The Failed Sexual Tension in ‘Justice League’ is One of Its Most Glaring Missteps
In a year of various superhero releases, as is our current box office normal, November stood out: DC Comics and Marvel Comics would go head to head with the latest gambles in their respective cinematic universes.
DC had scored big earlier this year with Wonder Woman, Marvel’s teen-focused Spiderman: Homecoming reboot was well-received, and both had high hopes for their newest offerings. Justice League would bring Ben Affleck’s #notmyBatman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman together, united to defend the world after the death of Henry Cavill’s Superman. Marvel, meanwhile, had finally allowed a director with a specific point of view, New Zealander Taika Waititi, to helm one of their films, a unique occurrence after the much-publicized fallout with director Edgar Wright and his passion project Ant-Man. From its first trailer, Thor: Ragnarok looked vibrant, goofy, ’80s-tinged and singular in a way no MCU movie had before.
Well, we all know how things turned out. Released Nov. 3, Thor: Ragnarok did better than initial box office projections, raking in about $261 million so far domestically and adding another $492 million internationally. Reviews were rapturous, rumors are that Marvel wants Waititi to do another film for them, and in the press tour before the film’s release, Chris Hemsworth inched up the list of Best Chrises with his comments about recognizing his own privilege and learning about indigenous culture through his friendship with Waititi.
Those same people who bought Thor tickets certainly did not all buy Justice League tickets when that film was released on Nov. 17. With $98 million domestic on its opening weekend and $185 million international, Justice League could lose Warner Bros. up to $100 million, and once again, the future of the DC Comics films seems in doubt. Will we really get standalone movies for the Flash and Aquaman now? Will the rumors of Affleck leaving the Batman role entirely turn out to be true? And is Wonder Woman 2 our only hope?
Gadot’s Diana Prince is, unsurprisingly, one of the best parts of Justice League, even though it’s clear throughout the film that this is a man’s version of the character. How original director Zack Snyder and fill-in Joss Whedon present Diana is markedly different from what Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins offered: Visually, Prince’s casual outfits are more revealing, with more cleavage on display, and narratively, she has more of a matriarchal vibe than an inspirational one. Her Wonder Woman and Affleck’s Batman have what is supposed to be a flirty relationship, but the sexual tension Snyder, Whedon, and co-writer Chris Terrio think they are offering is less titillating than irritating. It’s not really reciprocal; it’s Batman’s thirst and Wonder Woman’s bemusement.
From the first few scenes, Bruce Wayne’s romantic interest in Diana is brought up again and again, with even Jeremy Irons’s Alfred negging Wayne about not asking her out. But how Wayne expresses his own interest to Diana is by mocking her love for Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, who died in Wonder Woman, and implying that she was weak for spending so long in the shadows since her time on the front lines in World War I. When she says something about humanity, he snarks back, “Did Steve Trevor tell you that?” and in a discussion about whether they should bring Superman back from the dead—which Batman supports and Wonder Woman does not—he again brings up how “a picture of your dead boyfriend” rattled her in their previous interaction in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Wayne consistently reduces Diana’s motivations to the memory of Trevor, and his harping on the subject seems more jealous and petty than, well, romantic.
At the same time, the movie seems to want Diana to reciprocate Wayne’s interest; after a fight with the returned-from-the-dead Superman, in which Batman has been battered, bruised, and bloodied, the camera lingers on his wounds, implying that Diana would be fascinated and impressed by how much he put his body through. When she pops his shoulder back into place, it’s a moment that is meant to read as this descendant of the old gods respecting and admiring Bruce Wayne, a normal mortal man (who tells the Flash that his only superpower is being rich) for putting his own life on the line. Theoretically, we’re supposed to link Bruce’s sacrifice with Steve’s, and root for Diana to be interested in this man for the same reason she was interested in Trevor. But one of those guys has been an asshole to Diana and one of them has not, so the movie’s implication that we should be down with this attempt at sexual tension is misplaced.
There isn’t much that Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok have in common, but if you’ve seen both films, it’s clear that the former’s attempts at romantic subplots are flawed in a way Thor’s are not. For a few movies now, from The Avengers films to the standalone Captain America films in which Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow appears, her feelings for Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk have been presented and addressed. In Age of Ultron, it is only Natasha’s voice that can calm Banner down and prevent him from turning into the Hulk, and in that same movie, Banner’s rejection of a future with Romanoff was deeply felt because of how long the two had been circling around each other, developing a friendship and sharing glances and setting the groundwork for a bond that could turn romantic. And in Ragnarok, it is the memory of Natasha that finally turns the Hulk, who for years has been a captive gladiator on Sakaar, back into Banner, whose confusion and unease is tinged with some romantic longing, too.
That was sexual tension done right over time, which is what the franchise seems to be setting up for Hemsworth’s Thor and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, too. They flirt with each other, they support each other in battle, and they basically go off to a brave new world together once Ragnarok ends with the destruction of Asgard. At no point does Thor make fun of Valkyrie’s prior trauma or pain; at no point does Valkyrie ask about Thor’s failed relationship with his former girlfriend, Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Maybe they’ll kiss in the next film, and maybe they won’t. But in no way does it seem like either of them would treat the other like how Bruce Wayne treats Diana Prince in Justice League. Thor: Ragnarok gets sexual tension right.
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