The Justice League comes out this weekend. And the reviews are terrible. Woo hoo?
Watching Batman, Superman, Flash and Wonder Woman fight together on the big screen should be the fulfillment of a billion childhood fantasies. It is basically the filmic equivalent of dumping all of your action figures on the floor and smashing them together. I did this all the damn time.
But I’m feeling pretty meh about the whole thing.
I mean, this could be maturity. I’m a man of a certain age now, and even though I was lucky enough to see my childhood obsessions follow me into adulthood via the popular acceptance of fandoms and the mainstreaming of geek culture, there comes a point in one’s life when strong men in tights just don’t cut it anymore. Maybe your worldview grows a bit more complex, and so one outgrows the idealism (or, in certain cases, nihilism) of these tales?
But I’m not sure I entirely buy that.
It could also be genre exhaustion. We’re almost ten years into a relentless superhero film cycle, with Marvel cranking out three to four films a year, and DC and Fox scrambling to catch up. And this was almost twenty years after Tim Burton’s Batman proved that superheroes were worthy of the big screen in the first place. That’s thirty odd years, with continual reboots, sequels, spin-offs, and derivative franchises. And that cycle has only sped up in the last decade, with three big screen versions of Spider-Man, two versions of the Fantastic Four, and soon a fifth take on Batman (after the ones by Burton, Schumacher, Nolan and Snyder, respectively).
Or, on a smaller level, it could be DC’s mishandling of the properties, as I’ve mentioned before. I mean, sure, the movies aren’t great, but some of the most beloved superhero films of all time have major flaws. A consistent criticism that is levelled at the DCU is that the characters don’t feel like the characters we grew up with, which I can see, but also don’t think is the sole reason. I mean, Pfeiffer’s take on Catwoman in Batman Returns is a huge departure from the comics, but that performance is beloved because Burton and Pfeiffer sold us on what makes that version of Selina Kyle tick.
I actually think it could be a combination of reasons. I think these new versions of the character definitely are departures from their traditional incarnations, but what makes them not quite function is that those departures often undercut something central about that character. Superman isn’t heroic, mostly reactive, and he murders people. Batman’s code of morality is deeply flawed, he’s often reactive, and he murders people. Suicide Squad is murder-y, mostly reactive, and murders people (although they’re supposed to murder, so they get a pass).
Did I mention there’s a lot of murder in this universe?
So these new, grim-dark versions of the characters are introduced in crappy films, and… well, we don’t care about them. (Save for Wonder Woman, which had a more traditional take on the character in an actually solid film and so — surprise! — is the only character anyone cares about in this damn universe.) These heroes feel very different from the versions of the characters we remember, but the filmmakers haven’t done the work to make us care about them or feel invested in their (supposedly) heroic actions.
So they aren’t really the action figures we would smash together as children. They’re… something else. Something emptier, and much more cynical.
And, to be perfectly honest, I feel like the biggest creative misstep of the DCU has been underestimating the power of nostalgia in this cultural moment. There’s a reason why Stranger Things is such a phenomenon, and franchises associated with childhood and the eighties are blowing up — largely, the current historical moment sucks and we’re looking for escapism. I mean, Marvel will update a franchise, but never take a character or tone too far from its roots, which makes it palatable to a younger audience AND their parents. That’s huge. Did you see Spider-Man: Homecoming? It was basically just an extended John Hughes homage.
So, yeah. It’s probably time to put those toys away, DCU. Or give them to someone else?
But maybe not Wonder Woman. She can stay.