyta's lieutenants is irate that he would dare slander her that way by insinuating she had such fears. "No," Hippolyta says, "it is true. I fear. But I also have the will to act anyway." She touches fire to her arrow and shoots it off to alert Diana.
Diana goes to Bruce and offers her help. She explains to him the story of Steppenwolf, the great battle that ensued, the power of the motherboxes, and the way they were split into three amongst humans, Atlanteans, and Amazons for safekeeping.
What gave Steppenwolf his edge, as Diana explained, was how he was somehow able to break the spirits of those who opposed him. "All who heard of Steppenwolf," says Diana, "couldn't understand how he could lay waste to countless worlds. Not until he came and showed them. In the face of his armies, they were bold. But in the face of their own failures and fears — there, they kneeled to him."
Steppenwolf goes to Atlantis and steals the Atlantean motherbox. There, Mera tangles with him, but again Steppenwolf gets the upper hand emotionally, perhaps by tormenting her about the son she lost due to her own mistakes. "He would have been fighting here beside you," he says, "if not for you."
Arthur arrives too late to stop Steppenwolf, but not too late to have a taste of fear from Steppenwolf's axe. His fear is that even the few people he protects in that isolated little village will turn against him — that he will be an orphan everywhere and to everyone, not just an orphan to Atlantis as well.
That makes Arthur fightin' mad — the last thing he's going to do is admit that the likes of Steppenwolf put one over him — and so he borrows the Atlantean armor and the trident to go dish out some payback.
Diana tries to recruit Victor, but he's suspicious of her (heck, he's suspicious of everyone, himself included). But she leaves him with the awareness that he doesn't have to be alone and afraid if he chooses to be.
Barry Allen, a/k/a the Flash, visits his father in prison. Dad wants him to move on and get a life of his own that doesn't consist of trying to prove him innocent of having allegedly murdered Barry's mother.
Back at his secret base, Barry is confronted by Bruce Wayne and offered a spot on the team. "Stop right there. I'm in." Why? "I need ... friends."
Commissioner Gordon, puzzled by a new rash of kidnappings that include S.T.A.R. Labs scientists, flips on the Bat-signal and is joined on the roof not only by Batman, but Wonder Woman and the Flash. And, belatedly, Cyborg, as his father was among the missing. The clues point towards the tunnel under Gotham Harbor.
The team of four confront Steppenwolf in the tunnels. Barry confesses, in a moment of pants-wetting terror, "I've never 'done battle' — I've just pushed some people and run away." Batman directs him to just save the scientists and not think about anything else.
Steppenwolf is in the process of terrorizing the scientists for information about the last motherbox. "Please," one of them begs, "we have families!" "And what would you do to protect those families?" says Steppenwolf. The scientist replies: "Anything!" "Ah. We have that much in common," Steppenwolf gloats, and grinds him underfoot.
When it's Dr. Stone's turn, we see that his fear is that he really has turned his son into a monster and lost his love — and that there's no place in the world for him but at Steppenwolf's knees, where at least he can be protected from the consequences of his own bad decisions. He's about to reveal the location of the last box when Victor goes into battle mode, blasts Steppenwolf good and hard, jets in, and makes off with Dr. Stone. Barry, likewise, darts in and out and gets the rest of the folks to safety with Victor lending them cover.
Steppenwolf and Wonder Woman go at it. His taunts about how his axe is still wet with the blood of her sisters does nothing but make her angrier. This only amuses and even thrills him all the more: he likes a challenge. The braver they are, the more satisfying it is to break them across his knee.
The fight ends as before: Victor launches a missile from the Crawler, but Steppenwolf snatches it away and smashes open the tunnel wall with it, letting in Gotham Harbor. Aquaman shows up and saves them, and they repair to the surface where Gordon is amused that Batman is now playing well with others.
The crew repair back to the Batcave. Bruce reveals his plan to have Superman revived by way of a motherbox. This as it exists in the movie can be left alone, including the scene where Barry and Victor dig up Superman's body and everyone sneaks it into the Kryptonian ship.
To everyone's amazement, the plan works, but Superman is dazed and uncertain when he returns. He lands at the Metropolis monument to him, now wrecked, where the other heroes join him. Then Victor's armor powers up and attacks Superman against Victor's will, and Superman loses it. He lashes out especially hard at at Batman ("Do you bleed?"), but on his cue Alfred rides up with Lois Lane, and that snaps him out of it.
Clark is about to leave with Lois when his hearing picks up Steppenwolf's boom tube opening up. He rushes over to where Steppenwolf is now claiming the last motherbox: "You don't look like you're up to anything good." Steppenwolf: "The Kryptonian lives? — You'll soon wish you were dead again." They tussle, and Superman does land some good blows, but he's still too shaky and uncertain.
Right when Superman's about to throw one really good, definitive punch, Steppenwolf's axe head plunges Supes back into a replay of the moment when Pa Kent urged him not to use his power to save him, that the world might better accept him as he was. "You see?" Steppenwolf says. "You strut across this world as if you were a god, when you know you are nothing of the kind. In time I will show you true godhood." And with that he takes the last box and vanishes.
Clark, shaken, takes Lois back to his mother's farmhouse (now for sale).
Smarting from how the plan to resurrect Superman took a bad turn, the group decides to go it the rest of the way alone. Victor finds Steppenwolf's hideout in the ruins of a nuclear power plant in Russia (actually, Ukraine, I guess), and they head off. Diana and Bruce reconcile and toast to making it through the night alive.
(The interstitial scenes with the Ukranian family can stay as-is.)
