Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Henry Cavill
There’s a scene in “Arrested Development” that perfectly encapsulates how I feel about “Justice League.”
In season one Michael Bluth is looking through his refrigerator and notices a brown bag left behind by his idiot magician brother Gob labeled “Dead Dove, Do Not Eat.” Michael then curiously opens up the bag anyways, looks up visually exacerbated and perplexed stating “I don’t know what I expected.”
(Honestly describes the MCU for me to a certain degree too…)
That’s in many ways the DCEU in a nutshell because despite a long history of lunacy (“Man of Steel,” “Suicide Squad,” “Dawn of Justice”) perpetuated by a dumb idiot (Zack Snyder, David Ayers) we dived head first into another clearly marked brown bag of a movie expecting something different only to get exactly what it told us it was.
“Justice League” certainly has a few good moments between the action, the visuals and some of the individual performances (Ezra Miller shines as Barry Allen and his humor often works in the movie) and is certainly not the worst movie that came out this year but after such a huge shot in the arm for the franchise with “Wonder Woman” it’s amazing how huge the drop in quality is here.
I WANT darker alternatives to the MCU in the super hero genre, I WANT a good Justice League movie and Marvel is faaaaar from perfect with their franchise but the DCEU simply fails here again.
There’s a ton to dissect here and it’s impossible to talk about this movie without going into SPOILERS so you are being warned now that this review will be long and thorough.
(Complainers will be subjected to Jared Leto’s method one acting class…)
Let’s begin shall we:
“Justice League” tries to please everyone thus pleasing no one
Let’s start this review by debunking a couple myths as to why the DCEU doesn’t perform as well as the MCU; *in nasally neckbeard voice* “It’s because it’s darker and general audiences just want films that are ‘fun.’ Critics are biased toward Marvel.”
“The Dark Knight’s” summer long success run back in 2008 crushes the myth that 1) blockbusters need to be “witty” to be successful and the even more absurdly 2) the idea that critics are biased toward Marvel flicks.
(Oh and hey look what happens when you competently direct a DCEU movie =D…)
Sure “The Dark Knight” came out in a much different super hero landscape than it is today and the MCU has certainly coasted on its “we’re the FUN franchise” for the last near decade but trust me people aren’t as against watching films that are complex and certainly enjoy dark tones and themes more than you think.
(Seriously!? Are you DCEU fans not seeing this?? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!!)
The DCEU tries to be dark and serious super hero story-telling but the problem is the writing is God awful and most of the time makes no fucking sense. If the writing doesn’t make sense then the tone means fuck all!
Changes to these super heroes mythos could’ve been great and even welcome if they were written in a way that wasn’t dumb and that’s why “Man of Steel” and “Dawn of Justice” are total train wrecks. Snyder clearly doesn’t like Superman, or cares what he stands for, and though he seems to like Batman he has some very strange ideas about who this character is too.
(I have a lot to get into here so for futher explanation on that read my other long review on Dawn of Justice…)
So it has nothing to do with the films’ being dark. Trust me, I think there are a lot of fans out there, including myself, who want a dark and serious alternative to the campiness of the MCU but you gotta do it right, Warner Brothers!
But of course the studio, here, learned all the wrong lessons from these flops and the result is by far the most MCU like DCEU movie to date and it clashes with the established tone of the franchises constantly. The film feels almost like a soft reboot within a sequel because of this as Batman becomes suddenly, humorouslessly self-deprecating, Aquaman wisecracks every scene kind of like Thor, and even Amy Adams gets in a few dumb jokes. It’s not surprising Ezra Miller’s Flash is the most humorous (and also best character) of the bunch but it still sticks out after four movies where everyone is generally speaking pretty straight-faced.
(Admittedly, some of this light-heartedness was welcome though.)
It just feels like a different movie now and not in a good way. The studio simply learned the wrong lessons from the previous flops; fans don’t want light-heartedness, they want good writing!
“Wonder Woman” this summer managed to do this the right way by maintaining a serious tone but still having room for humor and it fucking succeeded! Granted this movie was all but finished by the time that film came out but seriously it can be done!
