Grief’s Paralyzing Effect on the Justice League

"Justice League: Come Together" | Art by Quan-Xstyle. Used with permission.

When a parental nightmare came true, I was frozen with fear. My son’s seizure medication had failed him catastrophically, and for a few days we weren’t sure what was going to happen. He was in the hospital for two weeks, and even since he’s been home, the dread of what could have been, and what someday might be, still clings to me. For the days he was in the hospital, I couldn’t move—family tried to get me to go for a walk, for coffee—for anything—but I couldn’t leave his side, not even for a moment.

Grief can be paralyzing. It makes us stop, take notice of the pain, and sit with it. When dealt with healthily, it can move us into a new depth of human experience, making us stronger, more empathetic, and ready to reach out and help others. Or, it can hold us in place and prevent us from acting, stopping us from living fully. In the Justice League movie, each member experiences a form of grief that keeps them stuck in place until they find community, a common mission, and healing.

Steppenwolf, an alien who has his sights set on conquering Earth after a failed attempt hundreds of years ago, is back. He plans to retrieve the three power cubes that are hidden from him by the Amazons, Atalantians, and humans who guard them. Apparently, humanity isn’t making Earth a hellscape fast enough for his taste, so he decides to put those cubes together and let them do their job, which is recreating the face of the Earth in a semi-molten state.

Keeping busy isn’t the same thing as dealing with our feelings.

Since Batman can barely fight a few of Steppenwolf’s minions on his own, he realizes it’s going to take a pretty powerful team to send the alien back from whence he came. He puts together a group of superheroes, but isn’t prepared for the baggage that comes with them.

Wonder Woman is grieving the loss of Steve Trevor, and with his demise, the loss of her confidence to be a leader. She feels his death is her fault (though it occurs in the movie Wonder Woman, the two were supposed to work together for years in the IADC according to the real story, so I don’t know what they were trying to accomplish by killing him off… and setting it in the wrong World War to boot!).

The Flash is stuck in a cycle of grief surrounding his father’s unfair imprisonment. Born to the Queen of Atlantis and a human fisherman, Aquaman grapples with two identities—never fully committing to either. Cyborg misses his mother and grieves the loss of his body, unable to return to the life he once knew.

Even Batman struggles with guilt over Superman’s death. Apparently, that was his fault, and it happened during Batman Vs. Superman (though I didn’t see that movie, I used my context clues in Justice League to figure that out).

The heroes join together to stop Steppenwolf, who threatens their loved ones. Focusing on something outside of ourselves, finding a common goal and working with others is a step in the right direction for managing grief. But keeping busy isn’t the same thing as dealing with our feelings. We have to address the source—the thing we’re trying so hard to ignore—in order to work through the pain. In the Justice League’s case, they all face the root of their grief during the film.

“Cyborg” by Memed.

Cyborg’s story was the most poignant for me. As I sat with my son in the theater, observing Cyborg’s grief over the loss of what his body had been—reliable, athletic, his own—I couldn’t help but feel that pain for my son. Though it’s his struggle, I don’t believe there’s a parent alive who doesn’t feel every hurt, fear, or disappointment their children go through.

My son’s body has turned on him, and he deals with the unpredictability of what sort of seizure activity each day will bring—the fatigue, the effort to catch up in school he’s missed, and all the emotions involved.

Cyborg’s uncertainty is an appropriate reflection for my feelings, and for what my son is going through. As Cyborg adjusts to the tech in his body, he lives with unpredictability. He withdraws from others because he’s unsure what his body might do. And he doesn’t want to share his grief or be a burden on others. He’s ashamed, hurt, and angry because of an issue he can’t control. As a result, his self-imposed isolation is a breeding ground for his grief.

I’ve seen similar behaviour in my son, and I want to give him hope. When Wonder Woman speaks face-to-face with Cyborg for the first time, he hasn’t come to terms with his new reality. She shares her own experience of grief with him, the loss of Steve Trevor, and tells Cyborg that she hid away for a time, too. But when someone invited her to be a part of something greater than herself and she accepted, she took a step toward healing. Wonder Woman saw her own grief in Cyborg’s, demonstrating that Cyborg was not alone.

Once Cyborg joins the team, he finds a community willing to accept and value him for who he is—even embrace the strange things his body can do and the shortcomings that come with it (though perhaps Superman’s still on the fence about this). By finding sanctuary within a group of people who want him on their team, Cyborg is able to face his grief. He accepts himself for what he has become, and his grief doesn’t consume him; in fact, he uses it to find strength. His loss doesn’t define him. Instead, it makes him consider where his identity is rooted—bringing him clarity about who he is, what he could be, and where he belongs in his new reality. And together, with his new team, they give Steppenwolf what-for.

Grief seeks to steal our peace, cementing us in a moment and preventing us from living our lives the way we’re meant to. But, grief addressed, named, called out and faced can make us more than who we were before our trauma. It can make us more compassionate, empathetic, aware of the needs of others, and responsive to suffering. It can give us the will to accept an invitation to move, and inspire us to invite others, too. We can form our own leagues, finding a common mission and helping one another to be our best selves, making us more effective and whole people than we were before.

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Jen is a pastoral minister, wife, mother, ninja and writer. She loves sci-fi, superheroes, and classic literature, and prefers to share her Catholic faith through such lenses. Her book, "Comic Con Christianity" is available from Paulist Press.
Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

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