Coming together for the first time on the big screen DC Comics greatest heroes get the blockbuster treatment in JUSTICE LEAGUE packing the punch and spectacle but does the film meet expectations?
Ever since Marvel Studios assembled the Avengers hinting at the possibility of a convergence of its big screen properties for the first time in the stinger following the first Iron Man feature film, every long time comic book aficionado suddenly found their mind blown! It has been a decade and 17 films later the “House of Ideas” has practically redefined the summer blockbuster season having introduced a linear universe of Marvel Comics characters that coexist. It was the brainchild of Marvel Studios chief executive Kevin Feige, who as a fan of the medium understood the evocative strength of these characters — emotionally and commercially — and pursued a way of recreating the experience for the cineplex.
Feige’s incredible journey to becoming one of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters is covered to excess in the current issue of Vanity Fair and in that featured profile by Joanna Robinson the template set by Marvel’s success is discussed, and the pressure of which its longtime competitor DC and Warner Bros. must be feeling as they attempt to match — or in the least mirror — the billion dollar box office that Marvel has eagerly absorbed adapting its properties to film. Justice League is the culmination of decades of fast false starts and fast forwards! The studio has certainly over the years had many hits bringing DC Comics characters to life. It began in the 70s when director Richard Donner proved that a man could fly with Superman: The Movie.
Since then the studio didn’t have another hit box office franchise until the late 1980s when Tim Burton realized Batman for the big screen, and re-imagined the genre adding a very stylized look to the Dark Knight’s world. Batman remained the studios tentpole franchise and after four sequel films (some were good, most were off base) the time appeared ripe to “reboot” the movies. The studio went with the visionary Christopher Nolan for Batman Begins suggesting the film would be a prequel, though in essence Nolan introduced an entirely new dynamic into the world of Gotham City’s sworn protector. His Dark Knight Trilogy would cast the metal for what was to come; a narrative style that relied on brining our heroes into the real world.
When Nolan concluded his trilogy, Warner Bros. set in motion the next steps for expanding their franchises. Initially Christopher Nolan had been approached about exploring the origins of another DC property that had also garnered success on the big screen. Superman is undoubtedly the most iconic of all the superheroes, and the progenitor of all that followed, and yet a recent attempt to resurrect the franchise failed miserably! Director Bryan Singer approached Superman Returns (2006) nostalgically looking to recapture and pay homage to Richard Donner’s 1978 original, but the misstep cost WB plenty, and it wasn’t long before they went back to the drawing board. Stepping into an executive producer role, Nolan was convinced he had the perfect man for the job!
Familiar with the genre and known for tackling narratives that included expansive world-building (as was the case with the film adaptation of Watchmen), Zack Snyder may not have been anyone’s first choice to take on the Man of Steel but Snyder would appear very comfortable with the necessary heavy lifting involved with re-igniting the Superman franchise. Snyder insisted on exploring the alien nature of the Last Son of Krypton, a perpetual outsider hiding in plain site among Earthmen. When Kal-El’s alien origins are uncovered by an invading force, the consequences are near cataclysmic! A climatic confrontation that practically lays waste to a modern metropolis and sets the groundwork for the cinematic DC Extended Universe.
Henry Cavill’s Superman does battle against his sworn adversary General Zod (Michael Shannon) and in the process destroys much of Metropolis, endangering many of its citizens who are unfortunately casualties of the clash between these titans. Amid the wanton destruction Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) throws himself headlong in the middle of it all, hoping to assist in the evacuation of the employees in one of the city’s skyscrapers…unfortunately he is too late and most of the building comes crashing down around him killing many of the individuals inside. Wayne watches helplessly from the ground as the alien ship slices through more of the skyline before marooning itself in Metropolis’ Centennial Park.
Though Wayne is determined to curb the threat of the “superman” one way or the other, he is all too aware of what can occur when power is let run unchecked — he sets himself on a path to uncover ways of preventing the carnage wrought on Metropolis by the Kryptonians from ever happening again. Along the way he learns that he is not alone in his quest; there are several other interested parties seeking out information along the same lines. One is the ruthless industrialist Lex Luthor, and the other is an enigmatic woman with an even more mysterious past. Their fates all become intertwined, as they become victim to the manipulative Luthor who pits Superman against the Dark Knight of Gotham, Batman while unleashing a doomsday plot to destroy them both!
Uniting the League
Inevitably Warner Bros. and DC had no choice but to bring their heaviest hitters together for the big screen, that it took this long is another matter altogether, especially given that the competition has been successful at it for a decade, and is showing no signs of slowing its pace. WB has always had the lock on the bigger more attractive franchise properties, given that it proved and paved its wins with the Batman films (although the Joel Schumacher versions remain questionable), and competitive kept up reinvigorating Superman for a more contemporary audience, but it didn’t achieve commercial credibility within the genre until its most recent release with the blockbuster success of Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot.
Almost overnight the studio one-upped the competition and gave the fans exactly what they wanted from a superhero motion picture — optimism! With both Affleck and Gal Gadot reprising their roles for Justice League there was a momentary sigh of relief among disbelievers who had been courted over by the success of the Amazing Amazon. For Gadot it was certainly a win; the actress, practically plucked from obscurity, was headlining one of the biggest films of the season and would feature prominently in its follow-up just a few months after basking in her glory! For Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, the pair found themselves in the unique position of having to redeem themselves in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Tragically for the Zack Snyder, who had willfully spearheaded the direction of the cinematic DCEU starting with Man of Steel, as the director worked toward concluding his feature he found himself passing the reigns of Justice League to Joss Whedon. To his credit Whedon has been attached to WB and DC, after breaking ground on television with his hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer Whedon was commissioned to script a first draft of Wonder Woman to the big screen. It never materialized and the filmmaker found himself at the helm of Marvel Studios Avengers and its follow-up Avengers: Age of Ultron. Whedon also reworked the Justice League script before moving in, under Snyder’s direction to take the film to completion.
Justice League benefits from both of these directors’ unique perspectives, unfortunately it also suffers from their very different and diverse approaches. Snyder is particularly mythic, while Whedon approaches aspects of characterization from confining his players to tighter spaces even applying that to the battlefield. Given the enormity of these larger than life heroes on the big screen, it’s a difficult challenge bringing them all down to earth. A testament to the film is its placement of Bruce Wayne/Batman at the core of unifying these unique individuals. Bruce seeks out Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) a “metahuman” speedster who can move within time/space, as well as recruiting Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa) the near-mythic “Aquaman”.
Diana is sent to convince Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) a “cyborg” to join their cause. She appeals to his isolation and explains to the young man how his uniqueness will inevitably prove valuable in the ensuing confrontation to come. Their enemy is a dangerously glorified herald and henchmen of chaos known as Steppenwolf who is after three “mother boxes” — devices of unnaturally theoretical energies that will convert our planet into an apocalyptic furnace and turn the human race into mindless armies of parademons! Not a good look! Looking to turn the tide, Bruce comes up with a plan to raise Superman from the dead. Harnessing the energies of the captured mother boxes and Barry Allen’s super speed, the group achieve the impossible…but was it worth it?
#StayTuned! The second part of my look at the Justice League theatrical release will be posted soon.