I vividly recall watching Batman v Superman at a press screening. It was the first screening, a showing at the IMAX at Universal City Walk, and there were maybe nine of us in the audience. Twenty minutes into the movie I was ready to give up; the film was assaultive, obnoxious, almost physically painful to sit through. Watching in that environment felt like getting beat up. Going into Justice League I figured that if this film didn’t evoke a fight or flight response in me I would have to say that it was at least better than BvS.
And… it is. Yet at the same time Justice League offers us a new perspective on the disaster that was BvS, a new way of looking at that film. For all its flaws, for how bad it was, BvS was the work of an author. It was a movie with a point of view and a style, and even if I hated everything about that POV and everything about that style as presented, it at least had them. To quote a great thinker:
I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.
Justice League has no ethos. It’s an empty, bland motion picture product without a personality or anything to make it feel special beyond the fact that it’s using different intellectual property than other comic book movies are using. It’s a dutiful exercise of corporate art in the service of advancing a larger franchise that the studio hopes will make money. The movie has no reason to exist, and I mean that from an internal, in-universe way.
After the events of BvS our trusty old grump Batman is on the hunt for whatever weird threat he and Wonder Woman knew was coming next. It turns out to be in the form of Parademons, mindless drone beasts that feed on fear (established in the opening scene and only ever again important in the last scene) and serve a powerful master who is in search of three powerful MacGuffins on Earth.
That master is Steppenwolf, and what gets his motor running is a trio of artifacts called Mother Boxes. In the DC movies the Mother Boxes bring real heavy metal thunder, and they’ll take the world in a love embrace called The Unity, in which they’ll make over our planet in the image of Steppenwolf’s homeworld, Apokolips. Like a true nature’s child he was born to be wild, and this is his whole destiny, to come to Earth, fire all his guns at once and explode into space.
But there are some pretty big problems with old Steppenwolf. For one thing he’s a shitty looking, lamely designed CGI character. There’s no weight or heft to him at all, and he’s simply not menacing or interesting to look at. But that’s just the surface, as I never felt that Steppenwolf was a credible threat requiring Batman to assemble other superheroes and, eventually (spoilers? I guess? I mean, how do you not know this was coming?), bring Superman back from the dead. In fact you get the sense that ANY of the JL individually could have taken Steppenwolf down in a solo movie. His threat simply doesn’t feel big enough.
That’s a huge problem, because it means Justice League is a movie with no stakes. After a lot of complaining about collateral damage in the DC movies, the powers that be have opted to make JL essentially a shadow war film – the only battle the team has where the public can ever see them in a serious way is between the League and Superman (the final battle takes place in an area without internet or cell service and that is blacked out from satellites, which is why Cyborg has a problem finding it), which I feel like sums up the entire DCEU so far.
But Steppenwolf wins no significant, earth-shattering victories – he takes a Mother Box from the Amazons, but basically runs away with it once the Amazon army arrives. He takes a Mother Box from Atlantis, a feat that requires knocking out one guard and inconveniencing Aquaman, before he again runs away. He gets the final Mother Box WHEN THE HEROES LEAVE IT LAYING ON THE ROOF OF A CAR LIKE THE COFFEE YOU ACCIDENTALLY LEAVE ON YOUR CAR WHEN YOU’RE IN A HURRY TO GET TO WORK IN THE MORNING.
There’s a flashback to Steppenwolf’s glory days… in which he was roundly defeated by a motley collection of Earth people FIVE THOUSAND YEARS AGO, before we had a Superman or a Flash even. It’s a strange decision – the villain is a blundering failure who has been exiled from his homeworld and thus can’t even call on big backup if things get heavy. And when he does get his three Mother Boxes together he sets up shop in Sokovia, err I mean northernmost Russia in an abandoned melted down nuclear power plant, far from any serious civilian population centers.
We never see Earth’s modern forces try to take Steppenwolf down (it’s unclear if human authorities even know he exists). We only ever see him run away after getting what he wants, except for that time five thousand years ago when he ran away after getting his ass whipped (and not by a single great, irreplaceable hero. He got beat by coalition forces that could, technically, be reconstituted today). It’s crazy how lame he is as a villain, how unthreatening he is as a threat. I hope the folks at Marvel watch this and realize their version of Thanos is dangerously close to being this ineffectual and makes sure he blows up Xandar or something in the first minute of Infinity War.
