Storytelling Failures – Justice League: War
or, “Justice League of Jerks”
So my friend D decided he wanted to watch the animated movie adaptation of the New 52 Justice League comic. This is an abridged version of the first story arc and the movie was titled “Justice League: War.” I don’t care for the New 52, and I was sad that the DCAU was going to be all New 52 all the time. I was especially concerned when Bruce Timm left the company. D got about 20 minutes in to this movie and decided it was too much for him to go it alone. With the promise of plenty of alcohol to numb my pain, and knowing he’d have to re-watch the first 20 minutes (ha ha, sucker!), I figured together we could riff our way through it with a minimum of damage.
So that was pretty stupid of me. I really wish I had bothered to refresh my memory on why I avoided the New 52, and the Justice League, before watching the movie adaptation. Briefly, the Justice League book had a lot of problems. It was, at best, a fairly controversial book with some staunch supporters, and at worst everything wrong with the New 52. The movie manages to adapt and exaggerate the worst traits of the six-part story arc (also, it switches out Aquaman for Shazam [formerly Captain Marvel]). In other words, it sucked, and it took a lot of patience and screaming and beer to get through it.
Even if this hadn’t been DC Comics, the movie was just a mess. Ignoring the problems with characterization (for now), it was more of a CG slugfest than a proper storytelling vehicle. The characters had no depth, no dimension, no back story, and in some cases, almost no dialogue at all. If I want to see an empty CG slugfest, well, there are a lot better options out there. So, let’s break it down.
1) Characters. The characterization has two levels – to introduce an audience of newbies to these characters, and to be represent the characters fans are already familiar with. I actually manage to fall into both categories – I am familiar with pre-New 52 but a newbie to the New 52. I probably have the worst of both worlds as this movie fails on both levels.
a) Newbie – So what does a newbie learn about these characters?
i) Cyborg – Cyborg (Victor Stone) was the most sympathetic character and got the most character development as this movie presented his origin story. He’s the high school football star with a father who doesn’t respect his athletic pursuits and is enough of a jerk himself to tell his own son that. Cyborg feels he’s turned into a monster and while he overcomes this long enough to save the world, it is clear this will be a lifelong struggle.
ii) Flash – So his name is Barry Allen and he works in a police station doing something. He’s friends with Green Lantern, a fan of Batman, and got his lunch stolen by a co-worker. He seems nice. And he thinks Wonder Woman is hot.
iii) Shazam – He’s a kid name Billy who is an orphan with two foster siblings. Also, he’s a con artist, a thief, and really pretty bratty although his hero-worship of Victor Stone is slightly endearing. He’s probably about 12 given that he thinks Wonder Woman is hot.
iv) Green Lantern – his name is Hal Jordan, his secret identity is a pilot of some kind, he’s a space cop, and a thoroughly unlikeable [expletive]. And he thinks Wonder Woman is hot.
v) Wonder Woman – Her name is Diana and she’s a Princess of Paradise Island, whatever/wherever that is. She has a sword that she likes to swing around for no good reason when she’s not in combat. She doesn’t seem very bright but she’s good at stabbing things. Oh, and she thinks Superman is hot.
vi) Batman – his name is Bruce Wayne and his parents were murdered when he was 10. People think the Batman is a made up story. He’s kind of a jerk.
vii) Superman – His name is Clark. According to Batman, he doesn’t kill, but there’s very little in the movie to support this thesis. He’s also kind of a jerk. And he thinks Wonder Woman is hot.
viii) Darkseid – So he’s the ruler of an alien planet called Apokalips and wants to conquer Earth for… reasons… He has super-devestating eye beams and likes to punch things.
I’m not trying to summarize for the sake of humor or exaggeration. This is all you learn about these characters. And if you think it’s oddly specific to have Batman’s origin in there, it is but that will come up later. Otherwise, except for Cyborg, there’s no hint as to the origin of these characters. They show up as they are and that’s all you get.
b) Previously Aware of these Characters – What does someone who knows the Pre-New 52 learn about these characters?
i) Cyborg – A complete story. That works.
ii) Flash – That’s it?
iii) Shazam – Since when is Billy Batson a brat, thief, and con-artist? What is going on here?
iv) Green Lantern – he was so obnoxious I thought the writers had secretly switched out Hal Jordan with Guy Gardener. Then I realized even Guy Gardener is not that stupid nor obnoxious.
v) Wonder Woman – Oh, by Hera where do I even start with this? Wonder Woman comes across as this kind of mentally unstable person who apparently got off the boat from Paradise Island an hour ago. She’s just randomly waving her sword around like she doesn’t begin to understand this is a thing that might freak people the hell out although the presence of Steve Trevor and the protest that introduces her indicates she’s been around at least a few days, probably closer to a month or more, so shouldn’t she know better? She’s also pretty upfront about her love of stabbing the hell out of bad things. I’d cry, “Pants to be darkened!” except she doesn’t seem malicious. She’s just utterly clueless that she’s completely terrifying. Also, she swoons for Superman the moment she lays eyes on him.
