It’s time to accept that these movies aren’t going to get better, and they’re not going to become interestingly bad again.
You know that one friend you hang around with, that you go to such an effort to be friends with and hang out with because they can be amazing and super fun? That one you know deep-down is super-talented and awesome and could do great things if only they applied themselves and tried more than they do now? But they just utterly refuse to do so and flake whenever you put in the effort to hang out with them or set up something to help them, yet still turn up at regular intervals asking for a handout with the promise that this time they will definitely turn themselves around? And at first you’re angry at them because you genuinely believe that they are better than this, and seeing them throw it all away hurts you to your core, and your every conversation with your other friends eventually comes back around to your frustration with this one friend? Then you just become disappointed, in them for not-trying and so clearly using you for your money, but mainly in yourself for having foolishly believed that there was anything to them in the first place? Until eventually you don’t feel anything anymore, that you’ve accepted that nothing’s going to change and nobody’s going to improve, and you would go “I’m done” except that it’s your job to keep giving them second chances they have no intention of making good on?
In that metaphor: the friend is the DC Cinematic Universe, and Justice League is the “I’m done” moment.
Justice League is an abysmal pile of garbage. How could it not be? It’s 4 different films Frankenstein-ed together under the ever-encroaching gun of a pre-determined release date. Born out of a collection of blithering imbeciles having severely jumped the gun when they went into production; attempting to plaster child’s Band-Aids over gaping and rotten systemic faults when it turned out that, oh shit, nobody liked our horrifying foundation but we’ve already wasted hundreds of millions of dollars making the next five extensions to it and we can’t exactly scrap it and start again. Justice League is a film that cost at least $300 million yet, thanks to the utter shitshow of its production and post-production process, looks worse than a film made for a hundredth of that, with hideous colour-grading, laughable special effects, and some of the worst green-screening I have seen in a studio film in… well, about a month, since Geostorm came out then, but work with me here. Much like with Suicide Squad, you wouldn’t need to have been made privy to gossip about studio-mandated reshoots and legal threats about Henry Cavill’s facial hair to know that the finished product has been badly stitched together from whatever they could work with. It’s that obvious.
The story is awful, a boring bog-standard MacGuffin quest with a no-dimensional villain entirely visualised in terrible CGI for no adequate reason – like they shot the entire film and just decided in post who the villain was actually going to be – another Sky Beam of Death for the Third Act, and absolutely any sequence that is not a plot beat, an action scene, or a joke that could be put in the trailers left on the cutting room floor. The pacing, as a result, is a mess, creating a two-hour-dead movie that feels interminably longer, since the stakes are hackneyed and the characters are empty and the film isn’t actually about anything. The tone is wildly inconsistent, as we swing wildly from Snyder’s intended “Universe of Dour Self-Involved Unlikeable Assholes” to Joss Whedon’s crunch-fuelled attempts to graft some of that Jokey-Jokes Marvel DNA over the hideous Snyder-created scars in the hopes that nobody will notice, ending up with the worst of both worlds – Bruce and Diana are also now given a bunch of shipteasing, because Whedon, as much as I do love most of his work, still cannot envision a woman not making goo-goo eyes at a guy unless they’re gay or the guy is a father-figure of some kind.
But, even despite all of that, it’s still a surprisingly competent watch? By which I mean, everybody involved has managed to cobble together something that, in spite of all of those deep systemic flaws that should have meant that the result was a perversely enrapturing trainwreck, at most simply pounds the senses for two hours before departing. It doesn’t offend and horrify like Batman v. Superman, it doesn’t insult and baffle like Suicide Squad, it doesn’t tease transcendence before settling for competent mediocrity like Wonder Woman, and it doesn’t annoy profoundly like most of them do – well, except for Ezra Miller’s utterly insufferable performance as Barry Allen, who caused me to want to reach through the screen into the film itself so I could use his face as a speedbag. It can’t do, because, like Suicide Squad, there’s nothing here, just a bunch of abysmally-composed shots of swole actors in hysterically ugly-looking costumes (and one actress in a decent-looking costume) smouldering into the camera in different directions with the continued promise that this will all be really cool when they get attached to an actual movie someday! Also, remember Wonder Woman? Wasn’t Wonder Woman… err… fine?
…sigh. Why am I writing about this?
