This article previously appeared on Crossfader
What remains to be said about superhero movies at this point? This year alone has seen six of them on the big screen (seven, if you count THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE). I’ve fairly well established myself as a bit of a Comic Book Guy by now by going on and on about them, but at this point, even I’m at a loss for words. If I were to just be done with it, I would say JUSTICE LEAGUE is a surprisingly entertaining, if largely forgettable popcorn flick. You know, like a lot of other superhero movies. And what else is there for a superhero movie to say, anyway?
It’s no secret that DC is a major underdog as far as superhero movies are concerned. The consensus is that they have been behind the ball ever since Marvel Studios kicked off the Cinematic Universe arms race with IRON MAN in 2008. An unfortunate corollary to this is the assertion that DC just isn’t capable of making movies as well as Marvel—a belief people have been unable (or unwilling) to shake. But neither of these things are necessarily true. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a big-time MCU hater, but I’m not a DC fanboy by any stretch either. My core motivation is always to get to truth of things. That said, I’m about to get into the weeds here, so bear with me.
Strap yourself in
To fully understand Marvel’s box-office dominance and the rivalry with DC, historical context is necessary. Long before The MCU or a Disney-buyout was a twinkle in ol’ Stan Lee’s eye, Marvel had been positively trouncing DC in comic sales for decades. It wasn’t even close. In August 1991, right around the start of the comic-collecting/investment craze of the early ‘90s, Marvel’s X-Force vol. 1 #1 hit stands. This first appearance of a brand new team would go on to sell approximately five million issues, becoming the highest selling comic of all time. That same month, Marvel owned 62.45% of the market share at Capital City Distribution (a major comic book distributor at the time). DC had 17.95%. Just two months later, Marvel would break records again with X-Men vol. 2 #1, selling 8.1 million copies to direct market retailers.
By comparison, DC’s highest-selling book (coincidentally, the third highest-selling book of all time, and what finally burst the comic bubble) was Superman vol. 2 #75, aka “The Death of Superman,” which hit shelves in January 1993. The “death” of the biggest, most popular, widely recognized superhero of all time—a major event by any metric—sold just three million issues. It was a bad scene. However, way before the comic boom and bust, DC was able to extend its influence into other spheres. Carried by the ubiquity of its two biggest characters, DC (Warner Bros., that is) saw wild success with its first foray into the film industry in 1978’s SUPERMAN. 1989 would see Tim Burton’s critically-acclaimed BATMAN, the fourth highest-grossing movie of the 1980s. This is to say nothing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
Now, it is no question that DC has fared terribly in the last few years, seeing a precipitous fall from grace from the heights of, say, THE DARK KNIGHT. And while this is owed largely to their recent string of generally awful movies and some truly misguided moves in their cannonball approach to establishing a Universe of their own, what we’re really looking at is a lot more complex than that. One key part of this phenomenon that has gone mostly unaddressed is the unreliability of public perception. Specifically, how easily people are swayed and how unlikely they are to realize it.
The DCEU in a nutshell
As a generality, people don’t like to think about things too much, they don’t pick up on patterns or trends all that well, and they’re forgetful. And, a lot of the time, they aren’t even paying attention to begin with. Things really need to be hammered home if they’re going to stick. This goes a long way towards explaining why big, dumb superhero movies are so prevalent now, but it extends to other areas as well. (These factors also make it really easy to slip things past most people, which helps to explain why so much insane shit continues to happen in our country and around the world.) Take communication. Memes have become a preferred form for many, and it’s because, more than being fun or trendy, they are easily-digestible blasts of information that are benefited by repetition and redundancy. What else has benefited from repetition and redundancy? Superhero movies.
But on top of all this is the tendency for people to side with the Big Dog. Schoolyard rules, falling in line, whatever you want to call it, people tend to side with whoever is most likely to win. It’s easy, and winning just makes people feel good—like they were a part of something. Just look at any major sports team and its fan base. It’s not that IRON MAN or any of those early MCU offerings were especially great or groundbreaking films, or that there wasn’t any competition to dampen their pop-cultural impact (THE DARK KNIGHT came out just two months after IRON MAN), it’s that a bunch of scary-smart people had a firm grasp of all of this, and they hedged an extremely well-calculated bet on it. 17 films and $5.2 billion later, I think it’s safe to say they played their cards right.
However, even with nearly 60 years of history (as Marvel Comics) to draw from, a clearly delineated release schedule and all the money in the world, there is one thing Marvel Studios has never had going for it: a guiding directorial vision. Auteurism, in a word. 17 films have seen 14 directors—many of whom have only a few credits to their name—which is odd, to say the least. What is even more odd is how similar so many of those movies are—no doubt a part of the MCU’s scary-smart redundancy formula. Foolproof template or not, introducing such a great number of variables into any system is bound to generate some bugs. There was no way DC didn’t recognize this either. However, DC also knew that whatever ambitions they had for the DCEU would draw undue comparisons to the MCU. The only thing that would truly set it apart would be a consistent, overarching vision. Enter Zack Snyder.
