Yeah, and this is primarily the thing that disappoints me both with the DC approach and with the critical response.
Justice League is, at heart, toxically cynical, even if it does ultimately conclude — not counting its second post-credits sequence — on a shaky note of optimism. In the film, paranoid millionaire turned nocturnal vigilante Bruce “Batman” Wayne (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of similarly powerful outcasts to defeat a doomsday scenario that, while inherently generic, is a survivalist’s wet dream. Demigod-like villain Steppenwolf (a personality-less computer-generated monstrosity voiced by Ciaran Hinds) has invaded Earth, and plans to transform it into his home planet of Apokolips (though his native world isn’t named in the film). Unfortunately for Batman, Clark “Superman” Kent (Henry Cavill) died fighting Doomsday at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot), the closest thing that the film has to a Superman-like leader, unfortunately takes a backseat while insecure teammates Arthur “Aquaman” Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry “The Flash” Allen (Ezra Miller), and Victor “Cyborg” Stone (Ray Fisher), muscle her out of the spotlight.
I’m not sure if Justice League or the DC movies are “toxically cynical,” but certainly that impression has turned a number of moviegoers off.
At the same time though, I think fans of the films could make the point that the DC movies are not inherently cynical, and rather take the point of view that the tone of the world today is toxically cynical.
To get a little academic (because really, since college I’ve been obsessed with the dramatic underpinnings of narrative structure), I believe that when Nolan and Goyer first started the Man of Steel project after the Dark Knight series, what interested them was a more tragic than triumphant through line for the character.
Walter Kerr in his book on Tragedy and Comedy (1967) made an interesting point. From his long study of plays (Greek, Shakespeare and onwards), he noted that the tragedies had true happy endings while comic endings were filled with “compromise, resignation, doubt, frank disbelief on all sides, the denial of dignity, the reminder that victory changes nothing and that the bumbler will go on bumbling.” However, when the tragic hero pays the price, it saves the family, country, kingdom, world. Whatever is at stake is secured by the hero’s sacrifice.
At heart, superhero movies are comedies - or the compromise between comedy and tragedy of melodrama. Escapism and wish-fulfillment that the hero can overcome dire circumstances and implacable threats to himself and those he loves without actually sacrificing very much because he is destined to do so.
Coming out of The Dark Knight, I think DC and WB felt they could continue the same sort of more tragically tinged melodrama with Superman. That setting the film in the same cynical world, they could tell a Superman story with a lot more depth than the lighter, more comic alternatives of Iron Man and the Avengers.
Not that the Marvel movies are actually superficial. Actually, I think they are a bit cynical in their approach as well. I mean, Stark started out as, really, a horrible person if you look at him objectively. Even after his literal “change of heart,” can you imagine how shitty the culture at Stark industries must be for an average employee? I’d rather work for Lex Luthor, honestly.
Obviously, I think DC and Snyder failed in their approach, but I don’t know if that is more a disproof of the concept or simply a comment on the actual execution.