Steppenwolf as shitty villain is sort of the key to JL’s slackness. Because the threat is so poor, and because none of the characters have personal stakes in the proceedings OR have to learn lessons in the movie (Batman and Wonder Woman already learned their lessons at the end of BvS, the rest of the team have to… learn to be a team? Be heroes? Flash has to learn to be a hero but he’s the only guy who basically volunteers for the team, and Cyborg and Aquaman’s refusal of the call only plays out like necessary beats, not real character moments. I don’t know why either of these guys change their mind in any way that would extend beyond this immediate scenario), JL just trundles along hitting the beats a movie like this needs to hit, with absolutely no sense of drama or urgency.
Here’s the thing: you know the good guys will win. That’s always a given in any of these movies, always. Like, that’s the case in ALL movies – nine times out of ten the characters you like will, in some fashion, get a W at the end of the movie, and it’s ten out of ten in action films that are not part of an announced serialized story (ie, movies that don’t have guaranteed sequels where the loss can be turned over). So the question is never WILL the Justice League win, it should be HOW will the Justice League win… and since Steppenwolf is so lame the HOW never holds interest. “Punching him a lot, probably,” you’ll say to yourself, and you’ll be like 80% right (his final fate is interesting on paper, but I don’t think it’s set up properly to land in any way).
So then the other question to drive the drama has to be “How will the events of this movie impact the heroes, and will that impact be negative or positive?” And the problem, as stated above, is that nobody has a serious stake in the events of the film (Cyborg’s dad is kidnapped by Steppenwolf but gets freed before act three), and none of the new characters have enough defined personal conflict to make a difference in the film. Flash’s dad is wrongfully in prison, but that has nothing to do with this movie. Aquaman has some ill-defined issues with Atlantis, but that has nothing to do with this movie. Cyborg is dealing with having been turned into a machine man, and that probably has the most bearing on this film, but it’s still totally a third string storyline.
Even Superman, who rises from the dead, has no conflict or drama to work through. He wakes up confused and grumpy, fights the JL for a few minutes, then flies off and comes to his senses. And get this – the heroes go to confront Steppenwolf unsure if the newly arisen Superman will help them, but the movie shows us Superman deciding to help them, so his sudden appearance in the nick of time doesn’t even hold that cheap, shitty thrill you get when a hero shows up in the nick of time in a predictable fashion. It’s anti-drama.
It’s tempting to look at a movie like this – which, rumor has it, was about 80% reshot with Joss Whedon after Zack Snyder stepped away – and try to pick out which scenes came from which filmmaker. I hate doing that, especially after so many people did it with Ant-Man and were wrong (the fight to The Cure in the briefcase was 100% Peyton Reed, not Edgar Wright). But Justice League is so schizophrenic visually that it’s impossible NOT to do that. There are scenes that are moodily lit, shot from interesting angles, have strong visual composition and scored to weirdly bad needledrops, and those all feel like Zack Snyder. Then there are scenes that are flatly lit, that are composed with bluntness, that feature people standing around in uninteresting poses, and you really have to assume that’s Whedon. I mean, maybe it’s not (and this is why I hate this game – unless you were on set you don’t know), but Jesus Christ it’s hard to watch the scene of the JL bantering in the Flying Fox, standing in a line like they’re being hosed down by the camera, and not think a TV guy directed it. I’ve seen enough of Snyder’s work to know that he never met a scene he wanted to shoot in a straightforward way. And hell, sometimes it even looks like different scenes were shot on different cameras.
The tragedy of Justice League is that it was probably never going to be a good movie, but it could have at least been an INTERESTING bad movie. There are hints of weird things around the edges of this movie that never quite rise to the level of Granny’s Peach Tea (Flash and Cyborg have an extended scene where they are robbing Clark Kent’s grave, and they are STANDING WAIST DEEP in his excavated resting place). Justice League is easier to sit through than BvS, but it’s also less interesting to talk about, and it has less of an impact on you. It’s Generic Superhero Product, passing directly through your head like radio waves.
So the movie is bad, but in a boring, no fun to laugh at way. What about the characters? Glad you asked.
