Where is the DCEU going? Is it the gritty, god-obsessed mythology of Zach Snyder? Is it a copy of the MCU? Is it something else? No one seems to know. “Justice League” is the latest example of how no one at Warner Bros. seems to know what they’re doing with the DC Universe. In the race to make a counter to Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Justice League has been given the short stick.
When a new threat to the world emerges after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Bruce Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) must recruit a team of other superheroes such as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Together, they need to defeat the villainous Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) before he destroys the world.
That is pretty much the whole plot right there. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? Whereas “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) were failed films with high concepts, “Justice League” is a failed film with no concept. It is the laziest excuse for a superhero ensemble. No deeper morals, no themes about gods and superpowers, no character arcs beyond the most absolute basic. It is a totally paint-by-numbers movie devoid of any creative spark. There is nothing memorable about it.
It really is hard to criticize specific scenes or characters because the film is so hollow. You just don’t care about the story. It’s a series of action sequences followed by mandatory “character” moments. Flash is the funny one. Aquaman is dashingly reckless. Batman is brooding. Cyborg is angry. The villain wants to destroy the world for… reasons. He’s a baddie. The team must learn to work together as a team. Fill in the blank.
This is not the film the Justice League deserves. The audience should be on the edge of their seats as the different members of the League are assembled by Batman and Wonder Woman, broken souls who have never been heroes before. Guided by the memory of Superman, the team must put aside their egos and pasts to band together as a team (in a way that’s different than the MCU). Superman’s absence has allowed a new supervillain to emerge out of the shadows, a multi-faceted villain who has a personal beef with Batman/Wonder Woman/Aquaman/etc.
People often complain that the DCEU movies are too dark and that they’re being rushed too fast, but that’s ignoring the big problems at their heart. Being dark is not an inherent problem. Indeed, it’s a good way to distinguish themselves from the MCU. The DCEU can be dark and moody, but we have to care. Superman and Batman should be shining beacons of light in a hostile world, people we connect with and aspire to become. That has never happened in any of these films, both Affleck and Cavill flat and uninteresting cardboard cutouts. And you don’t need to follow the MCU and build up all the characters in individual films before putting them together in a team movie. It’s a disservice to the audience to think they need to be led by the hand and explained every little thing. You can introduce a bunch of characters in one film and give them fully fleshed out arcs that don’t cheat them. It’s hard, but it’s doable.
But you have to do it well. That’s what the DCEU has never done (“Wonder Woman” (2017) excluded). Tell a story with engaging characters that the audience can empathize with. The idea of the DCEU (other than to make money) was to be the “mature” superhero franchise, with high ideas of mythology, religion, idolism and violence. It has never struggled for ideas and reach, it has struggled in execution.
“Justice League” is the first film that never even tries. At least the previous films tried. But the MCU has apparently taken permanent residence in Warner Bros. psyche. They need to be different and the same, light and dark, popular and edgy. And with the trailers for “Shazam” and “Aquaman” lacking the same sort of coherent guidance needed to create a DC world, it looks like more of the same is in store. The best move would be to start over from scratch, wipe the slate clean and let the series evolve naturally, with committed filmmakers taking their time and putting together a refined product.
But that can’t happen today, when movies are planned years in advance, an assembly-line production that stifles creativity. It’s a shame.