Story Pile: Justice League

You know. Justice League. The movie. And I guess by extension the whole damn DCEU as an experience.

I’m going to spoil everything. Don’t worry. You’re missing nothing.

The plot of Justice League wants to pick up where a previous movie left off. Not Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, no, it wants to pick up where some other movie, some less worrying movie. A movie with different, better characters in it, but one or two of the same crucial plot beats.

In this movie, a Batman continues Batmanning all the Batmanees, Wonder Woman stops a bank robbery of completely unmasked villains who are also committing blatant terrorism. Then, a tall horned dude beats up the island of Wonders Women, who can’t stop him running off with a magic box, then they have a flashback where they explain, you know, these boxes, these are super important and imply some sort of historical greater connection between three realms of human cultures, including Atlantis, about which we have seen nothing. Then, Batmans finds some people, one of whom is Arthur

And we’ll get to Arthur

and the Flash, and Cyborg based on something from that previous movie, that, again, was pretty likely not Batman V Superman.

They fight villains, lose, fight villains, get a doohickey, and their immediate thought is to use the doohickey to bring back Superman, a thing that was not discussed at any point beforehand, but is discussed now, in this instance, and it’s even discussed as being possible but also a bad idea. Then we get a sequence of technobabble (things working because they work, yay), Superman is back from the dead, but he’s evil now, kind of, sorta, and there’s the one good action moment of the whole movie. Batman then solves it by dint of literally making an object of Lois Lane, Superman says ‘gosh I dunno’ about Supermanning, then everyone agrees to go stop the villain. Superman decides to help them, so they win.

The end.

There, I saved you two hours.

I think it’s important to remember that when you hear the ding-dongs who insist that Snyder had a unique and amazing vision for superheroic media, and want to tell you this movie is, in fact, genius because it uses a five-act platonic structure, that even if they’re right in that structure, they’re still talking out their ass, because structures serve narrative, not analysis, and this movie sort of doesn’t have a final act at all.

For anyone not familiar, there’s this body of people coincidentally doing blocking work for Snyder’s movie-making inadequacy going around on public internet spaces like Twitter, looking for people wh ohave anything bad to say about this movie or Batman V Superman and trying to start fights. The fights are always structured in the same prybar way, trying to make it so that the conversation is about one or two key points these jerks can, they feel, defend.

One of these points, which they bring up with a really striking regularity, is the idea of a Platonic Structure, or a five act story. Their grasp on this idea is kind of nebulous but it doesn’t matter, because it’s the kind of thing you choose to argue about if you’re confident the other person won’t have an understanding of it already. Then you can ‘try to explain it’ and when they don’t follow your description, you get to put the blame on them for being ‘unaware.’ It’s an attempt to create a narrative, but it’s largely unnecessary and unuseful.

This movie is bad not because it uses an arcane plot structure. It’s not that we failed to get it, it’s not that there’s some really smart, clever movie lurking inside this one. It’s that this movie is a confused mess. Movies are almost all messes, but there’s a set of jobs right at the end who make it their duty to focus and refine that mess into something you can understand, something that makes sense out of itself, and Justice League does not.

The mess that is Justice League is one that started two years ago, and over a year before its release with Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, where an attempt was made to build a mythology. You don’t need that movie to decode this one’s flaws – this movie is bad all of its own. Still, if the movies are meant to be connected – and I’m honestly not sure how much they are – there’s a fairly basic continuity error.

You can argue it doesn’t matter, which it doesn’t, but the fact that it doesn’t matter is kind of indicative of the problem. In Dawn Of Superjustice, Batman has a set of videos showing all the people he’s planning on making into his team of Buddyleaguers, which include the character Cyborg. Cyborg is shown as a byproduct of the Motherbox that woke up and gave him his powers… and that same motherbox is said to have only activated after Superman died.

Now, in Justice League this doesn’t matter – there’s no contradiction within this movie. It’s more of a symptom than a plot hole. The issue is that origin stories are used to encode the basic fundamental frameworks of a character. Wonder Woman is from a country that is disconnected from our society, so she doesn’t have our hangups or cultural values. Superman is from Kansas and Krypton, so he has both godlike power and down-to-earth cultural values. Where you come from is part of where you’re going.

That this movie’s origin story doesn’t line up with the other movie’s is not then a sign that they made a mistake as much as they didn’t ever know how to get it right. Two origin stories that don’t agree isn’t as much of a problem as two origin stories that are boring and suck. It’s easy to write over a bad story, comics do that all the time. It’s bad when you decide you need to take a mulligan on another story, because it’s not working for you, and what you replace it with is also bad and generic.

