I swear, I will eventually talk about a movie that’s not a superhero movie in this segment, but that’s not what’s happening this week. There’s just so many of them to go around these days that the market seems saturated with them everywhere you look. So does the recent DC team-up film Justice League do justice to its comic book origins and its characters and add anything to the superhero discussion? The answer is a bit complicated.
The story of what went wrong with Justice League starts in the production phase of the film. As you probably know, Zack Snyder was brought on to direct the movie after he also did the earlier installments Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both of those films were…let’s just say less than stellar. Okay, you got me. They were awful. And in my view, the blame starts and ends with Snyder. I’ve just never been a fan of his work in general because it usually focuses on spectacle rather than story and an overarching tone of epic grimness that leads to distinctly slogging and unfun films. We’re talking about guys who dress up like bats and wear underwear over their tights, for God’s sake. Lighten up a little. This is something that the Marvel movies really get that DC so far hasn’t demonstrated.
Anyway, Snyder left the film in mid-shoot due to a family emergency, and DC called in Joss Whedon to finish things up. This is where things looked up a bit for Justice League as Whedon went to work on making the characters more compelling and interesting, but left the overall framework of the film intact, resulting in a final product that very much looks and feels like Joss Whedon characters trapped in a Zack Snyder movie. It’s a duality that is very, very noticeable on the screen, and can be very jarring tonally, but honestly I shudder to think what might have happened if Whedon didn’t get the chance to right some of Snyder’s wrongs. As it was, the movie only ended up mediocre when it could easily have been terrible.
Let’s start with the strong points of Justice League, which were the characters. The problem these kind of team-up movies usually face is that with so many characters to focus on, none of them get the time to shine that they deserve. That isn’t so with Justice League: sure, I’d love to see them all do more, but that’s why they’re all getting their own individual movies down the line. As it was, newbies Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg all made a big impact and pulled their weight both in terms of story and acting ability. Cyborg had a great “I’m a monster” arc dealing with his appearance and cybernetic implants, which sometimes can be cheesy but really worked in this case. Ezra Miller as Barry Allen was, as I had hoped, an inspired casting choice. He brought Flash to life as an awesome and lovable hero who’s just getting his legs, and an adolescent man-child lost and purposeless after his family tragedy. This well-meaning but socially awkward and hesitant take on Flash is a great counterpoint to the version we see on the CW’s Arrowverse shows. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman was the hero I was most worried about, and for the most part he only came off as a grumpy loner who’s addicted to thrill-seeking. But even he had some bright spots of character development with some passing lines about how he rejected leadership roles in Atlantis and is sort of the “black sheep” of that family down there. Plus, he’s the focus of the best scene in the entire movie, where he breaks down and starts blubbering to the rest of the team about how much he likes having a family and wants to be understood…until you find he’s under the spell of Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. It was great. Without going into too much detail, each of the three newbies gets their moment in the spotlight and really justify their continued involvement in the DC universe going forward, even if that Flash scene was a complete rip-off of the famous Quicksilver “Time in a Bottle” fight from X-Men: Days of Future Past.
As for the established characters, I really liked how they all lightened up from the previous films, especially Ben Affleck’s Batman. He was especially over the top grim, gritty, and dark in BVS, which isn’t a stretch for his character, but to the point where he almost felt more like a villain than a hero. Affleck definitely has his redemption in Justice League, tossing out some of the more humorous moments with Alfred’s dry wit as a complement, and has a very satisfying arc where he blames himself for the death of Superman and tries to basically commit suicide before the team proves they have his back, no matter what. Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman was once again a scene-stealer, and proves that while Batman is the brain and Superman is the muscle of the team, she is the moral and emotional heart that holds everyone together. Please, please, please give us a lot more of her in the future.
Oh, and did I mention? Superman’s back. Not that anyone is probably surprised by that. I mean, who really expected him to stay dead after BVS? While Superman’s death was pretty much the catalyst for bringing the Justice League together in the first place, the heavy lifting is off Henry Cavil for most of the film, which is probably for the best. It’s only about halfway through the movie that he makes his reappearance (through a plot device that in fairness could have ended up a lot more cliched and jump-the-shark than it actually ended up being, so I was mostly okay with it), and the film gives him very little convincing material before he basically flies in and saves the day at the very end. I will say, though, that the trend of lightening up continued with Superman, which was a very welcome change from the previous movies. Here, finally, is the cool, confident, and cheeky Midwestern-values Superman that we all know and love. Just that casual “Is this guy still bothering you?” as he punches the film’s villain through a wall with a flick of the wrist is classic moment for a Superman who finally seems to have found his groove, and something I hope we get more of in the future.
Where Justice League fell down was the overarching story, a pretty bland, generic, and overall weak plot involving, you guessed it, alien invasion. I don’t know why, but even despite the epic threat scale that the movie tried to give Steppenwolf (yeah, I know, terrible name) and his Parademon army, I just never felt any real sense of menace from them at all, probably because Steppenwolf himself was just a brute-force character who was all CGI, no subtlety, and no nuance whatsoever. Oh, and by the way, the CGI in this movie actually isn’t all that convincing anyway. Ciaran Hinds does the best he can with what he’s given, but that’s not saying much. It’s tough to emote and make people care when you’re just a voice behind a CGI body at the best of times, and the lack of any kind of effective backstory for Steppenwolf or satisfactory explanation of his motivations makes him a lackluster, generic bad guy who’s destined to join the ranks of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan the Accuser and Ant-Man‘s Yellowjacket in the Land of Totally Forgettable Villains.
My Ranking: 6/10
I went into Justice League with very middling expectations, and got pretty much what I thought I would in that respect. It was ultimately a pretty mediocre, forgettable film, although forgettable and passable is still a vast improvement from several other recent DC movies. I hope this will finally be the end of Zack Snyder’s directing run, as it was obviously Whedon’s work that made the film as passable as it was, and maybe this is a good sign that things will improve from here for the DC universe. While the final product fell short of greatness, I think there’s plenty of ground to grow the seeds of excellence planted with this movie’s character development into something better down the line.