Everything Wrong with the New York Times’ Review of Justice League

NYTimes Justice League

Writer Manohla Dargis is a skilled film critic. Most of her reviews are filled with astute observations and nuanced recommendations.

Her recent review of Justice League, however, is wrong.

Here’s why.

[Batman is] the insistent manager as well as the scowling host, the guy with the cool digs, smooth rides with blinking screens (“critical damage” reads one with great comic-book sincerity) and suave butler (Jeremy Irons as Alfred). He’s also pretty much of a yawn.

This is the first of several comments that suggest that Manohla Dargis may not be a fan of comic books. To be clear: I know nothing about this author’s connection to comics. But anyone who dismisses a detail’s “great comic-book sincerity” before calling Batman “pretty much of a yawn” seems ill-equipped to judge the nuanced worth of any comic adaptation. Ms. Dargis seems to judge superhero movies solely on their merits as films (which is understandable), and her perception of this particular film genre seems almost solely informed by Marvel’s recent movies (which is appalling). Compared to the gimmicky characterization of Downey’s Tony Stark and Evans’ Captain America, Affleck’s Batman seems more repressed, yes, but Ms. Dargis incorrectly interprets Batman’s understated melancholy as dull impassiveness.

Mr. Affleck, a generally appealing actor who can plumb the depths when pushed (“Gone Girl”), needs something more substantial (or just more jokes) if his Batman is ever going to work.

I resent the implication that superhero movies must have jokes. Or that superheroes must make jokes to be relatable. Comic books and superhero movies have a long history of compelling jokeless narratives. From Frank Miller to Alan Moore to Jeph Loeb, Batman writers have long avoided the temptation to plague Batman narratives with quips. Batman is an inherently somber hero, and Zack Snyder decided to honor this Bat-quality by allowing Ben Affleck to highlight the more brooding aspects of the Dark Knight.

And in the context of the multi-movie plot, levity from Batman makes little narrative sense. Superman—the world’s embodiment of hope—has died, and Batman is partially to blame. The collective morality of the once-hopeful DC universe has suddenly dissolved, and Batman—the very individual who caused this negative shift of the fictional zeitgeist in an attempt to save the world from a potential threat (Superman)—must resurrect that “threat” in order to save the world from physical and emotional collapse.

“Haha,” says no one.

As it is, the little bit of bat brooding in “Justice League” feels unmotivated and unearned, and lacks the shading of the character in the “Dark Knight” or even in the Lego movies. That’s too bad, and would be dire if he played a more valuable role.

Batman, the cause of the event that pushes DC’s fictional world toward a perpetual state of mourning, spearheads the effort to form a team of (mostly) aggressively individualistic superheros; creates and advocates for the plan to resurrect Superman; serves as a catalyst for a potential Refusal of the Call as a part of Superman’s mini Hero’s Journey in the last half of the movie; continues to be a foil for Superman (and Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor and…); attempts to sacrifice himself in an effort to save the planet; and single-handedly connects—like narrative glue—the plot points of several characters.

The Flash gets most of the best jokes, and Mr. Miller makes most of them work, largely in the role of in-house fanboy with a touch of the Cowardly Lion. It’s golly-gee stuff, but it’s also human and Mr. Miller keeps you hooked, as does Mr. Momoa (“Game of Thrones”), who supplely shifts between gravitas and comedy.

I appreciate the spirit of this comment, but I object to the idea that “golly-gee stuff” is especially “human.” As discussed earlier, somber stories can be compelling and relatable—even if they happen to have a superhero in them. Not every superhero narrative needs jokes, and not every superhero team needs a goofball.

Mr. Snyder remains regrettably committed to a dark, desaturated palette that borders on the murky, and this movie’s chaotic, unimaginative action scenes can drag on forever.

First, eliminate the word “unimaginative.” That done, my question: What did you expect? Remember, the movie’s director is Zack Snyder, the man who directed 300 and Sucker Punch. I repeat what I said in my defense of Batman v Superman: “A director’s signature style matters. I would not see a Tarantino movie if I wanted a kid-friendly romantic comedy; I would not expect a film by Sam Mendes to highlight the positive qualities of suburbia; and I would not look for Spaceballs-style comedy in an Iñárritu film.”

Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, the new movie shows a series that’s still finding its footing as well as characters who, though perhaps not yet as ostensibly multidimensional as Marvel’s, may be more enduring (and golden). It has justice, and it has banter. And while it could have used more hanging out, more breeziness, it is a start.

“More hanging out”? “More breeziness”? What does that mean? Like, Batman and Wonder Woman sitting in a cafe and talking about life? Or Cyborg talking to Flash about Rick and Morty? Or an extended scene of Aquaman laughing at a joke?

I can’t even…

Ben Boruff is a co-founder of Big B and Mo’ Money, and he reviews comics for ComicBastards.com and ImpulseGamer.com. Follow him on Twitter (@BenMagicAwesome) and find out more at BenBoruff.com

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