I’ve been putting off this Justice League post because I don’t know jack shit about DC comic book characters. I know Superman and Batman, of course, but you start talking about Wonder Woman (she got a nice outfit and a rope, right?) or Aquaman (again, SeaWorld trainer in an orange shirt), or Flash (umm, he’s fast?), or Green Lantern (Ryan Reynolds or the black dude?) or the Martian Manhunter (who?)—yeah, I’m kinda lost.
Let me tell you how much I love you. You deserve better than some half-hearted the-Justice-League-is-not-the Avengers post. So what do I do? Watch a full season (plus a couple episodes) of the Justice League (thank you Netflix!). I read the Kingdom Come graphic novel. Turned on 3 different Justice League animated movies. I even broke down and watched the Green Lantern movie – twice. That’s commitment.
And it paid off.
I’m not a DC aficionado admittedly. But I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for why Marvel has superheroes and DC has icons. Icons. You get that? Icons. An object of uncritical devotion. That’s the difference between the two families of heroes and it doesn’t make one better than the other. Marvel’s claim to fame is that it takes ordinary people, people you and I can relate to, and turns them into something special—like a teenage outcast who suddenly finds incredible power or a simple scientist who learns to express unfathomable rage or the puny kid from Brooklyn who gains the power to be the super soldier America needs. But the DC model isn’t about taking ordinary people and making them extraordinary. DC shows us extraordinary people ordinary people can aspire to.
Now I know there’s like 147 members of the Justice League but to steal a line from the Avengers, let’s do a headcount here:
- Superman – There is NOTHING in the Marvel universe that compares to Superman. Nothing. Fanboys will talk to you about Thor and the damn hammer but it’s more than strength and flight. It’s character. It’s the basic essence of who that character is and what he compels the rest of us to be. Superman is a benevolent god, a Christ figure in tights and a cape urging us to be our best. He is an example for us, something for us to strive toward. Something for us to emulate. Now I like Thor. I thought he earned MVP of the Avengers. But no one ran around their backyard with a cape thinking they were Thor. All of us thought we had an S on our chest.
- Batman – Now I’ve said before that Batsy ain’t right. He has some psycho-emotional problems. Seriously, somebody needs to put my man in a straightjacket and take away the batarangs. But Batman is the pinnacle of the human condition. He takes two very basic, very intrinsic human concepts—revenge and justice—and hones them into weapons. Uses them to create a persona that is more than human. Think about it—this is the only normal human being in the Justice League, a group with Superman and Green Lantern, and he is a contributing member. The closest thing Marvel has to Batman is Captain American—their moral center is stronger than their physical capabilities.
- Green Lantern – Now I like the Green Lantern: interstellar space cop, ring with powers that are limited by your imagination and your will, cool mask. Shitty movie aside, the Green Lantern is pretty awesome, right? But look at him: his power is limited only by his willingness to do the right thing. To be the right person. What is interesting about the Green Lantern is it’s not about the guy; it’s about the role. The job. There are thousands of Lanterns, all of them chosen for their will and willingness to do what is right. That is a universal concept.
- Wonder Woman – If anybody needed their own movie, it’s this chick. Wonder Woman is the penultimate female hero. Holding her own in the Justice League, strong enough to stand toe to toe with Superman, sexy enough to walk through any city with a golden rope and a bustier. This is the embodiment of female empowerment. She is the anti-Disney princess: she doesn’t wear a fancy dress, isn’t trying to catch a man (she doesn’t even like men), and is waaaaaaayyyyy more Brave than Merida. Diana is a goddess. She has no counterpart.
- Flash – Easily my favorite character in the Justice League cartoon. And that’s kind of a surprise since I always thought his power was kind of lame—yeah, you’re fast, I get it. Seemed like a one-trick pony. But my man is FUNNY. I guess I like him for the same reasons I like Spiderman: the Flash has a quip for everything, thinks on his feet, trying to get at the ladies (constantly) but is a hero through and through. Where Flash and Spidey differ is in power: Peter Parker has a limited ability to affect change (though he still is my favorite superhero), the Flash can change time, run through dimensions, alter reality. I don’t know—I just dig him.
- Martian Manhunter – To be fair, this is where DC lost me. I get that the core components of the Justice League really do spell out something interstellar but for real? The last Martian? And all those convenient powers: he can become intangible and has super strength and can fly and has telepathy and can change shape but his weakness is fire? Booo. I’d go at him with a sparkler and slap the shit out of the Martian Manhunter.
- Aquaman – Sure, I’ve clowned Aquaman. We’ve ALL clowned Aquaman. The most useless Superfriend. The one Justice Leaguer who can’t do anything if it’s on land. Yeah, that dude. Now, in the stuff I read/watched, Aquaman was recast into a hardened ruler of an undersea nation (that mysteriously needs domes full of air to survive UNDERWATER but whatever). I know I called him an orange-shirted SeaWorld trainer—then I saw him cut off his own hand to save his son. On a kid’s cartoon. Well alright. Now, Marvel does have a character just like this—his name is Namor the Sub-Mariner. And he is an ass. At least Aquaman is a better name.
All in all, the Justice League is a collection gods in the midst of people. Where Marvel characters generally look at individuals blessed and burdened with power and their challenge to retain their humanity in the face of these capabilities, DC characters are gods among men and women. Their challenge is really about constantly and consistently rising to the call such power requires. They’re not looking to maintain their humanity; they’re looking to earn humanity’s respect.