For Truth and Justice and All That Other Crap
DCEU 5: Justice League
It should surprise no one at this point that I consider Justice League to be a mess of a film. So far I haven't really liked any of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. films, Wonder Woman excepted, and most of the blame for that rests at Zack Snyder's feet. The man can direct good, solid action with a clear eye and a style unlike many other directors, but he should not have been put in charge of the DCEU -- what he wants out of an action movie is antithetical to the kinds of stories that should feature DC's characters. Justice League was the third film in the run he directed, and there was ever chance it was going to turn out to be another dark and dour slog of a film.
But then Joss Wheddon was brought in to help punch of the film. He was originally just supposed to work on the script for re-shoots, and then Snyder had to drop out of the film for personal reasons and Wheddon took over completely. Wheddon and Snyder have very different ideas about the look, feel, and tone of superhero movies (with The Avengers as a clear example), and it's understandable why DC brought him in to work on the movie. They wanted the DCEU to be like the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. so why not bring in one of the primary architects of that other series?
Well, the reason is because his style of film is very different from Snyder's and trying to have him fix a film that's already been shot was always going to lead to a chimera-production. It's clear what scenes were filmed by Joss (on sound stages and on a budget) and which ones were filmed (with the original budget) by Snyder. You can almost see the scotch tape holding to two different versions of the movie together. The movie is never fully able to commit to Joss's vision but because of executive meddling (and extensive re-shoots) it was never going to reflect Snyder's weird style either. It just... is.
In the franken-film, the world is still in mourning after the loss of Superman (at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) worry that a war is coming, some giant threat from beyond the stars. Without Superman to defend the world (a situation, remember, that is basically Batman's fault), a new team of heroes has to rise. To that end, Bats and Wondie work to recruit Barry Allen / The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone / Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to aid them in the coming fight. And they'll need the help, too, because a powerful villain, Steppenwolf, is scouring the Earth for a super weapon he can use to destroy the world and reform it as a hellscape for his dark leader, Darkseid. If the heroes fail, the Earth is doomed.
One of the best things Justice League has going for it is its focused plot. Batman v Superman was a convoluted mess, with major plots focusing on Superman, Batman, and Lex Luthor, plus side-plots for Wonder Woman and the U.S. Senate. In direct contrast, Justice League has one major plot -- raise an army of heroes to fight Steppenwolf -- and everything in the film is in service to that story. While we do get side-plots for each of the new heroes so they get introduced, there's not a lot of excess story here, which makes the film feel so much more direct, and lighter, than the previous Snyder flicks.
While I certainly think it would have been better if there had been films in between Batman v Superman and Justice League to introduce the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman, I do think the film does about as good a job introducing those heroes quickly and effectively into the movie as it could. Some are better served by the movie than others -- the Flash steals every scene he's in, while Cyborg gets the meatiest story, even if it is a dour one, and Aquaman is all but an afterthought -- but they're all at least organically engineered into the film and, by and large, get their own moments to shine.
Standing opposite the new kids we have Batman and Wonder Woman. The film tries to give each of them story lines to show their own heroic, emotional growth. Certainly this effort is appreciated when it comes to Wonder Woman -- the movie tries to craft her into the leader of the team, a beacon of hope to take up Superman's mantle -- Batman's whole story is just a mess. Remember, he was a dark and brooding mess of a man in Batman v Superman, a hero pushed to the edge by dark events in his past (like the death of Robin). It would take time for someone like that to change, to be lighter and happier (not that Batman should ever be light and happy). And yet, the Batman in JL is basically fully healed -- it's been weeks or months, at max, and this Batman is totally reformed, light and healthy and happy once more.
I realize that changing Batman into a lighter version of himself is probably due to executive meddling -- everyone complained about the darkness of Batman v Superman, and this is one of the things the producers wanted to change. However, viewing the two films back-to-back leaves you with tonal whiplash. It's like the Batman from BvS has been replaced with a completely different person. He's a funnier, more likable person, to be sure, but it doesn't make any sense in the context of the series.
Of course, this just gets back to the idea that maybe DC should have gone at a slower pace launching the DCEU. Instead of rushing from Man of Steel to BvS to Justice League in a single trilogy of films, they should have had a huge number of in between movies to flesh out the universe and organically grow characters. In between BvS and JLwe should have had another Batman flick along with a Flash and Cyborg and Aquaman. More importantly, before a villain like Steppenwolf could be introduced (kicking off an expected Apocalypse storyline), we should have had a couple of team-up movies (The Brave and the Bold?) to slowly let the heroes unite.
