I’m in love with the Marvel movieverse. I love many of the characters and the franchises. But I think it’s time we stop holding up The Avengers as the textbook example of how to make the perfect superhero team movie.
Because, you know. That’s what killed the Justice League.
What, you say, it’s not dead yet? It won’t even be released until next year? Yeah.
The release of The Avengers (2012) was the first time the Marvel movieverse began to make sense in the heads of fans. Before that, it was all tease and promise held together by post–credits sequences and glimpses of Samuel L Jackson.
Everything hinged on whether or not The Avengers was any good.
And then it came, and it was good.
But in that golden age of Marvel movies, between the unexpected delight that was The Avengers, and that sigh of disappointment that was Avengers: Age Of Ultron, The Avengers came to define what a successful superhero team movie should look like. Which was bad news for the Justice League.
People have been talking about the DC movieverse as if it were an inevitability ever since The Avengers was such a breakaway hit. Every DC media property that has been released from 2012 onwards, including the TV series Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl, and the Superman movies Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, has been assumed to be in response to the Marvel movieverse and The Avengers in particular.
The implication is Warner Bros./DC can’t just make a Justice League—they have to make a Justice League that serves as the crown in a mighty kingdom of DC superhero franchise movies, a Justice League that is more The Avengers than The Avengers.
There are lots of ways to make a superhero team movie, but the critical and commercial success of The Avengers had the unfortunate effect of tricking everyone, fans and studios alike, into believing that theirs was the best method.
The Avengers strategy was this:
1) Establish most of the core characters in their own successful franchises first so you don’t have to worry too much about backstory or explanations in your ensemble movie.
2) Bring it all together with a couple of fan favourite characters who don’t have their own franchises and can serve as emotional and plot–related wild cards.
3) If Robert Downey Jr. thinks he should have more lines, probably give them to him.
4) Imply a whole bunch of friendships/relationships in light strokes that can be a) developed in later films or b) keep the fanfic writers busy, but don’t worry about anything concrete, no time, move on!
Even before anyone saw The Avengers, and certainly in the haze of box office takings and fan enthusiasm that followed, the upcoming (at that point mostly theoretical) Justice League movie was entirely defined by the idea it should be possible to create a DC movieverse that was equivalent to the Marvel movieverse.
The Marvel/Avengers experiment wasn’t over yet.
What The Avengers promised—and judging by the fanfic that emerged from it, what a lot of fans wanted to see more of—was a continuing saga of superheroes as found family: of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner bonding as Science Bros, of Captain America and Iron Man arguing over the definition of a hero, of Black Widow and Hawkeye transitioning from SHIELD agents to kickass super friends, of Thor making amusing observations about pop culture and snack foods.
Instead, Phase Two of the Marvel movieverse chugged on with its sequels to existing franchises, developing its heroes in opposing directions. Iron Man 3 depicted a loner Tony Stark (without a single super friend around to help him, unless you count a snoozing Bruce Banner) giving up the robot suits for the sake of his relationship and his personal growth. Thor: The Dark World made it clear that its hero had his own complex destiny well away from New York and the Avengers. Captain America: Winter Soldier continued its own story of military corruption and domestic terrorism AND followed up the promise of Black Widow’s characterisation from The Avengers AND (perhaps most significantly of all) gave Cap two boyfriends/platonic life partners who were not Tony Stark.
Oh, and they literally ripped SHIELD down, destroying the organisation that funded, established, and launched the Avengers in the first place, and burned the identity of Nick Fury while they were at it.
All this, and Guardians of the Galaxy waltzed in to demonstrate a much better creative model for a great comic book/superhero team movie. If NO ONE in the movie has their own franchise, then the character development and relationships can all be there, in the script of the movie you are making right now.
By then, though, the damage had already been done. The official definition of Successful Superhero Team Movie was “Do what they did with The Avengers.”
By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron made its way onto cinema screens in 2015, the Marvel movieverse didn’t need the Avengers any more—and had, in the three years between Avengers films, systematically taken away most of the toys that fans were expecting this sequel to play with. Even Agent Coulson’s dramatic sacrifice had been unmade in order to use the character in the Agents of SHIELD TV series, and logistics between the different productions meant little chance of fans getting an emotional payoff from that choice. Coulson’s undead status remained mysteriously hidden from the Avengers, despite the team including the best spies, scientists, and intelligence–gathering computers in the world.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a bad superhero team movie because Black Widow and Hulk get a failed romance, or because our beloved Science Bros are the hapless villains of the piece, or because Captain America tells Tony Stark to watch his language.
