This week’s Hollywood controversy over race, professional etiquette, and liberal hypocrisy points to strategic insights found in the year’s biggest release: Zack Snyder’s Justice League and its central figure, Cyborg.
Tasked with laying out the road map and master plot for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) of Warner Bros., Snyder had to follow a master plot while clarifying his original story and deepening his characters — even the newly introduced superheroes. With all that on his shoulders, Atlas shrugged. Some characters were enriched, others got short shrift. Cyborg’s tale has the best enhancement. Whereas Bruce Wayne’s nightmare closes ZSJL on a powerfully disturbing note — returning psychologically damaged Batman to the DCEU’s center — it is Cyborg who dominates ZSJL, reviving the emotional appeal that Snyder had established with Superman in Man of Steel.
This shift of interest reflects the culture’s recent turnabout: away from the white alpha male toward the Millennial black male’s presumably neglected identity and moral crises. It may indicate Snyder’s political penchant, which, back in 2004, troubled obtuse fanboys who mistook 300’s antiquity politics for Bush-era jingoism. The shift could also be Snyder’s projection of parent-child relations — an anxiety preexisting the family tragedy, his daughter’s suicide, that cost him control over 2015’s Justice League. He is evidently concerned about myth, the nation-state, and the soul — our cultural heritage as it stands in an increasingly secular and racially panicked age.
Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone (played by Ray Fisher), is an amalgam of organic and bio-electric body parts; he’s also Millennial Hollywood’s most recognizable young black male social type: Oedipally conflicted, fraught with anger, physically powerful, and technologically endowed. Yet he’s lost; his social identity worries him. Despite all his gifts (resulting from accident and his scientist father’s sci-fi ministrations), he feels purposeless. He has internalized society’s projected fears of his caste. This makes Cyborg the clearest exhibition of racial disorientation since the setbacks of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd.
Viewers know this intuitively, which explains the most popular and intense responses to ZSJL (the best film restoration since Visconti’s Ludwig). It comes after conservative spokeswoman Candace Owen lamented, “We have turned George Floyd, a criminal drug addict, into an icon.” Cyborg symbolizes that near-dehumanization but holds it to a high moral standard. Cyborg converts the Trayvon-Floyd stereotype that elicits white progressives’ pity into a complex, heroic transformation.
Before praising this timely overhaul of social patronization, briefly consider its cultural evolution: One of the most questionable films of the past decade was Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, an animated comic-book movie that exploited race identification (turning the traditional white Spiderman story into a Black Lives Matter narrative) simply for the mixed motives of box-office success and the self-gratification of left-wing Hollywood. The cartoon’s venality cheered on black “representation” as a plot gimmick — unlike Cyborg’s tale, which was fully integrated into ZSJL, in which every superhero battles a personal quandary.
Cyborg and his father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton, who was The Brother From Another Planet, from 1984), are at odds. The son resents his elder’s detachment, the inability to prevent tragic fate. “You know a lot about monsters, don’t you?” he accuses. “Especially how to make them!” (I was reminded that a black female journalist told me she appreciated my Tupac biography Rebel for the Hell of It because it outlined how “we, the generation of Sixties black radicals, had failed the next generation.”) Cyborg’s story arc teaches him about the depth of sacrifice and love. Here’s where Snyder deepens the pity that motivates street protesters and where he transcends the superficial motivations of other comic-book superheroes. Victor realizes the extent of his father’s responsibility — an act of moral courage, not the partisan social revenge that Elijah Cummings or John Lewis groveled toward in their final days. Snyder surpasses Millennial poli-tricks and the childishness that Marvel’s Avengers, Spiderman and even the trashy Star Wars movies depend on.
When Cyborg tells Wonder Woman “F*** the world” (echoing NWA’s “F*** tha Police” in Straight Outta Compton), he repeats BLM cynicism, but Snyder exposes his pain. Cyborg visits his mother’s grave site — a John Ford trope that complicates the narrative of parental nurture and risk, detailing the choice between evil and good. Elaborating on the same father-son dynamic as the Johnny Storm conflict acted out by Michael B. Jordan and Reg E. Cathey in Josh Trank’s underrated Fantastic Four makes ZSJL profound.
In Chapter 3 of ZSJL, titled “Beloved Mother, Beloved Son,” Snyder confronts his own sympathy and the dilemma of black male self-awareness. It’s not necessarily correct — the flashback/subplot featuring Cyborg’s mother (“Doctor Stone!” she high-handedly corrects a college dean’s greeting) ignores Victor’s unethical computer hacking to make a cheap social-justice point. Snyder is on firmer ground when Joe Morton as the classically distant black father gets to redeem his demeaning role in Terminator 2 (as the black man who caused the end of the world) by fulfilling his basic social duty. Silas bestows particular powers upon his son through encouragement: “No firewall can stop you, no encryption can defy you. The fate of the world will literally rest in your hands.”
And the bequest gets more specific, more fantastic, pointing to a “nuclear arsenal launched with a thought,” with the warning that “the world’s monetary systems can be as easily manipulated as a child’s plaything.” Here, Snyder’s woke imagery goes deeper than BLM dreams. So Silas cautions his son about the victory he envisions: “The challenge will be not doing. It is the burden of this responsibility that will define you and who you choose to be.”
Those words countermand the decadence that Candace Owens rejects in the political martyrdom granted to Martin and Floyd, and it applies to the current controversy about behind-the-scenes racial decisions at Warner Bros. The scene where Cyborg enriches a Latino waitress’s bank account exposes Hollywood’s sheer bleeding-heart “democratic-socialist” liberalism. Although the visual sway of the sequence is awesome, it is an ethical breach, no different from non-heroic deeds by miscreants and fake martyrs.
But then Snyder cuts to the Flash subplot about a son’s imprisoned father, and this amazing parallel corrects Millennial folly about mass incarceration and defund-the-police activism. Flash’s father (Billy Crudup) advises, “You know what ‘criminal justice’ would be for me? My son not wasting his life.” From there, Flash (Ezra Miller) assumes the same mission as Cyborg: “Make your own future, make your own past.”
The fate of black males like George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and Cyborg obsesses contemporary Hollywood (even while embroiling the industry in public dispute). Don’t dismiss their reflection in ZSJL as frivolous escapism. Moral responsibility falls to a filmmaker such as Snyder whose imagination fulfills his talent to express the human condition. The film’s greatness comes from Snyder’s sensitivity to father-son, parent-child, private and social relations. Cyborg’s story points the way out of Hollywood’s self-imposed race dilemma.