Justice League Is a Beautiful Mess of a Franken-Movie
If the internet made a movie, it might look like Justice League.
That shouldn’t be read as a compliment or an insult. It’s both. The internet is a fantastic place full of smart people; anything it produced would have moments of brilliance and humor. It's also a cesspool of tribalism and in-fighting, and anything it produced would feel and look like it was made by a bunch of wildly different-minded people who all thought they were right.
And that’s what Justice League is. Set shortly after the events in director Zack Snyder’s previous superhero slugfest, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it teams up Bruce Wayne with Barry Allen (aka The Flash), Diana Prince (Wonder Woman), Arthur Curry (Aquaman), and Victor Stone (Cyborg) to battle a Big Bad named Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf has arrived on Earth to unite a trio of “Mother Boxes” into “the unity” and raise hell. Everything with Steppenwolf is nonsensical, but like every other bad-egg MacGuffin in a superhero movie, he's immaterial; this isn’t a movie about fighting a villain, it’s a movie about whether a bunch of heroes, many of whom have never met, can exchange some banter and triumph within a clean two hours of screen time. Along the way, you've got a front-row seat to a parade of superhero clichés: Reluctant Leader (Wonder Woman, seemingly beefed up here thanks to her massively successful summer solo film), Frustrated Science Experiment (Cyborg), Aging Savior (Bats), Excitable Newbie (Flash), and Frat Dude (Aquaman). OK, maybe that last one is a cliché from another genre, but it’s there anyway—like so much else in this movie, the character is doing the best he can to appease the faction of fans that wanted him there.
To understand why this might have happened, it’s important to understand the history of Justice League—not the rag-tag group of world-savers, but the movie itself. Last year, on the heels of *Man of Steel'*s massive box-office success (and moderate critical success), director Zack Snyder released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It was panned by critics and made roughly a gajillion dollars. People liked to fight about its merits in comments sections (It was gritty and real! It was too freaking dark! It was kind of lazy!). By the time Snyder started working on Justice League, people started wondering if critics were biased against him. I know because I’m one of them. (Hi, haters. I️ can hear you firing up the troll engines, but hear me out before you descend on my mentions.)
But this isn’t about that, or about the growing controversy over when Rotten Tomatoes chose to reveal the movie’s score. None of that is why I say this movie was made by the internet—that’s just a metaphor. What I mean is that Justice League looks like what you get when you take all of those opinions and criticisms and try to synthesize them into one movie, a single film trying to please all of the people some of the time.
As a result, Justice League is a beautiful mess—a Franken-Movie full of decent ideas that might all make sense together if they weren’t flying past you faster than your social media timelines on debate night. It’s got a recurring, and kinda funny, joke about Pet Sematary that would probably play well on Twitter. It has some reaction shots that will be GIFs on Tumblr as soon as it’s possible to make them. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) have a Will and Grace thing brewing that would play well in certain corners of fandom. There is likely a videogame message board out there that thinks villain Steppenwolf is dope as shit. The movie, basically, is a collection of subreddits on celluloid—some good, some bad, all there.
And really, isn’t that life on the internet in 2017? A constant string of heroism and harassment, moments of enlightenment mixed with random violence, and threats from entities who might be just trolls or might be planning a takeover from some remote location? (That last bit will make sense when you’ve seen the movie, which you should.) Isn’t online culture just a lot of wondering what will come next and from whence it will come? And isn’t warding it off always an alliance of an over-eager nerd, a reluctant genius, a morose dude, a feminist, and a possibly drunk guy who just stumbled in, all seemingly thrown together in a schizophrenic fever dream no one remembers the next day?
There’s an obvious reason why this discord happened. Partway through production, Snyder stepped away from the film to deal with the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon was brought on to finish it. Aside from the fact that they both make superhero movies—Snyder’s based on DC Comics and Whedon’s heretofore based on Marvel’s books—you couldn’t find two people whose work is more tonally different. Snyder leans dark and brooding, Whedon trades in humor drawn from the absurdity that people from another planet would come to Earth to battle rich guys and old war heroes. Watching Justice League, it’s not entirely obvious which director is responsible for what, but when Cyborg says to Batman “I was running the numbers while you were being an asshole” or Steppenwolf cries out for world domination, it’s pretty easy to guess. (Pro Tip: Whedon got in hot water earlier this week for liking a tweet that said Steppenwolf was the worst comic book villain ever.)
There are other ways of seeing the seams of Justice League, too. Like, for example, Superman’s weird upper lip. For those that don’t know, by the time Henry Cavill got called back to film more scenes for the movie, he’d already grown a moustache for his next project. That facial hair had to be removed with CGI. It’s the Kate Mara reshoots wig of Justice League and it makes him look oddly like Jon Hamm. There are many jokes that seem right out of the Whedon playbook and the slow-motion falling-bullet shots that don’t. There’s also the focus on Gadot’s Diana Prince being a leader, which doesn’t so much speak to either director’s style (well, maybe Whedon’s) as it does to the fact that Gadot and Wonder Woman are now global phenomenons.
But how does this all make Justice League the movie that represents the internet now? Think about it this way: For all its flaws, the internet is a decent place. It has wonderful ideas and very bad ones, but it’s an arena where all those ideas meet, for better or for worse. The beauty of Justice League is that you can hear an internet commenter suggesting everything that comes up on screen: open it with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”! Give Wonder Woman more screentime! There is no hierarchy; all suggestions are given equal time. Some are funny, others are entertaining and even enlightening. A few land with the dull thud of a dead fish. Justice League isn’t perfect, but like anything else online you can't look away.
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