Justice League arrives in theaters with the stench of self-seriousness, not to mention the load of legitimizing a frail, failing franchise, on its back. While its predecessor, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, remains a perennial fanboy punching bag 18 months after its release, the light of the much-adored Wonder Woman, for me at least, grows more dim by the day in both its faux-feminist politics and its glum, dirge-like aesthetics. Now, I’m no Marvel partisan. Even the frissons in those films, from Dr. Strange’s psychotropic visual shenanigans to the feisty caper escapades of Ant-Man to the comic filigrees of James Gunn’s Guardians dyad, only nominally search for an escape hatch from their franchise’s homogeneity. In actuality, they mostly stress-test the walls of their franchise by providing merely minor disturbances that the Marvel Universe can still accommodate. The ebullience of their alternative imaginations of a “Marvel Movie” is routinely limited by the dawning awareness of the unactualized possibilities they imagine for films actually unmediated by the Marvel Machine. A go-for-broke James Gunn space comedy, a true-blue hallucinogen, a real-deal frothy ‘60s comic caper flick. Marvel films gesture toward these alternative paths, but they cushion their weirdness by shoring up the house that contains them. They’re the cinematic equivalent of receiving a flu shot: small doses of bodily insurrection in service of making Disney’s profits all the healthier in the long-run.
But, at the least, the Marvel films have some kind of middlebrow resting point that makes these mild alternatives into mild pleasure if not genuine insurgents into blockbuster cinema. The DC films, however, have mostly spent their time flailing around in search of any conceptual or thematic unity, any resting state at all. The stream-crossing, at-war-with-itself Justice League is certainly no concession. In fact, it’s a case of split ends and confused expectations, every mild positive attended to by an equally viable negative. For instance, this back-to-basics “getting the team together” affair can be seen as a care package for fans leery of the stylistic excesses and masturbatory grandeur of director Zack Snyder’s previous set-up film. Indeed, Justice League is meant to satiate the viewers who felt that Batman V Superman spent two and one half hours erecting a monument to itself rather than stabilizing a tone or fulfilling a coherent narrative.
But if this film does stabilize, this is often in service of flat-lining. Say what you will about Snyder’s eclectic braggadocio riding the slippery slope from solemn to cartoonishly constipated, but it was a film with voice and direction, flawed as they were. Comparatively, Justice League is about as morbidly perfect a case of committee-driven franchise-management as you can imagine, right up to and including the sudden acquisition of one-time Marvel ringer Joss Whedon to puncture any unearned sobriety with a contrapuntal air of gee-whiz irony after director Snyder took time off following a tragic family affair. At the same time, it’s unfair to speculate, and perhaps the more off-hand, unencumbered tone of Justice League is Snyder’s doing after all. But, then, it merely reeks of Snyder overcompensating, a director doing his damnedest to answer his critics by eliminating what little makes his cinematic perspective unique rather than at least attempting to reconcile criticisms of him with his own perspective or interpretation. The fact of the matter, though, is that Justice League has no real interpretation of anything. It animates no impulses – neither comic nor dramatic – outside of the baseline essential to gather its six heroes together into a league of sorts and make way with a little justice on the side. Say what you will, but at least Dawn of Justice had a perspective, flawed though it was.
Where does this leave us? Nowhere really, and I’m still not sure if Justice League has too much or too little narrative. Ultimately, everything can be summed up lithely. A demonic whatever straight out of a circa-1995 album cover named Steppenwolf – unfortunately, though, this one is more gothic power metal than hippie-dippie acid-band – is ready to take over earth. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), aka Batman, needs to gather a team to fight him in the wake of the death of Superman, aka Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). The candidates are Amazonian freedom fighter and franchise-MVP Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), biker-bro and fish-talker Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa, cheeky), college football superstar turned android Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher, saddled with a lethargic demeanor), and cornball dweeb Barry Allen aka Flash (Ezra Miller, endearingly loopy and reactive rather than proactive) who can run real fast. Oh, and Superman, naturally, shows up to pinch-hit when the screenplay needs some added firepower.
