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Justice League and the Frustration of the Unearned Booyah

Justice League (2017)

Before we begin, two things. First: yes, it did take me a very long time to buckle down and watch Justice League. It’s been very hard recently to watch things that don’t get me excited. For example, I have yet to block out the time necessary to consume enough whiskey to make it through The Dark Tower. Second: before anyone starts to make assumptions, I have nothing against the concept of a DC Cinematic Universe. I want a functioning DC Cinematic Universe right alongside the Marvel one that we have. In fact, I started my comic book obsession with DC—with JLA, in fact. So I do not write this from a position of “DC sucks and should be destroyed.” Do not misconstrue.

The much-talked-about problem with Warner Brothers and their DC appendage is that WB does not know what they have, nor do they know what to do with it. They, typical of Hollywood, take all the wrong things from all the right lessons. They make a parade out of flawed syllogisms. For example:

  • Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was dark
  • Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was successful, both financially and critically
  • Therefore, to be financially and critically successful, a superhero franchise must be dark

They can process that one. When they try to process the actual lesson they should have learned, the following happens:

  • Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was well constructed and complex with solid scripts—

And that’s when sparks fly from the bolts in the necks of Warner Brothers executives and they slump forward in their chairs. The people from the IT department (that’s Information Technology, not the department that was created in the wake of the Stephen King film) must then be dispatched to reboot them.

Christopher Nolan and the Bat Signal

This is typical of Hollywood, however. Remember that Paramount blamed the demise of the original Star Trek film franchise on audiences being tired of sci-fi as a genre. Not on the fact that they drove into the ground like an iteration of the Starship Enterprise. (Seriously, those things are like helicarriers when it comes to staying up.)

Also working against Warner Brothers is their misunderstanding of what they have in their stable. When Man of Steel didn’t make enough money to make them feel as if Man of Steel 2 could fly on its own, adding Batman into the mix in order to create Batman v Superman only made sense to them because

  • Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy made money
  • Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy had Batman in it
  • Therefore, to guarantee a superhero movie makes money/more money, put Batman in it

The idea that the two heroes trying to kill each other had impact in the source material (The Dark Knight Returns comic series) because they had a long history of fighting together (since 1952, in fact) escaped them. Same thing with the Death of Superman (which of course they had to cram in there…another lesson unlearned from the failure of the Green Lantern movie)…Superman had been around for 54 years and was a mainstay of DC—so the idea of killing him was huge. (I personally wish he had stayed dead, but that’s a rant for another time.) We just met this Superman in Man of Steel and we met Batman in BvS. They basically had never fought on the same side. Heroes fighting right out of the starting gate might be a normal way of heroes greeting each other in the comics, but they seldom reach the level of “Do you bleed?”

But that’s the trouble with Warner Brothers: they don’t know what they have, they don’t know what it’s worth and they don’t have the patience to put together a structure that will support what they’re attempting. Marvel had five films to introduce their characters (all the heroes and Loki) before The Avengers. DC had four…but had only introduced half of the characters. They will all finally have their own films by…what is it now, 2021?

Now let me take a moment to say a few good things. I actually enjoy Ben Affleck as Batman. I think he’s pretty great and the warehouse fight in BvS was brutal and fantastic. Although the character is called Barry Allen, it’s sort of Wally West, but whatever…Ezra Miller makes for a good Flash. I didn’t even want to enjoy AquaBroDude (mostly because I haven’t had AquaBroDude properly setup as a character so I don’t really understand AquaBroDude) but Jason Momoa was excellent at playing that character. There’s something about AquaBroDude walking into the ocean while killing a bottle of whiskey that just endeared him to me. And Cyborg…many people haven’t liked the character but if he’s being written this way in the comics now then that’s actually got me interested in reading about him again. The fact he’s evolving in ways unknown to him and isn’t even sure what he’s capable of—that appeals to me and makes for a great character.

