Mr. Z and John Bonnes Talk about the Justice League and the DC Universe

John: I know you’ve seen the lukewarm reception Justice League (which opens this weekend) is getting overall, and the downright hostile reaction it’s getting from some sources, such as in this story from The Ringer, which claims it is a failure across the board. I haven’t had a chance to see it, and my 17-year-old and 20-year-old nerd kids are a little cautious about it, so I was wondering about your reaction to both the film and the reviews. Were you as disappointed as some? Or is the “DC sucks” narrative just a habit that critics (and geeks) have fallen into?

Mr Z: I’m bored with the critics overly analyzing DC films. Funny thing about the review from The Ringer, that same guy is one of the few people who gave a negative review to Three Billboards which is one of the best pictures of the year and will get an Oscar nominee, if not win the whole thing.  So what do I care what he thinks about Justice League? Scott Mendelson at Forbes and Richard Roeper both really liked it, though I would agree with Mendelson who noted it may not be a “good” movie and it has its faults. 

I thought it was fun to watch and had a good time. Joss Whedon lightening up the script as well as literally making it a brighter filmed picture helped. Attitude going in will have an effect on your enjoyment. If you are looking for a Lord of the Rings experience, it ain't happening. But a movie about a super fast guy, an underwater god, an immortal Amazon and Batman, well that should be a little silly. It is not a masterpiece, but it is fun. 

John: I’ll settle for “fun” instead of “good,” I guess. But that’s not a terribly high bar. 

I wonder if DC suffers in part because its critics can’t help but compare it to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has a lot of movies that have been raising the bar. I can think of a half dozen Marvel movies that I would describe as even better than good and approaching great: both Guardians of the Galaxy, the first Avengers, the first Captain America, the first Iron Man, Ant-Man, the latest Spiderman, and now Thor: Ragnarok. Warner Brothers (which owns the DC Universe) hasn’t made a movie that holds a torch to any of them.

On the other hand, in this new world of cinematic universes, it isn’t terribly clear that they need to. It might be enough to be “fun” and plugged into a franchise that everyone knows to make a billion dollars per film. Certainly the excitement around them at this year’s Comic-Con didn’t suggest that the previous movies have hurt the franchise much. Have the other DC movies (almost all of which have been critically panned, other than Wonder Woman) been financially successful? 

Mr. Z: I agree that the first Iron Man was not just a good “comic book” movie but simply a very good movie. I will also say that Suicide Squad was a more enjoyable movie than Iron Man 2. I think that you are right in that Marvel had built up some credit, so that when they make a not great Thor 2, or Iron Man 2 or even Dr. Strange in a way, people cut it slack because of the previous good will built up. 

With Warner, they burned up any credit they had in the bank from Christopher Nolan's Batman series (in my opinion the first was the best of the three, but that’s another long story) on the boring Man of Steel. The worst sin a movie can commit is not just being bad but being boring and forgettable. There are no free passes anymore.

Also, DC has insisted that while they will add some humor and brightness to their movies, they will keep the dark and dreary style rather than the bright  and colorful world Marvel is in. So a movie like Ant-Man can work in the Marvel world but would have no chance in the dark DC Universe. And all of these universes have to deal with the success of the Star Wars and even the Harry Potter Universe that set the bar so high. Moneywise, BvsS made $873m worldwide, so it did fine and Wonder Woman was a downright cash windfall for them.

John: The “darkness” aspect of the DC movies is a recurring problem that critics and audience reviews always mention, and you’re right - it hurts the films. Any idea where it comes from? Is it some weird habit carried over from the Christopher Nolan movies? Is Warner Brothers the problem? Or is it Zack Snyder, who directed Man of SteelBatman v Superman & most of Justic League? Darkness is mentioned over and over and it doesn’t seem to change, except for the first half of Wonder Woman, which was glorious.

I guess I’d blame Snyder. After all, Wonder Woman and Justice League both managed to minimize the darkness a bit. But on the other hand, Wonder Woman still succumbed to it by the end, and Suicide Squad was just as dismal visually (if not more so) and that was directed by David Ayer. Really, even selecting Ayer suggests the problem is deeper than the director. It’s not like Training Day was a breath of fresh air.

Mr. Z: I have always assumed that since Christopher Nolan took it to a dark place and it worked as a real movie, that they tried to keep it that way. Previous movies like Batman and Robin were much brighter and attempted humor.  In watching Justice League and Wonder Woman, I sort of feel like the dialogue and action are more similar to the 80’s cartoons (or even Batman Forever) than the actual comics. 

I don't mind the cartoonishness of the villains and dialogue and I think that's why I am not as hard on them as others. Justice League, if taken seriously in a cinematic way, would play terribly. If you think of the cartoon come to life, it works well. And if you hate CGI, forget it.

I don't blame the director quite as much as I would on a smaller movie. There are a ton of cooks above his head messing with the recipe. Nolan is a great director but a huge egotistical narcissist and demands his way or no way. And that paid off. That’s what they need. A Del Toro or a Fincher. Wouldn’t THAT be something? But the second-ending cut scene of Justice lets you know that more is coming one way or another. And I’ll go see it! 

John: With that, let’s wrap it up. You’re happy with the fun. I’ll give it a try, bring the kids (but not the wife) and keep my expectations low. And we’ll both hope that DC quits standing for “Darkness Crush” and they start lightening the mood a little bit, even if it gets a little cartoonish. But Justice League, at best, is a half step in that direction. 

Mr. Z: Next up, Goonies needs a sequel!!!!

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