The Justice League is out, and the verdict isn’t great. Who cares, you might ask, it’s only a film. Well, for one Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are the mythological titans of our time. They’re not just icons; they’re embedded symbols with more meaning to people than the traditional stories about Hercules, Perseus or the ‘real’ Diana.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was written off as a false start given the spectacular success of Wonder Woman the following year. The Justice League, unfortunately, was not dawn but sunset for its eponymous heroes. An overreliance on CGI, tonal schizophrenia and lacklustre acting made for an even bigger disappointment than the series’ last ensemble outing.
Yet the Justice League might actually be a masterpiece that perfectly skewers how dour superhero films have become. Save for satire, what possible motive could there be for such a lost band of joylessly hypocritical puritans taking up a two-hour movie?
Consider the evidence. Ben Affleck has an effortless malaise and disinterest that transforms an even darker incarnation of Batman into a casual killer. Superman is so singularly dull that the character did more dead. Wonder Woman tolerates a gang of misfit thugs who carelessly discuss each other’s secret identity. Worse still, all of them make sport out of wanton destruction and general chaos.
Affleck, in particular, seems utterly clueless about his Dark Knight. Is he a morally bankrupt crusader who doesn’t bat an eye (sorry) at killing people or a wisecracking Adam West homage?
Look closely, and you see hints of another billionaire who’s taken it upon himself to fix the world. Donald Trump, like Ben Affleck, is now answering what was once a curious hypothetical. Whereas Batman is meant to be the embodiment of wisdom and a brutal intolerance for injustice, we find he is now an arrogant, self-entitled manchild regularly chided by Wonder Woman for the fact. “What’re your superpowers again?” asks Barry Allen. Wayne’s “I’m rich” response is as off-kilter as it fatuous, but it neatly surmises Affleck’s Bat. Is art mirroring real life?
Indeed, it would explain everything if Trump was the motivation behind such an unlikeable interpretation of Batman. The ‘one percent chance’ of Superman being a dangerous ‘alien who could burn the whole place down’ is not only ludicrous but eerily reminiscent of Trump’s foreign policy on Islamic countries. There’s also something uncomfortable about his dealings with Diana Prince; hovering behind her like Trump in the Clinton debates and turning smooth into sickly smug.
Zack Snyder’s most famous film Watchmen (2009) was a savage exercise in iconoclasm which reduced the traditional model of superheroes to dust. Is it beyond the pale to assume that Affleck’s Batman is flicking the vickies at billionaire playboys thinking they can fix everything?
Affleck’s history with superhero movies doesn’t exactly suggest enthusiasm for the genre. Daredevil (2003) was a critical and commercial failure. His weight and acting were derided as was the overly gritty tone of the film. With some irony, he later played a past-his-prime George Reeves who was famous for the Adventures of Superman in the 1950s. Although Hollywoodland (2006) was well-received, it risked associating Superman with the actor’s suicide (explaining why Warner Bros. refused to licence specific Superman clips).
Have Snyder and Affleck engaged in a subtle parody? In truth, it’s probably wishful thinking. Batman v Superman and Justice League were just dull movies and join a pantheon of others that have failed to live up to expectations (including Daredevil, Superman Returns and even Christopher Reeves’ final Superman films).
The problem with that logic is it implies that Warner Bros. looked at Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series and ignored the lessons of their success. Every incarnation of the character, including the numerous animated takes, have all featured Batman as a hero we could root for.
Pastiche isn’t unknown across the character’s various incarnations. West’s take is joyous and embodies a1960s spirit but is entirely self-aware of it. ‘Shark repellant Bat-spray’ remains the definitive utility belt device; the film and series weren’t bad, and it continues to be fun to watch. Where DC movies are faltering these days is by taking themselves so seriously they forget costumed heroes should be rollicking fun.
It would be a brave, a bold and perhaps beautiful thing to create a satirical Batman imbued with the hypocrisy, unawareness and wealth that sums up Trump. A shark repellant moment for the modern age, pure ridicule hidden in plain sight. It would also serve a significantly different meal to the happy go lucky Marvel franchise that remains unchallenged.
What’s more likely, however, is the film series is suffering from a change of director. While the circumstances of Snyder stepping down for family reasons are tragic, Joss Whedon’s natural jocularity has inadvertently helped expose the absurd pretentiousness at the heart of Snyder’s take anyway.
The situation is not dissimilar to Richard Donner leaving Superman II (1980) after studio clashes and being replaced with Richard Lester as director. Superman (1978) with Christopher Reeve is a masterpiece and remains the definitive version; juggling fun and sincerity with a wallop of nostalgia. Lester took Donner’s completed footage and combined it with new material and created a more comedic and cliched picture. Not only was it a dramatic departure from the tone and vision of the first director, but it was riddled with plot holes and cuts. Donner’s version was finally released in 2006 as a special edition and is narratively the better of the two editions.
So while a confused tone isn’t new, it takes a particular kind of effort to make the most serious, most brooding and gadget-laden on-screen hero boring. Affleck is a talented scriptwriter and an excellent director, but his Batman is clunky, arrogant and now consistently misses the humour note in his second complete outing in Justice League. Snyder is ambitious and undoubtedly talented, but he has yet to give his DC Universe a story to rival his visually stunning vignettes.
The sad truth is even a satirical agenda about Trump can’t explain away bad movies. Excuses abound for why Snyder’s DC films miss the mark, but it must be rooted in the fact that they’re dreary. Rewatching Michael Keaton’s Batman (1989) or Reeves’ Superman and there is a genuine level of excitement. Nolan’s take was even closer to the moral certainty of Batman meshed with a realistic form of storytelling. From resounding musical scores, taut plots and great acting, they’ll last the ages. Will the latest crop of films hold up for thirty or forty years as testaments to story and innovation?
Doubtful. And the studio knows it. Why else would they bring back Danny Elfman to compose for the Justice League? It’s a damning indictment that instead of seeking new blood, Snyder and Warner Bros. wooed one of the creators of an ‘original theme’. It’s worse still that Elfman’s 1989 Batman melody is deployed alongside John William’ 1978 Superman score as if to associate the mediocre with the great by proxy.
In any event, the future films look unlikely to change. Matt Reeves (our third Reeves in this piece) holds the cards close to his chest about in style he’ll make the next confirmed solo Batman film. The subsequent DC ensemble and character films will doubtless be all spectacle, but with little substance, if recent years are anything to go by
Blinding optimism and the charming righteousness of truth and justice can’t just be for a simpler time. Superman and Batman should feel as Wonder Woman does, and it’s a pity the Nolan-era films or the Donner version of Superman are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. They embody a higher meaning, a better quality and inspire a happier feeling in the audience when the music crescendoes, and that’s how it should be.
In the meantime, pray on your knees, close your eyes and imagine somewhere, somehow, someone decides to bring back an enjoyable form of classic storytelling. It’s a much better solution to hope than concede that some of the great icons of Western heroes have fallen flat at a time when we could do with a little inspiration.