Early in “Justice League,” the new DC Comics juggernaut, Batman (Ben Affleck) is gathering his team of exiled, misfit superheroes to defeat a growing threat. Getting into Batman’s fancy car, The Flash (Ezra Miller) asks, “What are your superpowers again?” To which the Caped Crusader replies, “I'm rich.”
It’s a one-liner that echoes a similarly glib moment from “Thor: Ragnarok.” You know, that other superhero spectacle of two weeks ago, from that other competing comic book universe, Marvel. In his third Thor film, our titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself imprisoned on a distant planet as a gladiator combatant. He runs into his old pal Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and explains to his angry green friend what’s been going on since they last saw each other back on Earth. “I don't hang with the Avengers anymore,” Thor says. “It all got too corporate.”
Both films are loud, cluttered and flabby. They are tonally helter-skelter, and largely uninspired, undisciplined messes. They are also self-referential, ironic and aim for laughs. Batman and Thor suffer from a sincerity complex.
When did superhero fare feel compelled to become comedy?
This week, I had the rare, if ear-splitting, opportunity to watch, on the same day, both "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Justice League." Now that my body has stopped shaking from the cumulative decibels of endless super-brawls, and I’ve wiped clean the stain of superfluous digital effects from the hard drive of my mind, I’ll try to answer that question.
For its part, “Justice League” seems bent on putting daylight between itself and DC’s previous doom-and-gloom downers like “Suicide Squad,” and the Zack Snyder-directed “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Man of Steel.” All were almost universally panned. While Snyder also gets credit for directing “Justice League,” writer/director Joss Whedon, who put his witty stamp on Marvel's “The Avengers,” was brought on to finish the job.
Whedon's defection to the other side (the DC franchise is run by Warner Bros.) might be called a corrective. Disney's Marvel franchise formula — cram half dozen superheroes onto the big screen, add hijinks, more in-jokes, more yuk-yuk camaraderie (see "Guardians of the Galaxy") — has now been brazenly applied to "Justice League."
Who can blame “Justice League” for trying to channel the wiseacre spirit of Marvel’s magic? In one early scene, Bruce Wayne is trying to recruit the bad boy, muscle-bound Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) for his dream team. Seeing Wayne in street clothes, Curry taunts, “Let me get this straight. You do this dressed like a bat? An actual bat?” Wayne’s deadpan repartee: “It’s worked for 20 years in Gotham.” Sadly, the fun and games don't.
To be sure, these superheroes are made to feel quirky, lived-in, three-dimensional. The Flash comes off as a skitchy, nerdy millennial who doesn’t understand the point of doing brunch. Trapped in a half-man, half-robot self, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) wears his angst and self-esteem issues on his sleeve. The only outlier here is Superman (Henry Cavill). Offed in “Batman v Superman,” it’s no spoiler to say that in “Justice League” the Man of Steel reappears from beyond the grave. Nonetheless, Cavill plays him stiff as a corpse. As for Wonder Woman -- we’ll get to her later.
Over in the Marvel universe, by the first reel of “Thor: Ragnarok,” not only have our hero’s trademark hammer and golden locks disappeared, but so has the entire superhero movie template. Reports are that director Taika Waititi, also behind the New Zealand vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” had his actors improvise most of their lines. It shows. Nearly every scene with Thor, Hulk and the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has that campy “Hey guys, I just thought this up. By the way, we’re making a MOVIE!” wink-wink feel.
Sadly, no one looks like they’re having much fun with the material -- least of all Hemsworth. Same with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose oddball gravitas gets wasted in a too-brief appearance. Even villainess Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor’s older sister, looks bored, fresh from her imprisonment and hoping to rule Asgard with her army of re-animated Viking warriors. The only characters stuck playing it straight are Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Skurge (Karl Urban).
Maybe it’s just me, but superheroes aren’t as funny as these filmmakers want them to be.
