“Where is Superman?”
That question haunted Justice League’s marketing campaign, as millions of people (or possibly just me) obsessively wondered where the Man of Steel was in the film. Now that Justice League is here, we finally know the answer to that question, and it turns out that it’s simultaneously more and less interesting than we imagined.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones season 5, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League follow.
First off, let’s just get this out of the way: I was right. Back in March, I made this prediction:
Justice League will feature Superman as a bad guy, at least until the Justice League beats the stuffing out of him and turns him good again.
Sure enough, in Justice League, Superman comes back from the dead, and his first action is to immediately try and kill the entire Justice League. Yes, it’s more due to the fact that he’s confused after being dead than because he’s actually turned evil, but I’m still scoring this one for me.
But was this reveal worth deliberately hiding Superman’s role in the film for so long?
To answer that, let’s look at how Superman is brought back. When Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne suggests resurrecting him around the midpoint of the movie, it’s such an incredibly off-the-cuff, nonchalant suggestion. The movie makes a bit of a deal about how this is a bad idea: Jason Momoa’s Aquaman argues that Superman probably lost his soul when he died, and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman thinks Bruce will probably create a Doomsday-esque monster, like the last person who revived a dead Kryptonian on Earth did. Of course, Batman ignores them, and through the power of the Mother Box, Superman is revived.
And yes, he does take a few minutes to beat up the Justice League, including a cringe-inducing callback to Batman v Superman’s “Do you bleed?” line. But beyond that, there’s pretty much no consequence to his death. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and talks him down from his post-resurrection temper tantrum, and Clark is back to billboard-worthy smiles and defending truth, justice, and the American way before the day is out.
There are ultimately no consequences to Snyder killing off Superman in Batman v Superman, and Justice League is more focused on the ensuing brawl against the Big Bad, Steppenwolf, to even really acknowledge Superman’s return from death as a notable event relative to the rest of the plot.
But the more I think on it, the more it just plain doesn’t make sense to me. Clearly someone wanted his return to be a grand reveal. Superman doesn’t appear in any posters, trailers, or marketing materials, except that 2016 Comic-Con promo shot. But the lead-up to Justice League undermined that goal at almost every turn. Sure, Superman doesn’t appear in promotional materials, but there have been set reports about Cavill’s role for months, including the still-spectacular CGI mustache scandal. Cavill joined the rest of the cast on press tours, where his supposed non-role in the film was a running joke. The movie itself doesn’t even try to hide it: Cavill has second billing, right after Ben Affleck in the opening credits.
Compare that to Game of Thrones, which pulled a similar stunt with the death and revival of Kit Harington’s Jon Snow over the course of the fifth and sixth seasons of the series. Jon’s planned return was predicted and anticipated, but at least the show made an effort to hide it, with producers and cast members swearing to the rafters that Jon was really, truly gone. And while there’s an argument to be made that the entire idea of having a “big reveal” is outdated, especially in the age of the internet, where every possible theory can be guessed and every set picture leaked in an instant, at least the Game of Thrones showrunners tried to earn the moment by putting in the effort.
Game of Thrones also handles the resurrection better from a story perspective: Jon Snow changes as a character when he comes back, abandoning his sworn duty to the Night’s Watch and venturing south to save Winterfell and the rest of House Stark. He carries obvious physical and emotional scars from the wounds that killed him. Death affects him, and shifts his priorities in life in a way that it doesn’t with Superman in Justice League.
Given that there is no real plot reason for the big reveal, though, the best explanation I can come up with is that Justice League’s story hinges on the fact that Superman is dead. The absence of Earth’s Kryptonian savior is cited as a reason for the Mother Boxes awakening and summoning Steppenwolf. (Never mind, as my colleague Tasha Robinson has pointed out, the boxes quite literally had thousands of years before Superman was around to do this.) And it’s Batman’s guilt over Superman’s death that incites him to form the Justice League. But that means the entire years-long ploy is just a lazy writing shortcut to kickstart the events of the film.
It also doesn’t help that Superman is so overwhelmingly powerful relative to the rest of the Justice League that his absence for most of the movie gives everyone else a chance to do something first. (Whether or not you agree with it, Justice League presents a fairly conclusive answer to the “Who would win?” game, with Superman both handily defeating the rest of the Justice League and easily turning the tide against Steppenwolf.) A movie where Superman is around to help throw down against Steppenwolf from the start would have been a lot shorter and duller.
Obviously, there has to be some sort of surprise in movies like Justice League. And it’s possible that Warner Bros.’ marketing department was trying to learn from some of the lessons of Batman v Superman, which infamously spoiled both the Wonder Woman and Doomsday reveals in trailers months before the film arrived. It’s a delicate balance: these films need to show fans enough in advance to make sure they show up to theaters, but not enough to completely defeat the point of seeing the film in the first place.
But the takeaway from this entire Superman saga should be that if studios are going to aim for surprise reveals, they need to make the effort to actually keep the secret, and ensure that whatever is unveiled is worth it.
Update November 21st, 1:25pm: In what I assume is a conscious effort to personally troll me, DC and Warner Bros. have released an updated version of this poster for the film (originally released in July at Comic-Con) that now includes Superman.