Zack Snyder, entering
Coming off the tremendous success of other comic adaptations, 300 and WATCHMEN, Snyder was saddled with the incredible burden of bringing life to the long-dreamt-of DCEU. Now a lot can be—and has been—said of the man, but I maintain that he has been unfairly scapegoated for the failings of the DCEU. As I touched on earlier, people glom onto things that get hammered home. Negative critical reviews for early DCEU films in the face of glowing Marvel reviews set a precedent, dragging down future releases simply because they were expected to be bad. And negativity only gets compounded over time. If one were to recall, even the widely beloved WONDER WOMAN was the subject of a ruthless internet smear campaign before it ever hit theaters. Likewise, those same glowing reviews set a precedent for the MCU. Take THOR: RAGNAROK, a mess of a farce that was preemptively lauded as “the best-reviewed Marvel movie.” Critical thinking and objectivity easily backslide into partisanship.
Moviegoers and critics alike used to love Snyder. There’s a reason he was handed the reins—and it’s not just because he happened to be behind the camera of other successful superhero films. 300 was a straight-up pop culture phenomenon. And with WATCHMEN, he actually improved the ending of one of the greatest comic books—no, pieces of literature—ever written. (He co-wrote WONDER WOMAN, too, you know.) The man knows what he’s doing. More than that, he knows how to create powerful images—and powerful images are the soul of comic books. The shots of a young Clark Kent running around his childhood home with a red cloth tied around his neck in MAN OF STEEL are lifted right out of the memories of countless Americans. Later, when Superman first achieves flight, we finally feel a bit of that triumph we could only imagine as kids. But, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Or you die a hero and come back, but hey
“BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was terrible,” the hypothetical reader who made it this far might say. Yes. It was. But that didn’t have nearly as much to do with Snyder as people would like to think; the martinets at Warner Bros. made chop suey of that movie. More than half an hour was cut from it. And since it was “his” movie, Snyder made for an easy fall guy. However, if one were to recall, the BvS Director’s Cut was almost universally recognized as a significantly better film than the theatrical cut. Why? Because it was coherent. Snyder’s vision was maintained, grim and murky as it may have been. Unfortunately, JUSTICE LEAGUE has suffered the same fate as BvS. 50 minutes were cut from an already jampacked movie that did not get to enjoy the same buildup as THE AVENGERS. Worse, Snyder’s antipode, Joss Whedon, was brought on to do reshoots. Consistency was thrown out with the bathwater, as a result of overreach from higher-ups who didn’t understand or care about the integrity of the final product. So, once again, we have a film plagued by ill-defined characterizations, unclear motivations, and head-scratching tonal about-faces.
So, yes, JUSTICE LEAGUE is not a great movie. But fault does not lie with Snyder, Whedon, its cast, or anyone who worked on it at ground level. Like the out-of-touch, craven Mad Men who just voted in secrecy to gut our country to line their pockets, blame falls on the Suits who chopped up JUSTICE LEAGUE and threw its nearly-unrecognizable carcass back to us. Driven only by the desire to create a money-machine of their own, DC Studios rushed late into a race with a rival they had repeatedly lost to before. Then, under tremendous heat, they brushed aside the one person they entrusted with their ill-conceived, $300 million baby. At the end of the day, DC Studios simply shot itself in the foot. Again.
Bring on the negative comments
But, somehow, we still got a pretty enjoyable movie—even if no one is willing to admit it. Snyder, even dealing with an unthinkable personal tragedy, learned his lessons from the dour BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE as well as from the recent spate of cloying, hammy Marvel films, with Joss Whedon helping to inject the right amount of heart and humor into what could have easily been another grim downer. And Whedon—who does have a command of team dynamics, even if he can’t write women to save his life—brought over the nuts and bolts of his screenplay for THE AVENGERS, providing a solid, if unoriginal framework (aren’t they all?) for JUSTICE LEAGUE to operate on. Together, despite the discrepancies of their forced mash-up, they put together a fairly organic, charismatic, and fun team.
If you’ve made it this far reading my Comic Book Guy griping having realized I haven’t really reviewed the movie, you’re right. I’m not going to. I plan on saving my opinion for the Director’s Cut. I want the takeaway here to be this: if you’re going to cast judgment on something, at least make sure you’re doing so for the right reasons. Likewise, if you find yourself listening to or watching something you’ve been told is good, that’s fine, but take a step back and really look at it for a minute. There’s nothing wrong with liking what you like and not liking what you don’t like, but try to arrive at your own conclusions. Make an effort: don’t just fall in line. Take it from a critic.