Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League and the DCEU *SPOILERS*

Property of DC and Warner Brothers

****SPOILERS FOR ALL OF THE DC MOVIES--JUSTICE LEAGUE, SUICIDE SQUAD, MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, WONDER WOMAN, BUNNICULA: EATER OF SIN AND CARROTS, AND THE LEGEND OF WINN DIXIE.****

My wife and I saw Justice League at the Thursday night premiere. As soon as I got home, I barfed all of my thoughts about the movie onto Mastodon because it has an awesome content warning feature that lets me hide things behind a "show more" drop. Since it was so long, I figured I'd repurpose it and put it here for posterity.

I want to talk about Justice League, the DC Cinematic Universe as a whole, and a bit of what Justice League means to the franchise as a whole. To do so, I'm going to be comparing the DC Cinematic Universe to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I know that people hate comparing DC movies to Marvel movies, and I sorta almost get it to an extent. The movies are so different that it's almost like comparing apples to oranges. It's difficult to compare Man of Steel and Spider-Man: Homecoming because they are drastically different movies with drastically different plots, tones, and themes.

On the other hand, DC and Marvel are both shared superhero cinematic universes--which wasn't even a thing until Marvel pioneered & arguably perfected it. It is something that DC immediately jumped at doing, and what a slew of other properties from Ghostbusters to Universal Monsters to Lego to Hasbro want to do as well. DC has obviously been influenced by Marvel, both in what they have done and in what they haven't done, whether or their fans want to admit it or not. DC announced plans for a Justice League movie and an expanded cinematic universe almost immediately after Avengers was a hit, so the comparison is fair.

CONCEIVING A UNIVERSE

DC has been struggling for their movieverse to be as big and beloved as Marvel's from the jump. They were already behind because nobody expected Marvel's gamble to pay off, nor could they have predicted just how big and successful it would become. Nobody thought Marvel's faintly interconnected movies were going to pay off to anything. Nobody thought the Avengers would work, until it did. And then everyone started frantically scraping together their own plans to mimic Marvel's success.

And that's the biggest problem with DC's cinematic universe. They rushed it to try to play catch up.

Like I said, almost immediately after the Avengers proved itself, DC cleared their throats and said, "Uh...yeah. Us, too, y'all!" The catch to that is Marvel spent at least 5 years building up this shared universe. They laid the groundwork by giving each superhero their own movie. We understood each character's deal going in, so all The Avengers had to do was focus on bringing them together as a team and making their group dynamic work.

You don't have to have solo movies for each character in a team up movie. Avengers is solid enough that you don't have to have seen the rest of the movies to enjoy it. Guardians of the Galaxy didn't, either. But the first four Marvel movies weren't just about setting up the characters. They were a mission statement for the company. Each character had a unique look, feel, personality, setting, color pallet, and yet the movies were similar enough in tone and execution that they all felt like they belonged together under the same umbrella brand. (Incidentally, this is why we'll likely never see Thor meet Daredevil. Netflix's shows may be the same "universe," but their execution is so different it would be too jarring to work effectively.)

Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger are all solid movies. They might seem a bit simple and almost quaint now because the genre has evolved so much, but if you rewatch them, they work exceedingly well as stand alone, individual movie entries. Marvel was rewarded for being patient. There's world building the possible setup for future movies, for example they hint at the Ten Rings (the terrorist organization that the Mandarin works with in Iron Man 3) all the back in the first Iron Man, but it's all very subtle and way in the background stuff. And that stuff works best there or when it's relegated to post credits stingers like Tony Stark showing up in the Hulk's post credits scene.

Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron don't follow this rule, and they suffer for it. There's so much introducing other elements for other potential movies that the films have a hard time telling a coherent story. Thor literally disappears for a good chunk of Ultron to go have a mostly off screen side quest.

This is why DC's movies (except Wonder Woman) don't really work in any meaningful way, and why Marvel has proven more successful at this. Marvel's movies are more coherent, better structured, and better paced. It's not that Marvel's movies are fun and DC's aren't--although I'll get into tone a little more later--it's that Marvel focused on telling individual stories while DC tried to cash in on something they hadn't earned.

BUT HOW IS JUSTICE LEAGUE?

For the record: Justice League is probably the least worst of DC's current output (except Wonder Woman--whenever I refer to DC's movies, just assume I always mean "except Wonder Woman"). It's pretty fun. As far as bringing characters together to fight, it mostly works. The characters feel like a team. There's camaraderie, laughing, teasing. There's a lightness that hasn't been in the other movies. And it's in color--not that washed out Twilight-esque thing they did for a while. And these are all things that word toward making the movie enjoyable. But it's not like "the studio made it more like a Marvel movie, so it's better." It's that the studio took the time to better understand each of the characters and try to figure out a tone that makes them work together.