vi) Batman – All I need to say is this – there’s this unnecessary fight between Batman, Green Lantern, and Superman which ended up causing a lot of property damage and could have potentially killed a lot of people that Batman could have stopped with one sentence at any time. Obviously the best time would have been before the fight really started. But he didn’t. He allowed the fight to happen. For reasons… what the hell, hero?
vii) Supeman – What a jerk. That stupid unnecessary fight I mentioned between Batman, GL, and Superman features Superman just smashing Batman into a brick wall without even asking what’s going on. Granted, GL was stupid and had just attacked him for no reason, but Superman just smashed first and asked later. He killed parademons without a second thought and straight up murders Desaad. Also, he’ll totally catch Wonder Woman before she smashes into the ground but forget those other guys; they aren’t bangable so who cares if they splat against the street. So much for saving everyone. Just save the people you like, when you get around to it, if you feel like it…
viii) Darkseid – it was pretty ambitious to bring in Darkseid as the New 52’s Justice League’s first villain. I mean, this is huge. It would be like starting the Avengers off with Kang the Conqueror or Thanos. Darkseid is the undisputed ruler of Apokalips and his arrogance is rivaled only by his power. You will bow before Darkseid. Or, you know, he could just be a brainless brute that has maybe three lines of dialogue. I’ve said before a superhero movie relies on a good villain, and this was one of the worst portrayals of Darkseid I have ever seen.
2) Plot – The plot is super simple: Darkseid invades Earth, the individual heroes come together to beat him and save the Earth. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as a simple plot should leave room for lots of character development and snappy dialogue. Except there wasn’t any of that. And the thin plot had some big holes in it.
a) See, the parademons had to set up a bunch of motherboxes to open boom tubes to invade Earth, which begs the question of how the parademons got there in the first place. One could posit the parademons had been brought in secretly by a conventional spaceship and that would be fine except they were kidnapping people and clearly teleporting back to Apokalips them prior to setting up the motherboxes. This in turn begs the question of why did they need the motherboxes in the first place?
b) Cyborg could tap into the motherboxes and close the portals. Why didn’t he do this in the first place and leave the others to fight Darkseid?
c) Cyborg could also apparently just open the portals and free all the human prisoners, even though they were in cells on Apokalips. This comes way out of left field, as though caring about the lives of all the innocent bystanders was just an afterthought.
d) So 5/7th of the group is left to fight Darkseid (see b above) who is laying waste to the city with his super-devestating eyebeams. Their brilliant plan? Poke his eyeballs out. I’m not even kidding. Wonder Woman gets one and Flash of all people gets the other. Huzzah.
3) Setting – you know, I have no idea what city the final battle is taking place in. In theory, the parademons were setting up the motherboxes in many cities. I guess this is probably the one Victor Stone lives in (and apparently Billy Batson), but I can’t recall the name at all. And honestly, it didn’t matter. The setting served only as a fodder for destruction porn, much of which was caused by the heroes of this thing.
4) Narrative structure – technically it had all the pieces, but this thing was a mess.
a) There’s barely any character development. No one undergoes any change except Cyborg.
b) They aren’t a team. Even at the end, everyone except Shazam is quick to say they aren’t a team, no sir, no way, not again unless they absolutely have to. Isn’t the point of introducing a team to have them stay a team? That’s like watching the Avengers and it ending with Tony Stark saying, “Well, that was the lamest thing ever. Don’t call me, I’ll call you, by which I mean I won’t call you,” and flying off, and the others agreeing!
c) Scenes that come out of nowhere. The most glaring example was a point where Green Lantern is going to run off and do something stupid so in order to talk sense into him, Batman just pulls down the cowel and exposits his origin story so they can bond over being just two dudes with awesome technology and no lame inherent superpowers like the others. What? Same thing when Cyborg can suddenly just rescue everyone, just like that. What?
Conclusion – this movie was, at best, animated action schlock. There’s a lot of fighting that accomplishes little but collateral damage and presumbly the loss of thousands of lives. It completely fails to tell a story, which is how the Justice League came to be. There were approximately three witty lines in the whole damn movie and exactly one engaging main character. Some of the scenes just come out of nowhere and really have no bearing on the plot. The movie entirely missed the point of a team-up, which is to end up with a team! There is a huge gaping plot hole in the already thin plot. The voice acting is ‘meh,’ the sudden tonal shifts are made really obvious by the sudden music shifts (which is a thing I should not notice if the music is done right), and overall this is just poorly done.
And this is my introduction to the modern pantheon of DC heroes and argubly one of the greatest villains ever created? One person I like (Cyborg), one person who’s barely there (Flash), a literal man-child (Shazam), a ditz with a sword (Wonder Woman), the slightly sympathetic tool (Batman), a complete tool (Green Lantern), and a more powerful complete tool (Superman), and a generic alien invader (Darkseid). The Justice League of Jerks don’t just not come together as a team, but decide that’s a totally stupid idea. If they had walked off the stage at the end of the movie, I would not have been surprised. This movie was made of fail.
Congrats, movie, and source comic, for making me weep for the future of a genre I used to love so much.