Justice League (2017, Dir. Zack Snyder):
Popcorn comic book movies versus mundo-serious graphic novel films. Slick, likable product versus overwrought mythologizing. High Rotten Tomato meter scores versus negative word of mouth. In the decade-long mano-a-mano duel between the Marvel and DC movie universes, we’re in the seventh round and the latter is on the ropes. Just under ten years ago, DC was riding high with Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and Marvel Studios was achieving liftoff with Iron Man. Since then, the fortunes of both comic book film empires have hurtled in opposite directions. Fanboys, critics and the box office have flocked to Marvel; meanwhile, DC hitched its star to director Zack Snyder with disastrous results. It’s gotten to the point where the latest confection from the Marvel factory is automatically assumed to be yet another fun, witty, zippy adventure, and every new DC movie is expected to be another “grimdark” drag without any sense of play or subtlety.
By assiduously copying the Marvel formula (establishing individual super heroes in their own movies before tossing them into an all-star team-up meant to spin out sequels ad infinitum), DC has opened itself up to easy criticism, especially since its films haven’t come anywhere close to Marvel’s in appeal. Snyder’s “house style” has only doubled down on the differences separating the two comic book universes: Instead of streamlined stories with relatable good guys, we have roided-up heroes alienated or ostracized by the people they’re trying to save, the production scale inflated to monumental heights, as if we’re meant to ooh and aah at the Gods walking among us. Snyder’s movies are ambitious enough to ask us to contemplate how the real world would react to a superhero (not that such contemplation is much fun), and dunder-headed enough to smash Batman and Superman together in mortal combat for the flimsiest of reasons, as if he’s a bored preteen mashing action figures together in his backyard. Who can blame audiences for preferring Marvel’s uncomplicated joys, as superficial as they can sometimes be?
Bruce Wayne: I don’t have to recognize it. I just have to save it.
But what happens when you cross the streams, as the Ghostbusters might say? When Snyder’s solemn, gloomy, self-important Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was spanked by negative reviews and underwhelming financial returns, the die was cast for the first Justice League movie to be a more light-hearted affair, in the vein of Marvel’s Avengers movies. When Patty Jenkins’ recent Wonder Woman reintroduced the idea of sincere heroism to the DC landscape (with much improved audience response), the mandate was clear: less unrelieved grimdark, more of the fun stuff. And just to complete the heel turn, Avengers director Joss Whedon was brought on board late in the game on Justice League to oversee rewrites and reshoots. While trying to parse which parts of the movie are Snyder’s and which are Whedon’s might be a fun game in of itself (although it’s clear Snyder was going for a sunnier tone even early in production), the end result is still the same: a product that resembles an Avengers movie, albeit with a darker palette and more slo-mo action beats. Is it a sign that Marvel has won the war if DC is now trying to replicate its tone?
It’s not quite that cut-and-dried, though. Justice League is a Frankenstein of a movie: more laid-back, yet still weighed down by standard DC pretensions. The ratio of ponderous philosophical pronouncements to jokey dialogue remains high, so brace yourselves for lines like “Power is the only truth” and “Praise to the mother of all horrors,” plus a lot of mythological guff about primordial hellscapes, world cleansing, and dark unities. The movie is afflicted with many of the same issues that have plagued superhero movies in general (yes, including Marvel): a flat expository style, villains and evil schemes that don’t merit much consideration or interest, and a jumble of chaotic battles and special effects that’s meant to be a climax. (Jarringly, the CGI this time out is pretty lousy.) Little need be said about the plot except that it concerns a demigod named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), and three magic “mother boxes” that must be combined, or separated, or some such. Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) provides the handy Cliffs notes: “They don’t contain power… they are power.” Before you can say “one mother box to rule them all” we’re even handed a flashback to a mother of a battle between gods, Atlanteans and Amazons, just to cement the Lord of the Rings vibe. Fortunately, the film treats all this stuff as mostly inconsequential; it’s more interested in how Batman (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of super-powered misfits who will save the world, including Wonder Woman, the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and even a resurrected (to no one’s surprise) Superman (Henry Cavill). The morose posturing of previous films has given way to good-natured bickering, as we’re treated to the unusual sight of DC movie superheroes acting like, well, heroes, when they’re not throwing one-liners at each other. Even Danny Elfman’s score wants to reminds us of the days when good guys could just be good guys, as he tosses in hints of his original Batman theme and John Williams’ Superman theme at select moments.
Batman: I’m not the one who brought a pitchfork.
As course corrections go, Justice League is actually not half-bad. In its technicolor look and more relaxed approach, it essentially repudiates the previous films in the DC cycle, especially when it comes to Cavill’s Superman, who actually gets to crack a few smiles and jokes after he’s resuscitated. In the past, the Man of Steel was presented as a remote, tortured force for good, equally loved and feared; now no one doubts the big guy’s essential decency. (Even former detractor Batman goes as far as to say, “He’s more human than I am.”) Best seen as a soft reboot, the movie’s chief pleasures are found in the character interplay. The members of the team may be exaggerated types, but at least they’re recognizable types, from Mamoa’s hard-drinking biker shtick as Aquaman to Miller’s near-autistic Flash, who slings quips around like buckshot — some miss completely, but a fair amount hit home. Affleck brings a dollop of world-weariness to Batman, although it’s hard to say whether it’s rooted in the character or Affleck’s growing fatigue with the part (as of this writing, he is not expected to return in the role), which leaves the spotlight open for Godot’s Wonder Woman. Her performance is a step down from Wonder Woman (she murmurs many of her lines without much gusto), but she remains a warm, vibrant presence, and the best thing in the DC cinematic universe. Her golden lasso also provides the movie’s biggest laugh, as Aquaman blurts out some very unwelcome truths when he unwittingly sits on it.
Chopped down to a svelte run-time of two hours, Justice League goes down as smoothly as a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s zippier and more entertaining than most entries in the DC universe; what it is not is a finely calibrated piece of work (no surprise given all the cooks in the kitchen). For every dialogue scene or action beat that generates a spark, there’s others that are DOA, or dangle beyond logic or plot. Visually, the movie is less impressive than previous DC films, and the punch-heavy, pointless finale won’t win many converts (when a character shouts “Booyah!” at a particular moment, your palm will likely meet your face). Moving fast enough for us to readily ignore the bad stuff, Justice League also moves too quickly for us to gain anything of substance, which means it can’t match the gravity and feminist kick of Wonder Woman (still the high-water mark of the current DC movie cycle thus far). Cynics will call the movie derivative and formulaic as hell. Still, at least its heroes and bombast are closer to a recognizable comic book universe, and for once the people are given what they want if not what they need. Whether this will herald a sharpening of focus in the next batch of DC films remains to be seen, but if nothing else, the lightness of Justice League affords us a bit of a breather from the typical DC super-angst.