For my tastes, it’s a split-decision about which is better between this film’s nimble vibes and Dawn of Justice’s somnambulant gargantuanisms. This is mostly because, while Justice League dials back Snyder’s usual hubris, it’s still a fairly glum affair, a welter of greys, browns, and steel blues that culminates in yet another chain-mail-coated CG-extravaganza that fits the tune of Snyder’s brand of metal machine music. Momoa and Miller (great radio show name, or a comedy duo, or a clothing brand) make the most of their, respectively, raffish and gullible demeanors, and Miller in particular plays up the aww-shucks befuddlement of his youthful panic-attack-prone citizen of Central City with a much needed burst of anxious levity here and there. But the expedient run-time – a blessing on one hand – also sacrifices all of Snyder’s admittedly strained poeticism from before, his attempt to turn DC into a genuinely strange other rather than a copycat of the Marvel Universe.
Justice League is a game of catch-up then, a course-correction not to an alternative vision but right into the middle-of-the-road, or a road to nowhere. It’s just snappy enough to be mildly entertaining, to shake off some of Dawn of Justice’s totemic, leaden might, to place this film squarely in the middle between Dawn of Justice and, say, the free-spirited comic glee and zany brio of the best moments of Thor: Ragnarok. Rather than a satisfying mid-point though, the film is just anonymous, each direction – sober and silly – straining and suffocating the other until the film feels more personality-less rather than the byproduct of two fascinatingly competing mindsets. Each character is mostly perfunctory, almost a cog in a machine, a face in the crowd, a human without any depth. Dawn of Justice also centered characters with no depth, but that film made no qualms about writing the characters as iconographic totems as opposed to people; this was a failed direction, but it was, at least, a direction. There’s a place for a kind of inductive character logic here, where we learn about the heroes through doing rather than clunky exposition or labored backstory. But other than Flash, the film isn’t truly quick-witted enough (pun intended) to imagine any particular psychologies or personalities amidst the drab, hum-drum, crash-boom-bang of the whole thing.
Everyone in the film is mostly a blurry non-entity, a non-threatening enigma that are also, necessarily, is too neutralized and reduced to emerge as a figure worth caring about or a threat to the blockbuster status quo. Any real potentiality – any particularity or specificity – gets stamped out by the boot of corporate course-correction. And, even though everything is painfully desaturated to a kind “annoy no one” faux-perfection, things still clash. For instance, Snyder’s potentially-pointed interest in worn-out middle-American woe and threadbare, post-industrial dearth contrasts with – or at least does not harmonize with – the heavy-industry machinery of the fights, the messianic heroism and declamatory album-cover mythological doominess of the action.
Rather than dressing up its action in ennobled intentions, Justice League attempts a mere hang-out film. This is a pointed idea, I might add. Yes, the current recipe for a mature superhero film was bastardized by Batman vs Superman, as many critics noted. But that film also clarified how stunted the recipe was to begin with, a microwavable ruleset no more personal, no less preprogrammed, than the more ostensibly superficial superhero films that “mature” superhero cinema supposedly delivered audiences from a decade ago with the rise of The Dark Knight (which was, of course, before The Dark Knight Rises). The recipe goes something like this: one part human drama about villain and hero symbiosis, one part allegorical stand-in for any random current social issue, three parts action film, with the possibility of entertaining the former two conditioned on the necessity, and supremacy, of the latter.
But why raises these thematic issues, these allegories, at all, other than a question of hubris on the part of the filmmakers desperate to win-over middlebrow audiences in addition to the requisite teenage males who historically courted superhero films? Above all, thematizing the superhero film – drawing to the surface the implicit questions percolating underneath the genre – serves primarily not to enhance the depth of these films but, merely, to alloy their self-importance, to lightly skirt “depth” in service of plumbing mere “drama”. By sanctioning added, arbitrary thematic weight, these films freight their conflicts between hero and villain with questions the films are (usually) unwilling to deal with. They don’t explore anything so much as over-dramatize, rendering the final conflict “bigger” and “more important” simply for the sake of bigness and importance. Justice League does escape this recipe, but it only falls back on another, older, equally inane superhero-film style while carrying the remnants of a dour tone and grey-blue aesthetic back with in time with it. It’s a 1997 superhero film story with a 2017 aesthetic, a worst-of-both-worlds conundrum. Who asked for that? Worse still, who would want it?