The Unpopular Opinion: 'Justice League' Is A Decent Comic Book Movie And We're All Just Too Spoiled To Enjoy It

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or show or sets their sights on something seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: we're all too jaded to enjoy a comic book movie as fun as Justice League.)

It's been two and a half weeks — and three underwhelming box office weekends — since Justice League hit theaters. Some people have already forgotten about the movie.

Fans of DC Comics characters might still be grappling with it. As a comic book collector in middle school, the "Death of Superman" storyline shook my world; in high school, on the Wednesdays when new issues were released, Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's tenure on the JLA comics title put it at the top of my reading list. But as an adult moviegoer who is not a fan of Zack Snyder's work, I went into this film called Justice League with low expectations. I had already heard that Steppenwolf was the worst comic book movie villain of all time (a sentiment that Joss Whedon, who directed the film's extensive reshoots, appears to have enjoyed). It was not even one of those movies where I felt the need to rush out and see it right away. My significant other and I just happened to have a slot in our Thanksgiving schedule.

Maybe the spirit of holiday gratitude put me in an overly thankful mood and has affected my judgment. I know I'm in the minority here. In fact, my Spider-Sense is already tingling, warning me that I was entering Unpopular Opinion territory. As I watched Justice League, I found myself... actually enjoying it.

The journey to Justice League was a long, frustrating one, but in the end, it did lead us to a weird kind of nerdy Promised Land that no one, not even geeks, seem to be able to enjoy. To talk about why Justice League is such a breath of fresh air, we first need to situate it within the larger context of recent movie history. This involves dredging up discussion of a few other films with a base of passionate supporters who may only grow irked to hear their favorite flicks compared unfavorably to Justice League. There's a definite divide when it comes to DC on film, but hopefully, having had a chance to digest this latest DC movie more fully, we should be able to enter into a civil discussion of its place in DC's five-movie arc from 2013 until now.

Spoilers from the film begin here.

Justice League Superman

Man of Steel and the Build-up of Doom and Gloom

Since it first started coming together, DC's shared universe has been undergoing a perpetual identity crisis, so much so that it still lacks an official name, with everybody glomming onto an Entertainment Weekly writer's joke to call it the DC Extended Universe. For now, the Internet has decided: that is the name. It's still logged that way on Wikipedia and Rotten Tomatoes, the latter of which is partly owned by Warner Bros., the parent company of DC Films. So I reluctantly make use of it here.

Prior to 2017, the DCEU was an oppressive place, largely devoid of mirth. You might even say this tone was deliberate, insofar as its purveyors mistook dourness for drama. That was how Warner Bros. sought to distinguish its fledgling shared universe from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From the very beginning, it was in the unenviable position of playing catch-up to the most commercially successful film franchise of all time. Marvel Studios had the advantage of doing half a decade of world-building before its Distinguished Competition ever got in the game. Warner Bros. had been waiting for a certain serious-minded filmmaker to finish his Dark Knight Trilogy.

In a feature on the site earlier this year, I put forth the argument that Christopher Nolan was the quintessential filmmaker of the 2000s, just in terms of the sheer pervasive influence he wielded. Going forward from that decade, the failure of the jokey Green Lantern seemed to put Warner Bros. off on the wrong track. (Flashback to Ryan Reynolds circa 2011, showing off his unconvincing CGI costume and quipping, "I know, right?") We even once reported on the rumor that the studio had a "no jokes" mandate for its superhero movies. Since its own Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had already set the template for grim-and-gritty realism in reboots, it was only natural, however misguided, that it should retreat to the safe ground of the product it had already delivered.

Nolan was there to help shepherd Man of Steel as a hands-on producer. At the time, Zack Snyder was coming off his own 2011 failure, Sucker Punch, so the project certainly needed some guidance. With Nolan taking on a senior advisor role, serving in the capacity as "godfather" to Snyder's Superman reboot, the film flirted with greatness.

Man of Steel's first half features some neat ideas, like Clark Kent as a kid whose super-hearing and X-ray vision put him into sensory overload. Rebuilding Superman's origin within the framework of a first-contact science fiction story is also a cool modern approach.

