Who do you think is the Justice League’s biggest villain?
It almost certainly isn’t Steppenwolf, the villain of the Justice League film, but the thinking there isn’t all that bad. He’s a big, cosmic threat, with an army at his command; a world-ending heavyweight that can only be stopped by multiple people with the power to level cities.
Danger, to the Justice League, almost always looms impossibly large, the stakes no less than the fate of the world — and they’re often greater. “Worlds will live, worlds will die,” promised Crisis on Infinite Earths, the 1985 cataclysm that defined DC for the modern era. Settling for anything less sounds silly once you begin there.
But maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe the greatest villain in the Justice League’s long history isn’t something as mundane as an evil demigod, or a sinister set of villains with a hilariously on-the-nose name.
Maybe, the biggest foe the League has ever had to face is what we think of them.
Perception is the real enemy
Let’s go back to Crisis on Infinite Earths. Written by Marv Wolfman with art by George Perez, the miniseries ran from 1985 to 1986 and pitted the League, along with nearly every other superhero and super-team in DC’s roster, against the nigh-unstoppable Anti-Monitor as he wiped out countless parallel universes. It was a massive story, the biggest in superhero comics since Marvel pulled a similar stunt the year before with Secret Wars.
But there was one big difference: Motive.
DC’s continuity had become a mess. Characters resided in different time periods (like the Wild West hero Jonah Hex, or the World War II squadron The Losers) and parallel universes were frequently used as a get-out-of-jail-free card to explain inconsistencies.
Unlike Marvel, DC’s comics universe had never been envisioned as a big consistent world from the start. It was a tapestry stitched together as the company acquired smaller publishers, pushing its own books in new directions and beginning to fold characters that had once been distinct together.
Crisis was designed to clean up DC’s tangled continuity, wiping out the multiverse and replacing it with a single comic book universe, rewriting character’s histories with more modern sensibilities. It worked. And yet …
In this editorially-mandated Big Bang lies the germ of the problem that would go on to plague the Justice League for decades. The problem was fear. Fear that DC’s heroes had become too complicated, too unapproachable. And so a clean slate was ordered, and now we refer to DC’s history as pre- and post-Crisis.
But that fear would resurface.
Following Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Justice League became a more amorphous team of heroes. The continuity reset of Crisis provided fertile ground for introducing readers to lesser-known DC characters and, besides, the biggest characters were editorially forbidden from being on the team. The League would have many spinoffs and side-teams varying wildly in scope and tone, from the comedy of Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatties’ Justice League International to the ‘90s-as-hell exploits of Extreme Justice.
Eventually, the fear came back. Did anyone recognize the Justice League? Did we care?
And so the League was reborn in Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s legendary JLA, which re-centered the team on the heaviest hitters in DC: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern. All the heroes you know. None you don’t.
And so the wheel turned. The foes and stories that always brought the Justice League together most memorably are always representative of superhero comics’ anxieties about themselves. Crisis was about a comic book universe that had become too unwieldy, JLA a response to a team of characters that had become unrecognizable.
The fear began to get more complex and difficult to wrestle with. The 2004 miniseries Identity Crisis, by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales, is a post-9/11 teardown of the superheroic ideal, borne of the early-aughts rise of antihero stories and a rejection of superheroes as moral paragons. The fear then was that we wouldn’t find purely good heroes interesting, and so the League would sink down to the muck with us.
The continuity of superhero comics allows for something rare in fiction: stories that have the capacity to (and on some level are expected to) address their own recent history. To question themselves and the attitudes of creators that have moved on.
Identity Crisis broke down the Justice League and gave us a Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman that did not trust each other and began to employ increasingly extreme measures. This breakdown was chronicled further for much of that year, until Geoff Johns and Phil Jimenez’s Infinite Crisis posed a fascinating question: Had DC pushed the League too far? Maybe you and I were turned off by the darkness. Maybe we didn’t want heroes in conflict with one another.
Justice League, the film, is also tremendously concerned with what you think of it. It’s a work of hubris humbled in slow motion before it even saw release, as various factors —the reception of Batman v Superman, the success of Wonder Woman, an eleventh hour pivot from prelude to standalone film, and a new director brought on to finish the last bit of production — conspired to shake the ground it stood upon. And now it stands as a work that isn’t whole, but wholly committed to preemptively address criticisms you might have of its take on the League. Was Batman v Superman too dour? Don’t worry, Justice League is fun. There are jokes. Moments of heroism. Words about hope. Things you like …. right?
The cycle begins anew. A universe has unfolded across dozens of movies featuring Marvel characters, and the beautiful symbols of the DC Universe, heroes brave and bold that have endured for decades, struggle to break through a cynically planned universe developed purely in imitation of another’s success. You like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? You’ll like ours too.
Superheroes are metaphor made flesh and painted in primary color. They’re morals and value systems that can punch, and be punched. In other words, they only really endure as long as there is a why lying at the heart of all the chaos, of the New Gods and metahumans and supervillains that are pitted against them. If they are inconsistent, it’s because we are, and therein lies the value of knowing and understanding this self-conscious thread of fear that you can trace throughout the history of the Justice League.
It may not seem like it, but this is a good thing. Part of the fun of following comic book superheroes over time is watching this push and pull between anxiety over what audiences might want and what creators firmly believe at any given time. It's a tug of war that usually works out as long as each side is balanced. This is where Justice League falls terribly short.
It knows we want to see these heroes, but it doesn't really believe anything on its own. And so the next step in the old dance falls to us: Do we believe anything?
Joshua Rivera is a freelance pop culture journalist whose work you can find on GQ.com and Vulture. He really misses Conner Kent a whole lot.