Twice in the last six months, the world’s mightiest heroes have come together to battle a threat from beyond the stars. A being with unimaginable strength with designs on our planet, seeking the power contained in some arcane objects from out of time. In one story, our heroes succeeded, while in the other, they failed.
As our heroes failed to stop this villain from achieving his terrible task, we left the theater a little heartbroken and anticipating the sequel. The other team took down its enemy, saved the day and the world … and man, was it boring!
Looking at Justice League and Avengers: Infinity War from afar, the similarities are actually a little unsettling. Take off your glasses and they’re almost the same story. But when things come into focus, we’re left with two wildly different movies, both of which should be exciting superhero romps. While Infinity War made good on a decade of character development, though, Justice League stumbled and fell flat. And it all comes down to the villain at the center of each of the two films – Thanos of Infinity War and Steppenwolf of Justice League.
What made one CG villain work while the other felt so unsatisfying and empty despite an undeniable pile of similarities? Let’s look at the two side by side to see what notes WB and the DCEU should be taking away.
But first, a disclaimer. I’m going to dump on Justice League a lot, but I want to be clear that I love DC, I enjoy the DCEU movies. I had more good things to say about Justice League in my review than many reviewers. Also, there will be spoilers ahead for both Justice League and Infinity War.
Location, location, location
We go to these movies in the first place to see men of Iron, Bat, and Spider take on their enemies, their fathers’ legacies, and to ultimately save the day. But as Peter says in Infinity War, it’s hard to be the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man if there’s no neighborhood to save. The places our heroes live and do heroics in matter, and Infinity War shows us just how much of a difference that makes when the cosmos comes a-knockin’.
When Thanos’ forces arrive on earth ahead of their great leader, they go to places that matter to us – places we’ve bonded with over the last 10 years. The MCU, like its comic-book counterpart, is all about New York. We’ve seen New York threatened over and over in Avengers films and in standalone films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Doctor Strange. I fell in love with Wakanda in just one film – well done, Mr. Coogler.
While the Marvel Netflix shows might not meet up with the movies in any meaningful ways, they’re another example of how much the settings of these stories matter. The best parts of the best Marvel shows give us backdrops that tell us something about the character. Luke Cage’s barbershop and neighborhood show us the Harlem community and show us how much that space matters to him, and when gangsters go after Pops’ barber shop, it’s viscerally painful. Jessica Jones’ dump of an apartment is a physical manifestation of how poorly she treats herself. (Conversely, the forgettable backdrops of Iron Fist remind us that the live-action incarnation of Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, defender of K’un-L’un, sworn enemy of the Hand, is a boring character despite his constant protestations to the contrary.)
When Thanos attack these New York and Wakanda, he’s attacking our homes. Whether you live in Minnesota or California or wherever else, these places feel like our neighborhoods, our backyards. Our friends Steve, Steve, Tony, and Peter live there.
When we compare that to the Metropolis and Gotham – particularly those of the DCEU, there’s no comparison. Not only are they not shot to look like real places, they’re never really anything more than destructible backdrops. They’re closer to the generic, soulless cities in B-List video games that are built to feature-match their more successful upmarket counterparts. For as much as Gotham and Metropolis were central characters in the Batman and Superman animated series (and especially the 1989 Batman movie!), they’re stand-ins in the DCEU.
But that only takes into account the stage-setting for Justice League. When it gets down to it, the battle for the fate of the world happens in some almost-empty nuclear wasteland in pretend Russia. Wakanda isn’t any less fictional, but it’s a place where people live. Even when Thanos’ dropships are crashing into the forests around the country’s shield, we’re watching forests, probably full of extremely cute animals, being destroyed. In Justice League, as far as we can tell, one Eastern European family is in immediate danger. (Was anyone even in that apartment block Supes was hustling around? Who knows?)
Even the husk of Thanos’ home planet of Titan has more character than the locations of Justice League. Instead of watching our heroes fight Thanos in a generic grey room like the the heroes of the Justice League, we’re watching Thanos battle the Avengers in the very place where his quest began. His home turf and his entire reason for existence.
I could have a beer with this guy
Characters matter and, in superhero movies, villains matter. Superheroes have to face something we couldn’t, be challenged by it, and then rise above it. The villains have to be at least a little believable and a little sympathetic. We have to have a scrap of humanity to hang onto in them, even if they aren’t actually human in the first place.
