JUSTICE LEAGUE Is The DCEU’s First Fun Superhero Film

Let’s get real for a second. When I took my seat at the press screening of  Justice League, I was prepared for a grayed-out slog. The ending of Man of Steel, not to mention the unrelenting grimness that was Batman v Superman, had left me skeptical about what DC‘s latest cinematic offering was going to do to us. I expected growling, glaring, and a whole lot of posturing atop bleak miseryscapes. What I didn’t expect was fun.

I did expect Jason Momoa to rock that Pacific Islander ink, though.

However, fun is precisely what I got. Fun in the form of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) obvious avoidance of the subject whenever Alfred (Jeremy Irons) brought up Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)—awww, someone’s got a crush! Or in the look on The Flash’s (Ezra Miller) face when he saved his first civilian (that nearly had me all misty-eyed). And yes, the sick guitar riffs when Aquaman threw aside the whiskey bottle he’d emptied before walking into the raging sea. Very cheesy, but in the best way. Maybe the DCEU needs more sick guitar riffs in their movies instead of on-the-nose retro song covers. It couldn’t hurt, right?But most of all, the fun came from the fact that these superheroes actually enjoyed working together and truly wanted to save the world.

Not that the movie was perfect. As Nerdist’s own Kyle Anderson points out, Justice League‘s fun factor is offset by its inconsistency. Plus, Steppenwolf isn’t the most impressive villain; his power, and indeed most of his story, seems to be that he’s really good with an axe. But these issues aside, Justice League was fun in a way I hadn’t seen from a superhero movie in a long time.

Marvel movies tend to market themselves as being Fun, which, to their credit, they usually are. The MCU color palette doesn’t shy away from primary shades, and the heroes don’t seem nearly as petulant and grudging about saving the world as they do in, say, Batman v Superman. However, the MCU has grown increasingly predictable over the years, to the point where you can check off the plot beats and their approximate timings in most of its new releases. Cosmic threats, flirty banter, a hero who doesn’t know how to use his gifts responsibly at first…but then he does! Haven’t we seen this before?

It’s not really a criticism one can level at Justice League, because DC movies haven’t given us any of that before. Under Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder’s supervision, the DCEU became strangely embarrassed to be about superheroes, insisting on realism in their films about people with superhuman powers who wear themed costumes to fight aliens or similarly theme-obsessed master criminals. Gotta have realism for those extremely realistic stories, or at least its Nolan-Snyder variant: a superficial “realism” that emphasizes violent darkness above everything else. Justice League veers away from that with Steppenwolf and the Parademons from Jack Kirby’s buckwild Fourth World series, and what a relief it is to see a DC movie that leans into the more fantastical aspects of its superhero comic origins. Who needs so-called realism when you can fight a bunch of bug-men and a giant with the voice of Ciaran Hinds?

More broadly, who needs realism in a DC comic book movie?

When Marvel Comics burst onto the publishing scene in the 1960s, one of its major selling points was that its heroes had everyday problems like you and me. Spider-Man might have saved New York, but Peter Parker still didn’t have a date for the prom. The Fantastic Four battled monsters on a monthly basis, but they squabbled like any other family. You know, a dash of realism amidst the superhumanity.

Meanwhile, DC Comics went in an almost diametrically opposite direction, playing on readers’ suspension of disbelief. Did you want to see boring teenage drama, or did you want to watch Superman compete in the Interplanetary Olympics? Who cares about family sniping when you have the all-new Justice League (created in 1960) fighting otherworldly baddies? How about Batman going back in time to meet Sherlock Holmes, or the Flash begging you to buy his comic?

Side note: some of these storylines raised intriguing questions about the boundaries between fiction and reality in the DC universe. If the Flash knew he was a comic book character, what did that mean for his existence as a whole? Was Sherlock Holmes a real person in Batman’s world, or did he and Batman simply inhabit the same plane of reality by virtue of being fictional characters? These questions went largely unanswered, but they were still pretty cool.

Somewhere along the journey from page to screen, the wires got crossed. Marvel became the fun, out-of-this-world-adventure filmmaker, while DC really, really wanted viewers to know that the most powerful man on Earth was very pissed off but still cared about his mom.

In that context, Justice League seems like an initial attempt to recapture what set DC apart from its chief rival in the biz. We don’t need to know how the boom tubes work or what the heck Steppenwolf is, just as we didn’t need a massive backstory about how Superman got involved in the Interplanetary Olympics. All we need to know is that our heroes are ready to save us.

Did you enjoy Justice League as much as I did? Sound off in the comments!

Images: DC/Warner Bros.

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