This article contains major spoilers for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life and for Batman V Superman.
Most people have heard of It’s A Wonderful Life. The posters showing a delighted James Stewart hugging his family tells you that it is a heart-warming family tale. As it is set at Christmas, it is an ideal movie for the festive season, a film where a rookie angel earns his wings by helping a man out of a pickle.
But have you watched the film? It’s so terribly dark. And it reminded me of Zack Snyder’s superhero films. Bear with me, because I’ll try to make sense, to help you appreciate the clever hero’s journey Capra takes us on, and help you understand why some Snyder fans are so keen on seeing his unadulterated version of Justice League.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
It’s A Wonderful Life starts in the stars, with voiceover storytelling by celestial beings. The flashback structure kicks in, where we learn about the story of one man, George Bailey.
- George’s kid brother nearly dies in a frozen lake, George loses hearing in one ear while saving him.
- George prevents the bereaved pharmacist from accidentally poisoning customers.
- George’s ambitious plans to attend college and travel the world are on hold when his father dies.
- The local villain Potter tries to grab Bailey’s Building and Loan, but is prevented, only if George remains in town to manage it.
- When George’s brother returns from college married, George remains trapped in town, dreams quashed.
- The Depression hits.
- George’s brother becomes a war hero.
- An employee loses $8000 putting the company under threat.
- George furiously argues with his staff, then with his family.
- He gets drunk, crashes his car in the snow and heads to a bridge where he gets ready to take his own life.
This is the heart-warming Christmas story you bought into, right? It’s only at this point that Clarence the angel appears and starts to show what life would have been like if George hadn’t been born.
The film’s duration is just over two hours long – the bridge scene arrives around the 90-minute mark. This film is dark for three-quarters of its running time. It’s never depressing, but we are with George throughout his journey and we feel for him.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
The difficulties, human trials and tribulations, death and terror George Bailey faces are awful. His hero’s journey takes him down many dark paths. But he perseveres, and by the end, after the angel’s revelation, he is “reborn”. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
The last half hour is glorious, and for many one of the most impactful and emotional endings in movies.
That brings me to some DC superhero movies.
Man of Steel introduced the Superman to this world, and we watched him grow and learn what it was like to be human.
In Batman V Superman, we met new characters, but Superman falls throughout the film, as he meets resistance learning what it’s like to be a hero. Indeed he is in a very dark place by the end of the movie. Dead.
So, like any hero’s journey, the third film would be the fight back, the “rebirth”, the light at the end of the tunnel, right? In 2017 the I hoped that the upcoming Justice League was going to complete the journey… it was going to be the last half hour of It’s A Wonderful Life.
The 2017 film didn’t deliver that. But with the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League this Spring, perhaps some better angels will bring our Superman back, because from the depths of despair, hope will rise.
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