For many DC comic fans, just the thought of a Justice League movie gets their panties all warmed up; finally seeing the Big Three (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) join forces with the Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman on the big screen in a live-action super-blockbuster enough to produce a seizure-inducing nerdgasm. Well prayers have been answered and after many years of waiting, we can finally stop wondering what a feature film Justice League might look like because it is here in all its ridiculous glory. And the result, well it ain’t too pretty.
Like Superman, Justice League is the child of two daddies. And it feels like it. Zach Snyder, who up to this point has been the de facto head honcho over at DC Studios (having directed franchise launching point Man of Steel and the much maligned Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), retains sole directorial credit but actually left production due to a family tragedy before Justice League was in the can. Leaving in his wake a nearly 3-hour cut of the film, Snyder was effectively replaced by Joss Whedon, the nerd-king filmmaker behind The Avengers. Whedon reportedly received something akin to final cut, chopping the film down by a full hour and doing extensive and costly reshoots to lighten the mood and pipe in some more of that jocular tone that the competition is so well-known for.
We’re left with a bipolar product, one that feels like it’s pursuing very different ends often with very different means. Whedon aims for a more light-hearted and playful tone, slipping in crotchety little asides and celebrating the absurdity of these characters. Snyder on the other hand, like he does with all of his films, actively tries to make everything as “badass” as possible. In slo-mo. Opting for these big, ridiculous shots – i.e. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman standing still on a dock getting pummeled by a 20-foot wave is the new walking away from an explosion unfazed – that might look nice in a trailer but are all glitz and glam and style with very little substance running underneath.
The experience is jarring. The love child of two vastly different filmmakers; superhero storytellers who for my money stand at two completely opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to their aesthetic style and storytelling cadence. It’s a ship divided. A movie at war with itself. You can never not tell when a particular filmmaker has the reins, Justice League waffling back and forth between stark tones and divorced sensibilities. Though this is decidedly not the grim, unrelentingly somber audience-pummelfest that Batman v. Superman most certainly was, Justice League is still beleaguered by its inability to get the key ingredients right.
Ben Affleck is back beneath the cowl as Batman and everything original and daring he brought to the character before has been scrubbed out. It’s no well-kept secret that Affleck wants out of the DC universe and his apathy towards playing the Caped Crusader is evident. He just doesn’t really seem to want to be a part of the action and understandably so – this franchise (Wonder Woman aside) ran out of steam before it left the station and Affleck is wise to want off the sinking ship.
Nonetheless, Bruce Wayne is at the forefront of the action, assembling (I’m assuming Disney/Marvel haven’t trademarked that term yet) a slew of new super-powered recruits to fight a 10-foot tall wanna-be god (Ciarán Hinds) with a horny helmet named Steppenwolf (no, not the Canadian rock band) and his murder of winged croonies. In a move of unfettered originality, Steppenwolf wants world domination and he’ll use all the portals and cubes at his disposal to get it. Everything about this character, from his offensively bland design to his tired and tried evil plotting, is yawn-inducing; a low point in a film not necessarily running on highs.
Justice League wastes little time getting the pieces in place to defeat this baddie of the week. Batman v. Superman gave us those dreadful 30-second teasers of the secondary stockade of supers (and believe you me, these other characters are very much secondary) but Justice League’s filling in the margins doesn’t give us much more to chew on. The film invests a petty amount of time giving as little backstory as possible to the three newbies – Cyborg, a half-man, half-machine created in a lab by his biological father; Aquaman, rebellious royalty /whiskey-chugging savior to small fisherman communities; and Flash, a jejune kid with a high IQ and daddy issues. These individual introductions are unequivocally bad: bland, plodding, undercooked, rushed. The sooner they’re over, the better as at least when the core group of Justice Leaguers gather, there is some spark of energy.
These new characters are a mixed bag, with Ezra Miller’s frazzled, snappy take on Barry Allen/Flash being the de facto highlight. Jason Momoa offers some intrigue as Arthur Curry/Aquaman but gets so little screen time and even fewer lines that by the end of Justice League, I didn’t feel that I knew anything more about this character. There’s a good amount of cracks about him talking to fish but Momoa is never really given the time to form a proper interpretation of the character, quips about him getting precedent over the desire to actually, you know, mold him into a hero worthy of leading his own separate franchise (Aquaman, coming 2018). Ray Fisher is a bit of a bore as Cyborg, a character with potential – he’s treated to a bit of a RoboCop arc where he’s afraid that he’s become more automated machine than human – that never really goes anywhere. He may have genius level IQ and the ability to surf the internet like none other but Fisher fails at making him more than a mere machine, his portrayal of the character robotic and stiff.
It doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate what you get when you combine so-so characters with a lame villain and a bunch of busy set pieces. And yet, Justice League is still better than its individual parts. Whedon and Snyder do manage to have some good times along the way, contrived and ridiculous though they may be, and even though the world’s fate rests in the balance, Justice League is not nearly as heavy-handed and joyless as its predecessors.
The dreary, washed-out aesthetic proves tiresome, this 300 million dollar movie (and after all the reshoots, that figure is probably low) somehow managing to still look ugly – undersaturated, grey, bleh. The CGI in general is surprisingly poorly rendered (Steppenwolf looks like garbage) and yet exhaustively overused; that perfunctory final battle a cascade of green screen and chintzy animation. Seeing Batman gets tossed around like a rag doll is kind of fun if somewhat a debasing of this iconic character. He’s clearly punching two weight classes up, totally out of his league (*obnoxious wink*).
Between these big action set pieces, there’s so much exposition to charge through that it feels like there’s never time to actually settle in and get to know the group dynamic. These characters may share the battlefield together but they never seem to share a beer after, these films never investing in the actual connective tissue that binds them beyond the fact that they all fight good and stuff. The fact that Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Henry Cavill’s Superman have probably only spoken to one another for one minute over the course of two films speaks to the franchise’s inability to form meaningful bonds between their characters.
Justice League has its moments – Superman’s reintroduction is pretty awesome, it’s nice to see Gal Gadot back kicking ass and being a beacon of hope, and a lot of the little jokes sprinkled throughout got me chuckling – but it ain’t great. That being said, diehards will probably love it and the more power to them. For me, Justice League feels fundamentally like the greatest hits of a longer movie. As if Whedon watched Snyder’s cut, picked out all the action scenes and reshot all the connective tissue into cutesy jokes. And though the all powerful Superman didn’t crumble under the strain of having to please two totally different daddies, Justice League just isn’t super enough to say the same.
CONCLUSION: ‘Justice League’ is an improvement over the dreary, dark ‘Batman v. Superman’ but can’t manage to jam a bunch of new characters, a lame villain, and a eye-rolling world domination plot into its (thankfully) abbreviated runtime. Wonder Woman and the Flash are entertaining in themselves but ultimately Zack Snyder’s blown-out, hyper-kinetic filmmaking style makes for another busy, ugly superhero slugfest that I’d never care to watch again.