There’s a pivotal moment in Justice League where a weary Bruce Wayne champions Diana to lead the team, not him. The film wants to prove otherwise (THE LEAGUE NEEDS BATMAN). Thing is, the idea isn’t half bad. Wonder Woman is a far more efficient warrior; her steadfastness not only gets the job done, it saves Batman’s life. The film wants its team and its hierarchy, the same way Warner Bros. wants an Avengers-level success (so much so they brought in Joss Whedon). But there is no need for either aside from the machine-churning mentality of the studio blockbuster and a larger, interconnected universe – the new norm in franchise filmmaking. 2017 pushed the superhero into its golden age with stellar entries in the genre, making Justice League the sole casualty of the bunch.
To understand JL’s failings is to understand why Marvel and its films are so successful. It was the success of Avengers that made Warner Bros. jump on the shared universe train, so there’s no use pretending that that’s not the case (also, JOSS WHEDON). WB clearly wants to ape off Marvel’s formula since they have no interest in putting in the legwork themselves. A cinematic universe needs legs and though Diana’s are incredibly strong, she can’t do this by herself. She, so far, is the only DC character with an established mythology and that bodes well for her perspective in JL. The film otherwise has to introduce three new superheroes, reintroduce Batman and Superman, and have a compelling reason for a team-up. That’s too much for one movie to handle.
Avengers would have been very different had Marvel dropped it on us, say, after Iron Man 2. We’d have no context regarding Thor, Loki, Cap, or the Tesseract; the plot of Avengers hinges on these elements. Marvel put in the time and it paid off (they’ve gone on to tease the Infinity War saga since then and it’s about to pay off in a very big way). Of course, Marvel’s pre-Avengers films aren’t perfect. Incredible Hulk is a vanishing footnote; Iron Man 2 is as close as Marvel has come to a shoehorned disaster; Thor lamely inserts Hawkeye, and Captain America is a fairly by-the-numbers origin story. These films nonetheless gave audiences context going into Avengers, an effort that took 4 years.
Warner Bros. tried to accomplish this in Batman V Superman alone. As if BvS wasn’t busy selling the plausibility of its title conflict, the film bears the burden of world-building (with even lamer inserts) and teasing the trajectory for the entire DCEU (Darkseid and the coming Apokolips). This works for Marvel because these teases and inserts happen across movies, not jammed into one. We know how to speak Marvel’s cinematic language; we are fluent at this point. WB, however, is still trying to establish its own.
JL wants to reboot the DCEU at large by hand-picking the things that worked so far and hoping audiences forget what didn’t, which complicates the purpose of a shared universe and cross-referencing events. You can forget Man of Steel (the leveling of Metropolis especially) because everything we learned about the anxious Superman is gone. JL retcons Kal-El as a shining absolute from the get-go. This perspective was essentially in-progress in MoS; it’s unearned in JL and this taints the 2nd act of the film when the team resurrects Superman with no emotional impact whatsoever (did anyone truly believe he was going to stay dead?). This plot point is a logistical nightmare since there isn’t a comment on the ramifications of bringing Clark Kent’s identity back from the dead.
Batman, too, has been realigned. The character is now in line with Tim Burton’s iteration of the Caped Crusader (the film reuses Danny Elfman’s theme). But the script struggles to find an actual purpose for the character. JL is at a loss as far as him being the lone mortal on the team, which is totally doable i.e. Hawkeye, Black Widow, Deadshot. Batman is all brawn and no brain because he’s still relying on Lex Luthor’s drive, one that conveniently rounded up the identities of the other characters. There’s no genuine discovery of the other heroes, which would’ve made for a perfect mythic construction through Bruce’s ground-level perspective.
There is a certain joy to be had with finally seeing Aquaman (by far the most cinematic use of Jason Momoa’s pecs), except JL shoehorns Atlantis into the plot by use of “Mother Boxes.” It’s an excuse to revisit Themyscira, but the script unintentionally characterizes the Amazons as lazy (the threat is serious, but not serious enough to leave the island). Aside from Gadot’s glorious exposition, we don’t know anything about these Mother Boxes other than that Steppenwolf wants them. Frankly, the Justice League deserves a better reason to unite. So do the fans.
Mother Boxes would have more substance had we been given a Cyborg movie. Instead, Victor Stone’s arc is chalked up to endless brooding. Flash is the only new character the film doesn’t fail. For the sake of plot, Barry doesn’t resist the idea of a team-up. His impulsion may be one-note, but Miller relishes his limited spotlight and does a better job of selling the script’s obvious Whedonisms than his castmates.
Aside from punching up one-liners, Joss Whedon’s contributions are too few and familiar. Batman’s “Something’s definitely bleeding” is a welcome levity and counterpoint to BvS, and Aquaman sitting on the Lasso of Truth is an inspired stroke of wit. But the Flash-Wonder Woman gag is problematic (and woefully inserted as Gadot doesn’t register the beat). Some of these additions are welcome. Others point to the film’s tonal inconsistencies.
Cyborg, for one, barely smiles, but when he and the newly rebirthed Superman are wincing in pain after the big showdown, Cyborg is suddenly open to the concept of humor (“I’m in pain! I’m a machine, I don’t understand how this works!”). It’s the kind of chemistry that seems earned on set, but largely inconsistent with what we’ve seen on screen. JL’s sin is that it trades in a distinctive personality for “more humor.”
The only miraculous thing about JL is that it doesn’t fall apart completely. It’s a movie with two directors and two styles with no definitive stamp (you can practically pinpoint where the reshoots took place). It may not be a Whedon film, but it’s definitely not a Zack Snyder movie.
As reports unfold, it seems as though Warner Bros. used the exit of Zack Snyder and subsequent hiring of Whedon to shoehorn their own agenda. Snyder had final cut privilege, which went out the window with his departure, meaning Warner Bros. could do whatever it wanted. Clearly, they had. JL is a studio by-product in the worst possible way. Instead of this paying off, they’re paying the price.
Justice League, if nothing else, is a two-hour trailer for what’s about to follow. (Aquaman next December! And a Flash movie at some point!) We’re left with promises that the next one will be better or the one after that will make sense of all this. One has to wonder if audiences will still be around when the DCEU finally comes to fruition. To be fair, the MCU’s early days were similarly rough. Phase One was a testing ground. Some ideas worked, others didn’t, and through the process they found a formula. WB had the advantage of learning from Marvel’s mistakes. Now, they’re gonna have to learn from their own. Now more than ever, Warner Bros. needs to take stock of their superhero lineup. Because it’s not the world that needs saving, it’s the DCEU.