4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Stupor Friends — Justice League

The notion of superheroes teaming up is almost as old as superheroes, as the Justice Society of America, which initially put Doctor Fate, Hour-Man, the Spectre, Hawkman, and the Golden Age versions of Green Lantern, the Flash, the Atom, and the Sandman together in the third issue of All-Star Comics, was created by Gardner Fox in 1940.

The JSA feature ended with the last issue of All-Star Comics in 1951, but when Fox and Julius Schwartz revived the National Periodical Publications (what DC was called then) superhero lineup in the late 1950s, they eventually brought most of them together in the Justice League of America, which debuted in The Brave and the Bold #28 in 1960, and featured Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, and the new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern. They’ve been the flagship DC team ever since.

Much like Marvel’s Avengers (who have a movie of their own out today), created three years after the JLA (which was shortened to the Justice League after the book was rebooted following 1986’s Legends miniseries), the League has always been the book that features most of DC’s heavy hitters. While they haven’t been consistent members of the team, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have always been the heart of the team to some extent.

DC’s animated adaptations have had versions of the Justice League going back to 1973 with the debut of Super Friends (which went through several variant titles over the course of thirteen years, finally ending in 1986 with the title, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians). Currently, Justice League Action is running on Cartoon Network, and in the early 2000s, Bruce Timm produced two animated series (Justice League and Justice League Unlimited) that spun off from the seminal Batman and Superman animated series of the 1990s, and was one of the best versions of the JL ever created in any medium.

Two prior attempts to do a live-action version crashed and burned. The TV one in 1997 only got as far as a dreadful pilot, which we suffered through previously in this rewatch. George Miller was putting together a feature film in the mid-2000s, having gone so far as to cast D.J. Cotrona (Superman), Armie Hammer (Batman), Megan Gale (Wonder Woman), Common (Green Lantern), Adam Brody (the Flash), Teresa Palmer (Talia al-Ghul), and Jay Baruchel (Maxwell Lord). But the 2007 writers strike messed things up, and the whole thing fell apart.

With the launching of DC’s own version of a cinematic universe with 2013’s Man of Steel, the groundwork for a JL movie was laid in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, starting with that movie’s subtitle, continuing with Wonder Woman’s supporting role in the movie, and cameos by Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, and Cyborg’s Dad.

Chris Terrio, who did the final draft of Dawn of Justice, was hired to write the script, working at least in part off drafts by David S. Goyer and Will Beall, neither of whom were credited. Zack Snyder was brought back to direct, and Snyder also hired Joss Whedon to bring some of his Avengers magic to some rewrites of the script.

Tragedy struck in the spring of 2017 when Snyder’s daughter Autumn took her own life. Snyder stepped down from directing the film, and Warner Bros. brought Whedon in to finish the film and do two months’ worth of reshoots.

Back from Dawn of Justice are Henry Cavill as Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, and Joe Morton as Silas Stone. Back from Suicide Squad are Ben Affleck as Batman and Ezra Miller as the Flash. Back from Wonder Woman are Gal Gadot as WW, Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, a computer-generated David Thewlis as Ares in a flashback, and an uncredited Robin Wright as Antiope in that same flashback. Introduced in this film are J.K. Simmons as Commissioner James Gordon, Ciarán Hinds as Steppenwolf, Amber Heard as Mera, Billy Crudup as Henry Allen, Holt McCallany as a burglar, Marc McClure (who played Jimmy Olsen in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies) as a police officer, and Joe Manganiello as Deathstroke.

Momoa and Heard will next appear in Aquaman. Gadot, Nielsen, and Wright are said to be returning in Wonder Woman 1984, and allegedly a Flash movie with Miller is still in development. While the still-scheduled The Batman was originally to have Affleck, Irons, and Simmons, it’s unknown what’s actually happening with that movie at this point, except that Affleck will not be returning as Batman. While a sequel to this film is always a possibility (it was originally conceived as a two-part tale, and both the mention of Darkseid and the post-credits tag with Luthor and Deathstroke are specifically designed to set up future JL films), it isn’t on any schedule right now. The film had a massive budget, so it needed to do Avengers numbers to make any actual money for the studio. Instead, its entire worldwide box office barely matched that of just Avengers’s domestic total, and it had the worst box office of any of the DCEU films extant.

