The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters. Enjoy!
When I did my review for the “Wonder Woman” movie earlier this year, I did so under fairly favorable circumstances. The movie was already getting a lot of positive buzz from critics and general word-of-mouth. I was excited to see it in any case, but that buzz certainly set a positive tone when assessing the merits of that movie.
With “Justice League,” I face the polar opposite of those circumstances. While I generally try not to give much weight to critics or Rotten Tomatoes scores, it was hard to avoid this time. Unlike “Wonder Woman,” the buzz for this movie was entirely negative and it showed in the box office returns, also known as the only real measure that studios care about.
For a movie that was set to be a major milestone, finally putting DC’s most iconic heroes into one movie, it has since become an outright scandal. How can a movie with so much superhero star power do this poorly? That’s a question I am not equipped to answer, especially since people much smarter and more well-connected than me already have.
Instead, I’m going to walk right into this ongoing firestorm of whining and anger to give my spoiler-free review of this movie. I wanted to do it sooner, but I decided to let that firestorm die down just a bit before I offered my take. That might have been a mistake on my part. There’s a lot of noise surrounding “Justice League,” but not much insight.
With that in mind, I’m going to keep my review simple. I’m not going to try and extrapolate a bigger picture, like I did with “Wonder Woman.” I’m just going to focus my review on one simple question.
Is “Justice League” a good movie?
Before I go into detail and try to talk over all the noise, I want to answer this question with my honest and sincere sentiment. Given how much I’ve talked about comic books, superheroes, and superhero movies, including the sexy parts, I like to think my answer has at least some weight. However much stock you put into my opinion, here’s my ultimate conclusion on “Justice League.”
It is a good movie.
Yes, I realize that sentiment doesn’t reflect its Tomatometer score. Keep in mind, though, that score reflects the opinions of critics who are paid to see and/or overthink movies. It doesn’t reflect how actual fans feel about it, which actually shows in the response for this movie.
Even critics can’t deny that this movie went out of its way to please fans, especially those who were dissatisfied with “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.” It directly dealt with the aftermath of that movie, as well as the characters’ reaction to it. It even dealt with the aftermath of “Wonder Woman,” building upon a foundation and creating connections, exactly like a real movie universe should.
Those connections weren’t too critical to appreciate the movie as a whole. It also works very well on its own, creating a simple, concise plot that really ramps up the scale. Again, it’s entirely consistent with the effort to make a large, inter-connected movie universe, just as Marvel has done with so much acclaim.
However, that’s not my primary reason for me saying that “Justice League” is a good movie. In simplest terms, this movie is good because it sticks to the basics and does them very well. It doesn’t try to be overly elaborate. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the characters to an excessive degree. Yes, those characters have some variations, compared to their comic counterparts, but it’s nothing that warrants confusion or outrage.
Superman is still Superman. Wonder Woman is still Wonder Woman. Batman is still Batman, even if it is through the brooding demeanor of Ben Affleck. Getting those three right is critical to the success of any “Justice League” movie and this one makes it a point to do that early on.
It doesn’t stop there, though. It puts time and energy into developing the rest of the league, namely Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. These three characters had only brief cameos in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” but they achieved much greater depth here.
These supporting members weren’t just there to fill out the ranks. They each had their own personal story to follow. Through that story, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg gain a personal stake in “Justice League.” It’s not just about saving the world for them. They’re struggling for something greater and, through the story, they achieve it.
At times, there are a lot of plots unfolding simultaneously. The personal stories of all those involved tend to mix. While it does get somewhat messy, it never gets chaotic. The story never goes off-track and it never becomes too confusing, which was a common criticism levied against “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.”
A major reason why the story remained so concise was because of the main villain, Steppenwolf. While he’s not as iconic a villain as Lex Luthor, Loki, or Darkseid, who is mentioned multiple times, he does plenty to establish himself as a powerful threat and a highly motivated villain.
Like the other members of the league, his role in the plot has a personal component. He doesn’t just show up, wanting to destroy the world for shits and giggles. There’s an actual reason behind his actions and those reasons never become excuses, something that should carry weight for any character.
