By Lee Hamilton.
When it comes to DC & Marvel, there are plenty of similarities. Not least because they rely on a common premise: on a band of otherwise individual superheroes who team up for the first time to save Earth from a horned-villain who seeks a powerful object that was hidden by the gods centuries ago, and who needs it to conquer the planet along with a massive alien army in tow. Just to cap off the similarities, director Joss Whedon was also asked to rewrite and direct both movies too.
Although saying they failed is perhaps slightly harsh. As massive fans of both franchises, what Justice League (the 2017 version) left me with can really be better described as a disappointment. As opposed to the wholly satisfying feeling that came with The Avengers movie, so maybe the question should be: What did The Avengers do better?
First off, we’re leaving Zack Snyder’s 2021 cut out of the discussion, as I think it’s safe to say that lessons were learned, and positive changes implemented in order to produce a much superior movie than its predecessor (y’know, if you ignore the ridiculous amount of backstory that got added of course.)
So, let’s break down both of the original movies and take a closer look at a few of the factors behind why The Avengers was able to reap a whopping $1518,815,515 box office success compared to Justice League’s paltry $657,925,295.
Marvel put the legwork in beforehand. While Iron Man (2008) wasn’t originally planned to be the first in a long line of superhero movies, its success did drive that ambition forward. When The Avengers came out in 2012, five standalone movies based on its core cast of characters had already been released, meaning that the audience already knew the character, had already watched their arcs develop, and were also (largely) big fans of the movie’s antagonist, Loki, too.
Justice League on the other hand, only had two previous movies based on the characters involved, leaving half of the core cast as relative strangers to the viewers who were following the franchise. In a rush to jump on the bandwagon, DC punted out their hero ensemble movie before earning the trust of the audience and this could be one of the main reasons that a handful of B, C, and D-list superheroes became vastly more popular than arguably the three most recognizable comic book heroes of all time.
DC certainly struggles in this department. Ben Affleck’s Batman in the Justice League is a very different Batman to the one audiences got introduced to in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). He’s no longer the aging, weary, embittered, and darkly cynical character who nearly falls from grace, but is now almost playing the comic relief, throwing out funny one-liners along the way. It’s almost as though this startling change has been added in order to make the film more commercial, isn’t it?
On the flip-side, character development is one of the things Marvel does best. Their characters aren’t behaving like devices to aid the plot, the audience has been given time to see what motivates characters to take the actions and decisions they do, which goes a long way to make them compelling. Added to this, is Marvel’s ability to (mostly) retain the same actors to play the same parts throughout the franchise.
Sure, there’s been a multitude of Superman and Batman movies made previously, but most of which used a new actor to play the central character, each of which bringing their own interpretation to the role, making it difficult for audiences to be able to immediately recognize which version of that character they might be watching.
Both movies obviously share the theme of ‘team’ – a “we’re stronger if we work together” message. But while the reason behind why a team must gather in The Avengers makes sense (Loki realizes that Shield have been experimenting on the tesseract in order to defend themselves from more possible alien attacks and wants to claim it for himself); things aren’t quite as clear in Justice League. Steppenwolf is alerted to the location of the Mother Box after it signals to him after earth’s greatest defender, Superman, has died. Considering Superman has only been there for 30-40 years, this makes it hard to figure out why it didn’t alert him earlier. (plus, Steppenwolf literally left the box there himself and then somehow forgot about it?)
Despite The Avengers plot, of Loki getting himself captured so he can disrupt the team from within, which is a bit clunky; Steppenwolf isn’t even actively involved in the Justice League’s decision to resurrect Superman. But rather he is there to conveniently swoop in and steal the Mother Box when they leave it completely unguarded when battling ‘evil’ Superman instead. It’s all a bit contrived and unconvincing, don’t you think?
A pivotal point in any movie is the moment when the hero (or heroes) realizes there’s no turning back. They have no choice but to forge forward.
At the midpoint of The Avengers, they are a dysfunctional group of individuals, several of which are already in conflict with one another, and they need to decide whether they can put their differences aside and work together.
Justice League takes a completely different approach and lacks stakes. They’re all gathered at a central hub, deciding on the next step of their plan, but there’s no real point of no return here. The team is already on the same side. Everyone agrees they need to beat the bad guy, they have the tools to do so (the Mother Box), and the only small element of conflict comes from whether they should resurrect Superman or not.
When the Avengers finally ‘assemble’ during the climactic battle scene at the end, it’s very rewarding because they overcame their midpoint crisis and became a team. The Justice League doesn’t share this same emotionally cinematic moment because they didn’t quite have much of a struggle to overcome earlier.
While Loki brings fun, charm, and excitement to the story, Steppenwolf often felt like another bland CGI plot device. We never really get to know this character; what’s motivating him (other than his obsession with his mother), or what he has to lose if he fails. And what’s more, most of the info we do get on him comes from lackluster exposition told by other characters. There’s just no personality there whatsoever, meaning that this character could easily have been replaced by any other DC villain without making much difference to the movie.
Loki at least had a personal connection to one of the other central characters, had emotional depth, and more importantly, was memorable.
These aren’t the only reasons why one movie was more successful than the other, and I really, really, wanted Justice League to succeed, but they’re pretty significant in terms of storytelling, connecting with the audience, and having a plausible, engaging plot; all of which are things you need to make sure your script is a success.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.
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