Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Justice League

Five movies into the DC Extended Universe, and a clear pattern becomes apparent. Because Warner Bros wants to avoid copying Marvel at all costs (unless it’s taking all the wrong lessons from the Guardians films to make Suicide Squad) there is no clear path or formula for this cinematic universe – each movie seems to be a direct reaction to the praise (if we’re talking about Wonder Woman) or the criticism (if we’re talking about all the others) of the previous movies.

Justice League is what you get when there is no clear formula, so much so that DC just try to copy The Avengers despite the fact that it hasn’t remotely put the right pieces together. It’s tempting to eviscerate this movie, to gleefully point out everything wrong with it and make the case that it’s the worst superhero movie of all time, but we have known that for about a year already (plus we already got the eviscerating out of our systems when it came out). So I’m going to take a more detailed dive into Justice League, and, since this is a Batman retrospective, we’ll look at Justice League in terms of it being a Batman story.

In writing these articles, I began to notice something as Justice League was approaching. In this series, we have looked at many different versions of the Caped Crusader – the wimpy propaganda hero, the campy 60s spoof-man, Tim Burton’s celebrated freak, whatever Schumacher’s was supposed to be, The Dark Knight, and early Batfleck, along with some version that shagged Batgirl who we’ll speak of no further. The one thing that connects all of these approaches is that they were consistent in terms of their characterisation, no matter how bad or good – well, all except Batfleck.

The last we saw of Batfleck, barring a Suicide Squad cameo that endangered a child, was Dawn of Justice. I’ve gone on record to say that this version of Batman, the borderline villainous murderer, was an interesting, if not entirely successful take on a character we have seen so many times before. Batman was the best part of Dawn of Justice, which isn’t exactly high praise since the movie is a complete mess, but it was clear that Zack Snyder was much more interested in playing with Batman and what he could represent – to the point were he forgot to make Superman a proper character for the second movie in a row.

It turns out that Superman’s death at the end of Dawn of Justice gave Batman something of a personality transplant. The Caped Crusader was less dark and murder-happy and more quippy, more upbeat this time around – let’s just say it, more Tony Stark. That might have something to do with the fact that Joss Whedon re-wrote and directed a portion of Justice League due to Zack Snyder’s family tragedy. As I’ve already mentioned, each DCEU movie is born from the reaction to the previous movies: in Justice League’s case it’s the positive reception of Wonder Woman, and the negative reception of Dawn of Justice, that influenced this mess of a film.

Justice League is what happens when two directors with completely different styles try to bow to the wishes of studio bosses who have nightmares involving Rotten Tomatoes scores with notes like “make Batman funnier”.This isn’t to say that both Snyder and Whedon aren’t at fault – this is easily the worst thing either of them have done. Yes, worse than Sucker Punch. It seems like this movie never had a chance to be good, thanks to all of the meddling and re-shoots and desperate attempts to subvert what went wrong with the previous films.

Even with all of this mess, it’s hard to see how Justice League, and especially Batman, turned out so badly. The premise seems to be simple: Batman, thanks to his guilt over his role in Superman’s death, recruits a bunch of superheroes, along with Wonder Woman, to take on a world-ending threat. Batman seems to be the leader of this team, even though it’s clear that he doesn’t want to be, expressing that Wonder Woman would be a better fit and generally looking as though he could use a lie down. He’s got a point, except this Wonder Woman is a shadow of the one in her own movie, reduced to near-parody with a mannered script and a sidelined character. There’s also a whole plot about Batman wanting to sacrifice himself so the team can win, a lot like Iron Man, but, unlike The Avengers which follows through on this plot, that sacrifice is yet another thing that feels unearned to the point that it just fades into the background much like everything else.

There is no character in Justice League that comes out unscathed, but Batman is the worst offender. In the space of one movie, the character has completely changed for the worse. Batman shouldn’t be the leader of the Justice League. He should be its dark and slightly paranoid heart. The reason why he works so well in the Justice League in every other medium is that he is the non-superpowered loner who takes on gods or whatever it is this week because that’s what he believes is morally right. I want to see that Batman fighting alongside Superman and Wonder Woman, the guy that has to think and strategize because he can’t punch people through walls. Instead, we got Batfleck at open mic night.

And so we come to the end of the Batman retrospective series, on a low note, but even the worst versions of Batman are at least a little interesting. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Batman is perhaps the most fascinating cinematic character I’ve ever seen, for the changes he has went through with each new director, to the milestones of cinema like the first Burton movie and the majesty (mostly) of The Dark Knight Trilogy. At the moment Batman is in a kind of limbo, with Affleck unlikely to return to the role, so let’s hope the next time we see his signal in the sky it’s in a movie that gives him the respect and passion he deserves.

If you enjoyed this retrospective, please check out the rest of the retrospective here. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image from Variety)

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