After six years of boldly charting its own course into the great unknown, the DC Extended Universe is finally cutting its losses and rerouting to a more well-traveled path. Hardcore fans may not agree with the decision or like what it entails, but there’s no denying that “Justice League” borrows a page or two from the (wildly popular) Marvel playbook. Maybe even three or four. Actually, if we’re being completely honest, it lifts entire chapters wholesale from one cinematic saga to another.
And not a minute too soon. At this point, playing things safe may have been the only way to right the ship and convince audiences to continue investing in these characters. “Justice League” was always going to be the DCEU equivalent of “The Avengers,” but the extent to which Zack Snyder’s latest opus cribs from the competition in order to sell us on its heroes is still pretty surprising. As IndieWire’s Chief Critic Eric Kohn wrote in his review of the film: “The Marvel-movie parallels range from subtle to shameless. The group chemistry is strictly dimestore Avengers, while Batman takes on a paternal role with The Flash that weakly apes the Iron Man/Spider-Man dynamic of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming.’ The Flash makes oddball jokes about brunch and mutters about confidence issues, while Batman growls nuggets of advice as quickly as possible before the scene just… ends.”
Obviously, the people behind the DCEU were prepared to take their licks for this; they knew exactly what they were doing when they hired the guy behind “The Avengers” to step in for Snyder during his personal leave. And while it’s difficult to identify Joss Whedon’s specific contributions to “Justice League,” there’s no denying that his influence helped steer the movie in a more broadly palatable direction. You can see that throughout the movie, and you can really see it after the movie is over. Nowhere is the “Avengersification” of “Justice League” more striking — or more significant — than in the scenes that take place during and after the closing credits.
While these interstitial little stingers have been a crucial part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the start, the DCEU has been admirably reluctant to embrace the idea for themselves. “Man of Steel” didn’t have one, Snyder smartly recognizing that the film’s clever final line (“Welcome to the Planet”) was the perfect place to leave things. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” didn’t have one either, not that anyone was willing to wait around and find out. “Suicide Squad” was a movie defined by its damage control, and the limp post-credits scene plays like a plea for audiences to come back for more of those crazy metahumans. By the time “Wonder Woman” rolled around, the DCEU had reverted back to its old ways; maybe the movie itself was enough to make Warner Bros. confident that people would come back for another dose of Diana Prince.
“Justice League” has not one, but two post-credit scenes, and they’re both relatively substantial. Following the Marvel tradition, the first button is a cute little character moment that has no impact on the overarching mythology, while the second is an ominously consequential portent of things to come. Brace for spoilers:
The lighter of the two vignettes finds Superman and the Flash standing in a field somewhere and preparing to have a foot race. Even after saving the world from Steppenwolf, the Flash is still a little nervous around his incredibly famous new friend, and Kal-El has some fun at his expense by joking that the kid is “off the team” if he loses. It’s a nice little moment, one that indulges in the kind of debates that comic book fans have been having with themselves and each other for decades. Naturally, Snyder (or Whedon, we’d guess) doesn’t want to settle the debate, so the race ends in a freeze-frame before we get to see who wins.
The second post-credits scene is another matter entirely. And while the decision to shoot it may have been inspired by the MCU, the button offers convincing evidence that the DCEU might still be able to forge ahead towards a future all its own. It begins in Arkham Asylum, where one of the guards — working what must be the most thankless job in any cinematic universe — is annoyed that Lex Luthor isn’t coming out of his cell. Closer inspection reveals that the bald dude in the cell isn’t Luthor at all, but an impostor who Luthor left in his place when he escaped (okay, it’s possibly that the stooge who has to serve the rest of that prison sentence has the most thankless job in the DCEU).
Cut to: A very expensive yacht somewhere, where the real Lex Luthor is hanging out by a hot tub and surrounded by scantily clad women who are paid to make him feel good about himself (okay, maybe every job in the DCEU is kind of brutal). We arrive on the scene just as the megalomaniacal supervillain is about to greet a shadowy visitor. Out of the darkness steps a figure who’s dressed in leather from head to toe. Is that… Deadpool? No, it’s Deathstroke!
A feared supervillain in his own right, Deathstroke is one of the most intimidating bad guys that DC has ever produced, a mercenary assassin who always seems to find his way into trouble. He looks pretty cool even before he pulls off his mask to reveal a gray-haired Joe Manganiello, prompting Luthor to make an offer his guest can’t refuse. The superheroes have joined forces, he explains, so isn’t it time “We had a league of our own?”
It’s here, at the tail end of a long journey, that “Justice League” gives us something to hold onto. Not the Suicide Squad, who aren’t going to make anybody feel better about anything, but an interconnected team of cherished villains who work together against the heroes as a unified front. Not only is it something that the MCU can’t match, it clarifies the MCU’s greatest weakness. For all of their popularity, the Marvel movies can hardly boast one compelling bad guy, let alone an entire group of them. If Deathstroke becomes as compelling a character as he is a casting decision, and if the rest of his evil pals are able to be as charismatic, the DCEU might finally be able to set the stage for a battle worth fighting.