If I was a Warner Brothers exec right now, I’d have to conclude that the problem with Justice League is that it wasn’t dark enough. After all, this is the brighter-colored, happier, chummy DC film that people who don’t like Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman claim they’ve wanted all along—and yet it’s performing much worse at the box office than either of those films. By Hollywood logic, that means the film lost money by straying from the formula established by the first two movies, so the logical response would be to course-correct back toward darkness.
I know most of you guys don’t want that to happen, so you better get out there and see Justice League this week. Otherwise, I’ll be getting back the version of the franchise that I like.
I’m slightly exaggerating, of course. There are other reasons Justice League could be failing, but they’re not the kind Hollywood execs are going to comprehend. It could simply be superhero fatigue; perhaps all the casual fans already saw Thor: Ragnarok and they just don’t want to spend money on another superhero movie before Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes out. It could be backlash against Zack Snyder by fanboys who have decided this is the one time they’re not going to hate-watch a DC movie, or it could be backlash against scummy bastard/quasi-director Joss Whedon for the way he cheated on and gaslighted Kai Cole for years. (I’ll admit that Whedon’s involvement bothered me beyond what I knew were going to be inevitable changes for the worse that he was going to make to the film.) Or it could be the reviews.
If it’s the reviews, then I’m completely confused by both the reviewers and those who listened to them. As much as it is not the film I wanted to see, Justice League isn’t bad. It’s a blandly competent superhero movie in the same mode as most Marvel movies, no better and certainly no worse than Doctor Strange and Ant-Man. There’s humor and action and colorful costumes and charming leads. All of the characters get at least a little bit of an arc and nobody except Steppenwolf is dull, and if you’re going to fault superhero movies for dull villains, then I’ve got an MCU you might want to get earthquake insurance for.
Some of the performances are even great. Amy Adams is, as usual, brilliant as Lois Lane (even if she gets little screen time in an overcrowded film). Jason Momoa is fantastic as an Aquaman that treads a fine line between Peter David’s brooding, hook-handed hero and Batman: The Brave and the Bold’s over-the-top super-bro; my only complaint is that he never shouts “Outrageous!” Ezra Miller gives the movie its heart as a Flash who might be on the autistic spectrum, while Ray Fisher gives his best as a Cyborg still struggling to accept his machine side (and who does get a “Booyah”). I personally didn’t notice Henry Cavill’s CGI upper lip very much, and Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot shine in their roles just as they did before.
If there’s any real problem with the version of Justice League that Warner Brothers released, it’s that CEO Kevin Tsujihara’s mandated runtime of two hours and one minute is just too short. Ten or fifteen minutes more could have given every character a little more space to breathe, a little more time for us to get invested in them before throwing them into battle. There are lots of neat little bits—Flash’s wide-eyed surprise at realizing Superman can not only see him but also catch up to him when he’s moving at top speed is pretty cool—but there’s just not enough space for this many characters.
(Frankly, I feel the same way about Whedon’s Avengers films, too. There’s a reason I don’t own them on home video.)
Again, despite these flaws, Justice League is a perfectly serviceable tent-pole superhero movie, and I’m deeply confused that moviegoers have tuned it out. Seriously, people, most of you will like it!
As for me… I didn’t hate it, but I mourn for the movie that might have been. Unfortunately, a lot of my complaints derive from factors beyond anyone’s control. Assuming that Zack Snyder really did bow out to spend time with his family after his daughter’s suicide—and that he wasn’t forced out by the WB execs—then I can’t complain that the replacement director retooled things to better fit his style. (I mean, I can, but it’s not Warner’s or Whedon’s fault that a new director was needed.) While I can be mad that Warner Brothers dumped Hans Zimmer’s former co-composer Junkie XL in favor of Danny effin’ Elfman, I have to keep in mind that Zimmer himself decided to stop composing superhero scores.
(And, yes, I agree with Elfman that studios should carry superhero themes throughout franchises in the same way that the James Bond films reuse that character’s theme. I even got a little bit of a thrill from hearing Elfman’s Batman theme again. Unfortunately, the rest of the score was uninspired and weirdly muted. It might just be my hearing problems, but I had a hard time even hearing the music over dialogue and explosions. I guess we should blame that on the sound mixer.)
My problem with Justice League is that it has no subtext to dig into, no deeper themes to analyze and explore. This was true of Thor: Ragnarok as well, but at least that movie had so much comedy that I never stopped laughing long enough to think. Snyder haters will never believe this, but his previous two DC films have depth. Man of Steel dares to reimagine Superman as a character created by our modern world, asking if he would really be the good person we want him to be if he was raised in the Koch brothers’ Kansas, asking how he could learn to reject killing his enemies in a United States that has been at war since 2001. Batman v. Superman satirizes both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan by saying that maybe previous film versions of Batman are kinda fascist, and maybe he’d be more truly heroic if he went out and made some friends instead of punching the mentally ill. I know my mix of fandom and healthy skepticism isn’t prevalent among superhero geeks, but I genuinely love the deconstructive elements of Snyder’s films.
Of course, Justice League was always going to be a brighter, more optimistic film. That was set up from the end of Man of Steel, when Superman cries out in anguish at having to kill the only other Kryptonian on Earth and learns (implicitly, I admit) that he must never kill again. It was set up in Batman v. Superman, when Alfred complains about the dark path Bruce is walking, when Clark desperately tries to reach out to Bruce before their battle, when Wonder Woman arrives in all her glory, when Bruce Wayne freaking says out loud that he screwed up and wants to be a better hero. While I’m sure the particulars changed dramatically as the suits demanded Batman be in the Man of Steel sequel, as they clamored for brighter colors in Justice League, I have no doubts that Zack Snyder intended all along to create a story arc that took us from the pessimism of today to something greater.
But that was always something you had to construct out of the dialogue, out of subtle hints, out of text and subtext. Justice League just doesn’t have that. The closest it gets to that is Aquaman getting over his bad self when he sees that the threat of Steppenwolf endangers the sea and the land, and Cyborg accepting his new condition. It’s not bad—it’s the movie so many wanted—but I’m just a little disappointed.