Monday, November 27, 2017


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*


For me scenes of head-scratching confusion probably outnumbered scenes of wonder and awe. And yet, the mere fact that the production chose to steal from the best, from Miller’s definitive Batman work, suggests that the new Warner-DC Universe might be able to formulate a superhero universe with its own unique tonality, rather than doing what a lot of DC comic books did to poor effect—simply copying the Marvel method of doing things.
I can't say that JUSTICE LEAGUE succeeds in putting across "a superhero universe with its own unique tonality," at least not to the extent that BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN differs in tone from the dominant formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Possibly LEAGUE would have maintained the same tone as its predecessor had director Zack Snyder completed the film as he conceived it, although I think it would have been no less filled with "scenes of head-scratching confusion" than BVS, to say nothing of being, like BVS, considerably longer than the 120 minutes of the finished LEAGUE. Some fans have made much of the compromised vision of Snyder's original concept, citing narrative discord between Snyder's scenes and those re-shot or created from whole cloth by pinch-hitting co-director Joss Whedon.

I assume that most of the resemblances between LEAGUE and 2012's AVENGERS-- also directed by Whedon, as well as a film that cemented the mainstream reputation of the MCU-- came about prior to the enlistment of Whedon's services. Whedon came in to substitute for Snyder when the latter left the production in response to a personal tragedy, and so I have to assume that the biggest similarity between the two films-- that both films feature involved scenes of superheroes kicking the asses of alien invaders-- had an analogous plot-function. Both AVENGERS and LEAGUE are primarily concerned with the interaction of an ensemble of heroes, in response to an outside threat. However, AVENGERS shows the heroes being brought together by a prime mover, Tom Hiddleston's charmingly malevolent Loki, who only unleashes an alien horde toward the film's end. In contrast, LEAGUE chooses to open the film with the first probes of an impending alien invasion. The ensuing film concerns the heroes-- Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg-- assembling in order to forestall the incursion. In what seems like a throwback to the MacGuffins of 20th-century serials, lead villain Steppenwolf can only initiate his invasion if he gets access to three complementary objects called "Mother Boxes," arcane devices borrowed, like Steppenwolf, from the mythos of Jack Kirby's "New Gods" concept. When the five superheroes learn that Superman's death was a factor that encouraged Steppenwolf to launch his invasion, Batman-- driven in part by guilt at his part in Superman's death-- conceives of resurrecting the Man of Steel.

To get the "villain problem" out of the way, Steppenwolf is no Loki. He was a minor, short-lived character in Kirby's universe, and the version concocted by scripters Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon has even less depth. Steppenwolf seems like a video-game villain, with no existence save to punch heroes or be punched by them. Even his role as a leader of his minions-- "parademons," insect-men who are either natives from Steppenwolf's unnamed planet or transformed Earth-people-- has no resonance. Though Zack Snyder shares no credit in the script, it's possible that Steppenwolf was modeled on the director's execution of General Zod in MAN OF STEEL as a pitiless conqueror. Unfortunately, this makes Steppenwolf utterly boring, and his one-dimensional snarlings detract from every scene in which the character appears.

However, LEAGUE also emulates one of AVENGERS' better points: the interaction of the ensemble. Again, it's impossible, without further research, to know how much of this was Snyder, putting aside his cumbersome meditations on The Nature of Power in order to bring forth a group of heroes who play off one another in both comedic and dramatic ways, a la the MCU Avengers. Given Whedon's reputation for writing funny lines, I imagine that his participation made LEAGUE a much richer film in terms of humor than a "pure" Snyder work would have been. For that reason, I, unlike the earlier mentioned fans, think that the collaboration of Snyder and Whedon resulted in a better balance of talents than either could have accomplished alone. Given the serial-like nature of the movie's plot, there's no point in addressing it further, but it serves quite well to give the viewer a series of enjoyable dramatic and comedic moments, which include:

*Batman getting testy with Wonder Woman over his plan to resurrect Superman, in which he manages to bring up her lost love Steve Trevor, prompting the Amazon to lose her customary cool.

*Superman resurrected with only partial memories, resulting in him battling the other heroes, including a fine moment in which he catches sight of Flash in super-speed mode even as he's fighting the others.

*The promise, in a coda, that a future LEAGUE film will bring about what no live-action superhero film has yet accomplished-- a face-off between a team of superheroes and an "injustice gang" of super-villains.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began at a point when the company had optioned their most popular franchises, chose a "bottom-up" approach to constructing the universe, introducing-- or, in the Hulk's case, "re-introducing"-- most of the future Avengers in individual films in order to build up their appeal. DC Comics, a division of corporate entity Warner Brothers, had no problems relating to optioned characters, but Warner's cinematic arm apparently had no faith in any properties except Batman and Superman, resulting in a "top-down" approach. Wonder Woman, arguably the third most recognizable DC hero, only earned her own film after appearing in one devoted to both the Dark Knight and the Kryptonian crusader, and it appears that Warners wanted to follow the same game-plan by introducing both Aquaman and Cyborg in association with LEAGUE, with at least an AQUAMAN film set for release in December 2018. As I write this, LEAGUE has not been remarkably successful, so there's no guarantee that there will be another film in the series, with or without an Injustice Gang. But despite various minor weaknesses, I was refreshed to see a live-action superhero film that wasn't plagued by truck-sized plot-holes. It's also one that attempts, with whatever success, to get beyond the "grim and gritty" motifs of earlier Batman and Superman films, and which might, in time, to lead to films that better represent the imaginative scope of the DC Universe.

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