In the ongoing cinematic battle for comic book superhero supremacy, Marvel has been eating D.C.’s lunch.
In the last decade, Marvel has had a string of 17 critical and popular hits that include Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy – to the tune of over 13 billion dollars. Except for the deserved success of Wonder Woman, D.C. has been limping along with underwhelming Superman, Batman, and Suicide Squad films.
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D.C. is now hoping that this new “Justice League” movie – which features Batman, and Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, and Cyborg, among others – will do for its franchise what the Avengers films did for Marvel, that is, send it into the stratosphere of popularity.
It won’t, of course, primarily because Marvel got there first. The Avengers created the ideal template for ensemble superhero movies — spectacular action sequences leavened with strong doses of humor. Under the guidance of director Zack Snyder, the DC universe had heretofore mostly gone in the other direction, going dark when Marvel went light. Perhaps in a signal that DC is adopting an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy, “Justice League” mostly just follows the Marvel template. It’s like a poor man’s Avengers, the way it mixes action and humor.
This DC re-direction may be partly due to a biographical fluke. Director Zack Snyder had to step away from the project just a few months before the movie was completed because of a family tragedy. Hired for mop-up duty, and $25 million worth of re-shoots, was none other than Joss Whedon, the writer/director of the two Avengers films. See what I mean about the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach? Whedon was reportedly tasked to lighten things up and that may explain much of the humor and fun in the movie. It may also explain why it feels too much like an Avengers film. The way “Justice League” uses the Flash as comic relief, for instance, is almost identical to the way Spiderman is used in the Avengers.
“OK, yeah, here’s the thing. I’m afraid of bugs and guns and obnoxiously tall people and murder. And I can’t be here. It’s really cool. You guys seem ready to do battle and stuff. But — full transparency — I’ve never done battle. I’ve just pushed some people and run away.”
“Don’t talk. Don’t fight. Get in. Get out.”
Unfortunately, outside of the Flash, the humor in this DC version does not arise naturally from the characters, like it does for, say, Iron Man. Instead it feels as if the humor is forcefully injected into the script at random times just to get a laugh. When the deadly serious Aquaman mocks Batman for wearing a bat suit, or the deadly serious Batman mocks Aquaman for talking to fish, it’s just not funny. Whedon may be trying too hard. Too little and too late.
As for the plot, with these comic book movies, they rarely matter. It’s all about the end of the world and stuff, as one of the bad guys at the beginning of the film explains as he gets ready to blow up a city.
“This is man’s best hope? Down with the modern world! Back to the dark ages and the safety of holy fear.”
Oddly, this plot in some ways is so similar to the latest Thor movie that it might as well be called “Justice League: Ragnarok.” (And on a bizarre side note, in both films, the ultimate villain sports identical horns. Is that some iconographic sign of the times?)
All this is not to say Justice League can’t be intermittently entertaining. The action set-pieces are decent, the Flash is a welcome relief, and although most of the jokes feel forced, at least DC is trying. Anything is better than the humorless “Batman vs Superman,” for instance.
In the end, “Justice League” is far too derivative to be considered good. But at least it’s derivative of something good, aka the Avengers.