There’s plenty of reasons why the MCU is a successful franchise but being humorous is only ONE of them. They may not have the complex ideas that the DCEU attempts to tackle but they are written and directed in intelligent ways. It’s the film-making equivalent of a west coast offense as opposed to the DCEU attempting verticals every play. You just can’t expect to hit the long ball every time over the course of two plus hours.
(Ask your football nerd friends…)
If the DCEU really wanted to match the MCU’s success there was a clearly marked way to do it while still being dark but as I’m about to point out they missed that too…
Why the rush?
One thing that has baffled me the most about this franchise is its incessant need to play catch-up with the MCU. From the moment “Batman v. Superman” was announced at Comic-Con back in 2013, Warner Brothers seemed to think that if they had an ensemble super hero film too they would be instantly as financially successful as the MCU’s “Avengers” as well.
(How I imagine the interns may have sounded at Warner Bros Studios when they announced the reshoots for “Justice League.”)
People tend to forget that before “The Avengers” there were five films, spread out over four years that laid the backstory of each character, their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses and arcs and it set up for one hell of a team-up in 2012. “The Avengers” worked largely because they didn’t need to do anymore exposition, all they needed to do was just let the characters play off each other and do cool shit on the screen. Joss Whedon gets a lot of credit for bringing this all together but really all he did was do the sports equivalent of an alley-oop dunk from his point guard.
(Also figurative representation of Disney against their competition.)
“Justice League” actually had four years to work with too between their “Iron Man” (“Man of Steel”) and their big super hero teamup and hooooow did they decide to spend it? A convoluted sequel that attempted to setup the ensemble team for this movie, a God awful “Guardians of the Galaxy” clone released a few months later that year and finally an origin movie earlier this year for one of the team’s signature characters.
Warner Bros got only one thing right in the middle of these two movies and it was easily their best film to date. There’s a reason why Wonder Woman’s scenes go by the most smoothly in the movie; it’s because we already know her, we know what she’s been through, who she cares about and why she matters. Yes, all these characters have long established backstories in the comics that I’m sure all the NERDS were well aware of going into this movie but when you’re dealing with this many main characters you can’t expect us to feel connected to this team that we’re all essentially meeting for the first time here.
No, we definitely don’t need to see Batman’s parents shot again in another solo film but we could’ve definitely used origin films for the other characters. An Aquaman movie that describes the tension going on between him Mera in Atlantis could’ve given context to that scene in this movie. Cyborg’s film could’ve showed us why he doesn’t quite have control over his parts yet when he shoots Superman out of self-defense and would’ve made that scene make more sense. Or even a Flash movie that describes his relationship with his dad and why he keeps trying to save him would have given us an emotional context that carries over in this story (granted I watched the CW show, so I’m familiar with this character but that still doesn’t excuse this rushed backstory here).
(The DC CWverse: Somehow more consistently good with its goofy soap opera shit than these big budget Hollywood blockbusters.)
Don’t get me wrong, I think the actors involved all did a great job with what little they were given but they are ultimately bogged down by the need to explain their backstories in the middle of all of this because of the missing context.
“Avengers” did this the right way, as we saw Thor and Loki’s brotherly squabble carried into the ensemble film, Cap still struggling with being frozen for 60 years making him distrustful of his new handlers and Tony Stark still having a guilt complex from the first movie that carries into his near ultimate sacrifice at the end of the movie, not to mention the continued romance with Pepper Potts that helps lead him to this decision.
(Hey look! Context in action before “Civil War” last year!)
The point is thematically these are continuations of established characters where we see continued development in the ensemble movie; it’s building upon an established base instead of doing it all at once. Basically what I’m saying is “Justice League” is the fifth book in a graphic novel series without its third and fourth volumes (the other origin stories).