On top of those reasons, Steppenwolf’s story helps build the bigger picture of the DC Extended Universe. Through it, we learn that there are much larger conflicts in this universe that go beyond the Justice League. It helps establish a larger role for the Amazons, who showed their strength in “Wonder Woman.” It also establishes the Atlanteans and Green Lantern Corp, who are set to show theirs in future movies.
If the secondary goal of “Justice League” was to build a world and expand the possibilities, it certainly succeeded. If its primary goal was to bring each hero together in a way that was entertaining, flashy, and dramatic, then it succeeded as well.
There were plenty of powerful moments. There were plenty of dramatic moments. There were even some funny moments, most of which involved Ezra Miller’s Flash. Few of the moments felt forced or contrived. None felt empty either. There was purpose in every moment, decision, and action. By those most basic of standards, “Justice League” works.
I would even argue that this movie works better than a lot of Marvel movies. I would certainly put it above titles like “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Iron Man 3,” movies that I think get more praise than they deserve. “Justice League” even makes the effort to improve on the mistakes of its predecessor, something few franchises even try, as “Amazing Spider-Man” can attest.
None of this is to say that “Justice League” is without flaws. It certainly has a few. The effects aren’t as flashy or colorful as other movies. Even “Man Of Steel” had better effects, by comparison. It’s also worth belaboring that Ben Affleck is no Christian Bale and Steppenwolf is no Darkseid. It really did feel as though the movie held back, at times.
If that’s the biggest shortcoming of “Justice League,” though, then I still say it qualifies as a good movie. It tells a story. It fleshes out characters. It tells a big, flashy story, full of big battles and satisfying conclusions. There’s a sense of emotional catharsis at the end that is much more uplifting than what we got in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.” When put in the context of the greater DCEU, it acts like frosting on the cake.
Why, then, does it receive such hate and scorn from critics? If this movie does have a major crime, it’s that it isn’t crafted in the same mold as Marvel with their cinematic universe. I don’t deny that Marvel sets a very high bar. However, this movie cannot and should not operate by those same standards. If it did, then those same critics would just whine that it’s ripping off Marvel too much.
There are other criticisms of “Justice League,” but when so many of them revolve around Henry Cavill’s digitally-removed mustache, those criticisms are downright petty. It is possible to hate and criticize this movie by focusing on those petty issues, but that’s hardly a fair way to judge the actual substance of the movie.
In terms of actual substance, “Justice League” has it and plenty more. It Superman being Superman, Batman being Batman, and Wonder Woman being Wonder Woman, just in case her movie didn’t give you enough of that. For that reason, “Justice League” deserves far more praise than it has gotten and far less petty criticism.
In the end, it still gives us a satisfying, live-action Justice League movie. That, in and of itself, makes it inherently awesome
When it comes to the crippling power of boredom, it’s easy to see how it can create deranged super-villains like Vandal Savage and hardened anti-heroes like Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty.” In the real world, boredom tends to inspire people in all the wrong ways. It can even inspire horrific crimes.
As such, it’s hard to imagine boredom being the driving force behind a superhero. That seems utterly antithetical to what a superhero is. As a noted comic book fan, which I’ve belabored many times on this blog, I know more than most people should about what makes a superhero. Boredom should not be on that list.
Heroes are supposed to be champions of all that is good and virtuous. They’re supposed to embody our highest ideals as a people. They raise the bar and set an example for others to follow. Their hearts, souls, and eyes are supposed to radiate hope, love, and everything else we associate with puppies and kittens.
However, it’s because I’m a die-hard comic book fan that I would know about a hero inspired by boredom if he or she even existed. Well, thanks to my love of comics and the extra free time that I enjoy between football season, I have discovered such a hero.
He’s not Superman. He’s not Captain America. He’s not even Wolverine, Deadpool, or Squirrel Girl. He’s not a product of Marvel, DC Comics, or any major comic book company from the past century. He’s in a category of his own, although not for reasons you might not expect. His real name is Saitama, but most know him as “One-Punch Man.”
