There is a phrase that goes around at comic cons: “Marvel movies are made by fanboys, DC movies are made by executives.” The latest entry in the DC Movie Universe, Justice League, exemplifies that witticism. Like Wonder Woman before it, this is not the best movie of the year… but it is certainly entertaining. Critics of the major trade were trashing the film before the premiere, with or without just cause. Applied truth in humor, executives at Warner Brothers may have known the movie had “issues” before production was completed. Whatever attempt to salvage the escalating budget may be the film’s saving grace.
For years executives at Warners maintained an unwritten rule against superhero team-ups, fearing dilution of market value. But with The Avengers (2012) breaking box office records, becoming the fifth-highest grossing movie of all time, Warners knew they had to follow suit. With near-complete ownership of Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, and of course Batman and Superman, it was only a matter of time before a live-action Justice League hit the big screen.
Whether Zack Snyder was to blame, or the executives who wanted to differentiate from the Marvel brand of fun and fancy-free, DC Dark became the value proposition. Even in The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017) you could tell the studio wanted to brand Batman as a brooding vigilante, hell-bent on fisticuffs and killing if crime continued to run rampant. For the most part, both critics and fanboys disapproved and no better an example than Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Somewhere along the way, executives at Warners heard the outcry and it was decided that future movies in the franchise would be lighter in tone.
With a production budget of $300 million and the studio’s only shot to cash in on the success of their rival’s Avengers, it comes as a surprise that Justice League is inconsistent, loaded with unnecessary CGI, and breaks too many laws of physics. The final 20 minutes of the film, the climactic battle sequence, is more cartoon than live action. The heroes are thrown against walls so many times that one has to wonder how they continue standing on their feet. In one scene, Aquaman plunges from the sky on top of a Parademon, through an entire building from the roof to the floor, and walks out of a hole in the wall ready to continue the battle.
During post-production, an additional $25 million was spent on reshoots in London and Los Angeles, scenes scripted by Joss Whedon (who also scripted The Avengers), who was brought in to make the film lighter and more fun than previous installments. Sadly, you can tell which scenes in the movie were shot by Snyder and which were shot by Whedon. The latter’s verbal witticisms include practical jokes, sarcasm, and heart. In one instance Bruce Wayne apologizes for his sins and we, the audience, discover the studio gave us franchise penance. Had executives at Warner Brothers not brought Whedon in to brighten up the film, this would have been another dark, murky aesthetic entry in the DC Dark saga. With respect to Snyder, Whedon saved the film.
Thankfully, even with expectations high, the film has merit. Bruce Wayne, fearing an alien invasion close on the heels of Superman’s death, assembles a team of superheroes with extraordinary powers. Steppenwolf leads an army of Parademons to seek out and retrieve three ancient Mother Boxes, scattered across the globe, in the hopes of destroying our world. Standing in his way is an elite league of their own: The Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, Batman… and the possibility of an additional ally.
Known for carnage and mass deaths in the comic books, Steppenwolf is restricted here to a simple CGI persona who wields an axe and spends much of the movie making threats. Not a drop of blood is spilled — he merely has an axe to grind. Clearly toned down from what we came to expect from the DC Cinematic Universe. Even Batman reminds The Flash in one scene that their job is not to beat up bad guys — their job is to rescue the innocent. When Superman and The Flash race to save a family in distress, the scarlet speedster realizes this is an opportunity to find out who is faster and remarks, “Oh, it is on!” Such moments, sprinkled throughout the film, asserts the notion that Whedon does not look at demographics, nor does he care about product placement: he listens to fanboys.
For concerned parents who question whether the future of Batman and Superman movies continue a dark trend, Justice League may be the light at the end of the tunnel. With but a few vulgar words in the film, and a villain who falls by the making of his own design, parents can be assured this is closer to comic book material than prior installments. If you let your children watch Wonder Woman, you can let them see Justice League.
Behind the scenes, there is a struggle at Warners. The Flash movie (now re-titled Flashpoint) was pushed to a 2020 release, with two directors walking away and a new script being pitched. Zack Snyder returns to the fold for another Batman movie. The studio really needs to map out a game strategy before they continue to invest money in spandex. I would even wager dollars over donuts that Justice League is not the type of movie that will come close to the box office success of The Avengers. All of which merits the question whether Warner Brothers can save a franchise that has potential to rival Marvel.
Take note: There are two post-credits sequences so you have to stay to the very, very end of the movie.