Six Characters in Search of an Auteur: A Review of Justice League, by Gary Westfahl
Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed watching Justice League, which can be appreciated as unpretentious fun, featuring likable characters and some moments of genuine humor. To be sure, it is not an ideal film, but the concept of bringing together popular superheroes to battle against common foes is appealing enough to overcome the recurring infelicities that have marred almost all of the recent films in the DC Extended Universe. I may also be a biased observer because, out of all the DC comics that I read during my misspent youth, none were more cherished than each new issue of Justice League of America; and although the film crafted by Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, and Chris Terrio is significantly different than the classic tales of author Gardner Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky, the resemblance is sufficient to reawaken fond memories.
Pondering why this film is so much better than Snyder’s previous contributions to the DC series – the lamentable Man of Steel (2013 – review here) and risible Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016 – review here) – one must provisionally attribute the improvements to Whedon, who shepherded the film through post-production and reshooting after Snyder departed to deal with a family tragedy. We cannot be sure about how Whedon contributed to the film unless and until a future DVD release includes the eagerly-anticipated-by-no-one Zack Snyder “director’s cut,” but some conclusions are reasonable. Certainly, the released film is shorter than originally announced, indicating that a considerable amount of editing occurred; specifically, while there were rumors of an extended prologue taking place in ancient times, that has been reduced to a few brisk flashbacks, and the inevitable final confrontation between League members and villain Steppenwolf (voice of Ciárin Hinds) ends rather abruptly, suggesting that Whedon left another twenty minutes of mindless mayhem on the cutting-room floor. Due to the enormous popularity of Kathy Jenkins’s marvelous Wonder Woman (2017 – review here), Whedon was doubtless prodded to expand her role in this film, so much so that at times Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman becomes its dominant hero, and even delivers the blow that ultimately brings down Steppenwolf (with an assist from Superman [Henry Cavill]). One further suspects that Whedon added most of the film’s best jokes, not heard in any of the previews, since providing the lighter touch is hardly a Snyder forte.
Criticisms of Justice League must begin with its very uneven success in developing and presenting its six superheroes. On the positive side, I grew rather fond of Jason Momoa’s reinvention of Aquaman as a boisterous, foul-mouthed drunk, though initially he seemed disturbingly different than the Aquaman of comic books, who has remained rather bland and placid even as writers endeavored to darken his personality by killing his son, cutting off his hand, and driving his wife insane. Momoa thus may qualify as the first truly interesting Aquaman, leading me to believe that his forthcoming solo film might actually be worth watching. And while Ezra Miller’s Flash also does not resemble the calm, mature Barry Allen of comic books, his Aspergerish nerd eventually emerges as a palatable addition to the cast, despite the fact that he seems to belong in The Big Bang Theory, not the Justice League. Both cases contradict the argument I offered while reviewing Wonder Woman, that the makers of superhero films should always be attentive to their comic book adventures; when a hero’s adventures are not entirely memorable, perhaps there is something to be said for starting over.
One feels more ambivalent about the film’s treatment of Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and Batman. Wonder Woman refreshingly remains the most grounded and mature superhero in the group, but in contrast to the principled altruism she displayed in Wonder Woman, she is here pictured less admirably as a woman so tormented by the death of Steve Trevor that she retreats from the world for a century and must be prodded by Ben Affleck’s Batman, of all people, into rediscovering her desire to bring peace and justice to the world. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, despite efforts to explore his tormented existence as a combination of human and mechanical parts, largely remains a cipher, probably because this relatively new character, introduced in the 1980s, lacks a long heritage of stories for writers to draw upon. It is also disconcerting that Cyborg comes to function as the film’s deus ex machina, as his unspecified and ever-expanding powers conveniently include the ability to do whatever is needed at the moment to advance the plot. And after Batman’s character was warped beyond recognition in Batman v Superman, as he devolved into a homicidal psychopath, he seems more rational, and more like the classic Batman, in this film. Still, as in the previous film, Batman is depicted as utterly dependent upon an array of fantastic devices as he prepares to battle against super-powered aliens, and all of this recalls the silly Batman of the early 1960s comics and the 1966-1968 television series, not the more sensitively developed, nocturnal avenger of later comics. Perhaps this is the role he is destined in play in superhero team-ups, but as producers work on his next solo film, someone will hopefully remember that Batman was once esteemed more as a detective than as a brawler, and that many of his best adventures resembled Murder on the Orient Express more than Mortal Kombat.
