Early in Justice League, Bruce Wayne/Batman tells his manservant Alfred that "I don't have to recognize this world. I just have to save it." Batman knows that there's a massive threat headed towards the world's innocent civilians, and he's determined to get a team together to fend it off. But while Justice League does represent a step forward for DC Films after Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it falls prey to an unavoidable and constant problem with DC's films, as well as superhero movies in general: the villains are a big letdown.
The primary threat in Justice League is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), an alien being who has arrived on Earth in the wake of Superman's death; he's taking the opportunity to collect the apocalyptic Mother Boxes, a trio of devices that can bring about the end of days when they are united. So Batman gets Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg together to fight together for the first time, with the goal being no less than saving the world.
The stakes should be high, as they are often high in any number of comic-book movies. Yet whatever strengths Justice League has lies in its heroes, not its villains, as is almost always the case. Hinds is a talented character actor, but as visualized here, Steppenwolf and his flying minions are a bland, colorless, CG mess. The band Steppenwolf would have more of a presence in this movie than the character does.
We could pin the problem entirely on DC Films, but it's more widespread. Earlier this month, Marvel Studios released Thor: Ragnarok to wide acclaim. While the Taika Waititi-directed film is indeed Marvel's funniest to date, featuring Chris Hemsworth as a cheekier, stripped-down God of Thunder, its villain was less terrifying than desired. Not for lack of trying, because there are few more talented actors working today than Cate Blanchett. Yet her take on Hela — the Goddess of Death, who wishes to take vicious control of Thor's home planet of Asgard — felt barely more inspired than the quickly forgettable baddie played by Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World.
Blanchett gets a moment or two of levity, as when she scornfully calls various trophies of Odin's to be fake; otherwise, her character's attack on the good people of Asgard feels as bland as the attack from Ultron on the good people of Sokovia, or the attack from Doomsday on Batman and Superman, and so on and so on.
Part of the problem is that few of the villains in DC or Marvel's archives have hit quite as hard as so many of their heroes. DC arguably has the two most recognizable baddies: the Joker and Lex Luthor. Actors such as Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, and now, Jesse Eisenberg have played the latter. In Dawn of Justice, Eisenberg played the young Lex as a warped Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network, a tech bro whose mind was screwed up both by untold riches and daddy issues. His Lex is jittery and off-putting, even before his long hair gets shaved to reveal the traditional bald-headed look. But Lex, aside from deciding that two big heroes should fight each other in order to provide cover for his evil deeds, makes next to no impact compared with the heroes themselves.
Like Lex, the Joker has appeared in various iterations, from Mark Hamill's seminal voice performance on the '90s-era Batman animated TV show to Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning take in The Dark Knight. The current version, played by Jared Leto, was a linchpin of last year's Suicide Squad, which performed well financially despite not garnering much stronger buzz than Dawn of Justice. Elsewhere in DC, we get Ares in Wonder Woman, Doomsday in Dawn of Justice, and Steppenwolf in Justice League, all CG-driven, grimly designed villains who are the product of unremarkable special effects more than remarkable personalities or vibrant performances.
Marvel has found more success with its cinematic universe, since the first Iron Man in 2008, but has really only found one truly great villain: Thor's trickster brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston. But by the time Ragnarok ends — spoilers ahoy — Loki is less of the nefarious villain whose machinations brought together the Avengers in 2012, and more of a conflicted antihero who's choosing to return to Earth in the hopes that his brother can invite a kind of peace. Other villains, such as James Spader's Ultron, Chiwetel Ejiofor's baddie in Doctor Strange, and Blanchett in Ragnarok, have a dulling sameness to their characters and their nasty plots. Ragnarok's best bad guy isn't even the main villain: it's Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster, who forces Thor and the Incredible Hulk to fight each other for his entertainment. And, let's be fair, the reason why the Grandmaster is the film's best bad guy is because Jeff Goldblum is a hoot.
Superhero stories require villains who pose enough of a legitimate threat to the good guys that you feel like this might be the hero's last stand. Next year, Marvel begins its two-part Avengers film, in which Thanos will finally get a few of those Infinity Stones together to wreak havoc. Unlike Steppenwolf in DC's Justice League, we know a good deal more about Thanos courtesy of Guardians of the Galaxy. Even then, it feels more likely that Infinity War and its second part will be remarkable — presuming that either film is — because of the hero team-ups instead of who it is they're teaming against. No doubt, superhero films aren't going to suffer at the box office because their villains aren't up to snuff, but if Marvel or DC wants to break some serious ground, they might want to get some interesting bad guys into the mix. It's long overdue.