When Justice League stumbles, it's usually related to a previous movie's failures. Since all of the previous DC movies (except Wond--oh, you get it) were pretty fatally flawed--sloppy editing, muddied tone, poor pacing, inconsistent characterization, confusing plot, and horribly ham-fisted attempts at building a shared universe--any time Justice League tries to address threads set up in previous movies, the film stumbles and loses momentum.

Let's look at DC's movies so far.

A DC MOVIE TIMELINE

Man of Steel was very influenced by Christopher Nolan's deconstructionist approach to Batman. The flaw there is that while you could do that version of Superman, Man of Steel doesn't know whether it wants to be the hopeful, classic Superman from years past, or if it wants to be a grittier, more realistic Superman. Because of that indecisiveness, the movie is majorly flawed. Enjoyable, maybe, to some, but it can never nail down the message it's trying to send. It's too busy either pushing in Important Themes--like that Superman is Space Jesus--or trying to be edgy--like Superman killing Zod--that it never settles on a consistent story.

Batman v Superman doubled down on the darkness and heavy themes of Man of Steel. I think it was DC's way of trying to differentiate themselves from Marvel. "Marvel is colorful and jokey and fun, so we'll be washed out and serious and gritty." There is a way to do that in superhero movies, and Nolan is a great example, but people tend to remember the Nolan Batman movies as much darker than they actually were. There were moments of humor and lightness to balance the tone. There was very little of that in BvS, and the movie felt crushed by its own sense of self-importance. Another thing to note: Batman, at least as he has been presented since the Bronze Age, lends himself more to darker, stripped down, gritty reinterpretations. Since Superman's whole schtick is generally Old American Corniness and Goodness, it's a bit harder to do that.

BvS was so dark and unenjoyable that audiences and critics bounced hard off of the movie. But DC had already sort of bet on that being Their Thing to make them different than Marvel, and Suicide Squad was already under production with that similar tone in mind. In a desperate attempt to fix stave off another box office lashing, DC reshot and re-edited large portions of Suicide Squad. What ws originally clearly going to be more of the same grittiness was recut to be neon, irreverent, and somewhat Deadpoolish. But that wasn't how the movie was written or originally conceived, it was constructed artificially later from the rubble of the previous movie. They even went so far as to hire an outside editing company to recut the movie based on the success of one trailer. Because of that, the movie comes out a confused mess with no identity.

Then, the blessing that was Wonder Woman came. It was the most similar to a Marvel movie--there's friendship, color, moments of humor to balance the heavy war stuff. It's not perfect--the story stumbles a few times, and the final confrontation feels too long and a tad out of place--but it nailed its tone so well, and the tone is appropriate to the character, that it's easy to forgive the flaws. Even though the movie deals with a lot of the same themes that other DC movies had, it does so in a way that makes sense for Wonder Woman.

Cut to DC, again, frantically reshooting large portions of Justice League to try to make it align more with the lighter, more hopeful moments of Wonder Woman.

Tonally, none of these movies flow from one to the next because DC had no plan. It was just, "Do what Marvel did, but maybe the exact opposite so no one can say we're copying?"

On the bright side, it seems that maybe DC finally gets that your movies have to have characters and a story and not just a series of philosophical grumblings to fill time between sets of punching. They also seem to have learned it's okay to have fun, and maybe their future movies will start to reflect that from conception rather than frantically trying to fix it in post.

On the down side, as I said, the previous movies give Justice League hurdles it can't quite clear to break away.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: WHAT WORKS, WHAT DOESN'T, AND WHY

Wonder Woman is inconsistent from BvS to WW to JL. Her character arc as a whole makes no sense. She ends Wonder Woman--in the past--deciding that humanity is worth saving, but in BvS she had been in hiding and not helping anyone for years. They try to strike a balance by saying that Steve Trevor's death is what caused her to withdraw...which doesn't make sense because it was his death that showed her that inherently flawed humanity still had good in them that was worth fighting for and coaxing out--a very Doctor Who lesson that is hilariously botched by JL.

The Flash and Cyborg are handled pretty well. I'd guess that's because they have decent pre-existing templates on how to deal with them from the Flash TV show and Teen Titans that they can use to construct a base and then tweak the tone as they see fit. The Flash doesn't really feel like any Flash from before--he's more anxious, nerdier--but he feels like a Flash character. And Cyborg isn't the exuberant, joyful goof he is in the cartoon. Instead, they lean into the Frankenstein's Monster angle--but that was also covered in the cartoon. Both treatments fit the characters, they're performed well, and they give them unique motivations.

Aquaman is just there. Momoa is a good actor, and his performance is solid, but he also gets the least introduction or on-screen time to development, which sucks because he has THE MOST BACKSTORY. There's a whole kingdom with palace intrigue, and also he has a double life on shore, and also it seems to imply that he hasn't been back in Atlantis for long, so is he the king or is someone else ruling in his place? and all of that and the magic and strange physics of this other place and other people is handled in like five minutes so he can surf a dead parademon to the ground during the climax. He's basically this movie's Thor, but without the development.

