A few months ago, I had an argument with a friend of mine who swore it didn’t matter that Wonder Woman had been directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). He insisted any qualified director would do the same high-quality job making the film. This particular friend is a smart guy when it comes to a lot of things. I mean, he’s a physicist, and he knows way more than I do about lasers. But in this case, he’s an idiot.
I was thinking of just how much of an idiot while watching Justice League, because I have a feeling that same friend would tell me that the movie is bad because Zack Snyder isn’t a very good director, or because bringing Joss Whedon in for post-production and reshoots created an unavoidable disjointed feel, or maybe just that the script was weak. All of those things are probably true, at least on some level. But if being a poorly-made film was Justice League’s biggest problem, I’d shrug it off and probably counter that with the argument that some people might think it’s fun. It’s not great, but it’s lighter and brighter than Batman vs. Superman. Some of the jokes – particularly those delivered by Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash – land very well, and there a few charming scenes with the whole “league” together on the rare occasion that Ben Affleck isn’t wet blanketing all over everything.
But poor construction isn’t Justice League’s biggest or most serious problem. Its most serious problem is the way men dominate behind the cameras in Hollywood. Six months after Wonder Woman was released and five weeks after Harvey Weinstein was expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the issue is so glaring that it seems even some of the people behind the film could see it.
By way of background, the premise of Justice League is pretty typical superhero fare. In case you were scared away by the reviews and skipped Batman v Superman – probably a good call – Superman dies at the end, so Justice League opens with Metropolis/Gotham City awash in grief and crime. Meanwhile, a hellscape demon called Steppenwolf is working on collecting boxes full of power in order to… I think be very powerful and destroy the world or possibly turn it into a new vacation hellscape. It’s not really clear. Anyway, Batman (Ben Affleck) struggles through a lot of guilt about Superman’s death (don’t worry about why), and tries to make himself feel better by working with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to assemble a rag tag group of misfits to save the world. And so it goes.
I do want to give some credit where it’s due to whoever on the production team actually assembled that rag tag group. Four of the five actors you see on the movie poster – Gadot, Miller, Jason Momoa (as Aquaman), and Ray Fisher (as Cyborg) – represent women, the queer community, and people of color in a way you rarely see in a film of this budget and profile. That kind of casting inclusion has been neglected for a very long time in Hollywood, and for as many ways as Justice League missed the mark, I think it’s important to acknowledge that not just casting het white dudes is a point in the film’s favor. Before 2017, unless you were a white male, it was awfully hard to find a non-ensemble superhero film in wide release about anyone who looked like you. Wonder Woman was a big deal for many of us, but many more people in movie audiences are still waiting.
Which is why it’s a little infuriating that Justice League loses so much of the ground gained in Wonder Woman. This is absolutely a film shot from the male perspective and from the male gaze. With Wonder Woman so fresh in our memories, that’s a particularly tough pill to swallow. To be clear, Gadot is very good in the film, and her Wonder Woman still wields a sword with at least equal proficiency to all of her male counterparts. But Gadot’s character is the main focus in Wonder Woman, and that film is 20 minutes longer than Justice League, and yet, somehow we still managed to go the whole movie without seeing any part of Gadot’s butt cheeks in Wonder Woman. I saw the bottom half of them at least twice in Justice League. And that’s not counting the focus on her ass when it was covered in tight leather pants. Someone on the editing team must have finally realized the problem, because in one scene where Gadot’s Diana Prince is wearing an exceptionally low-cut top, the shots are cut so awkwardly close to her face that most of the time, you barely see her shirt at all.
It’s hard to say whether the low-level romantic tension between Diana and Bruce Wayne is more or less obnoxious than the objectification of Gadot’s body, since it merely objectifies the movie’s main female character (sorry, Lois) in a slightly different way. Bruce is an emotionally and often physically damaged man who apparently needs the love of a good Amazonian woman… or some bullshit like that. Ugh. Find a goddamn therapist, Bruce Wayne. Wonder Woman is no one’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Seriously, this movie is infuriating.
The differences in the way Patty Jenkins filmed Wonder Woman and the ways Snyder/Whedon made Justice League are astonishing, but they’re likely to get lost in the generally mediocre quality of Justice League. It’s easy to ignore sexism when there’s so much other stuff to latch on to. But if the last month or two has taught us anything, it’s that misogyny has become so pervasive in Hollywood that its easily overlooked, and that’s a big part of the problem. Don’t let the reasons that Justice League is bad distract you from the reasons that it’s toxic.