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[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for Justice League]
Justice League wants you to like it. More than that, Justice League wants you to know that it’s likeable, that it cares, that it listened to your complaints about the DC Extended Universe films and changed tack. It’s less self-seriousness. There’s more levity and character banter layered on Easter egg after Easter egg, comic reference after comic reference. The movie tries. Boy, does it try. At this point, four years and five films into the DCEU experiment, it has to. Warner Bros.’ efforts at duplicating Marvel Studios’ success with big screen superhero rumpuses haven’t kept pace with their competitor, either commercially or critically. With Justice League, the studio has managed to catch up, at least, in regards to scope.
At its worst, the DCEU produces movies like Suicide Squad. At its best, it produces movies like Wonder Woman, which as bests go happens to be pretty darn good. In between lie Man of Steel and Justice League, with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice closer to the Suicide Squad side of the coin. The film has received very mixed reviews, but is expected to earn $110 million this weekend and points to hope for the future of the brand.
In 2016, derision for DC movies hit a fever pitch and it even felt well deserved. In 2017, the derision feels played out. Part of that is credit to the collected goodwill Wonder Woman generated for DC and WB as the first acclaimed superhero movie to focus on a female character, as the highest-grossing live-action film directed by a woman and as a critical smash. It’s amazing what one good movie can do to change the tide of opinion on your struggling comic book enterprise.
But there are other reasons that picking on the DCEU now feels like a heel move. Justice League’s stymied enthusiasm is one; it’s an action spectacle that buckled under the weight of absurd expectations. The moments that work here work well, the bulk of them being couched in the interactions between its castmembers: A little bit of chemistry goes a long way, and combined, Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, and Henry Cavill have good dramatic and jocular interplay with each other, perhaps more the latter than the former. There are a lot of jokes in the film’s script, “a lot” both as a quantitative catchall and also in comparison to other DCEU movies’ average joke tally; some of them don’t land, likely because jokes are alien to the universe’s masters and they need time to figure out how jokes work. (Superman throwing around corny one-liners during the final battle with Steppenwolf: Good! Batman groaning that something’s bleeding after a freshly resurrected Superman kicks his butt: Not good! They’ll get it eventually.)
Behind the scenes, tragedy affected the course of the film. Director Zack Snyder stepped away in May following the death of his daughter, and allowed Joss Whedon to see the film through extensive reshoots and postproduction. This real-life sorrow has made the normalized mockery of DCEU’s stuff feel wildly inappropriate as applied to Justice League. You can’t divorce Snyder’s personal tragedy from the movie. That isn’t to say it’s above critique (I’m doing that right now), but criticism and bullying are two different things.
The DCEU brand is still scrambling just to stay several footsteps behind Marvel, and Justice League conveys that sense of desperation, that rush to the finish line, by dint of the overeager efforts it makes to please its viewers. It isn’t a bad movie. It’s a fine movie overburdened by the demands of franchise maintenance, a participant in a race it entered after its rival first began running laps around the box office. By consequence, the movie never really gets to be a movie. Instead, it’s an episodic farrago, mixing now-boilerplate blockbuster plot points, character introductions, origin narratives, historical context, and generic CGI demolition derbies where superheroes get tossed around like digital ragdolls without suffering any meaningful repercussions. It’s an embodiment of contemporary tentpole cliches.
Even the addition of basic compassion and warmth, exhibited by its cast, feel like a welcome change of pace from previous DC films’ insistence on their own gravity. Man of Steel talks a good talk about hope, but Justice League, for its myriad flaws, dramatizes hope as a driving theme. If nothing else, that should be reason enough to feel a bit better about where the DCEU is heading. Justice League isn’t a particularly good movie, but it does suggest that the people in charge of its future follow ups know well enough to course correct.
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