Unlike most heroes, One-Punch Man is exactly what he sounds like. His story isn’t as convoluted as Wolverine’s or as generic as Superman’s. His powers are nothing fancy. As his name indicates, he has the power to defeat any foe with a single punch. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a giant, mountain-sized titan or some monster from outer space. No matter how big or powerful they are, Saitama beats them with just one punch.
If that sounds bland to you, then congratulations. You’re seeing exactly what the writer, who goes by the pseudonym, One, intended for you to see. Unlike other attempts to create iconic superheroes, most of which fail spectacularly, “One-Punch Man” didn’t set out to create an interesting, compelling hero. It was crafted as a parody, of sorts, to modern superheroes.
In the same tradition of Weird Al Yankovic, “One-Punch Man” took an established narrative and turned it into a joke, of sorts. It went out of its way to do all the things that traditional superhero comics avoid. It actually tried to create a hero who was bland, overpowered, and un-iconic. Whether by design or by accident, it worked.
It was created in 2009, but by 2012 the Japanese comic sold over 7.9 million issues in Japan and was later exported to the United States, where it was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2015. For those of you who don’t know, Eisner Awards are the comic book equivalent of the Oscars. For any comic, let alone one that started off as a joke, to be nominated is a pretty big deal.
Parody or not, “One-Punch Man” struck a chord. It might be due to the saturation of superhero movies or the ongoing frustration of comic book fans about how their favorite characters are treated, but a hero who basically spits all over the standard superhero narrative has a unique appeal. Given the success of Weird Al, maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised.
In utterly lampooning modern superhero stories, “One-Punch Man” makes boredom the primary catalyst. In a sense, it channels the power of boredom to create a character who breaks every possible rule for making a compelling superhero and it does it with the blankest of stares.
His backstory is not that compelling. He’s not some alien from a dead planet. He’s not an exiled god or a genetic freak. He’s not even gifted in any way. In fact, the first episode of the anime cartoon shows him as just some generic unemployed office worker who randomly encounters a monster. He defeats the monster, albeit not with one punch, and on the spot he decides to be a superhero.
If you’re hoping for a more compelling story than that, then save yourself the trouble and throw that hope away along with the leftovers and dog shit. That’s as compelling as Saitama’s origin story gets. The way he becomes so powerful is even less compelling than that, if you can believe that.
Saitama didn’t get strong through a genetic mutation, a crazy lab experiment, advanced technology, or even a radioactive bug. Saitama gained his immense power over the course of three short years and he did it through a very simple, very bland workout routine. In his own words, this is how he became the most powerful hero in the world.
100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and a 10-kilometer run! And I do it every single day!
Again, it’s every bit as bland as it sounds. The mere fact that everything in Saitama’s workout is nothing more than a set of basic exercises that almost anyone can do is so inane and generic. It’s so generic that people in the real world are even trying this regiment. Given the extent and utter unfeasibility of Batman’s training, it’s basically a joke.
That’s entirely the point, though. Saitama isn’t supposed to be the kind of underdog hero who defies all odds, pushes his limits, and overcome immense obstacles. He is the embodiment of a classic “Deus Ex Machina,” the proverbial god machine that so many stories utilize to resolve a conflict.
In nearly every writing class you take, and I’ve taken more than a few, you’re taught to avoid using the deus ex machina trope as much as possible. It’s not easy, even for erotica romance writers. I like to think I’ve avoided it for the most part in my novels, but I don’t deny the challenge is there. Even comic books struggle with this. Just look up something called the Cosmic Cube for proof of that.
However, whereas most writers avoid a deus ex machine, “One-Punch Man” doubles down on it. It even embraces it to some extent. It doesn’t craft classic superhero stories about how Saitama faces overwhelming odds, powerful enemies, and insane obstacles. He’s so strong that nothing really threatens him anymore. Every threat or enemy he faces is easily defeated with a single punch.
Instead, the narrative of “One-Punch Man” explores Saitama’s struggle with the sheer boredom of being such a powerful hero. He rarely raises his voice. He rarely gets excited. He’s never afraid, threatened, or agitated in any way. He often yawns in the middle of epic battles, much to the annoyance of his enemies and even his fellow heroes.
