It has its adherents and it made a ton of money, but the reputation of 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice hasn’t improved much from its miserable debut. Even stars like Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot have conceded that it needed to be much better, and while Gadot did the team proud with her triumphant solo Wonder Woman movie this summer, conventional wisdom holds that Justice League still has its work cut out for it. With the MCU’s Thor: Ragnarok opening to universal acclaim (see our review) and another big weekend, a lot of anxious people at Warners are going to be watching this one very closely.
They have a good reason for concern. A well-received Justice League will further stabilize the DCEU after a rocky start: capitalizing on Wonder Woman’s goodwill. A stinker on the other hand – even one that makes money – will undermine the Amazing Amazon’s triumph and send the franchise back onto the shaky ground it started from.
So how can Justice League accomplish the considerable task before it? Not sucking would be a good start. But more importantly, it has to step away from a number of problems it inherited from BvS. What kinds of problems, and how can they solve them? We’ve compiled a list of 10 that we’re hoping to see when the film opens next week. #AFJ4LIFE
1. Stop Looking at the MCU Kevin Feige and his merry band of scalawags are clearly in Warners’ heads at this point. The MCU is the 600-pound gorilla of movie franchises – it even had the temerity to hit high gear just as Warners’ Harry Potter films were winding down – and every studio in town has been chasing them ever since. The DCEU has tried to emulate them in some ways (“X individual films, then a team-up!”) and pointedly departed from them in others (“no jokes”), but regardless they’re clearly weighing their decisions against the standard they hope to match. That’s the wrong way to make creative decisions. Justice League needs to concern itself with setting its own tone and pace instead of trying to either emulate or defy the model from another series.
2. Lose the Grimdark I: The Look Few comic book films look as gloomy and dour as BvS. Drenched in murky shadows, covered in blacks and grays, one scene merging listlessly into the next. It likely came from two reasonable but rather bone-headed calls: the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the aforementioned need to depart from the MCU (in this case, the kind of sunny realism that serves as Marvel’s default look). Nolan’s films are marvelous, but what worked for them won’t necessarily work for a universe intended to stretch well beyond three movies. No one wants to slog the dreary streets twice a year: not with figures like Superman and Wonder Woman intended as our guide.
3. Lose the Grimdark II: The Characters Speaking of which… both Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot have publicly criticized some of the decisions made by BvS. Many of them center on their characters, which the DCEU tried to squeeze into Batman’s gloomy noir motif. So Diana “turns her back” on mankind, while Clark comes across as an amoral godling stumped by notions of human ethics. Wrong. Bad. Stop it. Neither character should emulate Batman because they’re not Batman, and while they can certainly engage in a little soul-searching, they remain sunny and optimistic figures at their core. Weighing them down with angst doesn’t make them more profound. It makes them a drag. Justice League needs to stay true to who they are, not trudge grimly after Bruce Wayne.
4. It’s the Story, Stupid Zack Snyder trained as an artist and his films work best in purely visual terms. This can be beneficial with projects like 300 or Watchmen (both of which I remain a fan of) where he has a pre-written script to adhere to. It works less well when he has to get from point A to point B on his own… one of the reasons why BvS meandered from one gimmicky set piece to the next with only the thinnest of narrative threads to connect them. The movie itself needs to deliver more than a moving “Art of” book. If Justice League doesn’t, the franchise may be in serious trouble.
5. Don’t Get Lost in the Details Along those lines, Snyder has a tendency to overemphasize details he thinks are important: Martha Wayne’s falling pearls during her murder, for example, or Superman’s various messianic appearances over crowds of awe-struck citizens. This stems from his artist’s background. The images hold a lot of surface beauty but no real meaning. Wonder Woman contained beautiful images, but it understood that dramatic weight comes from story and characters, not shiny objects.
6. Lose the Twists Yes, both Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne have mothers named Martha. This is not a sufficient logic point to hang an eleventh-hour twist on. If you require further explanation, the Internet will be happy to assist you… and they won’t be nearly a kind about it as we are. A good third-act twist can work well if properly developed and artfully deployed. But beyond Gadot’s glorious arrival as Wonder Woman, the other “twists” smacked of eleventh-hour gimmickry and too many notes from the front office. Keep it simple guys: we’ll all be a lot happier.
7. More Jeremy Irons It’s easy to overlook Irons’ delightful Alfred Pennyworth amid all the scowling and brooding – to say nothing of a gaggle of actors from Michael Gough to Michael Caine to Sean Pertwee who all knocked it out of the park – but he provided the film with its few moments of joy, and Justice League could do a lot worse than giving him more screen time.
(This goes double – well quintuple – for Gadot, but we figure Patty Jenkins delivered that message loud and clear.)
8. Get Superman Right Yes, DCEU, we know he’s coming back. You haven’t exactly been subtle on this point. (See “Lose the Twists,” above.) But BvS compounded the problem with its muddled, uncertain and often embarrassing attempts to make the character more flawed. His return makes a good way to reboot, but as one of the most important scenarios in the character’s history, to bungle it is to wreck the whole affair. Cavill is the right guy for the part and his Superman has the potential to match Christopher Reeve’s. But if the DCEU can’t figure out its flagship character – his purpose, his standing on Earth, his status as the JL’s de facto leader – the franchise will always lack the necessary heart.
9. Wads, and the Shooting Thereof Presumably, this Justice League represents the first of several big team-up movies to come (including the announced Green Lantern Corps). It’s clear that Apokolips plays a big part in it and hopefully, Steppenwolf’s status as the main villain won’t be upstaged by his Anti-Life-loving nephew Darkseid. But they’ve already bungled Lex Luthor and the Joker, and if Darkseid makes an appearance here (see “Lost the Twists” above), it’s hard to know how they’re going to top him for any future entries. The DCEU needs to find some reliable staples to throw against its hero teams and make sure it saves some powder for future entries.
10. Respect the Fans No, this doesn’t mean kowtowing to every loudmouth on the internet with an agenda (and yeah: mea culpa) who insists that his headcanon be the only acceptable official version. But the fact remains that, while DC and Warner Bros. own the rights to these characters, that isn’t the same as the characters belonging to them. They belong to every ten-year-old who wrapped a towel around their neck and pretended to fly. The MCU thrives because they respect that: good or bad, their films attempt to do right by the fans’ expectations, instead of presuming they’re just tools to be used or abused at will. Warner Bros. has struggled to learn that lesson (though certainly individual filmmakers did). Justice League is above all, a chance to see if they’ve made any progress.
Rob Vaux has worked as a professional film critic since 2000: writing for such sites as Collider, Mania.com, Flipside Movies and the Sci-Fi Movie Page. He also runs a blog, www.cinema-stache.com, covering musings and notions on the world of film. He lives in sunny Southern California with his wife and a whirling menagerie of animals.