Of course, the greatest sin the movie commits is bringing back Superman at the midway point. Remember, Supes died at the end of Batman v Superman, killed by Doomsday much like he is in the classic "Death of Superman" arc. What the films don't give us, though, is a "World Without Superman" arc to show the Earth in its mourning period. Taking some time away from Superman, to let us all deal with his death naturally, would then let his eventual resurrection have true narrative weight. Instead, bringing him back one movie later feels like the producers simply realized they'd made an error in killing one of their most popular, famous characters and backpedaled. It has no real weight to it (no matter how much Wheddon's script tries to sell it) so we end up not really caring about Superman's fate one way or another. "Oh he's dead. That sucks. I wonder if we'll ever recov- oh, he's back. Nevermind."
Superman also causes issues in the world of the DCEU. Without him around, the best the team has is Wonder Woman, and don't get me wrong, she's awesome. I love Wonder Woman in this series and if they want to make 80 more movies with her in the next few years, I'll watch them all. At best, though, she's only about half a Superman, strength-wise. That's a good thing, by the way, when it comes to telling stories. Steppenwolf is a tough fight for her, but when Superman shows up, he can easily punch the villain around and
Imagine, though, a DCEU were Superman stayed dead for four or five years. Instead of having an easy fight with Steppenwolf, the team would really have to work for it. Hell, there's every chance they might have been defeated in this film and would have to regroup and come back at the world killer in a second Justice league movie (ala Infinity War and Endgame). If the heroes have real, tough fights in the movies leading up to whenever Superman comes back (let's say in a Rise of the Supermen film), it would then give us reason to care about his return. "Oh, the big guns are finally arriving again. Darkseid is in for it now."
of course, having Superman alive and well by the end of the movie also throws off the DCEU movie forward. Where is Superman when the events of Aquaman occur? This is a problem with MCU has as well -- where are all the heroes when each character is having their own individual movie -- but it's worse when you have a character that can fly anywhere, at super speed, and defeat any villain on the face of the planet. Aquaman has a satisfying adventure in his own movie, but it's the kind of adventure Superman could have settled in five minutes instead of the three day its takes the master of the ocean. And every movie going forward will have this problem -- he's just too powerful.
On the flip-side, despite all his power Steppenwolf is pretty pathetic. This is a villain never hinted at before in the movies, introduced simply to the introduce an even bigger villain (Darkseid), and his whole quest it to collect three mother boxes, items we've never heard of before this movie, so he can assemble a super weapon. If we look at the MCU for a comparison, the mother boxes are basically the Infinity Stones and Steppenwolf is, essentially, a minion for Thanos (like Loki in the first Avengers). The key difference, of course, is that the MCU spent 18 movies building up the threat of the Infinity Stones and Thanos while the DCEU tries to cram the same amount of build up into three films. It just doesn't work. A villain this big, and a weapon this powerful, needs to be introduced slowly so the full scale of the danger can build for us.
In essence, Steppenwolf is like Ultron (from Avengers: Age of Ultron), a new villain dropped on us in a single movie. We're told this villain is very powerful but because we haven't had movies before this one to see their development, to see them in action, this "fact" has no weight behind it. Show, don't tell, as they say, and Justice League does a lot of telling.
There are huge flaws with Justice League, and yet despite all that I find that I like this film the best of all the Snyder-directed DCEU films (and certainly more than Suicide Squad). Most of what I like best are the small character beats, the scenes obviously written and filmed by Joss Wheddon. Even if the action scenes are crap, and the villain is awful, we at least have great moments like the Flash being a doof in the Batcave, or Batman and Wonder Woman connecting over what it means to be a leader. These quiet moments sell the film, make it worth watching again and again. The climax is crap, but everything leading up to it is actually pretty watchable.
There are a lot of fans of the DCEU out there that really hate this movie. They keep clamoring for a "Snyder Cut" of the film as if that version would somehow be much better than the movie that was actually released. I'm in the opposite camp. I'd be perfectly okay with DC spending more money and having someone like Joss Wheddon (although maybe not him because he sounds like a total creep in real life) film a whole new, better version of the movie. Can we get a "Wheddon Cut"? I think that version of the film would be awesome.