There’s no getting around it. Saitama is bored out of his mind. Beyond just being powerful, his reasons for being a hero aren’t that deep. He doesn’t have a deep sense of duty like Superman. He didn’t suffer a terrible tragedy like Spider-Man or Batman either. He’s just a hero for the fun of it. That’s the only reason he ever gives. Again, that annoys the hell out of his enemies, but that’s the point.
If you were to put Saitama on the traditional hero’s journey, it would be the shortest journey ever. Everything about Saitama’s backstory, powers, and motivations are bland. They’re intended to be bland because he’s supposed to be a parody of modern hero tropes, a walking joke of how every epic superhero struggle can be reduced to one proverbial punch.
While “One-Punch Man” does an admirable job mocking superhero traditions, sometimes too well, it also reflects the sheer impact of boredom. When someone becomes so powerful and so competent at resolving any conflict, it tends to get boring. Saitama is the perfect embodiment of this.
He might also be a warning sign, of sorts. I’ve talked a lot about the potential for human enhancement in the future, from smart blood to brain implants. While these advancements will do a lot to improve our lives and our bodies, it might also put us in the same position as Saitama.
What happens when it becomes overly easy to master a skill, overcome an obstacle, or achieve a goal? When you’ve got a body that can download knowledge, shape-shift, and make love to an army of sex robots, what else is there? How can you not get bored by all that?
Saitama lives in a world where nothing is a threat to him and nothing challenges him in any way. As such, he’s bored out of his mind. He’s only a hero because he still gets some fun out of it. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. For someone as powerful as him, he’ll take it in any way he can. It might not be the most noble reason for being a hero, but it is understandable.
Parody or not, “One-Punch Man” is a unique exploration of a superhero narrative. It purposefully breaks and mocks all the rules of a heroic narrative, but does so in a way that’s entertaining and quirky. You could argue that Saitama is the only hero forged and driven by boredom.
However, if superheroes are supposed to represent our ideals and hopes, then what kind of message does “One-Punch Man” tell us? If becoming so powerful and so competent leads to boredom, then what does that mean for our own efforts? In a sense, our limits keep us from doing so much, but they also keep us from getting bored. In the end, it’s hard to say whether that’s much of an ideal.
As a general rule, I try to stay away from overblown media outrages. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion on them. It’s just that in my experience, peoples’ attention spans are so damn short and their outrage is so damn selective that it’s just not worth the time. I’d much rather dedicate my energy to something more productive, like writing novels that make men and women horny for all the right reasons.
However, there are certain outrages that I feel obliged to address. If said outrage involves comic books, superheroes, and people who whine about insanely petty issues, then I’m going to make my opinion known. I love comic books and superheroes. I hope I’ve made that abundantly clear on this blog. I’ll continue belaboring that love for as long as I must.
So when someone decides to throw a hissy fit that gives comic book fans like me a migraine, I’m going to take notice and I’m going to have an opinion, especially if said hissy fit involves something petty.
So what has people whining, bitching, and moaning at superhuman levels this time? Well, it all has to do with a comic book cover for an upcoming series called “Invincible Iron Man.”
It’s not actually the main cover for the book. It’s what we in the comic world call a variant, meaning there’s only so much that are printed. They’re basically a gimmick for comic collectors and since they can be pretty damn awesome, most comic book fans don’t mind. I certainly don’t.
This one in particular is actually a variant cover exclusive by J. Scott Campbell, a very talented and highly respected artist among comic book fans. This one was actually done for Midtown Comics, a premier comic book store in New York City that I make it a point to visit every time I go there. So of course it’s special and of course it’s going to carry more weight than others.
So what’s the controversy? Well, before I reveal that, let me show you the cover. If you can immediately spot the outrage, then I think you’re already part of the problem so this blog post won’t affect you. If not, then bear with me because it’s going to get even pettier than you think.
Not bad, right? Good colors, good lines, and a generally upbeat tone. It depicts Riri Williams, a young African American woman who will be taking the role of Iron Man for a while. Those of you who only know Iron Man from Robert Downy Junior’s depiction in the Avenger movies may be confused. Trust me, it’s actually more confusing than you think.