When I think back to the best villains, whether it’s Killmonger, Thanos, or even reaching back to Heath Ledger’s Joker, these villains all have something going for them. They all, in their way, have a point. They have a way they see the world, and they want to make the world see things their way. Killmonger saw the pain of black people in the world outside Wakanda reflected against the blissful utopia of the fictional nation. Thanos saw the suffering of the entire universe all at once as one society after another buckled under the weight of their populations. The Joker saw Batman as a false idol, an agent of chaos trying to institute order, and wanted to reveal him for what he really was.
Thanos point of view is a noble one, ultimately, even if his methods for achieving it are nothing short of horrifying on an intergalactic scale. And as we watch him in Infinity War, we see a man who understand what – in his eyes, at least – needs to be done. He also knows he has to give up everything to make it happen, and he sacrifices not only his life, but those of the people he loves. It’s twisted, sure, but it’s sympathetic. When Thanos sheds a tear, we’re there with him.
Steppenwolf, in comparison to Thanos’ fleshed-out back story, is a cardboard cutout. We never really get anything from him other than that he wants more power, and a hint that there’s someone else more powerful that he serves. None of that, as far as us viewers are concerned, is scary. In real life, we’d ask who is this guy that’s even worse? But as we watch the movie the question morphs into, why are we even bothering with this guy in the first place?
We never have anything with Steppenwolf to hang onto. He’s a Bad Guy, and that’s it. He’s not a character with a personal presence. That he’s there serving his uncle Darkseid’s whims is of no consequence. He holds no resentment or adoration for this being that we can get on board with. He’s just an employee. Why he’s there, why the motherboxes are important, what could happen if the heroes don’t stop him, don’t matter.
Even worse, Steppenwolf never feels dangerous. This goes back partly to the “location” problem – he never really threatens anyone apart from our heroes and that small Eastern European family. He gets a few good licks in on our hero team, but ultimately he’s not anymore threatening to them than your average Power Rangers villain, nor is he any more consequential. He’s an ineffectual lackey at best.
I can’t believe my eyes
Even 10 years ago, the idea of entirely CG characters in a live action film was still novel. But this is another way that Thanos proves himself the superior villain.
Both Thanos and Steppenwolf are entirely CG characters with some performance capture and voice work from actors.
But where Thanos’ onscreen presence is never up for question, Steppenwolf looks like a CG character right from the start. When Thanos and Hulk go at it in the opening minutes of Infinity War, we feel it. We feel Hulk getting totally creamed, even though they’ve both been rendered on a GPU. When Thanos pounds Cap into the ground, it hurts.
This bears out in how much screentime each gets. Throughout Infinity War, Thanos proves to be the star of the movie. No other character, save maybe Thor, gets as much solo screentime as Thanos. And in that time, we’re seeing the Mad Titan from every angle. We have closeups of his microscopic facial movements as he reacts to his own daughter’s death, as he snaps his fingers and accomplishes his mission. And they’re affecting and believable. We see him in huge fights with live-action and CG heroes alike. We see him standing still and moving quickly. One battle has a bunch of heroes piled on him, pulling on him from every angle. Spider-Man, Iron Man and Doctor Strange tug on him from CG power suits and with magical powers. But while they’re doing that, Drax is tugging on him, Mantis is on his shoulders, and Peter Quill is slugging away at his face. And it all feels totally real.
Each time Steppenwolf speaks, though, we’re reminded that he’s pixels and polygons spit out by a computer. He’s less believable even than the characters in games, like Uncharted 4‘s Nathan Drake or God of War‘s Kratos (two video game characters designed entirely from the ground up but meant to look ultra-realistic), sticking out against his CG background and against the CG powers of his enemies as a particularly unconvincing piece of computer graphics.
So let’s break this down.
Steppenwolf is a failure at almost every level of creation. Where the actors saved the Justice League heroes from being total bores, the actor playing Steppenwolf had nothing to work with in the first place.
If you want to build a great supervillain, put him in a place we care about, and have him put it – and our heroes – in real danger. And for the love of pete, spend enough money on him to make him look as good as the heroes.
There’s a parallel universe – let’s call it Earth-2 – where Steppenwolf was a believable, interesting threat in his own right independent of any future movies his relatives might appear in. But somehow Warner Bros. dropped the motherbox over and over again, and just months before Avengers: Infinity War would show us how it’s done.