I watched Justice League last month to see what all the DC/Marvel movie hoo-ra was about. For those of you not plugged into superhero-internet spasms, DC has all the truly Golden Age iconic heroes—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman—and is flailing at the box office, while Marvel has less universally known heroes—Ironman, Captain America, the Hulk—and is making money so fast it’s giving the industry a headrush. I don’t care about box office, I care about story, but I do think there’s often (not always) a strong correlation between good story and good profit, so I decided to do a compare-and-contrast, to look at Marvel’s big superhero team-up, The Avengers (2012) and DC’s team-up, Justice League (2017), to see why DC keeps falling on its face and Marvel usually (not always) kicks box office butt.
My thesis going in: It’s the story, stupid. My thesis after watching Justice League twice last month and The Avengers at least half a dozen times in the past six years: They’re the same damn plot, so it’s something beyond that.
Uh, that would be the writing.
Let’s start with the plot, since it’s the one thing they share:
Six people with special abilities squabble about working as a team to defeat a scenery-chewing alien who plans to destroy the Earth with a magic box/three magic boxes using a team of alien flying monkeys. The Evil Alien Overlord and his monkeys invade, and the squabbling heroes—four hot men, one hot woman–come together under the leadership of an immensely rich hot playboy and kick alien ass to the surprise of absolutely no one. The Earth is saved.
Not kidding, the movies have the exact same plot. So why is The Avengers something I’ll watch again and Justice League something I will actively avoid? Let me count the ways: the protagonists, the antagonists, the pacing, the stakes, the emotional resonance and connection to the story . . . .
It’s the writing.
Let’s break this down.
The DC Justice League is led by Batman (Ben Affleck making solemn and depressed statements and looking very handsome); the Marvel Avengers are led by Ironman (Robert Downey, Jr, making deadpan wisecracks and looking very handsome). Both of these guys were introduced in earlier movies, so they come into the movie pretty much fully developed characters, both determined to save the world, except Batman is Eeyore and Ironman is Tigger.
That means that their set-ups are different, and that becomes crucial to their characterization. Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, is the guy in charge, trying to assemble a team of heroes by saying, in essence, “We’ll probably all lose our tails and die.” Ironman, aka Tony Stark, joins the Avengers at the behest of Nick Fury, one of the top guys at America’s secret defense organization, SHIELD, but only after Fury has given him proof that the world is in real danger. Batman’s a leader, Ironman’s a wisecracking loner. Bruce Wayne is a tortured soul; Tony Stark just wants his girlfriend/business partner, stuff to invent, and a drink. Because of that, Stark is reluctant to join the team and suspicious of everybody once he gets there, which he manifests in rapid-fire smart ass remarks in conflict with others, while Wayne pontificates to his team in slow-release infodump.
That means that the dialogue in The Avengers is fast-paced, full of conflict, and funny, and the dialogue in Justice League is long stretches of infodump, non-scenes where characters morosely exchange information. Since most of the Justice League characters are depressed—Cyborg is not happy about being half a robot, Wonder Woman is still guilt-ridden over the death of her lover in WWI, and Batman is Batman, a guy who would mope during Airplane!—after awhile you start rooting for the flying monkeys. The only saving graces here are Aquaman, a boisterous good time guy who can control the seas, and the Flash, an awkward teenager who joins up because he needs friends. My cut of Justice League would be just those two because they’re wonderful. My cut of Justice League would also be five minutes long.
And then there’s character arc: Bruce Wayne moves from depressed billionaire to slightly less depressed billionaire; Tony Stark moves from selfish-control-freak-wisecracking billionaire to self-sacrificing-part-of-a-team-wisecracking billionaire. There’s a great scene between Stark and Steve Rogers (Captain America) early on in The Avengers where Rogers, the all-American hero, calls Stark out on his selfishness, telling him that he’s not the guy who’ll lie down on the wire to save his team; Stark snarks back that he’d just cut the wire. It’s one of those whose-is-bigger power plays, with some great wordplay (“Get the suit”) and it’s conflict, not infodump. These guys are not friends and they are not a team. But at the end, when the aliens attack New York and the six Avengers are facing down chaos, Stark says, “Call it, Cap,” handing over power to the military guy who knows how to lead, and minutes later, when somebody has to fly a nuke into space to save New York, Stark steps up, knowing he’s going to die. (Yeah, he doesn’t, but it’s chilling just the same).
Stark snarks and arcs, Wayne whines and stays the same.
Points to The Avengers.
