“Justice League” really doesn’t deserve a movie review. So I’m not going to talk about the ease with which its so-called heroes dismiss ethical questions in the name of science. And I’m not going to talk about how the repeated close-ups of Gal Gadot’s butt feel a little creepy in a post-Weinstein world. And I’m certainly not going to talk about Henry Cavill’s disturbing lip.
I just want to talk about how “Justice League” is more of the same action-packed boredom that Zack Snyder began in “Man of Steel” and perfected in “Batman v Superman.” When you have a formula that makes money, studio executives won’t make you change it no matter how insufferable it is.
The formula consists of at least one hour of grim exposition tinged with ennui followed by at least one hour of grim violence acted out on an epic scale. “Justice League” throws in an uninterestingly grim hellscape as lagniappe.
I’m so tired of hellscapes. I feel the soul-crushing bleakness more keenly for having seen “Thor: Ragnarok” earlier in the month. Thor took us on a joyride but made occasional pit-stops for thoughtfulness. Is “Ragnarok” the Platonic ideal of a superhero movie? No, of course not. That was Robert Downey Jr’s first Iron Man movie. But “Ragnarok” was fun and funny and had characters we liked. Oh, and it also had evil hordes and epic battles. But “Ragnarok” had epic battles that we cared about.
Stop Using Cheap Tricks to Tug Our Emotions
I didn’t care about the epic battle in “Justice League,” and my lack of interest wasn’t solely because it was so derivative. I didn’t care because I wasn’t emotionally invested. Snyder (or perhaps Joss Whedon when he tried to fix the mess) attempted to trick me into being emotionally invested through a couple of cheap tricks, but they didn’t work. I saw them for what they were. They were merely a couple of moments of disconnected sentimentality that shouted, “The actions of our heroes matter!” No one likes to be shouted at.
An audience needs to care about the superhero action on the screen, and ideally they’ll experience a range of emotions to get them invested—love, loathing, fear, amusement, pity. Marvel’s movies are noted for their humor, but also usually offer rich moments that viewers can read their own emotional experiences into. Perhaps in a misguided attempt to differentiate themselves from Marvel, DC movies substitute grimness for humor.
Grimness is not an emotion, and the primary emotion it elicits is resignation. Resignation leads to boredom, because nothing matters anyway. And boredom leads to soft ticket sales on opening weekend. “Justice League” has had the worst opening weekend of any film in the DC Extended Universe. The studio execs expected it to have the highest opening. They naively thought that if you add more heroes, you get more money.
But if you build your franchise on a foundation of grimness, people will stop coming. Audiences don’t mind having their souls crushed by an excellent movie every now and then, but audiences aren’t interested in having their souls crushed repeatedly by a franchise of mediocre movies.
What Went Wrong with DC’s Moneymakers?
Marvel’s franchise has dominated the box office over the last decade and ushered in a golden age of superhero movies. Remember the ’90s, when this genre was all kinds of terrible? When Warner Bros. decided to follow Marvel’s example by creating their own shared universe of superhero films featuring reliable properties like Superman and Batman, they thought movie-goers would rain dollar bills upon them, but the rain clouds seem to be dissipating. On the other hand, Marvel has seen the Thor franchise go from being a slight shower of money to a deluge of cash.
What went wrong? What caused Warner Bros.’ DC properties to go from what looked like a bullet-proof franchise to something that’s vulnerable to hits from both the critics and the box office? The answer: Zack Snyder. Zack Snyder is Warner Bros.’ kryptonite.
I suppose it sounded like a good idea to let Snyder be the creative force behind the new DC franchise. His “300,” a movie adaptation of a comic-book adaptation of the Spartan stand against the Persians, achieved stunning success with grosses of more than $450 million on a lean $65 million budget. But the bleak, overly aestheticized violence of “300” can’t sustain the DC universe. It can’t even sustain a “300” franchise.
Snyder has said his favorite thing about comics is the grimness and the grittiness, and that’s what he brings to the movies. He thinks comics shouldn’t be fun and colorful and that Frank Miller and Alan Moore make the “good” comics. In the mid-’80s, Miller and Moore took comics in a darker, grittier direction. Comics became more “adult” and “realistic.” Characters became “complicated” and “multi-layered,” which means they brood and have sex.
Overdramatic Grimness Is an Adolescent View of the World
In his defense, Snyder’s not the only person who likes this kind of stuff. Many active comic book buyers share his preferences, and Snyder’s movies are comic-book movies for comic-book enthusiasts. Unfortunately for Warner Bros., there aren’t enough true comic-book enthusiasts around anymore, certainly not enough to get an opening weekend north of $100 million.
Comic-book enthusiasts are a fairly serious group of people even though they dabble in cosplay. They can be overly earnest, and have a keen sense of justice. They want the rest of us to think comics can be “important,” and part of that “importance” is portraying comics as addressing “issues,” you know, adult themes and stuff. It’s the kind of thing that makes your “art” relevant and realistic.
However, the grim darkness of Miller, Moore, and Snyder isn’t really that realistic. It’s an adolescent view of the world. People who prefer this kind of stuff are like teenagers who attempt to look like world-weary adults by applying an extra layer of black eyeliner. The rest of us just pity them.
Reality isn’t relentless despair tinted by a blue lens. It’s dark at times, but there’s plenty of light as well. Sometimes people brood, but more often they laugh. Sometimes things are broken, but sometimes we can put them back together. All in all, the real world tends to be a pretty goofy place, which is why DC’s shared universe feels hollow. In spite of having grown men in capes, the world of the DC movies feels more self-important and less fun than our own world. What’s the point of having heroes who can fly when all they do is drag us down?
But don’t despair. Marvel’s “Black Panther” opens in a few months. Black Panther doesn’t fly, but his movie will probably lift our spirits.