Justice League (2017): When Warner Bros. Gave Up

This movie is trying to throw a party. It sent out expensive invitations and set up the party chairs; it got its mom to make a sponge cake and beg her coworkers to bring their kids over, if just for a couple of hours, to give the birthday boy the illusion that he has friends. This movie was spoiled, spoiled, spoiled, the highest budgeted flop in the history of movies. And like all spoiled children, it couldn’t handle defeat: it thought so little of itself to begin with that it trashed the whole place in frustration, yelled at the clowns to leave, and changed its image in the hopes of appeasing someone it had no name for. It blames us for not accepting it (so does its mom).

After a couple of films that it almost believed in, though general audiences never did, Warner Bros. wanted their big payday. So they made Justice League in the image of their competitor's films instead of Snyder’s – they planned it from the beginning based on the success of The Avengers, not on the established aesthetic of their own films. They had no intention of trying to earn the buildup. They were tired of not being liked.

Justice League casts all the new characters to be crowd-pleasers and juices the established ones for big dripping globs of self-congratulations. The brisker pace earned it tentative critical praise compared to the mushy reception of its predecessors, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. It must be said that those films had such big ambitions that they couldn’t condense themselves into sensible movies; that, at this moment, seems like a glorious alternative. Now, we see the result of wishing for the hard stuff to soften up: Justice League is sensible in a corporate sense, a soft throw to the people who wanted their superheroes more familiar, and I refuse to reward it for replacing creativity with desperation (there’s nothing else to call it).

The previous films may not have sparkled with positivity, but they didn’t intend to. They were consistent flex-fests with beaten brows and heavy fists and big, sloppy attempts at incoherently mythological themes. They had a certain demented charm. They asked of us, not merely to applaud our superheroes and pick up the t-shirts on the way out, but to consider their heroism in the context of a suspicious, grimy world that many of us see on the news every day. They’re diabolically uneven for how much ambition is in them, bursting out of their well-worn workout shirts, which can’t hold them in for a second. But at least they felt at home in them.

Comparing them to Justice League is no comparison. This film is a knee-jerk reaction to bad press that leaves the previous films stranded; it switches its characters to novelty geek culture tees, the kind that GameStop sells now instead of games, and hopes everyone will be proud of the change. It’s a course correction that would rather jam the ship onto a shoal and abandon it than brave the fog with the ship we set sail in to begin with, rickety though it was in a sort of rustic mahogany way that recalled longshoreman and greasy stubble.

Zack Snyder didn’t have a lot of supporters at first but consider Warner Bros.’ approach to him. Despite his superheroes getting rotten tomatoes in the tights every time they made public appearances, the studio (mostly) let him hash it out. And what’s more, they let him make Snyder movies. You can’t even identify the directors of the Marvel movies because great talents (Waititi, Favreau, Whedon) and small ones (Reed, Derrickson, Taylor) are minced up into the same generic paste (one direct example: Taika Waititi and James Gunn are very different directors, but Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy could easily be mistaken for the same artist). With its DC films, WB had at least strived to give a specific director creative power over his style. With Justice League, they’d clearly given up on Snyder, their strategy to maintain artistic integrity, and even their cinematic universe. This is a cave-in on a company level.

Warner Brothers’ mandates for Justice League read like a most-clicked summary of the Reddit complaints with BvS: I get the impression they just didn’t know what kids want these days. They probably put their attack bloggers on the problem for months before coming up with the solution: it had to be funnier, brisker, and not one minute over two hours. The film is exactly two hours and one second long. You know what that means: the cutting room floor is covered with the rest of this movie. This is what happens when you cut out origin stories, scenes of development, and other important details for time, but still need all these branded characters in the film. Since they can’t be cut out for time, they’re simply cut down. The restrictions have a greater negative effect than they would for another film: they made being “Justice League” its first impossible burden.

Marvel films have become immune to criticism because they act fun. DC is in a corner grumbling about world philosophy and Marvel is on the dance floor balancing a bong on its nose. Justice League is the manifestation of that envious glance when one studio looked over and wondered why they weren’t so cool and popular too. And even if balancing a bong on your nose was an enviable task, the second person to do it, to do so out of insecurity, will always look like a spoof. (Hiring Joss Whedon for those extensive post-edits only further pushes Justice League through the sieve of The Avengers formula – WB seems to have taken Snyder’s departure as a golden opportunity to take matters into their own hands.)

It’s interesting to enter Justice League “where the other films left off” because the other films didn’t leave it anywhere that it cares to continue from. Superman being dead is about the only relevant detail from any of the other movies (everything from Suicide Squad is passed out backstage and Wonder Woman wouldn’t be seen mingling with the commoners). A new cartoon monster named Steppenwolf plans to acquire three sacred relics that he can use to terraform the Earth into a video game lava castle. This is, if you can think through the concussion haze to remember, what Zod planned to do in Man of Steel. By comparison, his methods were certainly more stylish.

Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) is a problem and never stops being a problem. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) narrates a story-time introduction to him in an animated flashback, but this is the superhero equivalent of what Bing search scenes are to horror films. By contrast, Marvel’s Thanos is defined only by what he has done to us, and Justice League would cower beneath him: Marvel’s villain looks like a generation in graphics technology beyond DC’s and manages to resonate (is it Brolin's drawl or the weight of the lead-in?). Thanos was dangerous because you even considered agreeing with him at times; Steppenwolf has no charm and because of him, for a movie touting the destruction of the world, it’s all treated lightly.

I’m not going to do any more comparisons to Marvel movies. The only reason I did any at all is to remind you that DC is doing that exact thing: Marvel movies are all they can think of right now. They’re failing in an arena they did not have to enter.