A team of six is five guys and one woman. Grrrr. I know this stuff is adapted from the comics which has the worldview of a fourteen-year-old-boy (Boobs! Butts! Catfights!), but this is the twenty-first century and we’ve evolved, damn it. The saving grace here is that both women—Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow in The Avengers and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Justice League—are smart, strong, dangerous characters who kick ass on a regular basis and stand toe-to-toe with the men on the team, none of whom are stupid enough to try to protect them or otherwise make them into the Girls.
And yet, the Russian former assassin holds the screen while the Amazonian demi-goddess gets handed the dullest dialogue in the history of, well, Wonder Woman. Prince is depressed because her lover died in WWI and she thinks it’s her fault because she led him into battle, in spite of the fact that he was already in the army doing dangerous work as a spy and the fact that he made the plan to sacrifice himself on his own. In other words, the only reason that Diana Prince is guilt-ridden is because DC movies are Dark. This is also a big reason why DC movies are terrible: they take iconic heroes who believe in Truth, Justice, and the American (or Amazonian) way, and make them guilt-ridden pessimists. Gal Gadot is doing an excellent interpretation of Wonder Woman, but she can’t overcome bad dialogue and static characterization. Look at Justice League’s idea of how to introduce a strong heroine:
Show her using superpowers to take down a gang of miscellaneous bad white guys in black suits who break into a bank, shooting people, and prepare to blow up four city blocks. Wonder Woman notices the commotion and saves the day with her Lasso of Truth, bullet-repelling golden bracelets, and super speed; in other words, she wins because she has super powers, not because she’s smart or interesting. Gadot does the best she can, but the writing in this scene is so clichéd, so tooth-achingly bad, that the whole thing falls flat, even though she’s just saved a pack of terrified school children. “I’m a believer.” Really, you’re writing for a demi-goddess and you went for pseudo-dramatic crap? Wonder Woman is better than that.
Meanwhile, over at The Avengers, Natasha is tied to a chair in a Russian warehouse being menaced by three Russian thugs. She’s terrified, she cowers, she asks questions trying to stave off torture, all of which delights the scene’s Big Bad, who comes toward her with pliers. Then his phone rings.
Natasha does not have super powers, Natasha has super smarts, a devious mind, and a well-trained body, so we can connect with her as a human being and admire her for her intelligence and her skills, not to mention her courage and her little black dress. Natasha is also vulnerable; she takes out the Russians and returns to the Avengers because she finds out her best friend is in trouble.
Wonder Woman is a super-powered action figure; Natasha is a strong, vulnerable human being.
Points to The Avengers
Justice League has Batman, still depressed over the deaths of his parents thirty years ago, Wonder Woman, still depressed over the death of her lover a hundred years ago, and Superman, who is dead. Seriously. They recruit Cyborg, a young scientist depressed over his lab accident that left him half robot; Aquaman, who isn’t depressed by anything but will snap if you bring up his mother, and the Flash who is thrilled to be invited along. Any scene that has the Flash in it becomes interesting and fun, most of the scenes with Aquaman are also boisterous and engaging. Meanwhile, Batman looks longingly at Wonder Woman who stares off into the distance remembering Steve Trevor, and Cyborg has nothing to do. Aquaman sits on Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth and is compelled to tell her how hot she is. The Flash explains that he’s not a fighter (mostly he just pushes people as he runs by them) and he’s afraid of water and heights and danger in general; the Flash is a vulnerable delight every time he shows up which is unfortunately not often. What none of these people do is connect. There are no emotional bonds, no friendships formed, no sense of a Leverage-like team of equals with complementary skills. Because of that, the team isn’t interesting or compelling or fun, and it’s a team movie.
The Avengers, on the other hand, have connections all over the place. Tony Stark doesn’t like Steve Rogers because his dad knew him and thought he was great and that’s all he ever talked about while Tony was growing up a delinquent; Steve Rogers, the epitome of the American Hero, sneers at Tony because he has no ethos, he’s all snark and flash. Natasha goes to recruit Bruce Banner, terrified because he might turn into the Hulk, a terror he evokes when he loses his temper with her. She goes anyway because her best friend, Hawkeye, has been taken by Loki. (Hawkeye is happily married, so this is a great platonic friendship, another nice character touch.) Banner shows up, withdrawn and quiet, and Tony connects and takes him to the lab, where they become the Science Brothers and inspiring a lot of internet slash fiction. Even Thor the god enters the team through conflict: he tries to take Loki back to Asgard when Stark and Rogers have taken him prisoner, and there’s a great fight scene among Ironman, Captain America, and the thunder god, with twists and turns and snarky dialgoue while Loki waits patiently to be taken to the Avenger’s ship so he can put the rest of his plan into action. Then the ship is attacked, and Loki kills somebody they all care about, and they’re scattered in battle as Loki opens the portal. Which is when the six become a team, reuniting in New York to save the world, drawing on each other’s skills in shifting partnerships for individual personal battles. They battle each other (and they’ve all got great senses of humor and Whedon dialogue so their fights are entertaining not just bashing and explosions).. There’s a shot of them standing together as the Chitari invade, and it’s hokey and obvious and over-the-top and you don’t care because it’s wonderful. They’re a team.