Finally, there is the character that Snyder can never get a handle on, Superman. Granted, one can say he is understandably distressed in this film by his resurrection (which is the film’s most clumsily staged and distasteful sequence), and that could account for his inability to manifest anything resembling a personality. But it is still saddening to see the Man of Steel reduced to being an inert reactor to events: you attack him, and he attacks you; you tell him what to do, and he does it. Given this unexpected opportunity to live again, what does Superman want to do with the rest of his life? The film doesn’t offer a clue.
Perhaps these complaints are unjustified; after all, when a film has six protagonists to deal with, it may be difficult if not impossible to properly develop all of them, and trying to jam superheroes with disparate back stories into a single plot may require them to sometimes act strangely or out of character. Arguably, only a solo film can offer a completely satisfactory portrayal of a complex superhero; yet Snyder, given precisely such an opportunity in Man of Steel, botched the job, so that isn’t the entire answer. One reason, then, to look forward to the upcoming films featuring Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Batman is that Snyder isn’t directing them, and if there is a silver lining to his anticipated involvement in future Justice League projects, it may be that it will oblige producers to hire other directors as the auteurs of the solo films.
As for the themes that emerge from Justice League, one is most obvious: the importance of parents. As it happens, I have read every Justice League of America adventure from 1960 to 1985, and I cannot recall a single time when a member’s parent appeared, or was even mentioned. But these Justice Leaguers’ parents are a ubiquitous presence. Only Wonder Woman, who has lived on her own for a century, no longer seems connected to a parent, although her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) does play a role in bringing Steppenwolf’s villainy to her attention. Batman never discusses his murdered parents, who first inspired him to fight crime, but he is still being mentored by the father figure who raised him, butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons); indeed, every time Batman goes into battle, he is accompanied by Alfred’s voice in his ear, advising him about his whereabouts or turning on some technological aid. From a conversation with his future wife Mera (Amber Heard), we learn that Aquaman became a bitter loner because he is still disturbed that his mother abandoned him. Cyborg is close to his father Silas Stone (Joe Morton), who saved his life and transformed him into a cyborg, and he springs into action for the first time when his father is threatened by Steppenwolf. Barry Allen, we are told, is drifting aimlessly through life because he remains distressed by the unjust imprisonment of his father Henry Allen (Billy Crudup), and he finally gets a “real job” in the Central City Police Department to make his father proud. And Superman, who was buried with a picture of his late father, is heartened to be reunited with his mother (Diane Lane), and the film’s emotional climax comes when Batman arranges to have her move back into her old family home. (One wonders why Snyder didn’t have his villain kidnap Superman’s mother, the trope he deployed in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but perhaps he is saving that for Justice League 2.)
The people most dependent on their parents, of course, are children, and in foregrounding this aspect of its superheroes’ personalities, this film is effectively transforming its adult protagonists into children – as recognized by the one superhero without this trait, Wonder Woman, who announces, “I work with children.” In two cases, heroes are literally juvenilized, as the previously adult Barry Allen is converted into a teenager and Cyborg, portrayed as more mature when he was promoted from the Teen Titans to the Justice League, is again an inexperienced youth. Aquaman consistently acts like an overgrown child; the reborn Superman’s passivity seems very childlike; and while Batman’s age and maturity is elsewhere emphasized, he is addressed like a child when Commissioner Gordon (J. K. Simmons), observing his new companions, remarks, “It’s good to see you playing well with others.” Presenting superheroes as children depending on parents relates to the trend, earlier noted in my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013 – review here), of films with youthful protagonists who resent their parents while simultaneously expecting them to solve all their problems. It also becomes another way to celebrate the wonderfulness of families, the one message that no film is afraid to convey; thus, when people pleading for their lives tell Steppenwolf, “We have families,” the villain responds, “Why does everybody keep telling me that?” as he gets ready to kill them.