And generic it is indeed, as it frames Cyborg, one of the most high-cachet DC heroes of colour, as basically two simple gears: moping around, and the phrase boo-yah.

This isn’t the only worthlessness to the characterisation; you can also note the way that Wonder Woman has become a webcomic girlfriend from 2007, following along with the silly boys and cleaning up their whupsies, nagging them to get in line and shaking her head at how goofy and childish they all are. That is to say Justice League aspires to the high writing quality of a slightly better Ctrl-Alt-Delete, which is pretty astonishing.

This isn’t to say the whole movie sucks entirely. The things about this movie that suck tend to be large, grey waves of sludge, and the things that don’t suck are singular moments. This can create the false illusion that the movie ‘wasn’t that bad’ because you can remember a few moments that were pretty good.

For example, the way Batman frames heroism to the Flash is pretty good, solid stuff. It takes complex emotional issues (that Batman’s bad about) and cooks them into a practical suggestion (which he’s good at) and that gives the Flash a coping mechanism (which he needs). It’s a good example of how Batman’s analytical mindset and insight into human psychology is remote; he can’t explain things to the Flash as they work to Batman, but he can explain them to the Flash as the Flash needs.

Similarly, the moment in the Superman fight where – I said I’d spoil everything – Superman turns his head and notices the movement of the Flash, showing that Superman is as fast as the Flash is a really fantastic bit of direction. You get an ‘oh no’ reaction from The Flash, who has never had to deal with this problem before. It is totally wasted here because it’s in the fight with Superman, who will definitely become good by the end of the movie, and all it really serves to set up is later showing Superman showing off how fast he is and being a dick.

The third thing that’s kind of good is in the opening, there’s this cool sequence where Wonder Woman is shown defending an entire line of hostages from a guy with a machine gun. That’s a cool moment because it shows how she uses her invulnerability to protect people, which is great, though it does kind of ignore the way that that moment doesn’t make tons of sense from the perspective of the person shooting the gun. Still, heat of the moment.

Oh, and the way Jeremy Irons says ‘I’m sorry, who is this?’

There, that’s four moments. Four whole moments I was able to think of in two joyless hours of extremely expensive slog. That’s one good moment every half hour which sure doesn’t compare to ‘sitting on a park bench with my dog.’ I resist the idea that two hours of my life needs only one aggregate minute of actual joy. I don’t think that I have that kind of time to throw away.

I do want to recognise though that there’s stuff in this bad movie that I dislike not because of some intensely critical, intellectually rigorous thought process. There are things that are bad not because of what they try to do, but sometimes there are things that are bad because they just don’t do anything good. I am and have become in some strange way, a fan of Aquaman in my later years, and this fandom means that any given depiction of the character has to bring something to the table to show me that the people who made this character actually have a character in mind, have some idea of what to do with him and why that works.

This Aquaman doesn’t have any there there. It’s not just execution here – Jason Mamoa can certainly do some of the things this character is meant to do, like ramble and snark. It’s probably nice to get to do that sort of expressive stuff in a role after being known so well as a great big mountain of a man who rarely talked, in Game of Thrones. There’s a desire to have a personality.

The problem is there doesn’t seem to be a personality as much as there are mannerisms. There’s certainly an affect, but there’s no clear idea of who Aquaman is or what he wants or values. He complains about Batman protecting a place that he thinks sucks, while he’s defending a tiny fishing village. There are points where he says things or does things that seemingly are meant to resonate – when he confesses his fears (thanks to being jokingly pranked on by Wonder Woman) – but they just don’t. Part of it is he just isn’t there enough. Scenes are mostly carried by Batman, Wonder Woman and then Superman – which means the other three, lesser League members, have to cram all their personality into the small moments they get.

Two of them don’t have any personality, which is a problem. And I want to bash on Cyborg more about it, but I think that if you get handed ‘outcast prince of a cryptid nation of mages’ and you return with this nothingburger of a ham mountain, you’re basically making the same mistake as you did with Superman. And come to think of it, the trailer for Aquaman suggests that it’s a remake of Man of Steel. Oh bother.

In the end, Justice League represents a failing, in capital terms, of somewhere about a billion dollars. Between the six movies this franchise is meant to occupy, their budgets and then the subsequent marketing, some values for the whole project reach two billion dollars. Everything that could be done, under the observable, provable metrics, of the business side of Making Art, was done. This was a work with every advantage, advantage so advanced as to give the work a literal cult of supporters in online spaces who see it as an actual extension of a culture war and opposing the power of people who believe in Being Nice.

No coda. No moral.

This movie just sucks, and it sucks despite everything done to make it as good as they could, and along the way it wasted about the annual budget of Niger, a country of twenty million people.

This was meant to be an easy one.

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