Justice League: Gods and Monsters is a DC superhero film released in 2015. It features an alternate universe, where Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman are grittier than we’ve come to expect.
In this universe, Superman is the son of General Zod. Wonder Woman is a goddess from New Genesis, and Batman survives off of the blood of others. The Justice League, though technically saving the day, leave death and destruction in their wake. The relationship between the trio and the US government is rapidly deteriorating, and the citizens of Metropolis are scared for their lives. The fear and suspicion of the trio comes to a head when the Justice League is framed for the murders of various scientists, forcing the heroes to clear their name, while the government begins to take a stronger anti-hero stance.
I really enjoyed this movie. It’s the most adult or mature superhero movie I’ve seen; it’s serious without being pointlessly edgy or dark. The heroes are put into brutal situations, but they still do make small talk and the occasional joke, but not in a way that undermines the gravity of their situation. Just in a way that shows these are characters with feelings and the desire to express themselves. The tone is set by the opening scene, which is absolutely brilliant: the Justice League break into a terrorist hide out and paint the walls red. It becomes immediately apparent that these are not the heroes that we’re used to: Batman kills people and uses a machine gun to kill people, Superman shoots heat vision through people’s heads, and Wonder Woman skewers people through the chest like it’s nothing. But the great thing about the scene is that the heroes are not being sadistic, just completely ruthless. In this way, they are more akin to soldiers than warriors. One small note is that Superman uses the word “orgasmic,” and I think that, again, it really demonstrates that this is not the boy-scout that we’re used to. It’s not that unexpected for the circumstance, but it is unexpected for those that expected the boy-scout, which is a nice cue that we should re-calibrate our expectations.
The opening scene also establishes the strained relationship between the heroes and the US government. The soldiers who were supposed to take out the terrorists are furious that the Justice League went ahead without permission, but there’s no punitive measure the government can take against the trio. It becomes clear that this has happened before: the Justice League have a “yeah, whatever” attitude, and Superman especially is overt in his disrespect for the government. Later, the trio idly discuss the possibilities of overthrowing the government, but again, it’s not done in a supervillain-y kind of way, but rather “we all know we can do the government’s job better” kind of way. Although I guess that’s what all supervillains think, so…
My absolute favorite aspect of the movie is that there’s actually tension. Because this is an alternate universe, and is sort of stand alone, the movie isn’t shy about killing off lots and lots of characters. Children, women, and men are all lambs to the slaughter, suffering horrific deaths like being burned alive or being skewered like shish kabob. The reason this works is that the Justice League is severely underpowered compared to their counterpart in the main DC universe, and that’s a good thing. Superman doesn’t always come to save the day, because he’s not omnipotent or indestructible. Batman’s not omniscient or ten steps ahead of everyone else like usual. When a person is staring down the villain, you don’t know if they’re going to make it out of the room alive.
The tension doesn’t just apply to side characters, either. Like I mentioned, the trio are all nerfed, which means that it’s not obvious that they’re going to be okay. (This is getting into spoiler territory, so be warned for the rest of this paragraph.) For example, in the main DC universe, when Superman is shot with red sun radiation, he gets thrown against the wall, says “oof,” his clothes get a little dirty, and then he’s back up and fighting. Or, Superman states that he’s getting weaker, and then goes on fighting like nothing changed. Meanwhile, in this universe, red sun radiation gives Superman 3rd degree burns, internal bleeding, and a real taste of mortality. It gets so bad that he has to hide behind cover like everyone else until Wonder Woman comes to help him. On the flip side, the US government has received a significant buff. As mentioned, red sun actually is a thread to Superman, and it was the government that developed it. More mindblowing for me, though, is that humans have replicated boom-tube technology, which is completely insane. Boom-tubes are created using motherboxes, which are the most advanced piece of technology in the DC multiverse. If the government is so technologically advanced that it can create one of the most complicated pieces of technology in all of existence, then the US government is nothing to scoff at, even on a galactic level. So yeah, when the government and the JL first butt heads, the winner seems obvious. But then you find out that the government has been pulling its punches the WHOLE time. On a side note, the movie uses boom-tubes in a way I’ve never seen before: during combat, the user keeps zipping in and out of boom-tubes, teleporting all over the place. I thought this was a really cool use of technology that we’re all familiar with.
My main gripe with the story is the origin of Wonder Woman. As mentioned, Wonder Woman is a New God, heiling from the planet of New Genesis. To my understanding, Apokolips and New Genesis exist outside of the multiverse, which means that there is only one Highfather, Darkseid and Wonder Woman, as opposed to there being one in each universe. This means that anything that happens with these characters will have a multiversal impact eg. killing Darkseid in one story will mean Darkseid is dead in all stories, regardless of what universe the story takes place in. I actually don’t have a huge problem with this continuity problem, since getting away from continuity is one of this movie’s greatest strengths, but that was as much as I could complain about before bringing up a minor spoiler (for the rest of this paragraph). In this origin story, Wonder Woman, from New Genesis, is marrying Orion, from Apokolips, to usher in peace between the two warring planets. Darkseid is genuinely excited for this peace, which is completely out of character, since he is the embodiment of evil. Even more ridiculous, the wedding turns out to be a ruse by Highfather, who is the embodiement of good. Highfather and the other gods from New Genesis pull a Red Wedding, killing Darkseid and his underlings. I can maybe believe that Darkseid is looking forward to peace, since after all Darkseid and Highfather exchange sons in the comics to the same effect, but I definitely cannot believe that Darkseid would completely and willingly put his guard down. I don’t know too much about Highfather, but his bloodthirsty and genocidal nature here seems extremely out of character. I get that maybe the movie was going for the evil-good reversal, but that’s not even really the case: none of the main characters can be considered evil, so why the characters in Wonder Woman’s origin have their moral compass reversed is beyond me. Still, this is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, since the origin is brought up only once, and then referenced just at the end of the movie.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is one of the most refreshing movies I’ve seen in the superhero genre. It’s gets away from the tangled mess of continuity of other movies and the comics to tell a mature and interesting story without being either campy or edgy. The characters are simultaneously familiar and very different, with a twist to their familiar beliefs and morals. The world and its residents are much harder and less forgiving, making the politics of this universe genuinely interesting. The villain is a surprise (at least to me) that is withheld until the very end, though on second watching there are various, really clever hints along the way. I would strongly recommend this movie to any fans of DC comics, but less so for non fans, since you need to know a fair bit about the DC universe to enjoy the movie fully.