It’s a bad superhero team movie because it’s not a superhero team movie. There are a few great scenes/sequences that make it feel like it should be— the opening battle, the party scenes, the character interactions that happen on Hawkeye’s farm.
But Age of Ultron is a story about the destruction of a superhero team that has spent almost no time as a team. The original Avengers movie teased the idea they would be colleagues and roommates living in Tony’s tower, and sharing a chore wheel and having a bunch of exciting adventures together, but the movies in between made it pretty clear this is a bunch of loners who occasionally hang out in twos and threes, and only visit the clubhouse for wine and cheese and Mjolnir–lifting soirees.
The Marvel movieverse is straining under the weight of so many franchises. Winter Soldier gave Steve Rogers (and Natasha Romanoff) such great writing and such important character development they feel like shadows of themselves in Age of Ultron. Iron Man 3 provided a satisfying conclusion to Tony Stark’s narrative as a superhero; Age of Ultron does itself and Iron Man 3 a disservice by hand–waving that conclusion away so that it can retell the story of the Retirement of Tony Stark all over again. Thor spends most of his time acting in a trailer for future movies.
The Avengers weren’t there when Tony Stark was declared dead. Most of them (including, weirdly, Hawkeye) weren’t around when SHIELD went evil, declared Captain America a public enemy, and were destroyed. The most interesting narrative of Age of Ultron, once you get past all the James Spader robot hijinks, is about the formation of a new team, as the original members fall away. But after what happened last time, it’s impossible to believe that the next Avengers movie will be (as implied) a team action movie featuring the characters posing in a group in the final shot: War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, Captain America, and Black Widow.
In fact, we know that won’t be the case, because a) the next Avengers movie is going to be an intergalactic mega–crossover, and b) they’re gonna bring Robert Downey Jr. back again and give him all the lines, and c) well, Rhodey’s out already as of Civil War, plus I think half the team are still technically escaped felons now and d) getting the rights to Spider–Man has changed everything.
Captain America: Civil War is arguably the only Avengers follow up that tells a genuine story of superhero teamwork… and yet, like Age of Ultron, it revolves around the breakdown of the team. It also demonstrates the two greatest weaknesses of the films featuring the Avengers: the use of comics storylines that rely on relationships/history not yet fully established in the films and the over–reliance on the popularity and charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark character at the expense of other members of the ensemble.
When the trailers for Civil War were released, fans leaped on the line comparing Tony and Steve’s friendship with that of Steve and Bucky; the latter had been substantially established and earned throughout the Captain America films, but the former had not. The Avengers had set up the potential for Tony and Steve to set aside their differences and become friends as well as teammates (enough potential to fuel a mighty slash OTP that had been humming away for years), but we had literally never seen that friendship on screen. Instead, the films had skipped from their prickly beginnings to the utter meltdown of their relationship.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe still has exciting stories to tell: Black Panther and Captain Marvel are two franchises with a great deal of potential, and it’s exciting to see them finally moving towards fruition. But just like in the comics themselves, relying on “big gun” characters with their own movie franchises is always going to be the biggest problem in bringing ensemble stories to the big screen. Why should we care about the promise that Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and Melinda May will show up, however briefly, in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 and Part 2 when those characters have their own shows in which to tell their stories with far greater depth and complexity than a cinematic two hours allows for?
Marvel has moved on, and out. Across various platforms and TV channels and movie properties, it has staked out huge tracts of media space and is finally telling inclusive, diverse stories as well as those about white male superheroes. It took them a long time to work up to that. Meanwhile, the DC Cinematic Universe, such as it is, is just getting started.
Which brings us back to next year’s Justice League release. There were so many potential ways to launch a Justice League movie: a good, fun, successful superhero team movie. But by mimicking so much of the shaky, overrated format of the Marvel movieverse, with all its missteps, Warner Bros. has set itself up to fail.
In 2013, Man of Steel was released, the first in a series of films designed specifically to launch that magical, mythical DC movieverse/Justice League franchise. Screenwriter David S. Goyer was contracted to a three–film deal: Man of Steel, then Batman v Superman, then Justice League. The path was plotted.
Meanwhile, the characters of this Justice League were selected, based largely on the starting lineup from the New 52 reboot of the title minus Hal Jordan, whose embarrassingly bad (and commercial flop) Green Lantern movie of 2011 had taken him out of the running. Movie franchises were locked in. Scripts were written. Actors were cast.