And Henry Cavill still hasn’t been given much to do as Superman despite this being his third film. The moment where he and Cyborg are laughing at the end of the film is the best moment he’s had to date. And Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is basically the star. The Amazons getting included to try and get some of that Wonder Woman money was sort of sad, since…did anybody but Connie Nielsen come back? Where was Ann Wolfe as Artemis the Badass, for example? How can you leave her out? Hell, if she had shown up and bitch slapped Steppenwolf at least once, I would have seen the movie again just for that.

So the cast does the best they can with the film, but again, the structure of the DCCU let them down. If Superman is dead, that’s the gap in which to place your single hero movies, because then they all have a theme they can tap into: Superman is gone and I have these abilities, so what do I do? Do I step up and try to help protect humanity or even my little piece of it? Or do I stay hidden? And throughout all the films, you have Bruce lurking, putting together his team. But alas, that chance was squandered.

The thing that I think most people are forgetting as we approach the conclusion of the first “meta-phase” of the MCU is that this is all unprecedented. The idea that you could, over the course of five films, introduce characters and bring them together as a team in film six? That had never been done before. That hero shot in New York of the six heroes with the camera spinning around them? That was history being made, folks. Now take that idea and expand it to say that you’ve spent ten years and eighteen films leading to film nineteen where freaking everybody shows up and fights together (change those numbers to eleven years and twenty-one films if we assume that everybody isn’t actually assembled until Avengers 4)…that is insane. The closest you can get, even checking the list at Wikipedia (which is always right), would be the Universal Monsters and Godzilla. And even then, they don’t reach the scale or the intent of the MCU, which was structured from very near the beginning to lead to Avengers with an eye towards Infinity War

So seeing this, instead of learning the right lessons from the trail the MCU blazed for them, Warner Brothers chose the following: to make the films dark and humorless and to race to try to catch up instead of taking their time.

Firstly, the idea of needing humor wasn’t introduced by the MCU. Shakespeare knew you needed humor, just to release tension. Consult Macbeth, where after a scene of blood and murder you get a comedic scene of a drunk porter having to contend with someone knocking at the door. That’s a four hundred year old play, folks.

And secondly, DC has characters that are universally recognized in a huge way. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman…even before the films everybody knew them. Even people who’ve never been near a comic book store. The battle is thus theirs to lose. Having such characters in their arsenal, you’d think they would take their time and do it properly, since yes, they’ve got their hands on a money-printing machine. They’re just using it as a coffee table at the moment.

What is the point of all of this? Besides venting my frustration in a way that doesn’t irritate my therapist. It’s to point to a single word that summarizes everything that is wrong with the DCCU. When Steppenwolf is defeated (yeah, sorry, spoilers), Cyborg looks down and says: “Booyah.”

A “Booyah” put in a place like that is something you have to earn. You build up the credit over the course of the film (or ideally, the franchise) and then cash it in with such a line. The audience is meant to nod in agreement and say, “Absolutely. Booyah.” An example that I could think of is “Get away from her, you bitch!” in Aliens. The film built up to it, cashed in their credits and the audience (at least in the cinema I originally saw it), yelled in enthusiasm in solidarity with Ripley. “Absolutely! Kick that thing’s ass!” At the end of Justice League, I’m sure the audience responded with “Booyah? Seriously?” Justice League did not earn its right to Booyah, not there and not anywhere in the course of that film.

As I write this, the DCCU is in disarray. Wonder Woman’s success knocked them over and the underperformance of Justice League kicked them while they were down. The schedule is ever shifting as they try to figure out what the hell they’re doing. And here’s the thing: I hope they get their shit together. If every DC movie was at a Wonder Woman level of quality, I would be freaking thrilled. But the other lesson Warner Brothers did not learn from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is that those movies worked in spite of the studio, not because of it. They’re going to have to get out of their own way before they can succeed, and they are operating in a Booyah Deficit.