As expected, Justice League proved to be the single dominating force in entertainment news this past weekend. Similar to most massive Hollywood releases these days (especially an Avengers-style culmination such as this), everyone's talking about numbers and ratings, and whether or not the higher ups are smiling or frowning at their bank accounts. And in case you haven't read the headlines, the numbers aren't exactly fantastic.
But let's not talk about numbers at this very moment. Instead, let's talk about something equally as predictable in entertainment news reporting, which is the usual unfair criticism of any Zack Snyder creation. Full disclosure, I'm a Zack Snyder fan and actually think that Man of Steel is one of the best superhero movies of all time. Haven't had a chance to formally write about that yet, but I definitely will at some point in the near future. And very naturally, I was also a fan of Batman v Superman. In fact, I honestly believe that Zack Snyder's overly serious and tonally darker vision of the superhero worldview is an important and vital counterpoint to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sure, this DC Extended Universe isn't matching up to what Marvel's doing in terms of numbers, but it also hasn't been luring general audiences in for as long a time either (Iron Man in 2008, versus Man of Steel in 2013). In truth, things are bit more complicated when you consider the significance and number of characters in each of the universe, and I said this post wouldn't be about numbers so let's just leave it at that for now. The point is, Joss Whedon was brought in to undoubtedly inject some Marvel-ness into Justice League at the very last moment. And I'm fully aware the Snyder had brought in Whedon to do some re-writes even before he left the project, but I would have to assume that studio heads probably had a role to play in this decision (as evidenced by reports that they had pushed for a run-time of 2-hours).
And what do we end up with? A film that feels neither DC or Marvel. It's an unfortunate hybrid that feels like a failed lab experiment. And it might be unfair to lay the blame completely on Whedon as no one really knows the full delineation of work at this point, but the signs are all there. Whether you love or hate the guy, Snyder's films are all very consistent from beginning to end. Everything feels and weighs a certain way, and in most cases, it's because of this strong adherence to whatever that 'way' is that he tends to get slammed by critics. With Justice League, that conviction and consistency is lost. Parts of it are there, but you can tell that reshoots and editing ended up creating something very different from what was initially intended.
I'm fairly confident that a lot of the humour in Justice League came from Whedon, given that he has always been the king of one-liners. In this case, however, they just don't fit in well. And perhaps his greatest crime, which is undeniable (unlike which scenes he may or maynot have written/shot), is his decision to fire Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) and bring in Danny Elfman. The music in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were absolutely sublime, and also a vital part of this cinematic universe's DNA. Even Wonder Woman's score (not including the obvious 'Is she with you?' theme) has a similar flair of intensity that can at least sit in the same table as Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL's work.
With Danny Elfman, you get a score that is completely garbage. There is nothing memorable about the score at all, with the exception of Elfman recycling his old Batman theme from 1989, which doesn't work here at all. The dude felt the need to pay homage to himself. How humble of you, Mr. Elfman. His very direct riff of the original Superman theme is also blatantly lazy, especially when you compare it to the subtle homage Zimmer was able to do with the main Man of Steel theme. I read an article today with Elfman saying how he thinks it's silly that remakes don't re-use old music themes. If you're as creative as Zimmer, you can still use an older theme without directly ripping it off (Michael Giacchino did the same thing for Rogue One, as he's also a musical genius). Danny Elfman is just a complete poor choice, but an obvious choice for Whedon, I'm sure, given their prior collaborations. I could see why he felt compelled to replace Junkie XL with someone as mundane as Elfman, but it was the wrong choice.
Here's a long quote from Junkie XL when he was still slated to score Justice League (taken from Superman Homepage): It’s a massive undertaking. And I can’t say anything about Justice League specifically, but I’ll tell you this, and this was exactly the same experience that Hans and I had when we did work together on Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: It’s like when you see a movie like that, these iconic superhero movies, some of them have a 60 to 80 year legacy, multiple composers had a go at their themes, multiple filmmakers did their version of these characters – it’s very scary. You watch a movie and it’s like, “Holy shit, now I have to come up with something.” You’ve got sweaty hands and you’re nervous, and you talk about it over and over again – and I have exactly that relationship with Zack Snyder – and then Zack said, “There’s only one thing you can do, and that is embrace this character as if it’s your own, keep it close to your musical soul, and just do whatever you feel is the right thing to do for this character.” That’s the only thing we can do. That’s what all these great directors did back in the day, and that’s what all these great composers did back in the day. It makes no sense for me to do extensive quoting of Hans’ score of the really amazing Batmans. It makes no sense for me to quote Superman from John Williams. Because all fantastic composers, they all did the same thing, they did something that was close to their heart, and I have to do exactly the same thing on this movie.
I'll let that quote sit for a minute as you reflect on the lost potential of what Justice League's score could have been. But I'll end off by going back to Joss Whedon. I know that the guys is often lauded as a champion for feminism in the entertainment world, and I'm not here to fully dispute that. And I'm also not going to speculate about recent comments from Whedon's ex-wife that challenge this claim. What I can do, is criticize his need to create a forceful romantic/sexual tension between Wonder Woman and Batman. This was completely unnecessary and in my opinion, counter productive to the strong-willed version of Diana Prince we saw in the solo Wonder Woman movie. In fact, you can even argue that it's removed from the version we saw in Batman v Superman, which gave us an albeit brief glimpse of a character that derived purpose in the film without relying on her male counterparts. Sure, Wonder Woman was romantically linked with Steve Trevor in her solo movie, but that felt organic to the overall storyline. It's things like this that call into question Whedon's creative mind, and is consistent with Whedon's very terrible Wonder Woman script (which is easily google-able).
I understand there's no way to know how Zack Snyder's complete version of Justice League would have been like, and it's unfair to lay blame on Joss Whedon for everything I didn't like about the film. This is all speculation, but I would argue it's logical speculation that makes sense to anyone who's invested in the DC Extended Universe. It's understandable that Warner Brothers wanted to change course given the backlash they seemingly received from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (although box office numbers for those two films weren't terrible), but this is not how you do it. The studio committed to Snyder's vision when they gave him the reigns to Justice League, and they should have let him finish things off. It's what he would've deserved, and what fans would've wanted.