Justice is served lukewarm

I suppose I should post something about Justice League. I mean, I write a blog of which commentary on superheroes films is a staple. It would seem like a missed opportunity not to, but dear reader I struggle to muster the enthusiasm. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the film. I did. Indeed I can’t improve on Scott Mendelson’s summation that it’s “a bad movie but a great time at the movies.”

The problem is that anything that requires me to think about Justice League more, leads to me liking it less. Even passing contemplation makes it apparent that it should have been more impressive than passing fun. Even judged simply as a simple diversion, the very act of judging shows it, reveals what a flimsy edifice it really is. Everything from the VFX, to the plotting, to the soundtrack feels rushed and unfinished. It does a good job of matching cast to characters, but then takes these potentially interesting depictions nowhere. Ponderously set-up story points – from both Justice League and its predecessors – are paid off with a whimper. It all seems like a rote recitation of the Marvel formula, only without that studio’s flair or willingness to experiment with that formula. The result is that it feels more like a generic Marvel movie than any actual Marvel movie. With a $300 million budget, decades of backstory, and some of the most iconic characters in the world as inputs, Justice League is a truly meagre output.

In the rear-view mirror

That it is so generic is especially galling because when this franchise began it did have a distinct vision. In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and his collaborators were trying to create a version of Superman with credibility, much as the Nolan brothers had done with the Dark Knight trilogy. In Batman v Superman, this was allowed to congeal into sullenness that was so self-conscious it became absurd. But for the first instalment of the DCEU that meant telling Superman’s story not as the tale of a superhero, but as a piece of science fiction about an alien raised as a human, who must choose whether to save his original or his adoptive people. When superpowered aliens do battle in Man of Steel it doesn’t seem like two actors in spandex having a punch-up, but a horrific conflict that leaves behind rubble and collateral damage. That was a lot for some people to take. Many never forgave Man of Steel for not being an updating of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve films. But we’ve already seen that film – it was called Superman Returns – and frankly it was boring. It was a good call on DC’s part to aim for something more interesting than a retread.

It didn’t quite work. Problematically for a film aspiring to a naturalistic note, the cast seemed stiff and uncomfortable in their roles. The story was also a tad convoluted and reliant on co-incidences. And once the full destruction of third act was unleashed, Snyder never really found a way to modulate the sound and fury. But these were all problems with execution not with the fundamental vision.

Indeed, one of the advantages of making films as part of a franchise with an in-built audience is that there is an opportunity to fix errors. If the first instalment of a franchise doesn’t quite work out, future outings for the same characters can serve as something of a do-over. The MCU emphatically does this and as a result improves over time. There was no inherent reason Warner Brothers could not do the same with the DCEU, taking Man of Steel and improving on the formula it provided until they had something special.

Done right

In fact, if you look around the Superhero genre, you will see a number of movies that succeeded where Man of Steel failed. Using superhero franchises as a framework in which to deliver genre movies has become the norm. The MCU has now has comedies (Guardians and Ragnarok), a political thriller (the Winter Soldier) and a high-school coming of age story (Homecoming) that happen to have protagonists with superpowers. Fox is – if anything – more reliant on this strategy. Logan is essentially a pastiche western, whilst Deadpool is a frat comedy living inside a parody of the superhero genre.

Perhaps even more saliently, Warner Brothers proved themselves capable of making a film that realised Man of Steel’s potential. It was called Wonder Woman. It also told the story of a non-human with incredible powers living amongst humans, discovering our species’ good and bad sides, and ultimately deciding to save us despite our flaws. Despite the story beginning on a mythical island, once it moves to WWI era Europe, we see a serious attempt to show us – somewhat realistically – a character raised in a harmonious society contending with a world riven by the direst conflict. And in so doing, it moves into a particular genre: the war film. It is not a film like Captain America: the First Avenger, that happens to take place during a war. It is about war. Armed conflict defines each character’s struggle, embodies its themes and drives the plot. The most pivotal moments happen on battlefields. Apart from Themyscira, virtually every set looks more like something out of a war film than a superhero film. It seems to consciously eschew not only anything futuristic but also any steam punk. That serves to keep out any element that is not true to either the WWI or Ancient Greek setting. Myriad aspects of the film from its pacing to its colour palette are more like a war film than the Avengers. Heck, the antagonist is actually war himself (AKA Aries AKA Mars)!

Back to the beginning but worse

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Sadly, the kind of rich, interesting yet entertaining filmmaking that Man of Steel hinted at and Wonder Woman exemplified have largely been missing from the rest of the DCEU. Warner Brothers response to the underwhelming reaction to the franchise, was to heavy handidly correct a series of very specific mistakes, while leaving the broader issues untouched. Audiences complained about civilians being killed in Man of Steel’s violent finale. Therefore, Batman v Superman belaboured the point that its fight scenes were happening in deserted areas. Audiences complained that Batman v Superman was morose. Therefore, Suicide Squad was packed with pop music and jazzy graphics. Audiences complained all of these films were too dark. Therefore, Justice League looks like someone has stuck a colourful Instagram filter over it. Notably absent from these efforts was any sense on Warner Bros part that they needed to slow down, consider carefully the story they were trying to tell, the kind of films they wanted to make and the director they were relying on to set the tone.

Instead, they waited for Zack Snyder to step aside of his own volition after a personal tragedy. And began trying to force his version of Justice League to become the Avengers. Even going as far as hiring the director of the Avengers to finish the project after Snyder’s enforced departure. But whereas you could really feel the love and care that went into the MCU’s first big team-up, Justice League feels rushed, shoddy and above all unimaginative. I really struggle to think of anything that feels fresh or novel in the whole film. Its most blatant borrowing is from the Avengers, from which it takes its premise, structure, style of humour and – let’s not mince words – its plot from the Avengers. However, you spot elements of other films along the way too: ‘oh, that shot is a reference to the Burton Batman films, that one the Nolan ones, that battle sequence comes from Wonder Woman, that reminds me of Watchmen and it’s slow-mo like Days of Future Past’. These elements pilfered from other superhero films are thrown together to form a creation that rather ugly and hard to love, but does still lurch forward rather effectively.

In one sense, this takes the DCEU back to where it started. We’ve passed the low of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad and the high of Wonder Woman, and returned to the kind of serviceable 6.5/10 movie-making we got from Man of Steel. But while in and of themselves, the first and the most recent instalments may be of about equal quality, Man of Steel hinted at future potential, which Justice League lacks. My concern is that now Warner Bros have a template for making serviceable entertainment that avoids Suicide Squad-esque disasters, it’s will become what the DCEU will be like from here on in. Justice League there by represents the franchise finding its voice only to have it say “honestly…we also wish this was a Marvel movie.

Would I recommend Justice League?

If you were walking around thinking ‘I’m bored and have nothing to do for the next two hours’ and at that moment the breeze blew a ticket into your hand, then I’d say go for it. It’s kinda fun. If you have to sacrifice actual money and time you could be doing something else to see it, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

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