While this review does not contain spoilers for the Justice League movie, it does contain spoilers for previous DC films, including Man of Steel, Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Wonder Woman, as well as Marvel’s Age of Ultron.
I have to admit when it comes to their movies, I much prefer Marvel to DC. Not just because Marvel has a much bigger universe, boasting seventeen films to DC’s five, but because Marvel doesn’t seem to take itself as seriously as DC. As I said in my review of Thor Ragnarok, I have a great appreciation for superhero movies that embrace the over-the-top nature of comics. To be honest, I’d much prefer to watch a silly superhero film like Thor Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy than a serious take on them like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (excellent though it is).
Having said that in recent years I have found the lighter tone in Marvel films to border on being callous, particularly in the most recent Avengers film, Age of Ultron. It’s difficult to see superheroes quipping with each other while towns burns and civilians die. It makes them seem uncaring like they are battling the enemy more for their own gratification than to save people. As my partner pointed out recently, in Marvel movies civilians kind of feel like ants. Not so with DC.
At the end of Man of Steel, there is a huge battle between Superman and General Zodd, which involves them punching each other through buildings. It ended up levelling downtown Metropolis and caused a huge amount of controversy among fans. Superman has always taken huge efforts to protect every day people and minimize (if not totally rule out) any civilians casualties, and here he was smashing his way through buildings without a care for anyone those buildings might contain. But DC was able to learn from those mistakes.
Ever since Man of Steel, DC have excelled at showing the human face of the conflict. Batman Versus Superman opens with Bruce Wayne seeing the destruction of Metropolis first hand, including being told by one of his employees that no one left in the building is getting out, they’ve evacuated all they could but it is not enough. It’s probably the best scene in the whole movie in terms of sheer emotional impact, at least in my opinion. Wonder Woman followed suit showing the liberation and consequent destruction of the village of Veld. However, it is Justice League that does it most simply, and probably in the best way.
Justice League shows Batman and Wonder Woman forming an alliance of superhumans (well, superhumans and one rich guy) to fight the monstrous Steppenwolf who seeks to unite the three mother boxes which will turn Earth into one giant hellscape. Early in the film, while elsewhere the Justice League are still teaming up, we are introduced to a Russian family who lives in the shadow of a power plant that has been abandoned after a reactor leak. A power plant that just so happens to be the perfect place for Steppenwolf and his army of flying techno monkeys to use as their base. The film revisits this family again and again as they deal with the destruction of their home, right from the moment of Steppenwolf’s arrival through to the end of the film. We don’t just see the impact on them in the hour of battle, we see them across days while they struggle to stay alive against impossible odds. Deciding to include them as part of the movie was an excellent bit of filmmaking, and is one of the many things that makes Justice League work so well.
Justice League also prioritises minimising the human casualties in the same way people expected the original Man of Steel to. Flash is initially very nervous in battle, so Batman tells him to focus on saving the innocent, to just try and save just one person’s life. Saving human life feels like an important part of the fight in Justice League, rather than being totally secondary to the battle and trading quips with your teammates.
On top of that, Justice League knows when to use its sense of humour. While it doesn’t same the same funny or lighthearted nature of a Marvel film, the humour is still definitely there, just not in the middle of battles where people’s lives are at risk. The Justice League tend to crack their jokes to ease the tension in the quieter moments, which gives the audience more time to enjoy the joke without being whipped to the next bit of the action. It also shows a very human side to the superheroes, after all, who hasn’t cracked a joke at some point to ease the tension when under great stress?
Ultimately, Justice League’s biggest strength is showing off the humanity of its heroes, even the ones who aren’t technically human. They struggle to relate to the world, they make awkward jokes and they treasure the lives of others. They fall in love, are scared of failure and worry about making the wrong decisions. They are imperfect (despite how Gal Gardot and Jason Momoa look). It might be because of the decision to make the DCU a considerably darker than the MCU, but it works really well in this case. DC have given some much-needed shades of grey to a superhero genre that was quickly becoming black and white. It continues the tradition of Wonder Woman in making heroes who are powerful yet fallible and incredibly lovable and that is something to be applauded.
I hope that DC keeps up the pattern of making heroes who care about the little people, and who make mistakes. Hopefully, it will give Marvel a chance to think about the way it uses civilians in its films. I’ll be very interested to see the next couple of efforts from both studios. For the moment at least, it seems like the two competing studios compliment each other by being different, and that makes it a great time to be an audience member.
Also, I’m shocked that anyone pulled off the pretending something is a skateboard/surfboard when it isn’t. Congratulations Jason Momoa! 😛