Don’t cry for the DC Extended Universe. The truth is, the property has been quite profitable for DC Comics, and for Warner Bros Pictures. The critically panned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, opened large, and finished as one of the highest grossing films of 2016. The star heavy Suicide Squad, largely- and rightly- derided for its ludicrousness, was the tenth best performing film of the same year.
This year, Wonder Woman has surpassed expectations, riding lofty critical praise to emerge the highest-grossing superhero origin film ever released. 2013’s Man of Steel did brisk business too, returning $668 million on a $225 million budget. For films operating at this level, the bottom line is the only metric that really matters. Hence the franchise marches on confidently. The DCEU films may not out-gross rivals, Marvel, on a successive film by film basis, but frankly no one else is doing so either.
The films that make up the DCEU have never been great.
Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice were unnecessarily ponderous as director and would be showrunner Zack Snyder embraced a dark and gloomy universe, one that was completely and successfully reimagined by Christopher Nolan with his excellent Christian Bale Batman trilogy. Last year’s all-star Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer, had no reason to be so ugly. Despite the high profile talents of Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Viola Davis, the film never levitated past B-movie status. Wonder Woman seemed to turn the tide and Justice League arrives in time to ride the crest.
Justice League isn’t great, not by a mile. But as a super hero flick, one would be quite selfish to ask for more. On a scale of one to Marvel, who seem to have perfected the science and art of the genre down pat, Justice League skewers dangerously close to the loose fun that has made Marvel Cinematic Universe the hottest intellectual property in all of Hollywood.
Part of the praise should be placed at the feet of Joss Whedon (Avengers), who was drafted in to replace Snyder after the director suffered a family tragedy. But the bulk must have been DC’s deliberate insistence on chasing some light following the hostel critical reception of Dawn of Justice. This about face was forcefully tried out on reshoots of Suicide Squad but the results were a disjointed mess.
Justice League is more organic, as Snyder keeps his dark colors and moody evocation but manages to brighten up the screen with his the zippy dialogue and chemistry between the stars. Ben Affleck’s Batman is still a hopeless killjoy but Justice League has a lot of fun despite his sting. At some point, he even joins in on the banter.
Set in the present day with visits to Themyscira, Atlantis, Gotham, and Metropolis, Batman is still brooding, blaming himself for the untimely death of Superman as seen at the end of Dawn of Thunder. Knowing that there is no rest for the wicked, or for the good guys who trail them, Bruce Wayne is convinced that the only way to truly defeat evil is to form a super alliance, one that gives new meaning to the term ‘’squad goals.’’
Naturally, an ancient evil awakens somewhere, this time in trusted CGI beastly form voiced by Ciaran Hinds. Steppenwolf is pretty basic, as far as villains come and has no interesting conflicts or compelling motivation beyond ruling the world. To do this, he needs to assemble three blocks (mother boxes) hidden in different corners of the globe after the events of the ancient war. One of them is guarded by the amazons, another by men and the third by the underwater guys.
To stop him, Bruce Wayne who has no super powers beyond being fabulously wealthy attempts to convince would be do-gooders; Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Arthur Curry/Aquaman, Barry Allen/The Flash and an unyielding half-man-half-machine, aptly named Cyborg to join forces with him. Little explanation is given as to why these characters are the chosen one. These conversations with the characters lead to expository submissions as save for Wonder Woman, none of these characters are yet to get their own stand-alone film.
The director- Whedon gets only a screenwriting credit- handles these sections smartly and deftly, giving Wonder Woman more to do as the eventual leader and glue that keeps the team together. Ezra Miller’s The Flash gets the juiciest quips and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman proves to be potentially interesting as a leading man. Not so interesting are his underwater scenes though.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha (Diane Lane), important parts of Superman’s story arc make brief but revealing appearances, considering Superman’s fate had already been sealed in Dawn of Justice but they are given practically nothing to do beyond making mopey faces, and later, happy ones.
For fan boys and superhero geeks, Justice League may be well enough. The fight scenes are short and impactful, the portion set in Themyscira is particularly thrilling. So is the aborted showdown between the heroes and a character who literally rises from the dead with little or no explanation. Come to think of it, the time zones involving Wonder Woman are fuzzy when connected to her standalone film.
Opening week box office returns have been underwhelming but if any film can survive this and still make it to profitability, Justice League is just the type. Crowd pleasing, sturdy and visually appealing, while the long awaited team up won’t save the DC franchise, it won’t be the death of it either.