At the same time, the film has a lot of issues, and to really address them properly, we would need a whole separate space. The point is, Man of Steel, at least, is a film worth talking about. Its memorable Hans Zimmer score begins with a track called "Look to the Stars," and you can very much see it reaching for the sky, striving toward a certain ideal, even if it never manages a full Superman take-off. Kevin Costner's performance as Pa Kent anchors the movie emotionally — like Glenn Ford in the original 1978 Superman, he perfectly embodies the all-American dad — yet his character, as written, simultaneously presents profound problems in terms of character traits and character choices.

Ultimately, as the film eschews jokes and lingers on butterflies and windmills in its pastoral scenes, it feels like Snyder is merely aping Nolan or Terrence Malick's style. As Superman's other father, Jor-El, Russell Crowe might affect a high-born accent, but when he starts sweet-talking his pterodactyl, addressing it by some ludicrous dinosaur pet name as if he were reading Shakespeare ("Easy, H'raka. Easy, girl. His cells will drink its radiation"), it fosters the suspicion that this self-serious superhero flick lacks all self-awareness.

During the destruction of Krypton, Jor-El utters the line, "Nobody cares anymore, Kelex. The world is about to come to an end." He might just as well have been reviewing the second half of Man of Steel. This is where the first hint of implacability on the part of fans starts to take shape. People complained that Bryan Singer's navel-gazing Superman Returns did not have enough action. Responding to those criticisms, Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder delivered a film that leveled whole cities with its action, or at least large swaths of Metropolis and Superman's hometown of Smallville. Critics called it "destruction porn" and it's hard to argue with that description. 

Justice League Clip - Batman and Aquaman

The Doom and Gloom Ends in Suicide

2016 was an especially bad time for the DCEU, as it saw not one but two films arrive to much critical derision, with both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad landing in the 26-27% range on Rotten Tomatoes. By then, Nolan had faded into the background, and people were calling this shared universe the Snyderverse. Once again, Warner Bros. and Snyder tried to appease fans by making the destruction porn of the previous film a plot point in the next movie. It was to no avail. Dreams of a "Death of Superman" adaptation done right died the December day that Doomsday came bounding on screen in the second Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer, looking like a poorly rendered CGI screen cousin of the Cave Troll from Fellowship of the Ring.

To helm the first non-Snyder entry in its superhero film franchise, Warner Bros. brought in David Ayer, a filmmaker with a hit-or-miss track record. Within a span of seven months in 2014, Ayer delivered both Sabotage and Fury, two movies on completely opposite ends of the quality spectrum. Ayer himself effectively disowned the former as "a work for hire" while doing a nice job summing up the latter as "the ultimate tank movie."

All eyes turned toward Suicide Squad, a film whose Comic-Con First Look Trailer was so well done that Warner Bros. reportedly enlisted Trailer Park, the company responsible for it, to work up a competing cut of the film while Ayer toiled away on his own (can you believe it?) darker vision. The resulting movie, made by a kitchen with the proverbial too many cooks, was never as interesting or colorful as the pop-art visuals of its marketing campaign suggested. If anything, it only served to further disseminate the dreary color palette and po-faced posturing that had plagued its predecessors. There were reports of "reshoots for humor;" Ayer denied these, but whatever the truth, the film's scattered attempts at humor fall flat. When Will Smith's character, Deadshot, opines that his paramilitary team of metahumans is off to fight a "swirling ring of trash in the sky," this comes off as yet another meta bit of dialogue, one that seems to encapsulate the whole sad state of the DCEU and blockbusters in general.

Justice League reshoots

The Doom and Gloom Is Gone: Enter Wonder Woman and Whedon

So now we have arrived at 2017, the year the DCEU has finally started to redeem itself with more hopeful, humanistic depictions of heroes — heroes who are actual heroes, not anti-heroes. Wonder Woman was superb, yet it was also an anomaly: a standalone film set in World War I times. I was beginning to think we would never get a good movie based on a DC Comics superhero who was not Superman or Batman, but in a year beset by the downfall of numerous high-profile men in Hollywood and the film blogging community, director Patty Jenkins gave the world an empowering female icon. There is nothing to do other than to heap effusive praise on Gal Gadot, who continues to shine as Diana Prince.

