Or, Finally Some Context to Interest Me Enough to Write Anything About Justice League
To use the analogy notation you might remember from the standardized testing of your youth… The Rise of Skywalker : The Last Jedi :: Justice League : Batman V Superman. Both follow-ups have a similar relationship to their predecessors, and a similar nature as a response to them. To be blunt, for both, the latter movie is a dumb mess; a corporate course correction in response to a lot of outrage from a group of internet detractors with loud voices. It dropped all of the plot threads from its predecessor, completely changed in tone, and wrecked some of the more interesting and universe-challenging questions asked by the movie before it. Now, The Last Jedi was not a perfect movie and neither was Batman V Superman a perfect movie. If you want to know my hyperbole-free opinion of BvS, I wrote an article on my thoughts.
Strangely, in this age of audience feedback, I consider both The Last Jedi and Batman v Superman to also be movies that were clearly influenced by audience response to the movie before them. BvS clearly felt that it had to tackle audience concerns and perceptions about the wide scale destruction of Metropolis during the Kryptonian attack and the subsequent death of Zod, something I also write about in an article titled the Misreporting of Manslaughter in Man of Steel. And so, for better or worse, the follow up was basically a plot about both Batman and the rest of the world failing to trust Superman, and Lex Luthor using that distrust to attempt to destroy him. I found it more brave of the follow-up to directly tackle that event by showing the on-the-ground perspective of it from Bruce Wayne’s eye in the opening moments of the movie.
The Last Jedi itself was also a bit contrary to its predecessor, but with a giant game of exquisite corpse driving the Star Wars sequels via relay-style directing, the movie still responded to all the various plot threads introduced in The Force Awakens by selecting some of them as important and worth following and others as meaningless and worthy of discard. And I agreed with its decisions: Rey’s parentage was a cliched and uninteresting question, and director Rian Johnson’s proposal that the answer be that she was a nobody selected to rise up by the force with power to meet the dark was an interesting development, one that democratized The Force and moved away from cliched stories that showed force powers as (like money) something you can only get in significant amount through inheritance and family legacy.
J.J. Abrams spent The Force Awakens setting up so many threads and elements with abandon that it was practically a blueprinted assignment for the next director. A second J.J. Abrams movie probably would have been all about Snoke, the Knights of Ren, and Rey’s secret parents. Johnson responded to this assignment by turning it around from these expectations and doing something else, with Luke, with Snoke, with Rey’s parents. It was unexpectedly dark, and more real. I loved it.
Similarly, after all the outrage and blowback from the destruction at the end of Man of Steel, expectations were for a nice and inspiring Superman story justifying his heroism and establishing the comic book character everyone wanted restored after the Zod death. Instead, Snyder made Bruce Wayne the advocate character for the portion of the audience that blamed and hated this adaptation of the character for those consequences. It was unexpectedly dark, and more real. I loved it.
BvS and TLJ both had an iconic hero depicted as older, isolated, more cynical, disconnected, less trusting. Both fanbases responded like big crybabies over an interesting new direction for the character, one that is actually much more realistic to the way a hero or warrior responds to the burden of the position over years.
Both second movies explored darker themes; both featured our heroes exploring failure and being manipulated; and as a result both sets of heroes are forced to confront and question their own notions of heroism, and sacrifice. Both movies even concluded with a heroic sacrifice that vocal detractors decried as hollow, and unnecessary.
Both of these franchises are corporate juggernauts. They are merchandising monsters, with action figures and vehicles and bed sheets, available now! Both have been on record of having made extensive changes to past series directions for precisely these reasons: Return of the Jedi was famously moved from Kashyyk to the forest moon of Endor replacing a wookie army with those cute and cuddly Ewoks, and those of us in our teens who had been in the single digits for original Star Wars rolled our eyes in our teenage angst. WB recoiled in horror at the dark and obsessive Batman Returns with its villainous Donald Trump parody and all the sex dripping off of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman along with a psychotic and raw fish-eating Penguin, and decided perhaps Joel Schumacher might make more Happy Meal Toy-friendly movies.
Corporate Course Correction Commonalities
And so both Justice League and Rise of Skywalker are dumb movies with fetch quest plotting and nothing at all to say about anything. Their themes are as shallow as those of an episode of Super-Friends or Star Wars: Resistance… whatever the most kid-friendly version of the IP is out there becomes the blueprint.
Both Rise of Skywalker and Justice League move character and themes and throughline into the background to share instead these features:
- MacGuffins that make no sense, and nullify key parts of the previous movie. Justice League‘s mother boxes change from computers that open star-gates (essentially) to magic do-all WMDs that also revive Kryptonians if you touch them to Kryptonian healing fluid at the exact same time as you add a big electric charge, for some reason. Rise of Skywalker features a magic coin that gets you onto a First Order starship even though the previous movie spent a significant portion of its story telling how characters needed to find a master codebreaker because that was literally the only way to accomplish the same thing.