Points to The Avengers.
We’ve talked before about how an antagonist shapes a story, and in the beginning, the antagonists of both The Avengers (Thanos) and Justice League (Steppenwolf) are big rocky-looking aliens who want to conquer the Earth and make it burn. You know, Evil Overlord stuff. However, somebody in the writers’ room at The Avengers (that would be Joss Whedon) noticed that Thanos was a cliché with no real pressing motivation and put in a patch: Thanos sends a vengeful Asgardian to Earth as his emissary to capture the Tesseract (heretofore known as The Magic Box) that will open a portal from his realm to Earth and allow his flying monkeys, the Chitari, to invade. And that’s all we see of boring Thanos until the end when he gets his “Curses, foiled again” scene. Instead, we have Loki, smart, devious, angry, and mean as cat dirt (as my grandmother used to say).
Loki is a brilliant antagonist because he’s so damn smart; it doesn’t hurt that he’s also evilly funny. While Justice League tries to fuel an entire movie with the generic fear of the Earth burning and everybody dying, The Avengers makes it personal: If Loki opens the portal, Thanos will give him Earth to rule, and Loki’s idea of good government bears a striking resemblance to a horror from real history. So Loki goes to Stuttgart, manages a very clever theft, and then arrogantly goes out in public and makes a Hitler-like speech that inspires an old German man to defy him (“There are always men like you”) which still makes my throat clutch, and all of that hoo-ra draws Captain America and Ironman in to capture him. That was dumb, Loki. Except what Loki really wants is to be brought aboard the Avengers ship for the next stage of his plan. That was smart, Loki. The fact that Loki is played by a sly, wry Tom Hiddleston does not hurt, but the characterization and dialogue the script gives him is the key.
Meanwhile, Justice League’s Steppenwolf erupts different places on Earth, gloating as his flying monkeys (parademons) swoop around, feeding on fear (why?) and promising international flame and some other stuff as he picks up the three Magic Boxes he needs to . . . I can’t remember. I saw this movie twice and I don’t remember what the boxes do. I think when they’re together they open a portal, yadda yadda, and I know he calls the boxes Mother, which . . . I dunno. Steppenwolf is one of the worst antagonists I’ve ever seen on the screen.
Loki is smart, devious, and funny, matched with six assorted people (only three of whom have superpowers) who are having trouble with the whole team-building thing (as Stark tells Loki later, “It takes us awhile to get traction”); Steppenwolf chews the scenery he plans to burn later as five superheroes fail to find and secure three boxes while raising a sixth hero from the dead . . .
Points to The Avengers.
Every Evil Overlord needs minions. The Avengers’ Thanos has the Chitari, an army of alien soldiers who invade New York riding jet skis and leading the way for giant scaley wormlike-ships that knock over buildings. Justice League’s Steppenwolf has para-demons, skinny bat-like aliens who feed on fear and have the intelligence of avocados. Real bats should sue. The Chitari’s main weakness is in navigation—Hawkeye tells Stark that they can’t bank between buildings—but they’re strong and fast and real bastards, and there are a lot of them, so they’re a problem. The para-demons are pretty much driven by their lust to feed on fear, which means at the end, they devour their leader who’s just been defeated by the Justice League. This is a new level of dumb in minions, but then Steppenwolf wasn’t exactly a major mind.
Points to The Avengers.
Justice League has two kinds of scenes. 1) Non-scenes without conflict where two people exchange information. 2) Conflict scenes of people/aliens/superheroes bashing each other. This is a movie that has Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg, and Superman-Risen-from-the-Dead, and it’s boring because the pace is leaden, the conflict is intermittent, the characters are flat and invulnerable, and the plot continually circles the drain:
• Steppenwolf rises on the Amazon’s island and steals the first Magic Box. Batman and Wonder Woman talk about it.
• Steppenwolf goes under the sea and steals the second Magic Box. Batman and Aquaman talk about it.