 

“What are your superpowers again?” “I’m rich…”

Justice League
Written by Chris Terrio & Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon
Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon (uncredited)
Produced by Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder and Jon Berg and Geoff Johns
Original release date: November 17, 2017

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

We open with cell phone video of two kids interviewing Superman for their podcast. Then we cut to Superman being mourned following his death in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

In Metropolis, crime is on the rise, and Lois Lane has been writing puff pieces for the Daily Planet at her own request.

In Smallville, the bank has foreclosed on the Kent house.

In Gotham City, Batman stops a burglar and dangles him off a roof, in the hopes of attracting a parademon, which feeds on fear. Sure enough, one shows, but once Batman captures it in a net, it disintegrates.

In Paris, Wonder Woman stops terrorists from blowing up a bank.

In Themyscira, an alien artifact called a Mother Box that the Amazons are guarding has activated. A creature called Steppenwolf shows up, accompanied by more parademons, and takes the Mother Box, killing many Amazons along the way.

Hippolyta sends a warning to Wonder Woman, who goes to Gotham City to tell Batman that it’s time for them to gather heroes. She tells him the story of Steppenwolf, who used the Mother Boxes to try to terraform Earth centuries ago. An alliance of Atlanteans, Amazons, Greek gods, and “the tribes of man,” as she calls them (led, seemingly, by King Arthur) joined forces to defeat Steppenwolf, driving him off-planet. The three Mother Boxes were separated, one entrusted to Atlantis, one to humanity, and one to the Amazons.

The images of those three boxes is all over Luthor’s files that Batman stole in Dawn of Justice, and he also saw it left as an impression on the wall against which the parademon was leaning when it self-immolated. Batman and Wonder Woman agree to recruit the other three metahumans they found in Luthor’s files, with Batman travelling north to Iceland to find Arthur Curry, known as the Aquaman, who helps a small Icelandic town during the winter (the image of the three boxes is also in a mural in that town), and then to Central City to recruit Barry Allen, a speedster. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, tracks down Victor Stone, who was in a horrible accident that killed his mother and almost killed him, but his father Silas, the head of S.T.A.R. Labs, uses alien technology to make him a cyborg.

That alien tech is the Mother Box that was kept with humanity. While Stone doesn’t agree to join, he does agree to try to use the new tech that’s part of him to track down Steppenwolf.

Batman is half successful: Aquaman tells him to screw off (making fun of his costume choice, referring to Gotham City as a shithole, and swimming away), but the Flash joins unhesitatingly. He doesn’t have friends, and his father is in jail for killing his wife, but Flash thinks his dad is innocent.

Steppenwolf attacks an Atlantean outpost. Aquaman tries to stop him, aided by an Atlantean princess named Mera. Mera claims to know Aquaman’s mother, about whom Aquaman knows only that she abandoned him and his father when Aquaman was a baby. Mera insists that she had no choice, and that she would be the one defending Atlantis now. Mera urges Aquaman to go after Steppenwolf now, which he reluctantly agrees to. (On the one hand, you wonder why she didn’t ask the rightful king of Atlantis to do this. On the other hand, when we meet him in Aquaman, he’s a total dick, so yeah. We’ll deal with that next week.)

Steppenwolf kidnaps people from S.T.A.R. Labs, including Silas, to learn where the Mother Box is.

The Bat-signal shines in the sky, and Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash show up on the roof of GCPD headquarters—as does Stone, who wants to find his Dad. They have a pattern to the appearances of the parademons, and they track it to a tunnel under Gotham Harbor. The four of them fight the parademons and Steppenwolf, and mostly get their asses kicked. However, thanks to Flash’s super-speed, the S.T.A.R. Labs hostages are rescued.

Steppenwolf knocks a hole in the wall that will flood the tunnel, but Aquaman shows up just in time to save them from that, now armed with a trident. (It’s actually got five prongs—a quindent?)