The Flash is probably the standout of the movie. Ezra Miller is fun and funny, and The Flash’s action scenes are good because he’s the only character with a unique power set when it comes to fighting. Everyone else feels like variations on each other (Aquaman is particularly pointless), but The Flash gets fun moments. Miller’s Barry Allen is very Wally West, and instead of living up to Barry’s legacy we have him living up to the other heroes around him. I liked all of his scenes, and am intrigued by his movie (if it ever gets made).
Aquaman is a Next Generation Klingon. Which isn’t terrible in itself, but also isn’t very interesting. He’s a rowdy biker dude, but because the film has no center we don’t get a lot of moments of him really bouncing off other characters. Momoa is fine, but this kind of character never resonates with me. He might be more interesting in a solo film where his rough edged whiskey swilling is contrasted more effectively against snobby Atlantean royalty. Speaking of which – there’s a whole scene of Aquaman talking to Mera about his history where she isn’t named or introduced and where it feels like they’re recapping a movie that came out last year that you didn’t see. It’s one of the most bizarre and off-putting exposition dumps I have ever seen.
Cyborg is fine. I don’t really want to chase “angry black guy in a hoodie” too far down its subtextual path, especially because this movie breaks out of all stereotypes by leaning on Cyborg as the team’s natural born hacker. Still, he’s painfully underutilized, especially since he was created by the Mother Box. There’s talk about how that makes him special or whatever, but it only leads to him standing in front of the Mother Boxes at the end making faces like he is trying to poop.
Batman is almost unrecognizable since his last appearance. This version of Batman is way closer to the campy versions of the past, and it’s jarring. There’s a lot of Whedon-esque dialogue coming out of his mouth (and Ben Affleck is great at delivering it), but that’s wrong for this Batman. The model should have been Justice League International, where Batman is the grim and laughless foil for the other characters, not Batman Forever, where he’s cracking wise all the time.
And Wonder Woman. The movie makes an interesting choice in having Batman directly address the fact that Wonder Woman, post her movie, is the inspirational figure everyone in this film says Superman is supposed to be. But while their conversation is sort of interesting (and nicely illuminates why Batman, an asshole, can’t be a team leader), it feels stunted. That stunting comes from the DC Movieverse being this weird, fucked up thing without a guiding vision. In BvS Wonder Woman has been in hiding for a hundred years, but the end of Wonder Woman doesn’t set that up. Rather than leave that thread to be examined in Wonder Woman 2, JL has Batman grill Wonder Woman about her punking out on humanity, and she chalks it all up to dumb Steve Trevor dying. This was EXACTLY the thing that seemed shitty in BvS, and I thought the Wonder Woman films might have a chance to right that wrong (literally all that has to happen is Wonder Woman has to travel to a dimension where time moves differently or something), but instead we go right back to the WW who, after a whole movie learning to love humanity, turns her back on it.
When it was announced that Justice League would debut before the solo films for three of these characters, I was skeptical. Turns out I was right. None of the new characters are poorly done, but none are well drawn either. There’s no weight or meaning to these characters getting together. We don’t know the new guys, but we sort of do thanks to years of comics and cartoons and toys and 7-11 cups and other ephemera, and Justice League leans into that. It really just assumes you know who Aquaman is and doesn’t feel the need to establish him in any meaningful way. Compare that to The Avengers, where all the characters had entire film to establish them, and when they came together it was exciting. That felt like a collision of leading characters; Justice League feels like Batman and Wonder Woman gathered a supporting cast.
There’s some pretty decent action in the film, but also some pretty forgettable and boring action. Even the fight between the League and Superman – which should be one of those highlights of the year kind of moments – is lacking and soft. In the end, that’s what Justice League is – soft. It’s cut to the bone, a movie desperate to get in and get out, and so it’s a movie without flavor or depth. It’s lacking any of the off-kilter zaniness Zack Snyder can’t help but put in his movies, and it feels more like product than any film I’ve seen in years. I saw it yesterday and I’m already forgetting plot points and character beats.
This, I think, is the nadir of the superhero movie genre. Not because it’s bad or it fucks up the characters – everybody walks out pretty unscathed – but because it’s so clear nobody cares. From the actors to the filmmakers to the studio execs, nobody gives a shit. This is a movie made because the checks cleared, and for no other reason. And if nobody involved gave a serious shit, why would we?