And why, one might ask, does Steppenwolf want to kill these good people? He hopes to frighten one of them into revealing the location of the third “Mother Box” that will provide him with unlimited power. Why does he want unlimited power? To destroy the world. And why does he want to destroy the world? Ah, that’s a good question. While Wonder Woman vainly attempts to explain his motives, Steppenwolf basically loves doing evil things for the sheer hell of it, making him a sterile, one-dimensional character provoking an utterly meaningless conflict and recalling the equally senseless malevolence of the Enchantress in Suicide Squad (2016 – review here). Indeed, when I commented in reviewing Wonder Woman that typical superhero films were “as contrived as a World Wrestling Entertainment match between a man dressed as Uncle Sam and a man dressed as Osama Bin Laden,” I could have been talking about this film. It is striking that superhero films invariably strive to provide their heroes with complicated back stories and personal issues, but often pit them against vacuously robotic evildoers, in contrast to comic books that increasingly devote considerable attention to developing complex, nuanced villains. There is nothing wrong with understanding villains, or even sympathizing with villains, but filmmakers evidently fear that if there is even the slightest ambiguity in their portrayals of villains, audiences will not cheer loudly enough when they are finally obliterated.
Justice League also emulates other recent films in assuming that audiences cannot care about people suffering unless they are personally introduced to them. Therefore, as the film proceeds, filmgoers are suddenly shown a poor family with an adorable daughter besieged by Steppenwolf’s “parademons” so that later on, when Steppenwolf starts destroying the world, we are concerned about this fleeing family and gratified when the Flash rescues them. It is true that some concern for the anonymous masses is displayed, for as the violence rages on, and one hears the amplified sound of crunching lettuce so often as to fear an impending lettuce shortage, the film clearly indicates that no innocent bystanders are being threatened; but this is cynical, not compassionate, as Snyder still recalls the criticism directed at Man of Steel for its indiscriminate slaughter, and it is implausible as well, since there is no reason to believe that despicable villains, and heroes desperately opposing them, would carefully select largely uninhabited areas for each showdown.
Even as it characterizes its heroes as children, the film also argues that it is important for overgrown children to grow up, find life companions, and get a job. This is the substance of the film’s most remarkable speech, as Batman says that Superman must be revived because “He’s more human than I am. He lived in this world, fell in love, had a job, despite all that power.” One suddenly realizes what’s different about Affleck’s Batman: previous Batman stories in print and on film provided him with a steady stream of attractive female companions, and it was sometimes intimated that he would eventually settle down and marry the reformed Catwoman; also, to counter his image as an idle playboy, one started to observe him taking an active role in managing the business and charitable activities of his Wayne Enterprises. Such romantic relationships, and steady employment in the real world, are what make people “human.” Affleck’s Batman is not really human because, obsessed with what one must describe as his hobby – fighting crime – he has no time for girlfriends or everyday work. The former absence in his life, at least, clearly bothers Alfred, for when Wonder Woman contacts Cyborg in the Batcave and arranges to meet him, the butler tells her, “You have a date – about time somebody here did.”
If superheroes need partners and day jobs to keep them grounded, it would seem logical to conclude Justice League by showing its six members acquiring those attributes; but this is true only in the case of Superman, who has reconciled with Lois Lane and apparently resumed the role of Clark Kent (though it would seem impossible to explain Superman’s and Kent’s simultaneous resurrection without revealing his secret identity). Barry Allen does get a job, and one scene suggests that Diana Prince has returned to her museum work, but Aquaman has gone back to lonely wanderings through the oceans, Cyborg remains in isolation, Bruce Wayne has no new responsibilities, and no one but Superman has found anyone to date. But, I suppose, one must leave some issues unresolved for possible sequels.