A lot of people still regard Wonder Woman as a fluke. I was prepared to do that as I sat down to watch Justice League. In the theater, however, I found myself relaxing into the movie, easing into its self-aware humor. Joss Whedon, who rewrote and reshot large portions of Justice League after Snyder left the project due to a family tragedy, brings such an infusion of whimsy to the script that, as it continues to do damage control on the DCEU, you cannot fault Warner Bros. for finally throwing up its hands and saying, "Screw it. Let's just get the guy that did Avengers." Judged as a comic book come to life, the Whedon/Snyder stylistic mash-up of Justice League is actually great giddy fun and an above-average genre flick full of fist-pumping moments and Easter eggs that fans could have only dreamed of back in the 1990s.

Flash and Superman racing and competing to save lives in funny ways. Aquaman making candid confessions, only to realize that Wonder Woman has the lasso of truth wrapped around his leg. A post-credits scene with Deathstroke! The sheer brain-melting astonishment of seeing Superman dug up and brought back to life in a sequence that plays like the very best of Frankensteinian fan fiction. Danny Elfman making callbacks to his classic Batman theme and John Williams' Superman theme, bringing the full weight of each character's cinematic history to bear on this super-sequel. Green Lanterns showing up in the Lord-of-the-Rings-esque backstory, teasing the future resuscitation of the Corps in 2020.

10 or 15 years ago, we all might have been geeking out unabashedly over Justice League. Am I the only one who was able to extract a huge thrill from the confrontation between Superman and the League on the steps of the memorial?

justice league featurette

Do We Take Comic Book Movies For Granted?

Maybe our standards have just gotten so high that we all take comic book movies for granted now. With the exception of Spider-Man 2, I honestly think you could put Justice League side-by-side with virtually any comic book movie pre-2005 and it would come out looking perfectly fine. If that sounds like a rickety defense, all I can say is that I still have a vivid recollection of the day way, way back in the year 2000 when my friends and I came back out into the parking lot after seeing Bryan Singer's X-Men at our local 8-screen. My friends, who were not loyal comic book readers, liked the movie. I left feeling deflated by the bad costume aesthetic and mindless supporting villains (and yes, I am aware people might level the same accusations against Justice League). Sabretooth, we hardly knew you...

/Film's own Chris Evangelista is correct: Justice League finally gets Superman right, resurrecting him and restoring a sense of hope to the character as it strikes a new note of optimism for his film frenemy Batman, as well. One can only hope that Henry Cavill will stick with Superman, through thick and thin, the same way Hugh Jackman stuck with Wolverine for a number of his less than stellar outings. It took us 17 years to get there, but the very best Wolverine movie was the last one, Logan. Here's looking forward to Superman in 2030.

Michael Keaton was great as Batman; Christian Bale was great as Bruce Wayne; Ben Affleck continues to cut a fine figure as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. In this movie, his newly reformed, less murderous version of the character arguably offers the most complete, comics-accurate package of a Batman on-screen to date — save perhaps for Kevin Conroy's version in Batman: The Animated Series. It is nice to see a more well-adjusted Batman who is not so angst-ridden but instead comes close to the "Zen warrior" of Morrison's JLA run.

Justice League is a movie that is not ignorant of its own shortcomings. In places, it winks at the inherent goofiness of certain plot elements, with Affleck's deadpan delivery of some of his save-the-world lines alleviating tension and giving the film a lightness of manner that keeps it rushing along for two quick hours like its own de-aged Scarlet Speedster. Speaking of whom, while Flash's costume is a clunky eyesore, Ezra Miller nonetheless manages to endear himself as a kid whose mouth can barely keep up with his hyper brain.

I was equally surprised by Cyborg, whose metallic look is also just a little too busy terms in design. Based on what I heard, I had expected his character to be a non-entity in Justice League. But with his heart glowing red in his hoodie, Ray Fisher acquits himself as an invaluable team member. I don't know how confident I am that he or Jason Momoa's Aquaman can carry their own solo features, but as supporting characters, they work just fine.


When Fandom Fills in the Gaps

Now about Steppenwolf (who does, yes, look like he wandered out of the Goblin-town underground from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey).

