In the dark and brooding corner, hoping for a surprise victory! The challenger, the underdog, we have the newly formed Justice League! Consisting of: Batman – rich and cool but ultimately powerless. Wonder Woman – a big favourite with the fans and the only one ahead on points. Aquaman – hard drinking, hard swimming and looks good with his shirt off. The Flash – the comic relief. Cyborg – shiny! And finally Superman – dark, brooding and over-Nolan-ised. Their opponents, the long established champions, The Avengers! Appearing in this post with their original line up: Iron Man – our best window into the universe and the most watchable (as long as the actor doesn’t change). Thor – after a rocky start is now riding high on a recent solo success. Captain America – the best all-rounder but can get a little preachy. Hawkeye – grounding the team but looking a little tired. Black Widow – lacking powers but still somehow surviving. And finally the one, the only, The Incredible Hulk – forget his solo outings because he adds value wherever he appears. The referee is explaining the rules, touch gloves, fighters have gone to their corners. Let’s get ready to rumble!
The recent Justice League (2017) managed the impossible. In fact it managed several feats which had previously seemed impossible. First it took several beloved and long established characters, some of whom are in their most interesting movie version ever, and made them seem boring. It reminded the world why plot, character development and story coherence are necessary. And third, it made Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) seem like a carefully constructed and thought-provoking piece of cinema. “Save…Martha!” No, let her go cos, man…she’s gone. Lets be honest, this is the best version of Batman. Dark, sinister, brutal and broken. Affleck is emotionally engaging and physically believable. That warehouse fight was good and not just superhero good, The Raid (2011) good. Superman is a little too dark and brooding but for the first time is genuinely looking at the potential complexity of the character. Wonder Woman is charming, watchable and well-acted. So what’s the problem?
Lacking supernatural and godlike powers Hawkeye and Black Widow are wiped out early in the fight. Either that or they are ignored by opponents who are virtually invulnerable. Neither Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, The Flash nor Aquaman has anything to fear from them. It is possible that either Black Widow or Hawkeye might briefly slow down Batman but with his wealth of gadgets and equipment he has bested far more difficult opponents, and so even working together Hawkeye and Black Widow will fall quickly. Superman could wipe them both out in the flash of an eye. As Baron Strucker said, “Concentrate fire on the weak ones.” Hawkeye and Black Widow fall quickly. Two down and first blood to the Justice League.
Justice League has problems and its two biggest are obvious to anyone (probably even people who haven’t seen it). It has no basis upon which to launch these characters into an ensemble movie. When the first Avengers (2012) film was made each of the main characters had appeared in their own solo movie to establish character and back story. By the time we get to Captain America: Civil War (2016) the audience can already see the building conflict before it happens. The characters are comfortable and the surprises are genuinely surprising. Cyborg, on the other hand, is someone who doesn’t like being a robot. The Flash is someone who jokes all the time and runs fast. Who are these guys? Affleck’s Batman would be fantastic taking on street thugs, gangsters and psychotic clowns. Unfortunately, he lacks credibility fighting Superman, escaped cave trolls, or big cartoon demon people. It is a shame that solo outings for many of these characters may not happen following Justice League’s lack of success. Cart before the horse stuff.
As was inevitable Thor and Wonder Woman find each other on the field of combat. Assuming that these two don’t find love together as the only two demi-gods in an otherwise lonely universe, the battle is devastating. Wonder Woman has some initial success because of Thor’s old world manners and reluctance to hit a woman. Eventually, however, he gets angry and rattles her over the head with the hammer. Wonder Woman falls back, dramatically wiping the single drop of blood from her lip and smiles knowingly. A gesture which means nothing in the context but looks really cool. Thor leaps, lightning flashing, to deliver the final blow but Wonder Woman simply stabs him through the chest with a sword able to sever limbs from Kryptonian cave trolls. Three down, looks like Justice League for the early victory.
The second big problem with Justice League is that it reeks of being made by committee. It is difficult not to find this aspect of the production insulting. There is a feeling that every moment of the script and shot composition has been designed to conform to feedback from focus groups. Wonder Woman is never on the screen without a lingering shot of some aspect of her curving physique. Both Batman and Superman’s climactic appearance is accompanied by musical call-backs to Batman (1989) and Superman The Movie (1978), as if to force nostalgia. Hey, remember when these characters were in good movies? And then there is the comedic stylings of The Flash – he’s a hoot! He’s not. At least Jesse Eisenberg isn’t in this. What? He is? Shit! There is a chaos about the DC movies. The rank smell of desperation, like someone screaming ‘love me, love me!’ Marvel can drop in little Easter eggs because there is established material and a history of making them relevant later. With DC movies they flash by reminding us of more interesting stories we’ll probably never see.
Batman against Iron Man is the battle of the techno-savvy billionaires. Batman serves up an early onslaught from the Batwing, the Batpod and the Batmobile. It seems like Iron Man will be quickly overcome. However, a tiny missile from Iron Man’s wrist disables all of Batman’s vehicles one after the other and he is left as nothing more than a very athletic man in a lightly armoured rubber suit. Inexplicably, Batman has no projectile weapons to offer other than a grappling hook. He manages to entangle Iron Man’s legs and to Tony Stark, sensing danger, shoots Batman through the chest with a high power laser. As he dies Batman shouts, “My mum’s name was Martha.” Tony’s mum’s name was Maria. Close but not close enough. The score is now three to one. The tide may be turning.
And the third problem of the two biggest is that there is very little internal logic to the story. Okay, fair play, this is a story about gods, demi-gods and a man dressed in a rubber bat suit fist-fighting a Pixar cartoon demon and his army of mosquito people. But at least have it make sense in its own universe. If the Amazons and the Atlanteans have been waiting for centuries for this particular ultimate bad guy to arrive (Steppenwolf?) why are they not helping? “Oh, we cannot leave our island.” Why? Build a boat! “You alone must solve this problem.” You couldn’t just come along to help for a bit? It’s easy, there is a free bar and everything. And then the other problem with logic is that there is no real definition to anyone’s powers. Everyone can kind of fly. Everyone is kind of invulnerable. Everyone is fast to a greater or lesser degree. Everyone is fairly strong. They all take hits that would floor a dinosaur and get up to keep fighting. It removes all sense of threat or danger and reduces the action scenes to the level of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Suddenly isolated Captain America is faced with both Cyborg and The Flash. It is patience and experience against flashy and expensive newcomers (hey, just like Marvel and DC at the movies). Dodging energy blasts from Cyborg which come with all the accuracy of a drunken Stormtrooper, Captain American suddenly has to contend with a lightening red blur pushing him slightly as it flashes past. Cap doesn’t lose his cool. Now with several movies under his belt he recalls similar experiences and holds up his shield for The Flash to run into. “Stay down kid. I mean it this time.” He quips before beheading The Flash with the edge of his shield. Now using the environment for cover he launches his shield which bounces off a wall and into Cyborg’s unprotected head. But in fairness to Cap, he felt bad about it afterward. Three all.
This year’s greatest threat to the success of Justice League, apart from their own production problems, was Thor Ragnarok (2017). Ragnarok, even if it wasn’t intended this way, is a great big FU to the whole DC Extended Universe. Marvel took its most poker-faced, Shakespeare-talking, emotionally awkward thunder god and placed him at the heart of a zany comedy just because they could. To make things even crazier they paired him up with that other fast-talking joke machine, The Hulk. All we needed was a cigar chewing police captain to growl, “Meet your new partner!” Wah, wah. We are through the looking glass here people. Black is white, up is down and the Hulk is making penis and fart jokes. The thing that should make you really afraid is that this all works somehow. Hulk is funny, Thor manages slapstick and Jeff Goldblum is just himself in his own home for about 20 minutes in the middle of the film. True, a few of the jokes fall flat but then there is actually a story to fall back on, fun action, more than one cool villain and an actual sense of jeopardy for the characters. After the plot of a Marvel movie has spun out things have changed, characters have developed and the world has moved on. It is difficult to remember if Steppenwolf, arriving on his magic carpet, going wild and then being pushed back to his own dimension made any difference to anyone except the Justice League and one displaced Russian family.
The Hulk roars out of nowhere like a big green man with lots of muscles. Wonder Woman confidently blocks his way but the Hulk is not to be deterred, or spoken to, or reasoned with or permitted another solo movie. Just as he’s done twice now he picks her up by the ankle and batters her from side to side like a stubbornly immortal fish. She is eventually left, crumpled and broken, in a crater of rubble. The Hulk rumbles, “Puny Amazon.” As he walks away. Four to three. Enraged by the destruction of a woman he’d only just met, Aquaman pokes Hulk in the ass with his trident. Aquaman’s hair flows beautifully in the rising wind, the spray glistening on his tattooed chest as Hulk beats him into fish paste without breaking a sweat. Five to three.
Let’s be clear, Thor Ragnarok is a good movie. It is fun, entertaining and escapist. It introduces characters and then gives them something to do. It plays on familiar tropes, changes them a little and then plays on them again to make a movie which is both comfortable and surprising. So it is true that Ragnarok is a good movie in its own right but it wouldn’t be anything like as good without the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe behind it. The characters are in the start positions they are in because of the events of the Thor movies, the Avengers movies and Captain America Civil War. Not only that but the comedy/action style and the visual insanity of the galaxy were introduced to us in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The previous two Thor movies were 1) fairly dull and unremarkable but introduced the characters well and 2) a bit dark and nonsensical but tied into the TV series. If movie producers go for a comedy twist to liven up the third in a series there is always the danger of Superman III (1983). Imagine how weird Ragnarok would seem if the only movies which had come before it were the Thor films. You’d be wondering why the tone had shifted so much, why none of the love interest characters were maintained and where the ‘big green guy from work’ came from. What work? No, Marvel has built upon its own success and ‘built’ is the correct word. Marvel can produce long and wordy action movies like Civil War because they have established conflict and character arcs that we’d like to see resolved. They can make action comedies like Ragnarok because we’ve seen the comic potential of main characters when they appear as minor characters in other movies.
Superman arrives late as he is contractually obligated to do. Now that his friends have been given the chance to settle things on their own he is now free to solve the problem he could have solved in five minutes at the beginning of the story. He fires heat vision at Captain America. No more Cap. Superman then meets Iron Man in a head to head, epic battle in the air. The battle finishes quickly when Superman throws Iron Man to the ground so hard that when they finally pry open the suit with a car jack there is nothing inside but Stark flavoured jam. Superman heads off for a quick coffee and a sandwich. Five all. Superman faces off against the Hulk. The fate of the universe comes down to who is stronger, who is faster, who can… let’s face it, its Superman. Unless the Hulk can find some Kryptonite he’s dead eventually. Superman throws him into the sun, or leaves him floating in space to suffocate or drops him into a black hole. Supes wins, the Hulk is dead, end of.
So what is the alternative for DC? While Marvel continues to turn out golden popcorn, DC seems intent on turning potential gold into cinema nachos (cinema nachos are shit and you know they are. That isn’t even cheese!). It is all the more disappointing because DC has gold to work with. Ben Affleck as an older, darker more violent Batman has great potential. Him in a solo movie against any of the characters from Suicide Squad would be interesting and worth a watch (except the boomerang guy. What is the point of the boomerang guy?). Imagine a series of Wonder Woman movies which build to Lord of the Rings style epic battles, Amazons vs the forces of darkness, with the fate of the universe in the balance. Or if DC maintained the brass nuts it started out with and did a series of Superman movies where he gains the trust of the world and deals with the guilt resulting from the devastation of the first movie. In fact, anything but these ensemble train wrecks with little or no plot, no character development and so little internal logic it comes off like the fever dream of a toy-obsessed twelve-year old. While Marvel builds to Infinity War and increasingly rules TV (the new series of The Punisher is great) DC are now contemplating having to lose certain cast members and cancel some of the proposed solo outings. This is a shame because some of the characters could have worked really well on their own.
Alternatively, Iron Man could use the skills he displayed in Iron Man 2 to create a new element like Kryptonite. He could fit it to an arrow to be delivered by Hawkeye early in the fight and with Superman out of the way and the Hulk on their side – Avengers win! Just a thought.