Alex McLevy: Justice League has been out for a couple of weeks now, and to say opinions are mixed would be gentle. Some people love it, some hate it, but most, like we here at The A.V. Club, just think, “Meh.” To be fair, the film had an uphill battle. Its primary architect had to withdraw well before it was done, due to a family tragedy. The subsequent helmer, Joss Whedon, significantly reshot and cut down the movie, and it’s anyone’s guess what was there to begin with and what was part of Whedon’s minor reboot. (Although any scene with Henry Cavill’s digitally shaved upper lip is pretty telling.) Regardless, the end product has inspired passionate responses, from those who think it’s the best version that could exist to those who demand Zack Snyder’s original (nonexistant) edit.
But for all the debate, I have yet to see much discussion of what I think is hands down the film’s best moment. It comes, unsurprisingly, during the best action sequence of the film (spoilers for Justice League coming at you faster than a speeding bullet after this): Superman, who was thought to have died at the end of Batman V Superman (unless you’re, you know, a sane person who realized they’d never do that), is resurrected by the team, and in his first moments back, he’s disoriented, upset, and very much willing to hit back at the people surrounding him. The other superheroes gather close, but despite their best efforts, violence ensues, with the Man Of Steel taking aim at Aquaman, Batman, and everyone else trying to pen him in. That’s when Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, tries to intervene. He launches into the situation with his speed-of-light powers, and that’s where things get great: Superman, in the midst of this full-on assault, turns his head and looks at Barry—something that should be impossible, given The Flash is moving at incredible speed. It makes the audience realize that a hero who supposedly stands above the rest can be addressed like anyone else, and it’s both thrilling and funny in equal measure, thanks to how the film plays it. Alex, you’ve also singled out this scene as being the moment when Justice League justified itself. Elaborate!
A.A. Dowd: That whole scene is pretty great, actually, and I think maybe it’s because it’s one of the only moments in Justice League that has actual stakes: For a nightmarish few minutes, all of the fears that Batman expressed in the last movie about the destructive power of a starman are realized. Of course, you know that none of these guys are really in danger—as dark as Snyder’s approach to superhero cinema can get, he’s not going to let Supes crush Aquaman like a bug or anything—but briefly forcing the ragtag supergroup to contend with a possibly deranged version of their heaviest hitter is smart comic-book storytelling.
More specifically, though, the pinnacle of the sequence (and, by extension, the whole movie) is definitely that wordless exchange of glances between Ezra Miller’s Flash and Cavill’s peeved Superman. To my eyes, it operates as a really clever subversion of a couple crowd-pleasing moments from a different superhero franchise: the Quicksilver scenes from the last two X-Men movies. Both of those set pieces, which involve Evan Peters’ slacker mutant backup player using his superhuman speed to save his new comrades, are euphoric power fantasies. The world would be your oyster and your playground, they argue, if you could move infinitely quicker than everyone around you. Justice League even kind of rips those fan-favorite moments off a couple times, visualizing Flash’s power the same way Bryan Singer visualized Quicksilver’s: by slowing everything down to a near-tableau crawl and letting the speed demon blithely manipulate all the glacially moving objects and characters around him.
Thing is, Justice League needs scenes like that of its own in order for the expectation-smashing punchline of the Superman battle to really land. We’ve already seen how basically invincible The Flash’s powers make him look and feel—in a world of tortoises, he’s an unstoppable hare. So it’s wickedly fun to see a character with an almost godlike remove from the action get pulled back down to Earth and run smack into his match. Also, the actors really sell the comedy of the moment: Miller, who’s the MVP of the movie for my money, offers a pricelessly bug-eyed reaction shot of alarm (“Um, wait, this has never happened before,” it screams), while Cavill adopts the irritated intent of someone turning to swat a fly that won’t stop buzzing around his head. (Even his hideously digital upper lip didn’t bother me in that moment, because he’s supposed to look weird and scary.) Is there anything about this pretty exceptional moment out of time that I’m missing, other Alex?
Alex McLevy: I think you’ve hit upon the reason it plays so well—it’s one of the only moments in the film that characters actually seem surprised by what’s happening, and as a result, the audience enjoys it as well. Part of the problem with superhero films is the built-in predictability: We already know the hero is going to save the day, and nothing too untoward will happen, so the unexpected twists have to come in the way they go about winning. The rest of the film is practically paint-by-numbers, storywise. When most scenes begin, you can guess how they’ll end. But the ways the various heroes’ powers interact is where there’s room to have fun, and as you say, this beat not only provides both levity and excitement, it also smartly deconstructs the very idea of The Flash’s speed powers as a source of pure pleasure. It’s all fun and games until the guy from Krypton comes along and throws you into a monument.
Now, if only the rest of the movie had equaled the cleverness of a scene like that, maybe we wouldn’t be once again debating the entire fragile future of the DCEU. The common view is that DC needs to lighten up and let its characters have more fun. That may be true, but I think this scene actually provides evidence that the damn universe just needs to be a little smarter.