They return to the Batcave. Stone has the third Mother Box, revealing that Silas used it to save Stone’s life. He thinks he can trace Steppenwolf using his own implants. Batman also thinks they can use Mother Box and the Kryptonian ship that’s still in Metropolis to resurrect Superman. Wonder Woman thinks he’s crazy—the last time that ship was used to resurrect Zod, we got Doomsday—but Stone runs the numbers, and thinks they can do it. They dig up Clark Kent’s grave, and then bring the body to the Kryptonian ship where Flash provides a spark and the Mother Box provides the energy, and Superman is brought back to life.

At first, he’s disoriented and starts beating up the various heroes (at one point throwing Batman’s “do you bleed?” line from Dawn of Justice back at him), but then Alfred arrives with Lane. He flies her to Smallville, and she helps bring him back to himself.

Back in Metropolis, though, Steppenwolf attacks, taking the Mother Box, which the heroes just left lying around like idiots while fighting Superman. He now has all three.

Stone traces Steppenwolf to a town way off the grid in Russia. There’s no sign of Superman, so they go without him. Aquaman is not sanguine about their chances, but goes anyhow.

Steppenwolf is starting his massive terraforming with the Mother Boxes. The heroes arrive, with Batman drawing the parademons away so the others can attack. This is suicide, and Wonder Woman leads Stone and Aquaman and Flash to save his ass, and then they attack Steppenwolf, except for Stone, who tries to stop the Mother Boxes.

Superman shows up in the nick of time and punches Steppenwolf very very hard. He helps Stone separate the Mother Boxes, which renders them dormant. Flash saves a family from being killed, while Superman saves an entire building full of people. Superman then uses his super-breath to freeze Steppenwolf’s axe, which then shatters on impact from Wonder Woman’s sword. Steppenwolf suddenly feels fear, which draws the parademons to attack him and they all go away in a boom tube because the movie’s over now.

Batman, Alfred, and Wonder Woman check out a huge mansion that they can convert into their headquarters. In addition, Bruce Wayne buys the bank that foreclosed on the Kent house and has them un-foreclose it, so Martha can move back in. Wonder Woman decides to be more public in her heroism, while Flash has gotten a job at a crime lab. Flash also challenges Superman to a race.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has escaped from prison, and is now on a yacht, where he has recruited the first member of his version of the Injustice Gang: Deathstroke the Terminator.

 

“Please, we have families!” “Why does everyone keep telling me that?”

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

 Ye flipping gods, what a mess this film is…

You would be hard-pressed to find two filmmakers who are less alike than Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder, so asking the former to reshoot and rewrite the latter is a notion fraught with peril, rather akin to asking Terry Pratchett to partially rewrite George R.R. Martin.

And you can so totally see the seams. One minute, it’s a dark, dank, deconstructionist film from someone who finds no joy in superheroes, the next it’s a quip-filled superhero story that takes quite a bit of joy in being about superheroes. Having them both in the same movie makes for an unsettling and peculiar viewing experience, because we get two distinct, incompatible tones.

This movie has craptons of problems, but the biggest one is its very foundation, which is the notion that Superman’s death has caused strife and chaos and misery, seen in a montage at the top of the film (under a rather good cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” by Sigrid), and it is utterly unconvincing. Every single moment of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice was given over to the notion that Superman was dangerous, that Superman was not to be trusted, and that Superman wasn’t even much of a hero. And even if he did lots of heroic things in the eighteen months between those two movies, it was only eighteen friggin months. A year and a half is not enough time for Superman to have become so incredibly symbolically important to humanity that his death would be so devastating that it would be enough to wake up the Mother Boxes and have them summon Steppenwolf to take another shot at conquering.

Just like in Dawn of Justice, the filmmakers are counting on Superman’s pop-culture footprint to do the storytelling work that they themselves have failed to do, and I, at least, did not buy it for a nanosecond. The Superman Henry Cavill played in the last two movies was no kind of symbol of hope, no matter how many times he told us what the S on his chest meant.