We don’t get to see these other characters earn their capes and tights and thus the film feels distant and disjointed because we haven’t been shown why we should care yet about these other characters. When Batman gets blunt with Wonder Women about being gone for nearly 100 years and her relationship with Steve Trevor it’s an “Oh shit” moment for us because we GET IT because we saw IT happen in her movie. Imagine having that same “Oh shit” moment about the other characters; we could have seen real continuing development of these characters here instead of shoving it down our throats in one gulp of a movie.
(CONTEXT! CONTEXT! CONTEXT!!!!)
It’s a real missed opportunity by Warner Bros not to establish these characters in their own solo films before the big team-up but here we are unfortunately.
Steppenwolf looked terrible and was terrible
Ok, time to get into some more specific problems with the movie and it starts with our CGI monstrosity of a villain; Steppenwolf.
Much in the same way not establishing solo film back stories for our heroes before the movie was a problem, having a hammy Steppenwolf backstory piled on top of all the rushed exposition was a mistake too.
The film could’ve benefited from an old established villain coming back much in the same way Loki did in Avengers with perhaps Lex Luthor instead, even with all his cheesy ridiculousness (Zodd, if they hadn’t killed him, would’ve been even better) but instead we are treated to one of the most lazy, one note, and most of all boring comic book bad guys to date.
(Actually, I’m starting to understand why Steppenwolf was largely left out of the trailers…)
His backstory includes a vague need for galactic conquest that concludes with something called the “mother boxes” (more on that later) and he’s pushed back by the combined forces of earth’s Amazonians, Atlantians and human warriors including presumably Earth’s last Green Lantern. After he’s pushed back, the three alliances agree to hide the mother boxes away should Steppenwolf return and of course he does.
Now here’s where it gets stupid.
Steppenwolf and his army have some kind of Thor Rainbow Bridge like technology that transports him wherever he needs to go (I’m sure all the comic book nerds understand what this is, but the film doesn’t explain it at all) and it allows him to drop on all but one of mother boxes with little notice. The reason he’s showing up now is apparently he had viewed the presence of Superman to be the biggest obstacle to his conquest and now that he’s dead he see’s Earth as vulnerable but this begs a couple questions.
1) Superman had been on the planet for, give or take, 25-35 years, based on how old Clark looks in this movie. What was stopping him from showing up before? Steppenwolf is clearly not afraid of the Amazonians or Atlantians since he wipes the floor with them all pretty easily in the movie. If we assume that it’s based on how powerful they were in ancient times, let’s say they stopped being powerful around the time of “Wonder Woman” since they chose not to get involved in the war, that’s still about 80 years of vulnerability especially during WWI and WWII. Why didn’t he come back then?
2) Why was it so hard for him to find the third motherbox…for about half the movie. He drops in on the first two instantly with his teleportation technology and takes them with little resistance. It begs the question; why are these items so ill protected if they are so dangerous? But again the third box for some reason is “hidden” to him when all the flashback shows is that they buried it in the woods. But it didn’t matter that it was hidden cause as soon as the League whips it out he drops in and picks it up, again, instantly and without any resistance. It was such baffling moment in the movie when Steppenwolf basically drops in and goes “lol yoink” with the third motherbox that I could not stop laughing for a solid ten minutes in the theater. Nobody on earth can protect these basically super atomic bombs, Steppenwolf can teleport and drop in pretty much whenever, wherever he wants and we’re all supposed to not find all this hilarious?
But really, there’s nothing to care about here with Steppenwolf and he may as well have been as faceless as his parademon henchmen. The movie gives us no reason to be interested in him and he does nothing besides bellow the same “FOOLS!” and “MANIACAL LAUGHTER FOLLOWED BY LOFTY DIALOGUE ABOUT ‘THIS IS YOUR END!’” in the movie and it makes him even more forgettable than some of the MCU’s worst bad guys. His entire character, starts and ends with these dumb mother boxes which leads to my next point…
Motherfucking mother boxes
The film begins on a pretty preposterous set up when Batman causes a scouting parademon to combust whose remains form the symbol for these motherboxes. It’s a setup so ridiculous that it really doesn’t deserve a real analysis.