And there could be many sequels to come, depending on the success of this film. Upcoming solo projects for all six members of the Justice League have been announced, along with a second Justice League film which, this film threatens, may feature Jesse Eisenberg’s insufferable Lex Luthor, along with Joe Manganiello as Deathstroke. Further, when Batman describes plans for a meeting room containing a table with six chairs, Wonder Woman adds, “and room for more” – suggesting that other heroes may soon be joining the Justice League. The brief appearance of a Green Lantern in this film’s flashbacks, and announced films featuring the Green Lantern Corps and the original Captain Marvel, indicate that Green Lantern and Captain Marvel may join, and since over a hundred other DC heroes have been part of the Justice League, the other possibilities are endless. Before this year, I would have responded to the prospect of these additional films only with fear; yet Justice League stresses that it is important to overcome one’s fears and instead embrace “hope.” And, after the appearance of the excellent Wonder Woman, and this tolerable film, there is finally some reason for hope.
Directed by Zack Snyder (and Joss Whedon, uncredited)
Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, based on a story by Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, William Moulton Marston, Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert (uncredited), Paul Norris (uncredited) and Mort Weisinger (uncredited), Marv Wolfman (uncredited) and George Pérez (uncredited), and Jack Kirby
Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, J. K. Simmons, Diane Lane, Joe Morton, Connie Nielsen, Billy Crudup (uncredited), Ciarán Hinds (voice), Amber Heard, Jesse Eisenberg (uncredited), and Joe Manganiello (uncredited)
Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press; ; his forthcoming books include Arthur C. Clarke and Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences.
3 thoughts on “Six Characters in Search of an Auteur: A Review of Justice League, by Gary Westfahl”
I went to a lot of comic book movies in 2016, I thought Captain American: Civil War , and Deadpool and Dr. Strange were good movies. (I was not as taken by Deadpool as many were.) I have this problem; even the good comic book action movies don’t entertain me*, right now. Problem, there is a problem, Corinthians 13:11. Now it’s not that I have to put away childish things entirely, but for god sakes I am not possessed of a strong sense of arrested adolescence, are there that many adults who are? I mean, I know, the box office demographics for these films are 25 and under, but they wouldn’t make a billion bucks worldwide if a large part of the audience was not adults. (Actually I gave up comic books when I was 15 years old.) With the poor box office success of Blade Runner 2049 is it comic book movies forever? Well, we did have Dunkirk this year, an adult non popcorn movie that did reasonably well, but will that be it all for good? I am not seeing any more of these until they engage me with something more substantial.
*That said, I did like Wonder Woman this year, it undercut my expectations.
Actually, Al, you did put away childish things. Clearly, there is and always will be an adolescent audience for comic book movies, and its numbers are legion, while also including a significant number of “adolescents of all ages,” as the late Donald Wollheim accurately characterized the sf fan base in general. I was never a comic book reader, so I can’t say I outgrew them, but most people who read them do. Obviously, so have you, but you’re just not ready to accept it yet, thus your continued compulsive viewing of these movies with little pleasure or satisfaction in doing so. I, too, enjoyed “Wonder Woman” (a first for me since the 1978 Christopher Reeve “Superman”), but that does not make me want to rush out and see more of the same, because logically I know it was a one-off and an exception to the rule. Your decision to “not see any more of these until they engage me with something substantial” is a hopeful sign (a decision I made decades ago with beneficial results), but sticking with this will mean you will almost never see another one, as a comic book movie with substance is rarer than hen’s teeth, and is, in fact, largely a contradiction in terms, Mr. Westfahl’s straining through the eye of a cinematic needle notwithstanding. Anyway, congratulations on taking that first step on the road to recovery.
I liked Nolan’s Dark Knight , but that film was way out of the ordinary as a comic book film. It is in fact quite an unusual movie in itself. I did got see Justice League, tho I skipped Thor: Ragnarok. Justice League seemed like a Blivit problem. As if they had shot a 100 hour film and then pounded it into a 2 hour movie! I will go see the follow on Wonder Woman movie , if there is one, but no more comic book movies in 2018.