But the mythic shadow of The Avengers continued to loom over the growing tangle of theoretical movies. Warner Bros. committed to the ambitious goal of making all the same mistakes that the Marvel movieverse made, only faster.
However you feel about the original Hulk movies or Iron Man 2, Marvel’s Avengers at least managed to roll in on the crest of a wave of successful and popular movies like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. It takes guts to try to do the same on the shaky wave that is Man of Steel (AKA Superman’s Two Dads Get Too Much Screen Time to explain why Superman is a Terrible Person I Guess?) and Batman v Superman (which includes a riveting scene of our heroes watching short trailers of upcoming DC movies).
Batman v Superman has the same flaws as Captain America: Civil War, notably using storylines from the comics that rely on the powerful and substantial history of friendship between its main characters, without bothering to establish said friendship. Sadly, while Civil War manages to pull off being a coherent and entertaining film, Superman v Batman is a mighty train wreck which revolves around the increasingly bewildering central premise that Superman has no sense of personal responsibility or what it means to be a hero.
The best thing about the film is that Wonder Woman and Batman are characters who have a long and substantial history as superheroes; somehow they both mostly retain their dignity in a film which reduces Lois Lane to a footnote, presents Lex Luthor as a babbling, pointless criminal (the opposite of a mastermind), and has the climax of the story revolve around Batman and Superman realizing that their mothers have the same first names.
Throwing Doomsday into the mix is symptomatic of everything Warner Bros. has failed to achieve with the DC movies thus far: in the comics, Doomsday hit Superman when the hero was at his peak of personal contentment and professional superhero success. Superman had a team to lose (the part no one ever remembers is that the entire Justice League of the time was torn apart in the battle against Doomsday), he had a great relationship and close friends and two parents who loved him. He had a history worth sacrificing himself for.
In Batman v Superman, we get some fight scenes and an utterly unmemorable, pointless death of our hero which is surprising largely because we know it can’t be real; Henry Cavill is signed to the Justice League movie. So the Justice League has already broken the narrative of the Superman movies, a year before its release. That’s impressive—at least Ultron didn’t wreck the Iron Man franchise until we saw it!
Even if Warner Bros. was making good movies at this point, which they aren’t, they are taking the wrong lessons from Marvel’s successes. We saw this when their response to the popularity of Deadpool was to lift the violence rating of BvS, thereby making it inaccessible to a younger audience. We saw it in their attempts to cobble together a coherent “movieverse” in less than a quarter of the time it took for Marvel to develop the same thing.
The Avengers ruined us for future Avengers movies, by promising us something we were never going to get, but it also ruined us for future Justice League movies. The sad part is that Warner Bros. could have prevented this inevitable disappointment. Let’s pause a moment and open up an interdimensional portal to view a reality where DC and Warner Bros. were brave and creative and trod their own path:
If they had been willing to use the established characters already beloved by fans from one of the many successful DC TV shows, like Arrow and The Flash and Supergirl…
If they had been willing to make a movie that isn’t ashamed of the goofy, fun side of superhero stories instead of going grittier and darker and angrier and sadder…
If they had taken their cue from Guardians of the Galaxy and started fresh with a team story that isn’t beholden to various past and future film franchises…
If they had taken their cue from the well–plotted, well–crafted animated films based on the Justice League and extended DC universe that have been regularly released over the last couple of decades…
If they remembered superheroes and their associated merch are hugely popular with kids, and a good way to a solid summer box office is making a movie that people can bring their families to see…
Then we might still have hope that next year’s Justice League would be a movie fans of comics and fans of superhero action team movies can enjoy, instead of bracing ourselves to endure.
The trailer we have for the Justice League would be much more enticing if we didn’t know any interesting developments involving Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg and Batman are almost certainly going to be reserved for their own individual movie franchises. Every frame of the trailer is drenched in shadows. The character interactions, the dry humour, the tensions and posturing between the (mostly male) superheroes… It all feels so familiar.
Justice League has so much going for it, as a creative product: recognizable, iconic characters, colourful villains, and a long history begging to be mined for cinematic stories. It’s such a shame Warner Bros. didn’t take the opportunity to use the Justice League to create something new and fresh (and FUN) instead of rolling out what looks to all intents and purposes like a shadowy imitation of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe were doing five years earlier.
I was a DC girl long before Marvel captured my heart, and I’ve been waiting for my Justice League movie for decades. I wish I could be more excited about this one.
(Editors’ Note: Tansy Rayner Roberts is interviewed by Deborah Stanish on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 13B.)
© 2016 by Tansy Rayner Roberts