Not laughing? Then amp up the visuals. If “Justice League” has brightened its footage a few f-stops compared to past DC films, “Thor: Ragnarok” employs the foot-candle intensity of a thousand suns. More Willy Wonka than Nordic saga, every candy-colored costume and set piece is bathed in a glossy, artificial glow. When the action centers on a kaleidoscopic garbage dump planet where Thor and Hulk reconnect, called Sakaar, the luminosity and color palette go supernova.
While few and far between, more emotionally satisfying moments in “Thor: Ragnarok” almost pack a real punch -- almost. There’s a flashback that explains why Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), now driven to drinking and depression, once fought for what she believed in: to defeat Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death. In that moment, and briefly in the final battle set to the thundering war-cry of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” the flick taps into the grandeur that Norse mythology can evoke.
But soon “Thor: Ragnarok” reverts to joking. “I lost my hammer, like yesterday, so that's still fresh,” explains Thor, the god of thunder, lightning and comedy. “Then I went on a journey of self-discovery.”
The other lesson from my Marvel-DC movie double-shot is this: stakes. Show me Thor, and I’m looking for heroics and hope, desperation and inspiration. I also want the stuff that thwarts these aims — namely, inner torture and conflict. Who is Batman with no inner demons to battle? Who is Thor if he can bounce back from every body slam? Give me something to fight for, and something to lose.
I had hoped both these films would tap the more earnest mojo of this summer's acclaimed "Wonder Woman." Director Patty Jenkins didn't shy away from sincerity, and managed to stir true emotion. Naive, but big-hearted, willing to fight for the weak, Diana Prince showed actual character development. The situation she faced felt plausible: a real World War I with just a smidgen of the supernatural. At the packed advance screening of “Justice League," some of the biggest love was reserved for her. Writers: more Wonder Woman, please.
The other issue: Why should I feel invested in these apocalyptic plots when our heroes hardly take their foes seriously? Hela struts around spewing evil wisecracks with a rack of antlers on her head. In “Justice League,” the doom-bringer is a dude named Steppenwolf. Mustering an undead army of moth-critters called Parademons -- demogorgon, anyone? -- the goat-horned, motion-capture video game baddie (Ciarán Hinds) hunts for three magic boxes, long hidden away, that throb with super bad energy. But what are Steppenwolf’s reasons for domination? Because, you know, he likes covering the world with dark tendrils of CGI stuff. Villains whose own motives are increasingly preposterous, and who unleash hoards of monsters about as substantial as digital air bags, are as pointless as heroes with nothing to fight for.
By the time Hulk/Bruce Banner is sporting a Duran Duran “Rio” album T-shirt, and the giant mythological wolf Fenris and an undead army are attacked by lasers and AK-47s on Asgard, suffice it to say, it’s hard to get your bearings. Indeed, watching both films on the same day, I was struck by how the world-ending plots melded, became interchangeable in my head.
It’s all enough to long for the simple times of superhero yore. Don’t worry, the writers of “Justice League” are already there. "One misses the days when one's biggest concerns were exploding, wind-up penguins," quips Alfred, Batman’s trusty butler and technology guru (Jeremy Irons). We're already nostalgic for the 1992 Tim Burton-directed “Batman Returns.”
Some fans might be pleased by the DC reunion. I did appreciate the Easter eggs. In one scene, we glimpse the “Metropolis Post” with the headline, “Did They Return to Their Planet? Mysterious Wave of Disappearing Heroes,” above photos of David Bowie, Superman and Prince.
Still, haunting "Justice League" is this prescient exchange: Back in the Batcave after a bruising battle, Wonder Woman says, “You can’t keep doing this forever” to a beat-up Batman, who replies, “I can barely do it now.”
That's right DC and Marvel, you can’t keep doing this forever.
For now, DC fans, stay tuned in 2018 for “Aquaman”; Marvel fans, look for “Black Panther,” not to mention “Avengers: Infinity War,” where the world of Thor and Iron Man, et al, collides with “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
It’s only a matter of time before DC is engulfed by the black hole of Disney, and the “Star Wars” universe collides with Marvel, and all this superhero stuff explodes and disintegrates and returns back into star dust.
Then, perhaps, it will be time to hang up the cape, relinquish the hammer and give up the ghost.