“We’re not their heroes anymore,” says a defeated Bruce Wayne in DC Comics’ Justice League #39. At the climax of writer Scott Snyder’s epic conflict between justice and doom, the good guys lose. The villains didn’t cheat to win the war. They simply encouraged the world to live selfishly and, in doing so, preyed on humanity’s base nature. By giving regular people such a crucial role in this outcome, Snyder paints a grim portrait of modern society.
Early in the issue, J’onn J’onzz telepathically connects with everyone on Earth and delivers one last emphatic speech. He tells everyone to live collectively, rather than individually. “If we banded together, we could overcome our nature, our flaws, and be more than we were designed to be,” says J’onzz. He says that love and hope can help us become the best versions of ourselves. He then ends the speech with an emphatic rallying cry:
“Together, we are more. Together, we are heroes….Now, if you will join us, we will upend faith together, upend destiny, upend everything and rise higher! So please, will you join us? Will you?”
Unfortunately, J’onzz’s plea fails. The doom symbol, that had disappeared during J’onzz’ monologue, reforms in the sky. The heroes are heartbroken. Superman doesn’t understand what’s happening, and a despondent Batman tells him the devastating truth: humanity has officially sided with doom. When Perpetua, the “big bad” who has dominated this war, basks in the heroes’ defeat and explains why they lost, Snyder adds even more meta flavor into the story.
Perpetua demands humanity to destroy their “false heroes” and give in to their primitive nature. When people align with doom instead of justice, they do exactly what she wants. She knew, at the end of the day, that people would embrace the worst part(s) of themselves. If people willingly choose to do the wrong thing on such a massive scale, what hope do superheroes have? Snyder suggests that such a devolution leaves heroes powerless. Most damningly, Perpetua tells the heroes, “This world no longer has any place for you.”
Next, Perpetua reboots reality and removes superheroes from the equation. In this new world, the age of heroes is over. J’onzz, standing on the moon, looks at the Earth, which has been branded with the doom signal. Here, the fallen heroes regroup. They’re wearing plain black suits, which are a far cry from their iconic colorful costumes. This loss of color accentuates the heroes’ hopelessness, as noted by Diana’s observation that they don’t belong on Earth anymore.
Of course, even in the face of defeat, Clark Kent tries to go down swinging. He maintains his hope and valiantly takes flight, only to come back down to the surface. Kent refuses to believe that this is the end. But some of his teammates aren’t so sure. Diana points out that humanity was too scared to stand up to Perpetua, and Arthur Curry wonders if the Justice League needs a reboot of its own. “Things rise and fall with the tides,” says Arthur. “This moment, maybe it’s not ours.” It seems clear that, whatever happens next, the heroes will have to make some drastic changes in order to defeat doom.
As compelling as the literal plot of this comic is, there’s a lot to dig into beneath the surface. We live in a world that can feel like it’s swaying toward the darkness that leads to the heroes’ downfall in Snyder’s story. He contributes this defeat to the lack of faith humanity has in the battle of good versus evil. He also points to the “fear, anger and disillusionment” that have been perpetuated by constant divisions at every level of society. These dynamics ring true because it can be so easy to feel hopeless in a world with corrupt politics and a litany of other sociopolitical issues.
Typically, that’s where superheroes come in. Characters like Superman give us ideals to strive toward. They represent the best versions of ourselves and the hope that, in the end, good will triumph over evil. Snyder grounds this fantastical story with realistic reflections on society, and, by the end of the issue, we’re left feeling like superheroes don’t work the way they used to; they can’t always save us from ourselves.
But that’s the point. We can’t always depend on a Superman-like savior to fix all of our problems. We have to do it ourselves. Snyder shows that people, in the context of this story, side with doom and, by extension, the worst parts of human nature. But there will always be people who fight for what’s right, who defy the darkness in an attempt to give the world the light it needs. No one person can save the world, but, as J’onzz says, uniting together with love and hope can help us reach even higher. Ultimately, the real purpose of a superhero is a balance of both truths: we can use these symbols of hope, courage, and justice to strive for a better tomorrow, and we also have to be our own heroes by working together to save the world ourselves.