I won’t get into the reasons why someone else is taking over Iron Man. I’ll just note that this happens a lot in comics. Every now and then, an established character will either die or go MIA for a while so someone else can take up the mantle. It’s been happening a lot lately because Marvel has been seeking more diversity in its heroes.
Riri Williams is hardly the first. Last year, they did the same with Wolverine. The former Wolverine in the comics died and was replaced by his clone/daughter, Laura Kinney. By and large, it was a success. It generated little to no controversy. Even comic book fans shrugged it off. Who better to take over for Wolverine than his own daughter? It’s a beautiful thing.
So what’s up with this cover surrounding Riri Williams? On the surface, it’s the kind of cover that appeals to comic book fans who want a simple, visually appealing hook for a comic. It’s a visual medium, after all. Shouldn’t it be pretty to look at?
For some people, being pretty is some horrible affront to all that is good and just in the world. How is it terrible unjust? Just look at the cover again. Look at how sexualized it is. No seriously, look at it. Is this piece of artwork really so overtly sexual that a generation of children will be scarred for life by seeing it?
I try to be fair and understanding in all major controversies. I really do. This time, however, I have to fight the urge to bang my head against a brick wall. Is this what really qualifies as being too sexual lately? Is this comic book cover, in an era where the hardest of hardcore porn is available with a simple google search, just too damn sexy for public consumption?
Sadly, enough people whined about it to prompt Marvel to pull the cover from the market. It’s a victory for those who are so fragile, so weak, and so petty that they can’t stand the idea of any form of media being the least bit sexy. For anyone who is just a fan adding more beauty to this deranged world, it’s the equivalent of a tequila hangover.
This isn’t the first time people have lost their shit over a comic book cover being too sexy. A few years ago, those same puritanical, overly petty types lost their shit over this cover for Spider-Woman #1.
That cover is by Milo Manara, an artist with a history of creating artwork that is overtly pornographic. Is it the best style for a superhero comic that’s marketed to adults and kids? Probably not. At the very least, there’s some merit behind the outrage here. It doesn’t take an overly petty person to look at this cover and see that it takes too much inspiration from Nikki Manaj videos.
Again though, how petty do you have to be to think Riri Williams in this cover is too sexual? Yeah, she’s a teenager and she shows off her mid-drift. News flash people, teenagers dress like that. Anybody remember Madonna? She was a teenager at some point too a million years ago and she dressed like this.
Have we really regressed that much since the 1980s? Are we really returning to a time when a woman exposing her mid-drift is on the same level as flashing her tits at a bus full of kindergartners? I know outrage is usually selective and petty to some degree, but this is a world of internet porn and Honey Boo Boo. I think that kind of pettiness is obsolete.
Again, here’s the cover one last time. Again, this is Riri Williams, a young African American woman who is about to become a superhero. Look at it closely.
She’s not wearing a thong. She’s not wearing a bikini. She’s not even wearing a dress for crying out loud. She’s just wearing what you’ll probably see high school kids wear around the beach, a mall, or anywhere they want to show off how many sit-ups they’ve done. If J. Scott Campbell wanted to make an overly sexy cover, there are many other ways he could’ve done it.
Except he didn’t. Some may argue that Riri’s bodily proportions are wrong and unrealistic. Some would much rather have her look like someone we would probably ignore if she walked into a coffee shop in New York. These are the same people who don’t seem to mind Photoshop being used on fashion magazines or breast implants being used by porn stars. Once again, they have to be extremely petty and selective with their outrage.
I can stand people being petty. I can stand people being outraged over dumb shit. We’re a flawed species. We’re bound to act stupid for obscenely stupid reasons. However, when that stupidity is given credibility, I have a problem with it. I doubt this will be the last such problem, but it sets a sad and dangerous precedent. It means that those who whine and complain loud enough will have their childish arguments taken seriously.
We don’t take children seriously when they whine about not being able to eat candy for dinner every day. Why should we take them seriously with this? Trick question. We shouldn’t.