Five films in, what does the DC Extended Universe represent?
If Justice League – the culmination of four years of table-setting – is anything to go by: unevenness.
DC is the lumbering Frankestein’s monster of big-budget franchise filmmaking. Snyder’s solo films, Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, are fascinating in their nigh-incoherent examination of the American ideal of masculinity. They’re failures, perhaps, but all the more fascinating for it, wrapped up in the eroticisation, aestheticisation and glorification of American man as God and fallen angel all at once.
Suicide Squad was a different kind of failure, a high-speed collision between commercial concerns and an attempt to bottle Marvel Studios’ actor-driven charm with a hard edge. Cut like a trailer by those who cut trailers, it bore the scars of its clumsy recreation but retained some slender spark. Wonder Woman is the lone bastion of coherency; it hits the familiar origin story beats with a female protagonist which was, apparently, sufficient to attract waves of critical adulation. There are elements in the film that hint at the kind of deific obsession driving Snyder’s films – Diana Prince as a goddess among fragile mortals – but it’s mostly a fun time at the movies and that’s, I suppose, enough.
Justice League tries to be a fun time at the movies. It’s not.
For all DC’s clumsy, hasty attempts to emulate Marvel’s success at building a brand and profit alike, it kept itself distinct from its competitor. These were serious films. Films without post-credit Easter Eggs or, frankly, much of a sense of humour. Miriam Bale put it best when she said “DC is about religion while Marvel is about actors.” These were films with grand (often inarticulate) questions about belief and the American ideal, about the intersection of ethics and military might.
No more! Justice League tries its best to be a mid-rate Marvel knock-off. There’s plenty of banter (no doubt thanks to uncredited co-director Joss Whedon), often employed to undercut the weight of any scene that threatens to feel meaningful. No more superhero mano-a-mano (well, less of it); this is a story of a team and that team getting together. There’s brighter colours and a lighter mood and even a dang post-credits scene.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with trying to make a superhero movie along these lines, of course. I might gripe about the familiarity of Marvel’s (incredibly successful) model, but I can’t deny that they’ve honed their formula – love it or hate it – to a fine art at this point. The problem is that, with only four films under their belt, DC doesn’t have the scaffolding to pull this off (yet).
Wonder Woman worked as a largely light-hearted action-adventure flick because it existed apart from the prior films; Justice League has to juggle origin stories for three characters (Ezra Miller’s The Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg), bring back Henry Cavill’s Superman (surely not a spoiler at this point) all the while establishing an apocalyptic threat (Ciarán Hinds’ Steppenwolf) and finding time for obligatory, tossed-off banter.
Granted, Miller’s killer at delivering banter. Actually, most of the actors acquit themselves pretty well! Sure, Affleck looks tired and Fisher is saddled with a shithouse character, but I’m legitimately looking forward to The Flash, Aquaman and the next Wonder Woman (which, with a female director, will presumably avoid the blatant leering she’s treated to here). The problem is that Justice League only really works a conduit for spin offs and sequels – take that away, and all you have are empty sets and unconvincing CGI and an enduring emptiness.
What does the DC Extended Universe represent? I don’t think even they know, at this point. And that’s the problem.