But what the hell are these things? The only thing the movie does is establish these were made by Steppenwolf and that they contain a limitless power of some kind. If it’s something more specific the movie glosses over this fact pretty badly with its choppy editing thanks again to the need to establish everyone’s backstories.
(“It’s like poetry, it rhymes..”)
Supposedly the third box was discovered by Cyborg’s dad and used to create his cybernetic body. How he discovered it, what exactly happened to Cyborg is not explained but again shows another example of how a solo film would’ve greatly benefited this movie.
Imagine a Cyborg movie where we setup everything about what the mother box does and the Justice League movie only needs to explain where it came from. Don’t worry you don’t need to imagine it because again the MCU did it the right way with the Captain America film setting up the powers of the Teseract and in “The Avengers” they expand upon it.
(Seriously, if we’re going to try to emulate the MCU here at least follow the blue print correctly!)
Anyways, Steppenwolf gets all the mother boxes together (hilariously easily, as previously stated) and puts them together to create another generic doomsday device. Now this plot device is a problem across a lot of action movies, especially super hero flicks, but it would help if the film made it clear what the hell these three items combined do exactly.
Steppenwolf arrives in Russia to combine the boxes and “reshape” the world (whatever that means) and it begins creating some weird vortex around the encampment along with his parademons and all hell breaks loose both figuratively and literally. Again, the movie doesn’t go much into why or how these mother boxes use their power and without that context it’s hard to care about what’s going on beyond the fact that earth is some vague sense of world destruction.
(Still not dumber than this scene though…)
It’s not exactly clear who’s to blame here between Zack Snyder’s original cuts and Joss Whedon’s reshoots but clearly the studio over managed this production and the finale feels flat because of it.
Again these films could’ve benefited from some buildup from origin films for these characters where context can be established, especially for a big plot device like this so we’re not scrambling to make the film both fun and understandable. There’s just too much God damn context missing here and while I have a hard time believing a full Snyder led Justice League movie was perfect in its original form, I have a feeling it was at the very least a little easier to understand.
The studio fucked up, plane and simple.
Killing Superman was a mistake and bringing him back made it worse…
Anyone knows anything about comic books knows that the original “Death of Superman” and its notorious fallout were controversial to say the least. The original 11-issue series and its follow-up marked basically the end of death in comic books and established that characters can die and come back thus eliminating in some ways the tension of danger they face in their stories.
There was absolutely no need to kill Superman in “Dawn of Justice” and given how little his character was built up through barely two movies it was hard for anyone, outside of rabid DC fan boys, to care that he bit the dust especially when it was obvious he was coming back. Killing him off and bringing him back may have been effective later in this franchise (assuming it ever makes it there) but giving him the ax in just the second movie when your big hero teamup was just around the corner reeked of over compensating for a poor script by using a heroic sacrifice that would ultimately be meaningless in the end.
(Also, how did NO ONE think this looked awful at Warner Bros in post production?? #Mustachegate)
This dumb move rolls into “Justice League” and creates a new set of problems that makes the story even more nonsensical. It was hard to imagine Snyder going with the original “hibernation” angle from the comics to revive Superman but what he decides to do otherwise is both weird and a little crazy.
So the Justice League has finally gotten their hands on the last mother box after a confusing (but nonetheless fun) battle with Steppenwolf. The team is trying to surmise a plan and Bruce comes up with the brilliant idea to use the combined powers of the motherbox and the Kyrtonian incubation tub that created Doomsday to revive Clark Kent. It begins with Flash and Cyborg digging up his grave and it’s about as weird as it sounds and this whole idea has a couple problems with it both thematically and literally.
1) There is no reason to believe that these combined powers will somehow bring back Superman exactly as he was. It was already confusing enough when Lex made some weird clone hybrid of Zodd that somehow created Doomsday in “Dawn of Justice” but nothing about this incubation chamber says that it can bring the dead back to life. I always interpreted this baffling moment of the movie as Lex either creating a zombie or a clone and it both cases it was ridiculous and so is this idea of using this technology to bring back Clark. Gathering the DC equivalent of Dragon Balls would’ve been less weird and dumb at this point.