• Batman and the gang use the third Magic Box to raise Superman from the dead and deal with the fact that he came back angry, hooking him up with his girlfriend so he’ll remember his humanity and sending back to the farm where he was raised—GET THE MAGIC BOX YOU JUST DROPPED, YOU IDIOTS—and doing weepy scenes with his mom in a cornfield while Steppenwolf steals the third Magic Box. And they talk about it.
Nothing better than stupid superheroes. You had three jobs . . .
The Avengers has two kinds of scenes. 1) Conflict scenes between and among the Avengers trying to work on power and anger issues that showcase their flaws and vulnerabilities and force them to change. 2) Conflict scenes between the Avengers and Loki and his flying monkeys, most of them individual, emotional, and verbal (“Puny god”).
I dragged myself through Justice League twice, and even when I was trying to find points for compare and contrast, my mind wandered. On the other hand, I’ve seen The Avengers at least six times, and every time I’ve watched every minute. It’s a masterpiece of rising conflict and escalation, rooted in human interaction and vulnerabilities.
Points to The Avengers.
Stakes: The World!
Steppenwolf wants to make the world burn because he’s an asshole. Loki wants to let the Chitari in because Thanos has promised to make him the king of the whole shebang which is important to Loki because his dad gave the kingdom of Asgard to his brother Thor because Loki was adopted from the Frost Giants . . . well, you had to be there. The key is, Loki wants success desperately because it will validate him as a king and a leader, healing the rejection from his father. Steppenwolf wants to make the world burn because . . . it’ll remind him of home? Because he’s evil. I dunno, it’s hard to determine motivation from a scenery-chewing pile of rock that has no inter-personal skills beyond “You will burn!”.
Points: The Avengers
The climax sells the story. If the climax is strong, it can save a weak story. If the climax is weak, it can kneecap a strong story. The Avengers ends with aliens attacking New York City, thousands of people in danger, shown as individuals being threatened in small moments so the conflict becomes real and visceral (and very reminiscent of 9/11). Justice League ends in a barren wasteland somewhere in Russia (Chernobyl?), the only inhabitants a mother, father, and two kids in some kind of bunker, your generic Terrified Family. (It turns out later there was an apartment house, too, but that’s just so Superman has something to carry. What the hell an apartment house was doing out there, I have no idea.) In The Avengers, Tony Stark carries a nuke into the portal to blow up the invading army and Natasha closes the portal just as he falls free; the Hulk grabs him and they all gather round his body, which appears to be dead until Hulk terrifies him back to life. Then they go find Loki, who’s been beaten to a pulp by the Hulk in an earlier scene. In Justice League, the team defeats Steppenwolf in a battle so vanilla that I can’t remember it, and in defeat he’s afraid, so his para-demons devour him, and the Justice League does the equivalent of looking at each and shrugging. How is it possible that I can’t remember the climax of this movie? Right, it wasn’t memorable. The climax of The Avengers? The six Avengers surrounding a beaten Loki, who sits up, looks at his formidable opposition now united as a team, and says, “I think I’ll have that drink now . . .”
At the end of Justice League, Bruce ushers Diana into a beautiful large room that will be site of all future Justice League meetings. At the end of The Avengers, the six return to their lives, with Nick Fury promising that when they’re needed again, they’ll return. (They do, but the next two movies are not as good; haven’t seen the fourth one yet.) Both movies end with teasers for the sequels, and I didn’t care about either one, I was just happy about the Avengers coming back and luke warm about the Justice League returning.
So yeah, the Avengers gets those points, too. There is just one area where the Justice League crushes the Avengers:
Justice League has white guys Batman, Superman, and the Flash, female Wonder Woman, black Cyborg, and a Pacific Islander Aquaman. The Avengers are five white men–Ironman, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and Hawkeye– and one white woman, the Black Widow.
Points: Justice League
I could go on, but the success of one story and the failure of the other really come down to the basics of good story-writing. Both movies have good actors and both movies clearly spent some bucks on locations and special effects. But good acting, interesting backdrops, and cool explosions cannot make good story on their own. For that, you need interesting characters in well-motivated conflict fighting for goals that are personal and compelling. The posters above really tell the story: The Avengers are caught in action, sited in a New York of chaos and desperation; the Justice League is a circle of six gloomy faces on a feature-less dark background. Without personality, connection, character arc, human stakes, without the fuel and fizz of great storytelling, even Wonder Woman cannot save a movie.
Watch The Avengers, avoid Justice League.