Justice League Defense

(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.

Continue Reading Justice League Defense >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: