For years, the two main comic book publishers were like feuding brothers – you could tell they were related but with two distinct personalities. DC was the older, more mature, and rather staid brother, while Marvel was the younger, wilder, and more inventive one. DC was the first to find success on the large screen, with Superman in the 1970s and Batman in the late ‘80s. It wasn’t until the late 1990s/early 2000s that Marvel characters moved into the theaters with Blade, Men in Black, X-Men and Spider-Man. DC did have the most critically successful series with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but then Marvel launched the first part of its massive Universe slate of films beginning with Iron Man in 2008. Disney’s acquirement of Marvel in 2009 helped push the superhero film market into a billion-dollar industry.
While DC has a production agreement with Warner Brothers, it recently hasn’t come close to the success of the Marvel movies, with the exception of Wonder Woman. Neither has it matched the output of Marvel, with four movies for DC to a score for Marvel. (It’s held its own on the small screen, with “Gotham” on Fox and “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Super-Girl,” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” on the CW – you could almost call it DCW.) Marvel has brought interesting and idiosyncratic directors to projects – Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, John Favreau, James Gunn, Anthony & Joe Russo, and Taika Waititi, among others. With the exception of Patty Jenkins who crushed it with Wonder Woman, DC has gone with Zach Snyder.
Justice League could be seen as DC playing catch-up with the Marvel’s Avengers movies, the first two of which grossed over a billion dollars each. But rather than building the platform for its success with individual movies about the characters then bringing them together, DC has switched the order – group film first, with individual movies to follow. It doesn’t work as well. You’re not as invested in the characters, and they haven’t been as sharply drawn.
The Avengers were blessed to have cool bad guys since, just like James Bond, superhero films are only as good as their villains. For Justice League, the big bad is little more than that – big and bad. Steppenwolf is a personality-deficient character that’s only a little better than the evil cloud in The Green Lantern a few years ago – and that’s not saying much. He’s served by a horde of man-sized insects that are more annoying than frightening. It makes you want to grab a can of Raid.
The 120 minute running time doesn’t allow the new characters of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg to go beyond the broadest brushstrokes. Ezra Miller suffers in comparison to Grant Gustin’s TV version, now in its 3rd season. He’s relegated to the role of the immature kid thrust into battle. It can be a powerful subplot when done well – think of Jeremy Davies’ Cpl. Upham in Saving Private Ryan, or, in the superhero world, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron – but Miller doesn’t get the chance to fully claim Flash’s superhero status. Hopefully that will be rectified in his solo movie Flashpoint, but that’s three years in the future.
Ben Affleck’s performance as Batman isn’t horrible – think of Val Kilmer’s turn as the character after Michael Keaton moved on rather than George Clooney’s ill-fated outing – and it plays off of Bruce Wayne feeling his age. It comes across better than in Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice. The resurrection of Superman is about the worst kept plot secret in history, especially with Amy Adams and Diane Lane participating in the film.
Snyder had to drop out of the film after principle photography was complete after the death of his daughter. Instead, Joss Whedon took over to finish the film, including extensive reshots amounting to about 20% of the film that pushed the budget into the $300 million range. Some scenes definitely have Whedon’s wry wit on display, where Snyder style is more straightforward, but it’s not enough to lift the film to a good level of excitement.
Yet within the film is a scene that shows what it could have been. Nihilistic bank robbers take hostages and plan to blow up the building, but Wonder Woman streaks in to the rescue. It’s tight and thrilling. As with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the best parts of Justice League revolve around Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. While I’m so-so on the upcoming origin films, I am looking forward to Gadot’s next turn as Wonder Woman. And therein lies the problem with Justice League.
My lovely wife has (rightly) pointed out that when I make tuna salad, I sometimes don’t stir it enough to fully blend the tuna, Miracle Whip, and relish. With Justice League, the characters haven’t been blended, and because of it, the movie isn’t stirring. And this movie definitely needs more stirring.