Also like why the hell would you even CONSIDER doing that after what happened last time!? After the last movie Batman should’ve kept that idea COMPLETELY off the table!
2) If we accept that the mother box is the true catalyst to bringing the dead back to life since it worked on Victor Stone why doesn’t Superman comeback as one too? By the logic of this setup Superman would’ve come back part machine too and by the logic of the outcome (Superman coming back as himself) why wasn’t Victor interested in going in himself to cure his malady since the script makes a point of stating he feels miserable in this form?
3) The idea that Batman see’s Superman as all they need to stop Steppenwolf really debunks the need for a Justice League when you think about how this was written. Batman is supposed to be this mastermind that comes up with these unique solutions to complex problems. But nope, the script basically goes, “Meh let’s bring Superman back” after getting beat exactly once in the film. The point of a big teamup story like this is to display how well these unique characters work together but instead all this shows thematically is that the Justice League needs Superman and perhaps he doesn’t need the Justice League as he clearly displays just how much more powerful he is compared to everyone including Steppenwolf. There were ways to write in Superman’s return without it being dumb but alas here we are…
Anyways so Superman comes back and of course he has amnesia (conveniently until the script says he doesn’t) and he has a brief throwdown with the rest of team who, as mentioned, he greatly outmatches. Batman states before the initial resurrection that he has a “trump card” in case Superman should turn out to be evil and it ends up being Alfred conveniently driving up and comically dropping off Lois in front of him just before Clark turns Batman’s head into goo. The whole scene plays out as hilariously as it sounds that the only thing that could’ve made it funnier is if Batman said “Martha” to Superman instead this time (and I’m not putting it past Synder that he may have actually had that in the original rough draft).
(”Do you like me now, Lois? Do you? DO YOU!? *laughs maniacally*”)
Clark, after some alone time with Lois and Ma Kent, arrives in the nick of time to save everyone’s asses and help destroy Steppenwolf (by doing most of the work) and it’s still not exactly clear how they defused the mother boxes. In what could’ve been a heroic return Superman becomes Deus Ex Machina-man due to the poor writing and poor build-up from the previous films and it just left me burying my head in my hands.
There’s a lot more I can get into here (Yeah, I know) but I’ve already rambled waaaaay too long here (thanks, anybody who sat through this with me). Basically, TL:DR the majority of this films problems have to do with the behind the scenes meddling of the studios and their inability to understand what makes the MCU successful and the result is a hollow, rushed mess. There’s no Marvel bias here, no paid off critics (or at least not enough of them) to tip the scales in favor of Disney and simply put this franchise doesn’t get it.
Trust me, I would loooooove to have a dark alternative to the MCU, I WANT to see a great Justice League movie, it’s getting more and more tiring to see the same generic popcorn flick over and over again churned in by Marvel choosing comedy over substance but that doesn’t change the fact that they are still far sharper films in almost every way compared to the DCEU.
I don’t even think I hate this movie I’m just frustrated by it more than anything.
In a weird way I think this is why I keep watching these DCEU films; because I know at the very least they’ll be different and it’s got that much going for it at least but that’s not enough to make a real franchise. The success of “Wonder Woman” still gives me soooome hope that there is a chance for a great ensemble DC movie in the future and if “The Flash” movie weren’t in production hell I might’ve had excitement for his solo venture given how well he performed here. Hell, this isn’t even the worst or even second worst DCEU movie to date but at some point Warner Brothers needs to look at the problem with more nuance than simply making the films “funnier.”
It’s not entirely too late to fix all these issues but the franchise is once again on life support and the other DC fans, like myself, (not visuals crazed fanboys) are hoping for real change in the writing that pays homage to these great characters instead of being a pale imitation of Marvel’s own.
But until that time comes I guess I’ll just rewatch “Wonder Woman” and fantasize about what might’ve been…
Find you a franchise that looks at you the way Superman looks with a CGIed upper lip…