That’s only barely a rhetorical question, for the record, cos I’m dead serious. Why am I writing about Justice League? Why are any of us writing about Justice League? I, of course, have less of a reason to be writing about Justice League and the wider DC Cinematic Universe as a whole than most, since I’m not getting paid for anything I write and I have a circulation of maybe five people. Whilst most others do get paid and do have a wide circulation, meaning they have to follow the money for their articles. And the money, what little of it exists in the writing world nowadays, is tied up in talking about superhero movies and extended universes, including DC, so thousands of words get expended upon these things since that drives clicks and allows writers with actual hustle the chance to eat this weekend. Great, but my question still stands:
Look, it’s not just that the DC Cinematic Universe has so far, by and large, sucked, made up of several of the worst, most soul-destroying superhero movies of all-time. Sucky movies are still worthy of extended conversation, especially legendary catastrophic failures, since there is a lot to be gleaned from digging deep into a failure’s guts and pinpointing exactly how something turned out so utterly horrible. I’d even include Man of Steel in that category, a film that caused me to spend two straight hours laid on my bed staring at a wall desperately trying to rediscover what hope and joy were after it was finished – I’m not even exaggerating for comic effect, this genuinely happened. It was physically painful to sit through, but I found it fascinating to spend days afterwards picking over in my head how that film failed so completely: from a director and screenwriter who fundamentally misunderstood both the genre at large and the character they were depicting, to the growing corporatisation of Hollywood filmmaking, to the nihilistic ideology powering it, to the ghastly visual design employed by Snyder and co., to its being the horrifying logical endpoint of Hollywood’s obsession with repackaging 9/11-type imagery as empty action movie finale spectacle in spite of the symbolism such a thing carries… So many reasons, all so multitudinous, all so fascinating to unpack, and seemingly all limited to this one film.
Of course, that wasn’t the case. All of the subsequent DC Films, excepting Wonder Woman (which we’ll get to), have been working from that initial foundation. Batman v. Superman turned everything abhorrent about Man of Steel up to 11 and had Warner Bros. constantly leaning into view to remind you that more of these things will be coming out soon and have you maybe considered flying Turkish Airlines once you’re finished here? Suicide Squad was the result of a studio panicking in the four months between its release and BvS’, due to the latter being thoroughly drubbed by everyone, and trying to call an audible in the middle of the play in a desperate (failed) attempt to course correct. Justice League was the exact same thing but played out over an even longer stretch of time, with the added directive of “Be More Marvel” fruitlessly being draped on top of it. Seriously, Justice League is at the exact same level as Suicide Squad, yet I felt absolutely nothing during the former whilst the latter left me enraged over Warner Bros.’ audacity at releasing such an obviously unfinished work into cinemas and charging money for the “privilege” of watching it.
Why? Simple, and for the same reason that the fundamental flaws of Man of Steel, whose tendrils have shown up in all of the DC movies and not just the Snyder-directed ones, don’t provoke the same spirit-crushing horror that they once did. The first time somebody you know yells out something offensive or horrible, you’re shocked, gobsmacked, incredulous, and you order them to be better. When it keeps happening, you protest and object but there’s a growing sense of tiredness and routine to your pushback, where you get the impression that maybe that horrible person who isn’t changing feeds on your offense. Eventually, you just blot it all out as white noise, accept that they will always be this way, and count down the days until they get hit by a bus and you never have to interact with them again.
Suicide Squad enraged me because I was left agog at the idea that anybody could consider the product a releasable film. Justice League left me completely non-plussed because I’ve seen that gag already. It ain’t shocking anymore, it’s just how things work now. It sucks in the same ways that Suicide Squad sucked, just like how Batman v. Superman sucked in largely the same ways Man of Steel sucked, and all four of them share common traits that have yet to be addressed and likely never truly will. They’re no longer bugs, they’re features, and that makes them increasingly less interesting to talk about and even less worthy of having energy expended upon them. They’re no longer trainwrecks, they just are. They’re… there. The miserable conclusion of Hollywood’s insistence that anything is fixable in post, even entire movie franchises.
The best film that this entire Cinematic Universe has managed to push out so far, the one with the least baggage tied to it, the one with minimal connections to Snyder and WB & DC (for they are as guilty of this rotten foundation as Snyder is), the one that had almost no studio meddling at any point, the one that works as a standalone film in its own right, managed to scale the dizzying heights of… fine, I guess. Even at its best, in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, this series could only dare to reach for the level of Thor: The Dark World, a competent yet instantly disposable Marvel Movie we have seen nearly hundreds of times up to this point. Something that I can almost definitely attribute to the screenplay having not come within 500 feet of a single woman, since the one 10 minute stretch where the film threatens to become something transcendentally outstanding (The Front obviously) was the stretch where Jenkins got left alone to do her amazing, original thing and was almost cut anyway because the rest of the studio didn’t get it.