It's such a shame. He has a few moments here and there that are almost something--a few bits where Momoa's charm is able to shine through, but he gets constantly outshined by Cyborg and the Flash because their story is easier to summarize. I seriously kept forgetting Aquaman was even in the movie until it intentionally focused on him doing something. It was so sad. At one point, he talks about how they got their asses kicked in a fight, and I had to pause and think back because I literally could not remember him being at that fight.


THE DCEU SUPERMAN: A CONUNDRUM


Meanwhile, the DCEU version of Superman has always sucked because it feels like Zack Snyder doesn't understand Superman on a conceptual level. Every time JL shifts over to its Superman stuff--Lois and Ma Kent and such--it is SO BORING. Lois and Clark just decided at the end of MoS that they were together without any romance subplot or scenes of them having anything beyond the most strained work-related conversations to get them there. Just, "sure Metropolis is destroyed but fuck it, let's make out." When they're reunited after Supes is resurrected it should feel like this amazing love-conquers-all moment, but instead I was rolling my eyes because besides on scene where Clark jumps into a bathtub with Lois in BvS, when have we seen them have any sort of chemistry at all?

The entire death/rebirth of Superman arc feels so hollow. DC tries to do too many things in one movie without properly setting them up. Superman killing Zod doesn't emotionally resonate unless you're familiar with the comics because Superman's no killing rule was never established in Man of Steel, so him finally killing Zod after leveling nearly half of Metropolis feels horribly irresponsibly when he could have saved so many lives. If they wanted the reason he wasn't killing Zod to be that he was the last Kryptonian and Superman felt a kinship with him and didn't want to lose the last of his kind...that also wasn't set up, so it failed in that way as well.

In Batman vs Superman, Superman is tortured because everyone wants him to be everything but also a lot of people keep describing Superman as a symbol of hope. 1) Those two things don't jive together in the same movie. 2) We don't get to see Superman be Superman before DC is trying to deconstruct what it means to be him. We needed a middle movie in there where maybe he spends his time trying to build up his trust of the people after leveling Metropolis. Maybe he saves Metropolis from another threat, this time without destroying large chunks of the city. Maybe he pubicly sacrifices himself and everyone sees how good he really is. That would make his death resonate. But because we never see the transition from nobody to hero, when he does die, it doesn't feel like it matters.

His resurrection doesn't work for the same reason. Throughout the first half of the movie, everyone talks about how Superman was this symbol of hope, but we never got to see this, so it doesn't mean anything. So when he comes back, it doesn't really mean anything. Plus, his resurrection isn't a big end of the movie climactic thing. It's done halfway through the movie and proposed almost as a joke. The DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF SUPERMAN--THE MOST FAMOUS COMIC BOOK SUPERHERO IN THE WORLD doesn't really matter. It just kinda happens.

BUT!

I think they did it, y'all. I think they finally get Superman.

No, it doesn't make ANY SENSE based on everything else we've seen. We never got to see Superman be a hero, so everyone deciding he was Space Jesus and a symbol of hope feels forced silly. No, it doesn't square with how they've characterized Supes up until now. Superman has been morose, tortured, and self-serious throughout these movies. We know at least cares about the little guy from his roving days as a bully stopping vigilante in Man of Steel, but every scene of him saving people, he looked like he was miserable.

BUT!

After he's resurrected and gets into a stupid fight with the team because death makes people evil or some shit and disappears for a while, he shows up in the climax to help the team fight the big bad. It looks like everything is going south for our heroes, and we hear, "I like Truth...but I also like Justice."

He smiles.

He laughs.

He does this "aww shucks" thing when people compliment him.

He specifically leaves his superpowered teammates to continue fighting the big bad because he and the Flash are the only ones fast enough to get everyone to safety quick enough.

HE GETS IN A RACE WITH THE FLASH--which admittedly they already did better on Supergirl--BUT STILL Y'ALL HE HAS FUN FOR ONCE.

Remember that one good scene in Man of Steel where Superman flies for the first time and has so much fun that he bursts out into a joyful laugh? He's that guy for the whole LAST THIRD TO A QUARTER OF THIS MOVIE. Which admittedly, isn't much. But still. I think when the inevitable Man of Steel 2 comes, it might ACTUALLY be halfway decent.

His costume still sucks. There's still nothing to break up the blue onesie, so your eyes are awkwardly drawn to his crotch bulge. BUT I WILL PUT UP WITH AWKWARD CROTCH IF IT MEANS SUPERMAN CAN BE THE BIG BLUE BOY SCOUT AGAIN.


WRAPPING UP

Basically, this movie is fine. It's not great. It's actually almost the exact same plot as the Avengers, but for a DC movie, they finally managed not to make a train wreck. Whether meeting the bare minimum of a functional movie should be applauded is another story, but since I love these character, it was nice to see.

I still don't know that it's worth dropping the money to go see in theaters--especially if you haven't seen Thor: Ragnarok yet--but it was okay. It was fine. Perfectly adequate.