At least Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice had conviction.
Justice League is an impotent mishmash of two conflicting visions for the DC stable of characters — a movie that exists because it had a release date, not because it was built on a coherent creative idea. Batman v. Superman was one of the worst superhero movies ever made. Son is Justice League, but for wholly different reasons.
Picking up after the events of BvS, Justice League finds mega-corporation Warner Brothers in a panic over the state of their movie universe. Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead. Batman (Ben Affleck) is an old, weary murderer. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is a quitter and a coward. How do you segue from this status quo into the kind imaginative, aspirational, humor-filled stories people actually want to see about these characters?
This movie needed to be the franchise’s crown jewel, bringing the aforementioned Trinity together with newcomers Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to launch the overall franchise. Justice League is a movie with inherent structural handicaps unseen in any other modern franchise. Allowing Zack Snyder, the director behind both Man of Steel and BvS, to finish pre-production on Justice League before the release of BvS wasn’t a great start.
In a seemingly fortunate turn for Warner Brothers (which is not to diminish the Snyder family tragedy that facilitated it), Joss Whedon was able to lend a hand and earn a script credit, although he very clearly deserves a co-directing one as well. Although the studio claimed he reshot minimal material, by and large the movie is comprised of scenes he clearly shot. Whedon’s successes with The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron give him a unique pedigree for this kind of movie; surely the combination of Snyder’s visual style and Whedon’s witticisms would produce the kind of soft reboot needed to push things in the right direction.
Unfortunately, the pairing of Snyder and Whedon is worst-case scenario stuff. Their two visual styles do not mesh at all, and you can tell there are really two movies here inhabiting the same two hours. From a standpoint of tone, last year’s Suicide Squad felt the same way. But here, everything is off kilter. Characters have no motivations. Moments that seem clearly shot as introductory or climactic beats are repurposed into the middle of the movie, and vice versa. In one scene, for instance, Aquaman distrusts Cyborg. Two sequences later, they’re buddies who have never addressed their issues. It’s odd, off-putting, broken.
Character dialog alternates between Snyder’s faux-philosophical declaratory sentences and Whedon’s “witty” stuff. The former is as annoying as it always is, but the latter is truly unbelievably bad. Whedon has a famed style, one aped for decades now. His sense of character and ability to write one-liners or repartee that conveys both humor and meaning is still unique. But here, his work is just horrible. The Flash is, without a doubt, the single most annoying character in any superhero movie of the modern era, and it isn’t Miller’s fault. The script is a patch job without bandages, a Frankenstein’s monster of a script that never comes to life.
Frankenstein is worth invoking here, as it is the classic pulp tale of misogyny, which makes it a good transition into how this film handles women, in particular Wonder Woman. Her origin-story film from earlier this year, imperfect as it was, captured what makes the character so special and inspiring to those who cherish her. In Justice League, Diana stands around until Batman tells her what to do. He frequently puts her down. The camera actively sexualizes her – with innumerable panty shots, and a very leering obsession with her leather-clad “civilian disguise,” and even her relationships with her teammates. In the end, three of the male characters make ogling sex jokes at her expense. One particular bit of physical comedy sees a character fall atop her and awkwardly climb off.
Wonder Woman is not a sexless character; this year’s fantastic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is actually an incredible companion to Wonder Woman, one that contextualizes both the sexuality and the queerness of her character perfectly. But she is not a sex object. That’s the whole fucking point. The way Diana is used in this movie feels decidedly backwards. Ditto for Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who has never had a chance to truly shine as the character and is reduced to sex joke and a plot device to be used by Batman, and as cheerleader for Superman.
It seems appropriate that the movie opens with the logo for RatPac-Dune, the production company run by famed misogynist and all-around sack of shit Brett Ratner. It’s a middle finger to the last two months of progress behind the scenes in Hollywood, and it’s definitely a “fuck you” to the past year of increasingly thoughtful and progressive superhero fare.
Aside from the leering camera, the character interaction is lousy – again perhaps due to the patchwork nature. Moments like Batman and Wonder Woman arguing might work better in a movie where Batman had to face just as many questions about himself, where her arguments with him landed just as hard as his with her. However, for the most part, Batman is never wrong in Justice League. I admittedly love seeing Batman as the “man who can solve anything,” whose greatest weakness is his dedication to the cause that will ultimately kill him. Ben Affleck’s Batman is still just an asshole. He’s not interesting, and he’s not very fun to watch. He’s an artifact from Snyder’s vision of the DC Cinematic Universe, which was basically “a bunch of jerks being jerks.” Asked to play a broader hero, Affleck is not up to the task.
Of the new characters, Aquaman is the only one who comes out of this movie with any potential for a fun spin-off. His 2018 solo film (directed by James Wan) might actually be pretty cool. He’s reduced to saying variations on “Yeah!” and “All right!” at the end, sure, but what we see of Atlantis has potential and Jason Momoa has charisma. Flash is, again, truly annoying. Cyborg’s a bit of a nothing.
One major complaint about Marvel’s films is that they never bring in interesting villains, but at least even their worst foes have some personal connection to the hero or serve to further an overarching theme. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) does not, which is unfortunate because his introduction here was clearly meant as the first of a now-abandoned two-part story featuring Jack Kirby’s magnum opus Fourth World series from the comics.
I love Fourth World and I love the New Gods, and this film bears little resemblance to the completely gonzo nature of those characters. Oddly enough, the movie goes to great lengths to avoid using terminology from the classic series. There’s no mention of “anti-life,” no mention of the true purpose of the “mother boxes” featured in the film and only a passing reference to Darkseid. It feels like leftovers from Snyder’s general take on anything fun, bright and good in comics, which is to say making everything suck. It’s a shame that this movie, which sanitizes Kirby’s best creation, came literally two weeks after the first real attempt at truly adapting his visual style in Thor: Ragnarok, a movie you’re better off seeing a second, third, or fourth time than seeing Justice League once.
The best sequences in the movie are ones that also feel the most manipulative. When Superman finally returns (to the classic John Williams fanfare, no less, quoted by Danny Elfman along with his own 1989 Batman theme), Cavill is finally allowed to smile and inhabit the fun character he always should be. That wonder quickly fades as it becomes clear nobody behind the scenes has any greater understanding of the character than when Snyder made him snap Zod’s neck in Man of Steel. Sure, the blue in his uniform is lighter, the smile is bigger and his desire to save civilians is all there, but he’s still used as a big, powerful brute. There’s just not enough of Superman interacting with any of the other characters or making decisions or inspiring them. He’s a plot device at the end and nothing more. It’s a true shame.
It is true that I expect a lot from these movies, but I do not feel like I expect too much from them. 2017 might be the best year in superhero cinema, a year in which such films took legitimate risks and worked to differentiate themselves more than any other. Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok are all among the best the genre has ever produced. It’s a shame Justice League can’t join them and is instead such a bloated, broken blight.
With Batman v. Superman, we knew Snyder was the man in charge – the person whose vision, though faithfully executed, just wasn’t up to expected standards. With Justice League, there’s a whole host of cooks in the kitchen to blame, and somehow that feels even worse.