I'm a firm believer that a person's moviegoing experience is sometimes determined as much by his or her own subjective mood as it is the actual content of what they are watching on-screen. And I think sometimes a kind of collective mood settles over a given movie, whereby the kangaroo court of public opinion decides that this movie is going to be the scapegoat for the overall build-up of cinema sins. Even though it has forgiven other movies for some of the same sins, the only way it can justify letting those other movies get off scot-free is if there is a perennial sacrifice, something to appease the angry geek gods as we inflate our own sense of worth with qualitative judgments, affecting a Comic Book Guy attitude of "Worst. Thing. Ever." Lord knows I am probably as guilty of this as anyone else.

Is Steppenwolf really that much worse than Ares at the end of Wonder Woman? If you look at the spiky helmet they both wear and consider the fact that they're both goopy gods, they almost seem like the same villain. Yet Ares gets a free pass because the rest of Wonder Woman was so, well, wonderful. "What's not to like about Wonder Woman?" Except for that part at the end where Ares goes full CGI and the movie craps the cot a little.

I recognize that people have some valid criticisms of Justice League. My own life partner rated it 0 out of 10. Actually, I'm as surprised as anyone else that a seemingly intelligent person could derive such pleasure as I did from this movie. In its capacity as a soft reboot for the DCEU, it did the unthinkable and made me look back on past transgressions, like the histrionics of Michael Shannon's dialed-up General Zod, with more forgiving eyes.

When a movie gets critically lambasted, people involved in the making of that movie often spout variations on the line, "We didn't make this for the critics. We made it for the fans." Usually, that strikes me as a hollow, but with Justice League, I found myself slipping into the skin of a fan again, one who clearly has a blind love for something that other people hate. As a reader, I know I have absorbed a lot of comics history that allowed me to fill in the gaps with characters like Darkseid's uncle, the New God known as Steppenwolf. Seeing the movie through those eyes is undoubtedly a very different experience from watching it as a casual filmgoer who remains uninvested in Jack Kirby's comics creations.

If the movie's 72% box office drop on its third Friday is any indication, Justice League is not a film that will go down in comic book movie history as a life-changing event for anyone. But look on the bright side: no longer are we being treated to the feel-bad movie of the summer with each DC Films release. The DCEU is now in the midst of course-correcting. The road to rehabilitation, full and successful course correction, can involve many steps, some forward, some backward. I think this is another step forward.

If you're a movie fan who is now or was ever a comic book fan, I think it's a good time to be alive. For years, readers of Wizard: The Guide to Comics could only peruse that magazine's "Casting Call" column with a wistful eye, as each edition assembled the perfect "dream" cast for a comic book movie that would (it seemed then) very likely never get made. Now we've reached the Promised Land; manna is reigning down from heaven in the form of superhero films fortified with excellent casts. In Justice League, the list of supporting actors alone reads like a litany of Oscar nominees and winners.

Top-notch casting like this amid the wider trend of comic book movies has arguably come at the expense of serious dramas and other mid-budget films that are not crass or commercial enough to survive in today's blockbuster landscape. I do miss motion pictures of that nature; I wish more of them were around. One day, probably in this generation's lifetime, comic book movies will go riding off into the sunset like the westerns of old. If Steven Spielberg says it, it must be true. Maybe that is why I am so desperate to enjoy the ones we do have before the well dries up and there are no new sequels.

Again, I saw Justice League on Thanksgiving. I want to really emphasize that, here at the end. What's more, I live in a foreign country where turkey is not usually on the menu. But this Thanksgiving, for the first time in years, I was able to enjoy a turkey meal on Thanksgiving Day. You could argue I ate two turkey meals that day: one at the restaurant, one at the movie theater, where I swallowed a bird called Justice League. Maybe I'm just a dumb fan with a big cheesy grin on my face. But now I really wish I had held onto that old mail-away Steppenwolf action figure from Kenner's Super Powers Collection. Because if I still had that figure, I might be inclined to display it on my desk, as a show of solidarity with Ciaran Hinds and his unimpeachable voice work.

Justice League is a decent comic book movie. We're all just too spoiled to enjoy it.