The ghost of Superman hovers over much of Justice League. You might say Superman’s ghost has always haunted Warner Bros’ big-screen DC Extended Universe, though the haunting is more pronounced now that Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel is dead.

From the beginning, on Krypton in Man of Steel, Russell Crowe’s Jor-El predicted that his infant son Kal-El would “be a god” to the people of Earth. “Guide them, Kal,” he urges. “Give them hope. … Give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards.”

The notion of Superman as a guiding ideal haunts these films. It’s the specter of the character from the comic books I grew up with, of the character played by Christopher Reeve in the 1970s and 1980s, by George Reeves in the 1950s and by pretty much every actor to don the cape until Cavill.

It’s a vision that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer (who wrote Man of Steel and co-wrote Batman v Superman) recognize Superman is supposed to embody, but seem incapable of or uninterested in realizing.

On the contrary, the dominant motif has been tearing Superman down at every turn: giving the people of Earth every reason to fear and resent him, denouncing him as a false god with scarcely a hint that anyone might look up to him as a hero.

Still, we keep hearing about this character we never meet who can be our “angel,” our “monument” — never more crucially than in Justice League, directed again by Snyder, but written by Chris Terrio (Argo) and Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed reshoots and oversaw postproduction).

Perhaps we glimpse this ghost in the very first shot of Justice League, in a video clip of Superman captured via smartphone, briefly chatting with young fans.

As he explains why the symbol on his chest that means “Hope” looks like an S, for a moment he sounds, well, inspiring and even a bit corny, like Superman should sound.

After deconstructing the icon for two movies, for a moment it seems the DCEU might be ready to acknowledge that there might be something special about the big guy beyond the powers. Perhaps they had to kill him before they were ready to celebrate him.

Then one of the unseen youths asks Superman what’s the best thing about Earth. He hesitates and smiles privately — but if he answers the question, we don’t see it. (Let’s not go crazy with the hope-y stuff.)

How much does Justice League double down on Superman’s ghost?

It seems Superman’s death has unleashed an epidemic of despair, terror, violence and hatred upon the world. Yes. Without the ideal to strive for that they never had, human beings are losing their way.

It gets worse. Superman’s death has also triggered the awakening of an ancient menace that has lain in wait for millennia. This is evidently not because the Earth has been deprived of a mighty protector who patrolled the skies for, like, a few months, but because mankind’s fear acted as a trigger.

Think about that. This ancient menace was not awakened by the convergent crises of the late Middle Ages that killed hundreds of millions — the Black Death, the Great Famine of 1315-17, and the Hundred Years’ War, among other wars and disasters.

It slumbered through the first half of the 20th century: World Wars I and II, millions slain under Mao and Stalin and the atrocities of the Congo Free State, the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War, etc.

But now comes the death of a super-dude we barely knew and had deep reservations about, and that rings its alarm clock?

It’s no spoiler that Superman doesn’t stay dead. Batman knows trouble is coming, and while he’s reaching out to other remarkable individuals whom the world will come to know as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the band needs a frontman, and Batman knows who it’s supposed to be.

Trouble comes in the form of a quasi-divine, horned supervillain named Steppenwolf (Cierán Hinds, Silence) who arrives through an interdimensional portal, seizes a cube of power and brings with him a swarming alien army. Déjà vu much? With Whedon adding finishing touches, I’m surprised nobody has a self-aware line referencing The Avengers just to let us know he knows how it looks. (Steppenwolf: “I’m not low-key.”)

The comparison is not flattering to Justice League and especially to Steppenwolf, who’s as bland as — well, as most of the Marvel villains who aren’t Loki. Granted, it’s not DC’s fault that Marvel has tapped this vein so extensively, but someone should have been in charge of asking, “How do we make Justice League as different as possible from The Avengers?”

There are also shades of Avengers: Age of Ultron: Bruce, who’s like the manic Tony Stark’s depressive twin, wants to use half-understood alien technology to raise up a godlike champion, and he doesn’t want to hear ethical objections about how man was not meant to meddle.

Diana objects that it’s too dangerous, which makes no sense, since the obvious rebuttal is that Steppenwolf clearly has the power to destroy the world and they don’t have the power to stop him. When the disease is terminal and the end is near, even the riskiest therapy is worth trying. Bruce does not make this obvious rebuttal. It’s like a mock debate with stock arguments where no one is actually thinking.

This summer’s Wonder Woman remains the DCEU’s lone triumph, and Diana is this movie’s brightest presence and the incipient Justice League’s one genuinely heroic figure. Still, by herself she’s not enough to overcome the generally morose ambiance and gloomy visuals of every DC movie in which she is not the protagonist.

She’s aided, a little, by the Flash, who’s mostly comic relief in a movie that seems awkwardly aware that more comic relief is needed. Of the new characters, he makes the biggest impression as an enthusiastic, inexperienced, socially maladroit young loner whose sometimes cringe-inducing commentary suggests that he’s meant to be an Aspie. A couple of brief exchanges between the speedster and his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup) are more touching and human than anything else in the movie.

Aquaman’s back story is barely gestured at; it seems he’s the heir to the throne of Atlantis and doesn’t want the gig (not quite Aragorn Syndrome, but a similar condition). His character isn’t well developed, but Momoa carries the part through sheer attitude and amazing physique.

Cyborg fares least well, partly because he’s the least familiar and because his story is more complicated. His arc and troubled relationship with his father (Joe Morton) get more attention than any other subplot, but a whole movie, or at least an entire act, would be needed to do it justice.

Would you believe there’s a Lord of the Rings-esque mythic backstory in ancient times, with a last alliance of men, Amazons and Atlanteans against an all-powerful villain and three tokens of power entrusted to each of the three races?

Marvel has been stringing out the Infinity Stones thing forever, building to next year’s Infinity War; DC basically did the entire equivalent story with Mother Boxes in one movie. Plot overload has been a problem with this franchise from the beginning, and it’s just picking up steam.

All this might matter less if the return of Superman were something genuinely glorious and joyful, like the return of Gandalf. It’s not, of course. Superman eventually has a line about believing in “truth” and “justice,” a line tying together the Man of Steel’s famous tagline and the title of this film. But it’s meaningless in context: “Truth” and “justice” aren’t driving concerns for the film or for the character.

It’s hard not to look at Superman, and for that matter Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, in the movie’s own rather nihilistic terms: To borrow Batman’s phrase, they’re both basically “big guns.”

Superman, of course, is the gun the Earth needs to protect itself from the likes of Steppenwolf. But Lois is also a secret weapon: one that keeps our Kryptonian gun pointed in the right direction, at Earth’s enemies and not the Earth itself.

You could say Lois is the most important human on the planet. As long as Superman loves her and she loves him back, everything should be fine. I could see the CIA devoting a whole task force to preventing anything from disturbing Lois and Clark’s domestic bliss, although of course it would backfire because Clark would know about it instantly.

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy bits and pieces of Justice League. Like its predecessors, it’s not so much terrible as deeply uninspired and ultimately not much fun. Somewhere in Hollywood there has to be talent that knows how to play with these toys. But can anything very successful be built on the foundation laid by Snyder and Goyer?

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.

 

Caveat Spectator: Much intense comic-book violence and menace; some scary images; brief profanity and some cursing and crude language. Teens and up.