I imagine that when comic book writers created some of our favourite superheroes, they were fulfilling a need that went beyond mere entertainment. Both Superman and Batman were babies of the era of Depression. Captain America, the relentless crusader for truth and justice, was a product of World War II. Wonder Woman’s character was heavily influenced by the 1940s feminist movement in America. What, perhaps, made these comics popular was the way they balanced present-day reality with escapist fantasy. There was perhaps a time when we needed our superheroes to rescue us. Today, it seems, we need them just for the thrills. Watching Justice League was like watching an advertisement for Red Bull. You didn’t get the promised wings, you just got a lousy tagline.
Everything happens at an accelerated pace. There’s Batman, greying at the temples, and a growl in his voice, combating a para-demon. There’s Wonder Woman, dewy-fresh from the success of her last venture, rounding up the rag-tag group of Flash, Aqua Man and Cyborg. Then, of course, there’s Steppenwolf, who’s more bark than bite. If you took away the fangs, he would look like your garden-variety ogre-turned-menacing. The more invincible he acts, the less convincing he is. Not once are you fooled that this wimpy villain, for all his beefed-up bulk, could find the three mother boxes and conquer the world. Then, of course, there are the wisecracks with which the film is peppered, which are more cringe-worthy than funny. (Brunch is just lunch with a queue? Really?) Flash is goofy, Aqua Man is sarcastic and Cyborg is a bit of a dud. Combined, they could give Trump a run for his trashy one-liners.
But we’ve saved the best for the last. Or at least the second half. In one of the opening sequences of the film, an old footage is shown, where two children ask Superman about his powers. “Have you ever fought a hippo?” One of them asks. “You know, because hippos are the most dangerous animals.” Superman smiles wistfully, as though saying: “I wish hippos were the worst of my problems.” Cut to the mourning scene when you are reminded that Superman is DEAD. You haven’t yet wrapped your mind around it because you know that it isn’t really true. How can Superman, with his pathetic puppy eyes and not-so-pathetic pectorals, really be dead?
What the audience wants, the audience gets. Superman is resurrected when his body is exhumed and brought alive by activating the remaining mother box. When Superman is involved, there has to be a happily-ever-after. Steppenwolf is a goner, defeated by the superheroes and attacked by his own army of para-demons who turn against him. All’s well that ends well.
Justice League is all wrong because the characters are just used to move the plot forward and not the other way around. Marvel, of course, did it in a systematic way, creating phases and giving their superheroes their own films before bringing them all together. The heroes of Justice League are stick figures who perpetually exist in a maddeningly monotonous present. DC’s Wonder Woman worked because one could mine the minutiae of her mind. Ensemble casts of superheroes don’t allow time or space for it. We need to let our superheroes tell their own stories, instead of doing it for them.