The film has four key action scenes: one for each of the times Steppenwolf acquires an artifact and one where the Justice League takes him down. Of these, the one on horseback on the Amazonian training island stands out, as beefy cartoon women sling the box around with lassoes in a glorified hundred-mile-wide game of keep-away. It’s cartoonish, but at least it feels animated, in that Saturday morning way that makes kids happy. Another standout moment includes one in which the Flash discovers that he’s not faster than Superman when the League has to briefly fight him. Superman coming back confused and destructive and the League uniting to take him down and rehabilitate him could have been the entire subject of a more emotional and easier-to-contain film, no MacGuffins required.

As it stands, Ezra Miller as the Flash, rambling in almost Goldblum-Esque irrelevancies, is the film’s only source of charm. But consider the kind of charm he brings and how it reflects the film's obsession with being liked. This charm doesn't come from being a well-defined character – with only two hours, the film devotes almost no time to describe his life or his powers – or even just that he’s “likable.” His charisma comes from the fact that he feels written for this movie, where Affleck is floundering in false positivity as this Snyder character called Batman neutered to fit in this new movie. He clearly doesn't belong.

To a lesser extent, Jason Momoa brings a Thor impression to the role of Aquaman. He's cool, though in the same way people act when they don't want you to notice that they want you to. He’s a hunky jerk, at one point surfing on a bad guy in the air, plummeting through a parking garage, and swishing his hair at the end like it weren’t no big deal. He also throws an empty Scotch bottle into the ocean, while twirling his auburn locks in a salty mist as heavy rock music invades the shore. He walks really slowly, like he means it and wants people to know it. He’ll probably hear about that bottle from a few angry fish later.

His big scene is copied from Guardians of the Galaxy: his tough-guy pastiche withers from a splash of cold friendship and he splutters about how teamwork will save the day. Then he realizes he’s sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth-telling. Hear that? Marvel characters share their feelings. DC characters only get emotional when they’re physically compelled to. But I promised I wouldn’t compare them anymore.

Speaking of emotions, Wonder Woman in this new canon is a grownup among pouting boys. She’s the one with a worldlier perspective; her role usually amounts to breaking up petty fights among the lads. She’s hard to take seriously because of how seriously she takes herself. It doesn’t help that Gal Gadot feels like a Gucci model in the role (when she reads lines, there’s an emphasis on the reading). In BvS, she was the bright spot of a film that didn’t need one. In Justice League, she’s more like a referee.

Yes, and Henry Cavill comes back as Superman and acts slightly more “like Superman” than he did before. What of it? Like Batman Forever and Superman III before it, Justice League is such a change in tone from its predecessors that it might as well be the first DCEU movie. Superman has had his angst stripped from him by public demand, but what’s left, other than the kind of boy scout that Lex Luthor would accuse him of being? Not even Superman’s greatest villains have thought so little of him as WB and Joss Whedon, to strip him down and forcefully widen his smile, literally with computer animation, for a more entertaining ride for the kids in the audience. They made him a friendlier Superman for us, the Superman fans, and it has the same sadness in movie form that you get from seeing Adam West signing shirts at children’s parties. It’s humiliating. This is no longer a series but stitched-together snippets of a studio’s reaction to its perception of our preferences. Judging Justice League becomes a bit like judging ourselves.

The plot is a collecting game. Along with those mentioned, Ray Fisher plays Cyborg, a grumpy accident survivor who can’t see any potential benefits in flying, being able to fix anything, or being the most advanced piece of technology on the planet. Does Fisher do a good job? Well, yes. He also plays a plot device, a literal tool to use when the movie encounters a computer to hack or a bomb to defuse. He’s nothing among nothings. When Flash runs, the film gets pretty-looking but it’s not as funny as when Quicksilver did it (besides, Wonder Woman can move fast enough to deflect bullets, so we’ve got balance issues, as superhero films often do and The Avengers miraculously did not – the comparisons will never end). Flash exists to grin like Batman exists not to. Affleck has hidden goodness in Justice League. I’m still waiting for the movie only about him, that we will never get.

Justice League is shockingly similar to old Super Friends cartoons without the comradery, somehow debased by its budget into something less than the flimsy animation and twinkling that once held our fragile attentions. Some claim it’s easy to watch and I want to elaborate on that. Yes, it is: there are no themes to block digestion, no dilemmas to try our patience, no danger to afflict our hearts. Personally, I find that more boring than a bad attempt at seriousness, from which I derive endless pleasure. People trying hard in art is the key to loving it. Whether it's good or bad is a concern for another day.

In Justice League, the franchise hangs in the balance and the script acts like anything will do; for the heroes, the whole world is about to blow up and everyone acts like they’re at the gym. Aquaman has it down: a man having fun trying his very best to appear like he’s not. Reverse him and you know how Warner Bros. must feel. Never forget that this movie was the biggest budgeted box office flop of all time. The new direction they’re taking towards darker standalone movies like Joker is a result of that failure, not of having any aesthetic revelations. The "Snyder Cut" of this very film may come out with the narrative that an artist being wrongly punished is getting full range over the company storehouses for hours (and hours) of indulgences.

Remember that when it happens, it’s a result of his ideas becoming profitable, not a result of the studio believing in them. To them, art was never an imperative. It was a last resort.

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Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures

Cast & Crew

Zack Snyder

Joss Whedon (post-production)

Chris Terrio (screenplay and story)

Joss Whedon (screenplay)

Zack Snyder (story)

Bruce Wayne/Batman Ben Affleck
Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman Henry Cavill
Diana Prince/Wonder Woman Gal Gadot
Barry Allen/The Flash Ezra Miller
Arthur Curry/Aquaman Jason Momoa
Victor Stone/Cyborg Ray Fisher

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