Now in this movie, he actually plays Superman. This is the first time I’ve recognized Cavill as the character we’ve been reading in comics and seeing in past films and various animated releases for eight decades. Even if they had to CGI out his mustache for Mission: Impossible: Fallout for the two months of reshoots…

Indeed, the acting in this film is top-notch, which is one of the reasons why it’s still fairly watchable. Ben Affleck doubles down on his older Batman, one who is slowing with age and taking longer to heal. At one point Wonder Woman tells him he can’t do this forever, and Batman’s response is, “I can barely do it now.” I’m really sorry that Affleck is no longer set to play the title role in The Batman, because I’m genuinely interested in this version of Batman who is fighting the one foe he can’t defeat: the aging process. (I freely admit that my being a martial artist who just turned fifty years old is a reason why this version of the character resonates with me particularly.) Jeremy Irons is still perfection itself as an Alfred who takes no shit and gives no fucks.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

Gal Gadot remains radiant and charismatic—but also reluctant to go back into the spotlight. Steve Trevor’s death in Wonder Woman has her gun-shy, willing only to work in the shadows and alone, not wishing to be responsible for others’ lives. But she comes around eventually, as she’s by far the most qualified to lead this motley group. Batman brought them together, and Superman’s the inspiration, but Wonder Woman’s the field leader and tactician they need.

Ray Fisher is okay as Cyborg—he’s a little too flat, though his deadpan works nicely. (He has one of the best lines in the movie when he announces to Batman, “I had Mother Box run some calculations while you were being an asshole.”) I also do like his “boo-yah” at the end, a nice call back to the 2003 Teen Titans cartoon. And nobody ever went wrong casting Joe Morton in anything, and having him play someone who is responsible for screwy things with advanced technology is particularly amusing, given that he played the creator of SkyNet back in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

I have been a fan of Jason Momoa’s since he was on Stargate Atlantis as Ronon Dex, and he’s a delightful Aquaman. This is someone who is having fun playing a superhero who as a character is also having fun being a superhero. And I simply adore Ezra Miller’s interpretation of the Flash as someone with severe anxiety and probably on the autism spectrum, and who just generally has extreme difficulty interacting with people.

Ciarán Hinds does the best he can as Steppenwolf, but that character is a terrible choice for the League’s first bad guy. I mean, fine, you want to set up Darkseid and Apokalips, do that, but why would you start with this garbanzo? Hinds at least gives him a menacing voice—the moment where he tells Wonder Woman that his ax is still wet with the blood of her sisters is beautifully delivered.

Having said that, those sisters are mostly wasted, as are pretty much all the supporting roles. Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, Joe Manganiello, Jesse Eisenberg, Billy Crudup, J.K. Simmons—most of them only feel like they’re here because they’re supposed to be in other related movies, not because they’re important to this one. Heard, Adams, and Nielsen at least serve some plot purpose (technically so does Simmons, but it’s a dumb one, with Gordon providing information the dark knight detective should’ve been able to work out on his own).

Also the Amazons have gone from wearing practical armor in Wonder Woman to wearing midriff-baring nonsense in Justice League. Gawrsh.

Plus, all the sunlight seems to have disappeared from Themyscira, but that’s not surprising, because it’s disappeared from everywhere else, too. Whedon may have directed chunks of this film, but it still looks like a Snyder-directed miasma-fest. I remember when the first trailer for this movie was released, a friend commented that she liked it, and was very much looking forward to the color version. As usual, Snyder’s world only has blacks, grays, and browns in it, and even though most of the players are wearing uniforms with color, those colors are muted. (I’m amazed Wonder Woman was wearing the red-white-and-blue outfit from her titular film rather than the sepia-toned monstrosity she wore in Dawn of Justice.)

The plot is a meandering mess, people do things because it’s what the plot calls for, and the tonal path the movie takes is being driven by a drunk driver. There are some good lines, some good characterizations, and good interactions among the characters, but the actual plot is a mess, and the movie can’t make up its mind as to whether or not it wants to be fun. And if something isn’t sure if it’s fun or not, it’s almost always not fun. Although I did like seeing Superman and Flash have one of their trademark races around the world in the mid-credits scene…

 

Next week, we see what Arthur Curry does next in Aquaman.

Keith R.A. DeCandido did not actually plan for this rewatch to happen the same day as the release of Avengers: Endgame, but is amused by the serendipity. He will be at Awesome Con this weekend in Washington, D.C. Look for him at Bard’s Tower, Booth 1311, alongside fellow authors Kevin J. Anderson, Charles E. Gannon, Quincy Allen, D.J. Butler, and Ronnie Virdi, among others, where he’ll be selling and signing his books.

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