Did 'Justice League' Learn Anything from 'Avengers'?

Much of what works in the DC superhero movie feels as if it can be more easily associated with Joss Whedon than director Zack Snyder.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.; Courtesy of Photofest
'Justice League' (left) and 'Avengers'

[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for Justice League]

When Marvel built up its group of cinematic superheroes, the studio turned to cult-TV showrunner Joss Whedon to bring that group together in the massively successful 2012 team-up film The Avengers. Five years later, DC and Warner Bros. are finally ready with a team-up of their own in Justice League, bringing together Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and eventually (spoiler alert) Superman. Due to a family tragedy, director Zack Snyder had to bow out of the postproduction and reshoot process that took place throughout the majority of this year; of all people, Whedon was brought on to shepherd Justice League to the end.

Justice League is underperforming at the box office, with an estimated haul of $96 million this weekend. (Whedon's Avengers opened to to a then-record $207 million in May 2012.) And watching Justice League after last year’s epic-length Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice does have a slight effect of whiplash; whether or not it’s because of Whedon’s influence, the tone of the newer film is largely lighter and funnier than Dawn of Justice, which often felt as if it was wallowing in the grimness of its setting. The new film begins with iPhone footage of Superman (Henry Cavill) gamely answering a couple of kids’ questions, but in a sincere way that hearkens back to the Richard Donner version of the Man of Steel instead of the 2013 version in Man of Steel. Even though Clark/Superman doesn’t make another appearance for a good hour of the film, much of Justice League is driven by the awkward camaraderie between heroes whose powers range from super-speed to super-strength to, as Bruce Wayne says, being super-rich.

Perhaps because the DC Extended Universe had set a darker tone in Batman v Superman and even Suicide Squad, Justice League feels less like a smoothly crafted, massive-sized superhero film and more like a Frankenstein’s Monster. Just as Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is made from a mix of human and computer parts, and is sometimes unable to control his/its worst impulses, so too does Justice League feel cobbled together from spare parts, with two different directors who have two very different sensibilities at the helm. Whedon, it should be noted, was hired to write some new scenes before Snyder had to back out of the project, but the former filmmaker’s tone is hard to ignore, especially when it comes to some of the new characters. (Producer Chuck Roven has said Whedon's reshoots were responsible for about 15-20 percent of the film.)

Though he made a brief cameo in Batman v Superman, one of the big new characters in Justice League is Barry Allen, also known as The Flash. As portrayed by Ezra Miller, this Flash is both the funniest part of Justice League, and seems very Whedon-esque in creation. Barry’s powers are undeniable, but his genuine excitement at Bruce Wayne’s secret lair (“It’s like a…Bat Cave!”, Barry whispers in awe while also sounding mildly snarky) and at encountering other mythic heroes is not only infectious but feels radically different from the way characters treat Batman and Superman in the previous DCEU films. Even Barry’s brief riff on not understanding the purpose of brunch, as a microcosm of why he’s unable to successfully interact with people, feels like it came straight from Whedon’s pen. It’s like a DC version of the Avengers eating shawarma together.

The unfortunate problem is that while the camaraderie among the heroes is largely enjoyable, the threat that they face is as bland and colorless as the Doomsday-led climax of Batman v Superman. Here, the alien character Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) is able to descend upon Earth after the death of Superman in the 2016 film, attempting to gain control of three Mother Boxes, which can bring about apocalypse when they are united. Though the stakes are clearly quite high, Steppenwolf as a character is poorly defined and seems as generic a bad guy as anything in previous DC or Marvel superhero films. Whatever personality exists within this film lines up with the good guys, whether it’s the heroes themselves or the dryly sarcastic Alfred (Jeremy Irons).

It’s hard to know if Whedon would have also introduced a Steppenwolf-like threat had he been given the full reins to Justice League; both of his Avengers films featured world-threatening villains who had at least some amount of flash and wit that’s absent here. (Whedon courted controversy Wednesday when he liked tweets criticizing the villain, suggesting that it wouldn't have been his first choice). But much of what does work in Justice League feels as if it can be more easily associated with Whedon instead of director Snyder. (Though Whedon guided postproduction reshoots as director, he only has a co-writing credit on the film with Chris Terrio.) The reshoots themselves are often aggressively noticeable; for example, Henry Cavill, for his upcoming role in Mission: Impossible 6, was apparently contractually obligated to sport a mustache, and the CG here to “shave” Superman is exceedingly rough. As a whole, Justice League is not able to come together, with its best moments feeling like the product of the man who came late to the project, not the man who helped start the production.