Clark and Lois reconcile. "I'm not afraid of dying," Clark says,"but then again I never was. It was losing everyone else that scared me most. You being at the top of that list, by the way." When his mother arrives, in tears that her son is in fact alive, he embraces her: "Mom — I hate to do this, but I gotta — " " — go and save the world. Yeah. I know you. You just can't help yourself, can you?" But she's smiling when she says it.
Clark drops in on Alfred at the mansion, where Alfred provides him with his suit. "I made sure," he says, "to not use bleach."
Steppenwolf, in the nest, prepares to fuse the three motherboxes. We learn they're not called "motherboxes" by accident, and he doesn't refer to them as "mother" as some kind of cutesy euphemism. THEY ARE HIS MOTHER. Aeons ago, she was reduced to this form as punishment for conspiring with her children to kill off the old gods and bring in the new. This whole thing is not about conquest; it's about restoring his lineage of new gods that were meant to replace the old, decrepit ones. This time, he believes he can bring her completely back to life, and not just draw on her power to conquer yet another world.
The rest of the team is approaching the nest. "Honestly, I think we're all gonna die," says Aquaman in a long, strangely heartfelt confession — although that's only because he's been sitting on Diana's lasso.
A bogey shows up on radar, and Victor goes EVA to intercept. It's Superman — Victor has to work extra hard not to shoot at him, but he manages to control himself. "Seeing you actually in the suit," Victor says, "gave me the boost I needed. —Because, man, what dumb-ass shoots at Superman?"
The team enters the dead zone. Division of labor: Superman and Flash work to get people out. Batman takes down the shield generator; Aquaman is on bug duty for Batman. Wonder Woman infiltrates the hive and goes straight for Steppenwolf, buying time while Cyborg unbundles the motherboxes. Something about the defenses seem a little too flimsy, though. Batman is uneasy. (As Steppenwolf puts it in an aside: "You challenge a soldier in his own fortress? And you call yourselves warriors?")
At first Diana and Steppenwolf seem about evenly matched. But then he throws her headlong into her worst fears. Everyone who comes near her, everyone she loves, will be destroyed by the evil she attracts by dint of simply existing. Her fear is that she cannot call herself a protector of anything, least of all these mortals. There will always, someday, be someone stronger. The best way to protect the people she claims to love is to bend her knee to Steppenwolf and ensure they do not end up destroyed because of her selfish need to be a hero to them. "Let me prove all this to you," Steppenwolf says. "How? By destroying all these people?" "No — just one of them." And with that he snaps her out of the delusion in the moment before the head of his axe splits open Bruce's skull.
Well, it would have done that had Barry not body-slammed it. But in doing so, he too is thrown into the well of Steppenwolf's fear-delusions. His worst fear is that his father really did kill his mother, and that he really has been wasting his life trying to exonerate a guilty man. "You never could fully rid yourself of that doubt, could you?" taunts Steppenwolf.
Superman dives in and separates Barry from the axe by way of a little heat vision. By now everyone is conscious of how dangerous the axe really is, and so they find themselves having a harder time getting an edge against Steppenwolf.
A portal opens and a flood of fresh new parademons crowd in, giving everyone a hard time. This horde is far better at fighting them that the last ones. It's then that Batman realizes the first parademon incursions were about analyzing the deepest fears of the heroes so they could be exploited — and the fears of the world they were defending. This is how Steppenwolf works: through his parademons, he floods the world with things to be afraid of, examines that fear, and then acts on it. And then that world will fall, like all the others.
Steppenwolf says it out loud, just to make it totally clear: "In all the times you fought with them before, they were probing you, learning your weaknesses ... physical and spiritual. Do you understand now why countless worlds fell? They were not defeated from without, but from within. As you will be now."
Diana, Bats, Barry, and Aquaman all struggle to hold their own. They're just barely able to cover for each other, and to protect Superman and Cyborg as they struggle to separate all three motherboxes. What's worse is that "Mother" is now starting to manifest through them ...
Even worse: Victor's motherbox side is now starting to take over. Steppenwolf throws a few choice temptations at Victor: You're terrified that you're a monster? Then stop resisting the fear. Be that monster, shed the hypocrisy. (There's a hint here that if Victor gives in, he will turn into a parademon himself, and that he will like it.)
But Victor has seen there are people who accept him for what he is, and once he's been there no fear can take that from him. He's fighting shoulder to shoulder with those people now. Hell, he's working hand-in-hand with one whose head he once tried to take off!
Supes agrees out loud. So do the others in turn. They know the fear exists; they just choose to say no to it. Not just once, but every time, always.
The boxes dislodge. The boom tube closes up. The tables turn. Everyone makes short work of the parademon horde, while Diana and Steppenwolf mix it up — and this time Steppenwolf is losing.
Aquaman uses his trident to smash the helmet off Steppenwolf's head. It dislodges it partially. Superman uses a blast of heat vision to knock it the rest of the way off. And then Steppenwolf does the one thing they've never seen him do before: hesitate. The helm was his protection against his own parademon hordes. (Barry zips in and snatches it away.)
That does it. The gang combines their powers and trashes Steppenwolf's axe. Weaponless, without his helm to protect him from his own parademons, his fortress crumbling around him, his mother(box) now reduced once again to inert components, he does something else they've never seen him do: sink to his knees.
"Fear can be a man's best friend," Bats says. "Or it can be something else." Arthur: "And right now I'm thinkin' it's 'something else'." Supes: "Looks like those pets of yours don't just feed on others, do they?"
And so Steppenwolf, overcome by fear for the first time, is swarmed by his own parademons and taken back to Apokolips. After all, they've been learning about his own fear the whole time too. (Victor: "Booyah.")
The rest of the ending unfolds as before:
I hope I passed the audition.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind