Justice League (The 2017 Release) Review and the Tragic History of the DCEU: Part 1

by Paul Deeter

This is a review in three parts. The first review of Justice League's 2017 release will introduce Paul's blind viewing experience of the film. After watching the Snyder Cut, directly after the first one, the second review of Paul's will drop. Later this week Jason will be sharing his review of both films and an exploration of the DCEU.

2017 was a weird year for the DCEU. To be fair, the last five years have been overwhelmingly complicated for the series. Justice League came out in November of 2017, and smack dab in the middle of two of the more favorable DC releases, Wonder Woman earlier in 2017 and Aquaman at the end of 2018. With the ever successful releases from the MCU of Thor: Ragnarok by Taika Watiti in 2017 and Black Panther in 2018, MCU was on a roll post two Avengers features and Captain America: Civil War which was one of the most ambitious features from the franchise ever. MCU, to be fair, has always been on a roll. With almost no missteps critically and financially since the 2008 emergence of Iron Man, the DCEU had to majorly catch up after 2013's (underrated) Man of Steel reintroduced Superman in a performance from Henry Cavill. The direction of Zak Snyder who breathed a uniquely visual style in his films Watchmen and 300, made Man of Steel one of the most ambitious DC films since Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, and put the DCEU on the radar.

While Man of Steel met mixed reviews from critics, it actually was a very successful film financially. In fact it hyped up the old-school DC fans in such a way that people were feeling very hyped about the potential of sequels and exploration of other DC character's by Snyder. The themes of Man of Steel promised a darker universe from the DC comic series than the MCU. DC stands for Detective Comics, as originally established in the introduction of the original Superman releases and the original comic books in general. The idea of DC is and has mainly been the idea of a "darker" adversary of the MCU, and for a long time, there was only DC. Not to say that Marvel Comics didn't also arrive in 1939, to DC's 1937 introduction, but a lot of mass media including TV shows animated and live action, movies and other forms of popular media existed outside of the colored pages. Outside of TV shows, we would have only a couple of standalone Marvel films before the 90's including Howard the Duck. Yeah, not much competition there. But the DC offered Tim Burton's famous take on Batman, a fun series with Adam West, and then Christopher Nolan's hugely successful trilogy. The X-Men movies in 2001 and beyond were also very popular.

Then Jon Favreau came in and saved the day, with 2008's Iron Man. He introduced a trilogy of films starring Robert Downey Jr., some killer special effects and the promise for Marvel fans that things are going to get better. Then came Keven Feige, then Disney, then Fox went away and so on. So things changed. And year after year, Marvel owned the box offices and left the DCEU in the dirt so fast not even Barry Allen could keep up. I digress.

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013)

When 2013 gave us Man of Steel, it gave us an uneasy idea of what might lie ahead. Would Snyder save the DC franchises by offering a darker universe than MCU. DC fans knew deep down, with a company that gave us The Killing Joke and other extremely subversive takes on the comic book genre, that the DCEU could eventually save the day like the MCU did. Villains like the Joker and Lex Luthor simply had too much damn potential to wipe the screens of Marvel's villains not to exist. Considering the lengths that the DCEU could go to get really dark, Marvel Comics was kid's stuff. Man of Steel establishes a peek into that direction, because it wasn't directed for kids. Sure it's a PG-13 film, but its darker themes of the God complex Kal-El faced, the genocidal outlook of General Zod and the deeply filtered tones red and blues by Snyder, simply worked. With the success of MoS Warner Bros. took on the DCEU. Then, nothing happened.

For three years, both Superman and Batman fans waited for the palate to be reset. There was the workings of Batman v Superman as early as 2013, directly post MoS with Snyder back in control, and then an announcement at Comic-Con in 2014. But after a 2015 release announcement was delayed, the film finally came out in 2016, a year that would also see Suicide Squad. The film that came out was a very stuffed release that visually and thematically matched the tone of MoS

but got very ahead of itself in its two and a half hour running length and the introduction of multiple characters and villains. While the film had the good graces of giving us Gal Gadot in her soon to be extremely successful Wonder Woman role, it also gave us the weirdly cast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Note I say weirdly and not poorly, because I'm not a hundred percent sure I disapprove. It's a fun if odd maybe twenty minutes or ten percent of the film. It was also a complete bust critically, with an approval rating critically over under 30% and some Golden Raspberry nominations. Critics could not decide what even did work in the film's many choices, whether it be how long it was or how dark, the poor performances from Ben Affleck and Cavill, or it's many strange third act narrative choices. However, despite a cold critical response, the film broke box-office records and was well received from fans, proving there's still quite an audience unaffected by reviews flocking the big-screens today.

After 2016's extremely popular Suicide Squad release in August, the DCEU seemed to be on a roll. While credit can be given to Snyder, David Ayer's approach of humor and dark comedy also wooed audiences, along with the unique casting roles for big name actors like Margot Robbie, Will Smith and, controversially, Jared Leto as our latest Joker. I have two things to say, and I swear I'll keep it short. Not just is Jared Leto probably the biggest blow-hard in Hollywood, but the film's success astonishes me to no end, and makes me a little sad. Suicide Squad is, I am not exaggerating, the worst and most offensive film I have ever seen. Okay, I'm done (hey wasn't this supposed to be a Justice League review?)

So it's 2017, and June saw the extremely successful Wonder Woman by Patty Jenkins, and one of my all time favorite super-hero films. It's more fun than any of Snyder's contributions, it's original, and it broke the mold for a female-led cast of action films. This time, it beat the MCU out for firsts. So when November came around and kept Gadot, brought back Cavill and Affleck, re-joining Snyder and even introducing three new heroes, what happened? Well the movie just broke even at the box office and also sucked in the reviews with audiences as well as critics, both feeling lukewarm about the two hours of majorly overstuffed superhero presence. The film actually came out shortly before the Aquaman film, which did it's own thing with Jason Momoa in 2018. So it kind of introduces Aquaman, but in the same sense that Princess Diana snuck into BvS. Aren't we getting a little ahead of ourselves? With both the Flash and Cyborg jumping in pre-origin films, we kind of have to catch up with their back-story via very expository moments of introductions in the film's first half. Even the movie's concept has to play catch up, with arc of the three Mother Boxes' being the focus of the film's villain Steppenwolf. Now I'm going to make DC fans groan, but I can't not think of the Infinity Stones. I'm not saying that one has been around longer or makes more sense than the other, but we got the first echo of these stones in 2014's Avengers: Age of Ultron so Thanos and the hunt for the stones technically preceded the two films that are set on the actual hunt takes place. In Justice League, we have to understand what these are in the same opening hour that three new protagonists are introduced. Am I missing something?

Joe Morton as Cyborg. He deserved more.

Tell me if I am. I truly felt lost in the first half of the film, which to be fair, I just watched today. I was one of the lukewarm audience members who felt turned off by BvS and downright offended by Suicide Squad. I loved Wonder Woman, but Gal Gadot alone could not convince me to follow her journey into the Justice League film, and it had been too long since Man of Steel for me to feel truly nostalgic for Cavill as Superman. Hell, even Warner Brothers dragged it's feet on Justice League from literally 2007 to 2013. The film that could have been fell apart due to the shoddy releases of Superman Returns and The Green Lantern. It was all over trying to figure out who would be cast as who. And it didn't help that Joss Whedon poured a lot of time into Wonder Woman. After the script recently surfaced, we dodged a bullet with that one. So the question that begs to be asked is this: was Justice League rushed or did it come out too late? That's almost a Riddler level of mystery.

Let's get into it. In 2017 Justice League was finally released in November after some production delays and the tragic loss of Zack Snyder's daughter, causing him to leave the director chair open about halfway into the film's completion. Again, we have Joss Whedon introduce himself into the DCEU post his work with the MCU and the successful The Avengers film in 2012. I won't get into Whedon's current controversies post the allegations of his on-set behavior or the tone-deaf script he wrote for Wonder Woman. However, while I don't know the whole behind the scene story of Justice League's new captain on the ship's steering wheel, I can sense that Whedon was one of the reasons the film sank. The movie's narrative relies on a story that somehow feels muffled in its two hour running time. It's not that the movie isn't an appropriate length for a film in the genre, it's that the film suffers from too many characters and the ambitions to balance them all out. There's a reason The Avengers worked for the time, and it came down to a previously established villain, and the use of previously established characters. So when the '"funny" scenes of Ezra Miller (who sucks by the way, on and off screen) are utilized to introduce his character, I catch myself saying aloud "who's this clown". And for Chris sake The Flash is a favorite of mine! I went as him for Halloween once! Sure he looks cool in this movie, to be fair everyone looks fine. Batman's had worse outfits. Cyborg is... uh robotic-looking? But where the film tries its hand at balancing out the visuals of each hero and their suits, it does nothing to explore anything beyond skin-deep. So the Flash is wasted in half-one, Cyborg is given some sort of half-assed sentiment to his birth (to be fair, I didn't care) and Aquaman is a drunk, fish-talking hunk of a man. Neat! (Also I should note, the brief ten seconds of surveillance footage of the Flash in BvS doesn't count, although I just now remembered they exist).

Jason Momoa in Aquaman (2018)

Now, beyond what doesn't work in the first half of Justice League, I should mention a thwarted bank bombing by Wonder Woman and some Bruce Wayne moments of investigation for new teammates do make the first hour somewhat enjoyable. In fact, I actually caught myself wrapped up in some of the action and writing at first, mostly because I was under the impression that this was supposed to be a bad film. Not that it tanked critically. It's actually at 40% on Rotten Tomatoes which puts it above both BvS and Suicide Squad. So, I didn't dislike where the movie was headed. Now by the midpoint of the movie, I started to lose focus based on a level of confusion I had. And with this confusion I allow the movie a definite wiggle room within a reasonable level of believability. So when the movie re-introduces Kent by exhuming and then resurrecting his character through a method using Cyborg and the Flash, I thoroughly welcomed back his character and enjoyed the fight that ensued between him and the other heroes. Barry calls it the "Pet Sematary" conundrum. While this scene is probably unnecessary and also gives us uncomfortable close-ups of Cavill's CGI chin, it has nice touches, like the matched strength to Diana and speed to the Flash. It's moments like these that actually work in the film's favor, little comic book details about the powers and the way they work among the heroes. In fact it was something maybe the original Avengers and its sequel lacked, a balance of powers, and how they worked canonically between each hero, and not between each hero and one of the many droids or aliens they smush. When we see Superman matching the Flash's speed in their race to save some civilians I actually got kind of giddy. That's how it worked in those comics, huzzah! And to each moment of canon that worked in the film, I felt like there were a million more dedicated fans who cheered on those scenes as well.

But while the Flash is fast, and Cyborg is smart and Aquaman … has a pitchfork, none of these three characters are given more than a few moments outside of the League to talk and grow as characters. We do get Lois Lane, Commissioner Gordon and even Alfred (but no Steve Trevor!) to fill the gaps and make us care about the big three in charge though, and those moments helped keep the film from falling into a CGI mess. And the CGI? Well it's not entirely messy, but it does seem to run things in the final scenes. I liked the Superman v Justice League fight because it felt weighty and was set in a realistic environment. However the final twenty minutes were basically brown and red backgrounds with some major CGI touched up fighting. Don't get me wrong. The last two Avengers films are very CGI-heavy, most noticeably because of our main antagonist Thanos. These two films are kind of outliers in ways for the franchise though, and there's enough pre battle content in both that seem to outweigh or earn the final fights, in my opinion.

Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (2016)

So did the DCEU pull it's vision off, of a darker universe to match the MCU? Well, it's trying. I am not so much a fan to deny my excitement for Robert Pattinson's The Batman, and I'm even crossing my fingers for a better sequel to Suicide Squad (I mean it can't get worse, right?) It's kind of like a late start, with miles to catch up on the MCU, but there's also an unknown promise of where Marvel is going from here, so who's to say the DCEU can't succeed without the right management. And today, as of the release date of Justice League: The Snyder Cut, I have the opportunity to immediately revisit a mixed bag of a film, with its intended product in front of me. It's back in Snyder's court, the man who has financially blown the roof off of the potential of certain comic franchises, and to hardcore fans can do no wrong. It's time to watch (or maybe re-watch) this movie, and I intend to review it to the best of my ability, not just as a hopeful fan of the history and future of DC, but also as somebody who has stepped right out of 2017 to 2021, a new vision. A new hope, maybe, for the film. The reviews are still cumulating, it's only been out for half a day, and now I'm ready.

Part 2 and 3 coming.

Stay tuned: same bat place, same bat-time.

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