And that’s why I don’t know why we are still talking about the DC Cinematic Universe. We parsed out their intrinsic awfulness years ago, every failed attempt to “fix” that awfulness without burning it all to the ground and starting again is incredibly obvious to anybody with eyes and a minor knack for pattern recognition, and the fact that even their best film only aimed for the level of basic competency does not indicate a sincere attempt by every-non-Patty-Jenkins-body to improve in any significant way. At best, they’ll suck in a new fascinatingly awful way again. At worst, they’ll keep on cycling through obviously-insufficient band-aids, each patching together a film of noise and flashes that leaves so little of an impression that even the final scene has left one’s memory entirely by the time you reach the cinema toilets. There is nothing new or interesting here, there’s not going to be. So why are we wasting our time with these things?
I mean, if you need to talk superhero films, look at everything else released this year! OK, Marvel released Spider-Man: Homecoming which was just nothing, but Thor: Ragnarok was a Taika Waititi film, and isn’t it far more interesting to talk about the ways in which his sensibilities and Marvel’s surprisingly intersect, rather than rehashing DC’s failures again for the umpteenth time? Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was a phenomenal examination of family, the damages of shitty fathers, and the necessity of allowing oneself the relief of grieving and feeling; or maybe you could also talk about how it represents the best kind of sequel-making, the one that goes small and personal instead of repeating what came before on a bigger scale? Hell, even Fox have been making interesting superhero movies as of late – creating complete side-stories in different genres, whilst they safely sequester the crap genericism to the actual X-Men movies where we can all happily ignore them to death – and just two years ago they were releasing ashcan movies into cinemas worldwide!
And not to be the guy who once again rides the “Superhero Movies are Killing Film (and Film Criticism)” horse – I genuinely hated doing that last year, but the films were all-round dire – there have been other, far more interesting films out this year worth talking about that could also draw in clicks. You could talk about the various tiny yet fundamental ways in which Disney’s live-action remake of their animated Beauty and the Beast breaks their perfectly-constructed original by trying to fix issues that weren’t issues in the first place (working on that). You could write about whether or not Ridley Scott’s abominable return to the Alien franchise, by nature of Prometheus and Covenant being prequels executed to his vision, is sullying his classic original, or if the virtuoso filmmaking on display in the original is able to overcome the clear fact that Scott himself has never understood something he helped create (working on that too, most likely for Bottom 10 list). More on the indie side, but how about the way that Ingrid Goes West couches its critiques about Instagram culture, celeb culture, and general Millennial West Coast vapidity inside painfully relatable commentary about the difficulty and artificiality of relationships and friendships in general (that’s coming on Monday sort of).
That’s just the stuff I personally have penned down in my notebook, and whilst I appreciate that I have a luxury that many others don’t – although I of course would not call “unemployment” and “not getting paid for writing” a “luxury,” per se, but hey ho – I think we can agree that they’re vastly more original and interesting than the 900th speculative piece on whether or not the DC Cinematic Universe can be saved. Because it can’t, and it doesn’t want to, but they’ll keep making more of them regardless. After all, Universal have tried three times this decade to make their Dark Universe a thing despite absolutely nobody asking for it; at least WB DC has Wonder Woman. In any case, barring some kind of miracle, these films are never going to be good. In fact, they’ll be worse than that, they’ll be what Justice League is: boring. Relentlessly so, because it’s a badness we’re all intimately familiar with now, and there’s nothing unique about its specific badness to it anymore. The name changes, the cast is slightly different, but the content is the same.
So consider these my final words on The DC Cinematic Universe. Outside of Justice League’s inevitable claiming of the #10 spot on my Bottom 10 list for the year, and that one sequence from Wonder Woman showing up in my Best Scenes of 2017 article, I’m done. I’ll still see these films for as long as I continue to cling onto the false belief that I can make some kind of a career out of this whole thing – which, since Aquaman isn’t due until next Christmas, may not even last that long – but I’m done wasting words on them. Until the DC Cinematic Universe does something interesting again, I refuse to give it a second thought on these pages. Life’s too short, and there are far too many interesting movies to bother doing otherwise.
Callie Petch tried to write you a love song, but it comes out a lament.
One thought on “The DC Cinematic Universe is Beyond Saving”
I really like Man of Steel (but get your issue with it), I like Batman v Superman (bar the final 50mins), I don’t dislike Suicide Squad (though I am aware of its terribleness for the most part), and Wonder Woman is my “superhero” film of the year so far (regardless of David ThewlCGIs). But Justice League is fucking garbage for all the reasons you mention. The worst in the DCEU so far by an absolute mile.