- Characters sidelined after big roles in the previous film. Rose in Rise of Skywalker and Lex Luthor in Justice League have about the same amount of screen time.
- New wasted side characters introduced with no time to follow-up. A big deal was made about the casting of Lt. Gordon in Justice League only for the character to appear for maybe a minute. Same with multiple characters in Rise of Skywalker including Keri Russel’s highly publicized casting as Zorii Bliss.
- Poorly developed villains with little explanation for why they were even there or what their plan was or how it was even supposed to work, but with a big heavy focus on how big and scary and powerful they are, and all the impending doom that implies. Trust us, so much doom!
- Fetch quests, cross-map ones, and thus whirlwind tours of too many locations, actually robbing you of a sense of location.
- Just all the CGI, all the action. No conflict in the movie is ever resolved through dialogue. How can it be? There are no ideas at play.
- Death is very casually reversed in both films.
- Significant news before and during production about leadership shifts, studio oversight, direction changes.
- Conspiracy theories arose about the response to both these movies’ predecessors. Disney influencing the response to Batman V Superman? Russians sowing discord via The Last Jedi? The noise to signal ratio for internet response to both these movies has become suspect, in any case. Lots of PR work.
- Dialog that literally seems written by people in direct response to internet criticism of previous plot points or highlights of the previous films… that is taken as direct jabs by the audience members who liked the predecessor. Ex. Luke Tosses Saber Over Shoulder : “That’s no way to treat the weapon of a Jedi.” :: “Do you bleed?” : “Yep, pretty sure that’s bleeding.”
It is of course that last point, where initiatives from the previous movie are not only ejected but done so with apparent, glib glee… that is particularly galling to fans of the movies that came before.
To me, after The Last Jedi, I appreciated that a clichéd setup pushing director Rian Johnson to immediately follow up by having old, wise Luke train Rey was instead replaced with a plot in which he refuses to train her. A focus on Jedi vs Sith, good guy versus bad guy simplicity was swapped out for a narrative questioning the rise of force itself, and how opposing forces seem to rise to meet a gathering of strength and threat, and how a true balance of power may involve the wisdom of laying down your arms and finding non-violent solutions that don’t invite a matching answer of force. The directions he took the story were unique, explored themes like failure, and when to retreat, and the importance of hero legends even as they may hold little real truth to them.
I think The Last Jedi saw through the fact that Snoke was just a virtual carbon copy of Palpatine and did an excellent job of moving the primary conflict off of the old generation of characters and onto the new generation. It re-contextualized the conflict to Kylo feeling entitled to the Force due to his legacy and parentage, and Rey being nominated by the Force, as almost a representative of all the scavengers and powerless people outside that inherited structure.
The redemption of Kylo Ren was teased but then we got an additional twist: he is Sith now, after all, and he seeks his sense of safety through control, and he is merely following the rule of Two in killing his master and taking Rey as his apprentice. The redemption was indeed folly, and if it is to be earned it must be earned by more than the same quick betrayal/reversal of loyalty that is the trademark of the Sith.
A good follow-up wouldn’t have replaced a virtual carbon copy of Palpatine with an actual carbon copy of Palpatine, and would instead have let the weight, shadow, cast, and storyline of the original trilogy give way to something new, built from this cast of characters, and the central conflict between them. The connection between these two characters is, in fact, one of the few things Rise of Skywalker seemed to grudgingly accept as important and use in interesting ways. Not interesting thematic or character ways, but with some twists involving force-powered teleportation relay-style handoffs (ironically similar to the way the direction of the sequel trilogy itself was handled).
There was a lot of interesting things left to explore at the end of The Last Jedi. It’s just that none of them were sure-fire, no-brainer, easy commercial success material. It was harder stuff, but success with it would have damned Rise of Skywalker with a lot less of this faint praise I keep hearing.
So take a moment and consider the viewpoint of someone “from the other side” when it comes to director Zack Snyder’s work in the DC Extended Universe (RIP), and if you really liked The Last Jedi as I also did, and felt kind of intentionally snubbed and insulted and smacked down by the follow-up to that movie, realize that that is exactly the same way I felt about Justice League. Just, so… supremely disappointed, to see that glimmer of originality snuffed out, by this safe, mindless garbage.
Now, imagine if Rian Johnson had directed Rise of Skywalker (ha it wouldn’t have even been called that but still) for months and months before he was fired and replaced with J.J. Abrams who conducted extensive rewrites and reshoots and replaced some unknown percentage of Johnson’s work with his own. What would you, as a fan of The Last Jedi, want, at that point? #ReleasetheSnyderCut