The Justice in Superhero Conformity

This summer, the most successful live-action blockbusters have been the ones with capes. DCEU's Justice League is paying attention.

The Batmobile is resting behind me, more spectacularly tricked out than ever before. Just as tantalizing on the other side of the room is a cache of props whose sum total represents Bruce Wayne’s latest obsession (hint: he’s chasing sea monsters now, at least according to ancient texts about Atlantis). Yet, I and a handful of other journalists touring the Justice League set are paying little attention to any of that at this exact moment. Despite being in the colossal hangar, which will serve as the base of operations for Ben Affleck’s Batman in the new movie, the most interesting thing in the space is what producer Deborah Snyder has to say.

Snyder, who has served as producer or executive producer on all of husband Zack Snyder’s movies since 300, is fielding questions about the infamously negative reception for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and how it is informing Justice League, as well the game plan for Warner Bros.’ DC superhero films going forward.

“I think the main thing we learned is that people don’t like to see their heroes deconstructed,” Snyder says, pausing to allow a small laugh at the vitriol with which her film was welcomed into this world. “I think that’s hard, because it’s people we’ve grown up with and care about. And they like seeing them in all their glory.”

Indeed, she might be more right than she knows. For however much the critical reception of Batman v Superman is arguably deserved, increasingly within the realm of blockbuster cinema, global audiences appear to be embracing a hegemonic sameness that is not only preferred, it’s demanded.

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When Batman v Superman debuted in theaters this spring, its record-breaking March opening of $166 million did little to change the perception of a disappointment after it grossed what previously would have been considered a staggering total: $872.7 million worldwide. Still, it would be one of the rosier box office stories for blockbuster cinema in 2016 after this summer became a franchise body heap higher than the carnage piles seen in any given episode of Game of Thrones.

Warcraft, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Independence Day, and Tarzan all saw their boffo (and sequel) aspirations dim over a shockingly brutal season for live-action spectacles. As of press time, the second most successful ostensible crowd pleaser of PG-13 appeal is X-Men: Apocalypse, and it currently is resting at only just over $154 million total in the U.S.

Hence throughout the industry, whispers are again rising to a slow yet steady hiss about the prophetic powers of Steven Spielberg. Considered the father of the modern blockbuster ever since he directed a little movie about three men gone fishing, the Jaws filmmaker infamously became Tinseltown’s disagreeable Cassandra by suggesting that superheroes, and mega-budgeted tentpoles by extension, might be a generational bubble in the early 21st century, such as the western or musical was in the mid-20th.

In fact, when I attended a press conference for Bridge of Spies with the director last year, he addressed that very issue with words that are fairly prescient today.

“I didn’t ever predict the implosion of the industry at all,” Spielberg reflected during a year that saw his Jurassic World production gross $1.6 billion. “I simply predicted a number of blockbusters in one summer – those big sort of tentpole superhero movies – there was going to come a time where two or three, or four of them in a row wouldn’t work.”

However, the solitary quid pro quo for this prognostication is not that superhero movies aren’t working – it’s that they’re the only things that seem to be. Particularly when their rigidity and likenesses are more unapologetically adopted. The aforementioned X-Men: Apocalypse is doing passable if disappointing numbers (like Batman v Superman on a less expensive scale), but the biggest non-animated movie of the year is one that offers international audiences consistency and familiarity both in terms of quality and tone. For as of writing, Captain America: Civil War has domestically earned $406.3 million and $1.15 billion worldwide.

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To be certain, Civil War is an excellent film from Marvel that might even represent one of the high points in the studio’s entire oeuvre. Taut and less reliant on the formula of previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it squares superheroes off against one another while being blessedly free from a villain who seeks world domination and/or destruction. But also, unlike Batman v Superman, it maintains the qualities that audiences increasingly expect from the genre, rendering the eponymous squabble as less a war than a friendly group sparring match that, until the third act, is every bit as affable as when Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans are slinging tête-à-tête punchlines, as opposed to punches, in the earlier films.

Through intense quality control, Marvel has earned the audience’s trust. So folks show up at the multiplex rain or shine (or for known quantities like Iron Man and unknown ones like Guardians of the Galaxy), expecting they’ll get a marked consistency in style, tenor, and humor. The directors may change, the characters may change, even the intergalactic setting may change, but the approach is similar to the appeal broadcasters had during the height of network television. If it’s on Thursday nights, it must be must-see, so tune in!

At least in terms of blockbusters, that sense of comforting reliability might be changing the way audiences perceive popcorn entertainment, even amongst the vastly popular superhero genre. Instead of seeing a diversification of storytelling techniques and influences that emphasize their differences, audiences appear to be rewarding the attention paid to highlighting their similarities. And with the price of movie tickets inflating faster than currencies, the further you are from the leader, the more of a risk your studio’s annual sure-thing becomes for the consumer, who has specific expectations for his popcorn.

Ergo, whatever legitimate criticisms you or I have for a film as confused as Batman v Superman, Deborah and Zack Snyder are on-point to highlight the new tone that accompanies Justice League.

Later that very day, Zack Snyder shared a drink with reporters (he had a mojito), as well as a glimpse of a scene from the film. In it, Ben Affleck’s weary Bruce Wayne – apparently having endured several rejections up to this point – shows up in the home of Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen, aka the Flash. A downtrodden Bruce is braced for resistance from the young motormouth about joining the team. Barry even tries to dismiss the crimson red Flash costume hanging on his wall with a spotlight.

“Yeah, I do competitive ice dancing,” Barry demurs when the billionaire admires his costumed handiwork. Bruce points out that it’s made of the same material NASA uses to protect astronauts from burning up on re-entry. “I do very competitive ice dancing.”

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The scene, and everything else we’ve witnessed of Ezra Miller’s Flash (especially when bouncing off an extra-broody Affleck), is funny, quick-witted, and delightful.

Clearly, the heroes of Justice League have learned their lesson well.

A version of this story appeared in Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic-Con Special Edition magazine. To read the full digital edition, click below.