Troubled Justice League ignores DC Extended Universe’s past

DC Comics movies have been plagued since the attempted creation of a cinematic universe that was intended to rival Marvel’s popular mega-franchise.

Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were all critically panned and, even after the positive momentum from summer breakout Wonder Woman, it was still unclear whether Justice League was the type of film that could overcome its predecessors and help DC Comics succeed in the way Marvel has. The film is a team-up event of six superheroes trying to save the world, building off pre-existing movies, much like The Avengers did in 2012. However, although Justice League is not a bad movie, it is heavily flawed.

It is no secret that Justice League had severe development issues. Following claims that Dawn of Justice was dark and unfunny, Warner Bros. invited members of the press to watch the filming of some of Justice League and released footage to the public. However, both actions seemed more like attempts to prove that humor would be present in this new film. Then-director Zack Snyder left production after his daughter, aged 20, committed suicide, with Joss Whedon taking over in his place. Extensive reshoots became necessary, to the point where Henry Cavill, playing Superman, had to have a mustache digitally removed due to his concurrent filming of the sixth Mission Impossible film.

Issues behind the scenes were not readily apparent on the screen, though some point out the awkward patch where the mustache was replaced with digital skin as an issue. Mostly, the troubling production sets up doubt in viewers’ minds as to how the film would turn out. Dawn of Justice had to respond to complaints of Superman uncaringly aiding in the destruction of his city of Metropolis in Man of Steel and Justice League had to respond to the dour nature of Dawn of Justice. The problems were a setup and it was up to Justice League to deliver something surprisingly good.

The most prevalent issue in Justice League is its characterization. The Superman of Justice League is not at all representative of the previous two films in which he was featured. In Man of Steel, he was one of multiple blurs in the sky, crashing into buildings and destroying almost an entire city. In Dawn of Justice, he was suspected of bombing Congress, turned into a public menace and only shown as a symbol of hope in a single montage. There is nothing to set up the way Superman is portrayed in Justice League.

In this film, Superman is a hero mourned by the world, a symbol of the best that people could achieve. Never shown to be a team player or a leader, Superman is expected to be both, taking on the responsibility for tying together the bickering Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and Flash. There is dishonesty and ignorance in the way Superman is made to be a beacon of hope, much in the style of Snyder’s previous directorial efforts in the emphasis of imagery over a developed narrative.

Visually, the film does not have much to offer. Whereas X-Men: Days of Future Past milked a scene with a speedy superhero for many moments and gags, Justice League has a long and dramatic moment for the Flash to do one thing. The villain, Steppenwolf, a CGI character bent on collecting a few important boxes, is visually unimpressive. Extremely low angles of Wonder Woman feel more objectifying than epic. Even Batman lacks the great visual moments provided during his warehouse fight scene in Dawn of Justice.

The stakes are questionable in Justice League, making it difficult to feel tension. It is no surprise that Superman returns, as was teased at the end of Dawn of Justice, so all questions of who will help save the day feel moot. The villain’s motive is vague and his goal unclear. Whether Steppenwolf wants to destroy the world or just summon the villain Darkseid becomes muddled through the little that he offers the audience.

There are significant portions in the two-hour runtime wherein the heroes stand around and wait, bringing the immediacy of Steppenwolf’s threat to the world into question. The issues may seem daunting, but there is still merit to this movie. There are attempts to have fun with the quips of the Flash and the surfer persona of Aquaman, but little of these characters is seen. A moment seen from the Flash’s perspective while running past Superman ranks as one of the greatest superhero surprises in the past two decades of the medium.

Despite poor narrative choices, a weak villain and CGI mustache removal, it is hard to say that Justice League is bad. Although the film is not a waste of time, spending money on a ticket to see it may not be the best allocation of personal funds. The DC Extended Universe of films is still stuck in its rut of responsiveness. Suicide Squad was an unearned attempt to cash in on Guardians of the Galaxy’s success, and Justice League is a rushed Avengers-style team-up.

What the DCEU really lacks is development, since Warner Bros. is rushing to match Marvel’s progress, having started five years too late. Building a franchise with the merit of not wasting time is not an admirable approach. The DCEU needs to be fixed in a meaningful way, and DC will need to work hard for it.