By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
I honestly didn’t think there would be that much to saw about Justice League. When it was announced that the film was going to be less than two hours— down from an alleged cut nearing three hours— that the film was being sent out to die, a hacked up film made primarily of action scenes and quips to try and recoup as much money as possible. And while that is partially true, it is truly remarkable seeing what became of the last remnants of Zack Snyder’s ‘DC Trilogy.’ Though, I should qualify: it is not the film itself that is remarkable—it’s a serviceable, if clumsy, mess—but everything surrounding the film that is utterly fascinating to study.
Thus far, there have been five films in the “DC Extended Universe”—”Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman,” “Suicide Squad,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Justice League.” And this final film serves as the perfect encapsulation Warner Bro’s universe: a constantly altering, swerving, revisionist history.
The DCEU can be summed up by the adage “They don’t know what they want, they only know what they don’t want.” For all the talk of what Marvel does and doesn’t, the one consistent they have had is commitment. Even when a film does not go exactly like they want like “Ironman 2” or they have a massive change-up in their canon like the addition of Spider-man, they remain steady and clear with the their tone, metanarrative, and goal. Warner Bros, on the other hand, has never had a clear goal, but rather a set of changing a swerving demands based the reception to the consensus of the previous film.
While most of the behind the scenes information has been kept to rumors and gossip, as most of the people involved with these films are still interested in having careers, but exposes such as The Hollywood Reporter piece on “Suicide Squad” alongside the lengthy delays surrounding several films help corroborated a picture of a studio in constant turmoil. “Man of Steel,” itself seemingly presented as a high-octane, action heavy answer to the more docile and slow “Superman Returns,” underperformed and was heavily criticized for being too violent and dour. Lest we forget, that is the film that saw Metropolis be utterly destroyed and Superman, a children’s character, break a man’s neck.
So, when it came time for a sequel, instead of doing “Man of Steel 2,” it was announced there would be a Batman/Superman team up. Because when your first attempt at a solo movie in the wake of The Avengers underperformed, you come to the conclusion that one hero isn’t going to cut it. And it’s an added bonus the Batman always makes money. What’s more, you base it off one of the most popular and iconic graphic novels in pop canon: “The Dark Knight Returns,” where Batman dons a suit of armor and punches Superman half to death.
And from there, this is where part one of DC’s swervy, turvy canon begins: reframing the Battle of Metropolis as Batman’s and the World’s distrust of Superman. On paper, this works. If you really, really want to do a ‘Superman in the real world’ story, you have to grapple with the fact that he is not a man, but rather a force of nature, a hurricane that could wipe out entire cities. And if you are doing the gritty, obsessive Batman, having Superman be presented as this alien force that is beyond his control makes sense and is a good pretext for battle.
But here’s the problem with that: “Man of Steel” does nothing to establish this as a plot thread. The violence and destruction is never commented upon other than “look how cool this is.” It is not the continuation of a story, but rather the adjustment of a studio trying to win back fan goodwill. But very little else was done to earn said goodwill. In fact, the film doubled down on the violence, and the darkness, and the cynicism. The result was what continues to stand as one of the worst blockbusters of the modern era.
“Suicide Squad” was already in trouble before this happened. David Ayer allegedly had about 6 weeks to right the script, and was forced to shoot hundreds of hours of footage to basically ‘find’ the film in post. And when the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ trailer was released—boasting a neon color grade, and hyper-active, musically cut pace—combined with the reception of “Batman v Superman,” Warner Bros decided to basically remake the film with a “Guardians of the Galaxy” sensibility, leaning into anarchic humor, neon colors, and a heavy pop soundtrack. The only problem is the actual footage was that of a gritty, dirty, grimy military film, because you picked David Ayer to direct, a man exclusively know for gritty, dirty, grimy, military films. The result was a film that is a tonal and editing disaster, blundering between a Technicolored headache, a murky slog, and the most generic ‘super-hero’ plot imaginable.
I tend to try and distance “Wonder Woman” for the discussion of the DCEU, because it feels independent of the whole endeavor. Set over 100 years before the actions of any other film, made by an director who was allowed to carry through their vision, and the film is actually good. But there is one place where the sort of revisionist, alternating history is on display: the ending. “Batman v Superman” establishes that Dianna Prince has been in hiding since her time in World War I, meaning she hasn’t been ‘Wonder Woman’ for over a century. “Wonder Woman” the film clearly states that she has been Wonder Woman in secret throughout her existence in Man’s World, directly contradicting the previous statement. It doesn’t hurt or hinder the film, in fact, it is a better choice. If I had to guess, this was a course correction in the wake of “Batman v Superman,” that the original ending of “Wonder Woman” was intended to be more cynical, and the filmmakers committed to correcting that.
