Since the announcement of Batman v: Superman: Dawn of Justice all those many ComicCon ago, the DC Extended Universe has been the subject of much speculation, rumors, criticism, and outright confusion. After nearly four-and-a-half years of trying to parse through what director Zack Snyder wrought starting with his divisive Man of Steel in 2013, we have finally reached the pinnacle of ‘Phase I-ish’ of the still under-defined DCEU – Justice League. It came, it disappointed (critically and commercially), and now we can move on.
Move on from discussing it, writing about it, thinking about it, arguing about it. It’s difficult to think of a better way to describe the Justice League movie than “and now we can move on.” The film itself possesses an unmistakable aura that DC/WB wants to get this $300 million speed bump over and done with – and not just because of the rushed, studio-mandated two-hour running time. But who can blame them?
Justice League was a movie that would not have made with any foresight. The gamble was understandable, but this panicked attempt to compete with Marvel blinded the studio to the hazards they were going to face. They jumped into the actual production of Justice League (directed by Zack Snyder) less than a month after the release of Batman v. Superman (also directed by Zack Snyder), which means that by the time they received any feedback from that film, they were already All In (still a horrible tagline) on this film. And did they get feedback. Snyder certainly had a vision for this universe, but his nihilistic worldview that made Superman utterly unlikeable and dark, dreary, CGI-enhanced-everything visual style left a stink that contaminated pretty much all of Justice League (and the rest of the DCEU).
So when Snyder eventually left/was ousted from Justice League, The Avengers’ Joss Whedon was brought in to patch together something pleasant enough to release. It doesn’t matter that the directors’ styles won’t mesh (it would be interesting to see the film with some of its original color scheme). It doesn’t matter that they kept the original release date despite a large amount of necessary reshoots. Just get this mess off the shelf. Could Whedon have done more with extra time? Certainly. But what would have been the point? Outside of rewriting and reshooting an entire multi-hundred-million dollar movie, the best, the only option was to throw out something reasonably mass friendly and move on.
The result is an expectedly, but still kind of surprisingly, yet not catastrophically, bland movie. Unlike The Avengers, which was Marvel’s biggest movie at that time, Justice League is the smallest DC movie yet. With the exception of Suicide Squad, which this movie is closest to despite sharing none of the same main characters or crew, the other installments of the DCEU were richly cinematic, globe trotting adventures. This felt very small scale and lacked the scope of the other four films. Sets were limited (and very cheap-looking), extras were virtually non-existent, and plot points were glossed over or otherwise ignored. Even with Steppenwolf as a villain, we learn nothing about Darkseid, Apokolips the New Gods, or any of the mythology that makes him such a formidable foe. It’s a movie skimmed of as much fat as possible, and it shows. Just get it out there and move on.
To its credit, Justice League achieved its true purpose as a safe, inoffensive pallet cleanser for people worn out on the Snyder-verse. While it failed as a movie (and it did fail as a movie – even giving it the Mega-Franchise Critical Pass), it sort of succeeded as a course corrector for the DCEU. From its first seconds with cell phone footage of Superman talking about hope to children to its last seconds of Cavill as Clark ripping open his shirt to show the Superman symbol and flying off, it’s set itself up as a mea culpa for everything that came before it. (Snyder’s greatest legacy: after three movies they still needed to shoot a scene of Superman being decent to convince the audience that he actually was a good guy.) Later appearances of Superman in his bright costume, charming voice, and gleeful assistance of people finally allowed Henry Cavill to rightfully earn the moniker, thus remedying the biggest complaint of this entire experiment. The color scheme of this film is drastically different than BvS‘ with most everything light and cheery, rather than obnoxiously dark. This gives other DCEU productions the okay not to burden themselves with Snyder’s rain-stricken visual sheen, a problem that even affected the beloved Wonder Woman. Justice League exchanged Snyder’s embarrassingly convoluted plots and ersatz depth with an embarrassingly simplistic plot that eschewed any nuance or side-stories. Characters weren’t inherently miserable (actor Ben Affleck clearly was, but not the characters). It tried to be fun instead of overwhelmingly dour. We believe in a universe populated by heroes, not just by awkwardly shoehorned in YouTube videos. All of these were necessary steps for the DCEU.
Justice League was always going to be bad. Yet wisely, instead of trying to save this specific movie, DC/WB used it as an opportunity to save the mega-franchise. Most of our complaints from the past four films were acknowledged and “fixed” … for now. Admittedly, it is a little disappointing to see them abandoning the megalomaniacal ideas of Zack Snyder (failed ambition is more interesting than safe and boring, if not necessarily better) for a more conventional, Marvel Lite framework, but at this point, it’s the only thing that makes sense for them. Win back goodwill by giving the people what they want. Recoup as much as they can from this disaster and move on.
Considering how the next DC film is over a year away (Aquaman in December 2018), DC/WB finally has the time to sort through the dozens of movies they’ve announced over the past couple of years and actually figure out a plan going forward. Justice League, while a failure standing alone, does give the studio a fair platform to re-launch a public-approved universe. And since we don’t have to waste any more energy on this franchise for many, many months, in a way, we All (w)In.