That leads us to “Justice League.” After 4 films of radically different visions, tones, and goals from an artistic and studio stand-point, we reach what was intended to be the culmination of everything we have seen. And the result? A fractured, broken, mess.
All of the previous discussion was meant to build up to this one statement: The Justice League is perhaps the greatest example of cinematic revisionist history we have ever seen. It’s blatant disregard and reframing of the series previous entries is somewhat extraordinary, and is a coming to roost for a studio that could never figure out what to do with these films.
As has been reported, Joss Whedon was brought on to Justice League to add a few more scenes of comedy and action (presumably to answer for the utter misery that was the previous few films), and when Synder decided to leave the production after the tragic death of his daughter, Whedon took over directorial duties and shot extensive reshoots. And those reshoots show. They show a lot.
For starters, the visual tone of the film is night and day compared to every other film in this series. Even looking at the most recent trailers compared to the earliest, you can see the color grading has completely changed the visual language of the film, replacing the grey and drab pallet with vibrant reds and oranges. The entire film has been oversaturated, making everything vibrant, sharp, and eye-popping. The only problem with this is, when you design costumes, sets, and props, they are all made with a with a specific color grade and lighting in mind. When you up end that, everything looks fake and manufactured. Superman’s costume in particular looks surreally waxy.
Then there are the attempts to work quippy, Avenger’s style gags into a universe that has made no place for quips. Here is probably the best example: The film’s villain, Steppenwolfe, is interrogating scientists to try and locate the “Mother Boxes.” The Flash, after watching him execute a prisoner, steps back and does an elaborate comedy bit where he talks about all of his fears to Batman. Meanwhile, Steppenwolfe is still executing prisoners, complete with gory, blood choking sounds. There is no better reminder that, in their attempt to flee the tone and mood of “Batman V Superman,” Warner Bros is attempting to fuse oil and water.
But it isn’t the tone or color or style that has been most radically changed, but the content of the film. It is so clear that “Batman V Superman” and “Justice League” were envisioned as a direct continuation, where one plot leads and dictates the other. Things in Justice League literally do not make sense unless you know the previous film’s context. But, upon realizing that “Batman v Superman” was a disaster, Warner Bros was forced to break the bones of a planned three film franchise (remember, “Justice League” was originally planned as a Part One and Two).
The various dreams and visions Bruce has in BvS, featuring cryptic warnings of an Evil Superman and apocalyptic future are not addressed, and it seems like they never will. There is a quick diversion where, upon being resurrected, Superman is hostile, but that scene is a brisk few minutes and he quickly turns around to help save the day. It seems like this was a part of something bigger—maybe when the film was a two-parter, Superman was the antagonist for Part One?—but those plans seem nonexistent now. On that front, the allusions to Darkseid and the ‘New Gods,’ heavily hinted at in the previous film, have been sanded off.
This ties into a bigger problem with Superman in general, as it seems Henry Cavil’s role was entirely remade in reshoots. We can tell through his weird, CGI-lips, as Warner Bros was forced to digitally remove his moustache that Paramount insisted he keep for their film. This is how we come to the realization that the entire final act, where Superman returns as the dapper, corny, humor hero we expect him to be. But in the logic of the film, this isn’t a change or new Superman. They act like he has always been like this.
And this is where more of the revisionism comes from, the fact that characters are basically brand new, forgetting their behavior for 1-2 previous films. Bruce Wayne laments that only Clark can lead the team, because he was a beacon of hope and justice. The world is presented as dark and hopeless without him. But the previous two films featuring Superman cast him as helpless to stem the tide of misery in the world. Bruce never saw Clark as anything but a threat until the final moments of the film, and only formed the Justice League out of guilt and fear of an unknown threat. Meanwhile, Batman v Superman spent its entire run time debating whether or not Superman was a threat. The world has seemingly suffer amnesia, creating a revisionist history where they actually liked Superman all along.
Meanwhile, they somehow muddle Wonder Woman’s presence even more, now stating she ‘fought when needed.’ Wouldn’t WWII count as that? And Cyborg’s timeline has been ruined; he states that the Motherbox that created him activated when Superman died, even though we see that this happens before hand.
And in one of the most insulting moments, the after credit scene features Lex Luthor declaring that he wants to form his own league. The previous film established that his motivation was a hatred and distrust of meta-humans. It gets to the point where you wish they would just explain the previous film wasn’t canon.
It seems like the DCEU is coming to an unceremonious end. Aquaman will be released because it’s nearly finished, “Wonder Woman 2” will be released because people love “Wonder Woman,” and I have to imagine Shazam! might survive because I have to imagine they want to keep The Rock out of the MCU. But Justice League will serve as the memorial and cautionary tale for whatever comes next: that before you commit to a 10+ film franchise, ask yourself what you have to say and why you want to say it. Otherwise, you’ll spend nearly a decade writing, rewriting, and revising all of your ‘best’ laid plans.