Justice League is a movie that, from end to end, is at odds with itself. It calls out themes but doesn’t embody them. It moves like a flash in some parts (sorry, had to say it) but is a slog in others. The characters are a blast, but the story is a snooze. There are flashes of brightness, but the movie is still trying to snuff them under a blanket of oppressive darkness. There’s good to be found in Justice League, certainly, but it’s tough to untangle it from the collective stigma of the DCEU, of the darkness of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and from the production troubles that have plagued it for months.
While my love for DC’s stable of characters isn’t up for question, Zack Snyder and co. are constantly calling into question my ability to enjoy the movies based on these characters. Huge tonal missteps, misunderstanding basic tenets of these legendary characters, and even color grading have all left me wanting for more from the DC Extended Universe. It’s with trepidation that I went into the latest DCEU film, Justice League. Despite a more-than-solid outing by Wonder Woman earlier this year, Justice League had all the marks of a questionable DCEU film, most important among those being Zack Snyder’s influence on the movie.
All that was called into question by, again, Wonder Woman being a straight-up excellent film, and by Snyder stepping away from the movie in its final months, which led to some reshoots helmed by Joss Whedon, the guy who helped make the first Avengers movie work. There was hope that Whedon would bring balance to the Force, if you’ll let me mix franchises just this once.
But what we got feels like two separate films, forcibly stitched together.
The first place I felt this patchiness was in the special effects. While some of the effects are Hollywood-grade, others stick out like sore thumbs. An obviously-rushed shot of Wonder Woman standing atop a building in the opening minutes of the movie would look cheesy even in the original Superman films. (The lighting between her and the rest of her surroundings doesn’t even match.)
Then comes the actual opening minutes of the movie — a slapped-together mess of introductions for the movie’s characters, and lots of explanation of a story that at heart just isn’t that interesting.
That, in truth, is the biggest problem. Neither the conflict at the center of the movie, nor the villain powering it, Steppenwolf, feel like they’re worth the trouble..
Steppenwolf ends up being wasted potential on par with some of the worst villains in Marvel and DC movies alike. There’s a potentially intriguing arc in the character: a conqueror, but also a lesser power who serves his master Darkseid, and craves his approval (or maybe wishes to usurp him). But the movie never explores his reasons. He just takes over worlds because that’s what he does. He’s as good as a cardboard target – the heroes could’ve been fighting a hurricane or asteroid for all he brought to the story as it stands.
I can’t tell if Steppenwolf was in fact a better character in an earlier version of the movie, only to have his best moments sliced out, or if the writers never did anything with him to begin with.
All that stands in stark contrast to the Justice League itself, which is in better condition than I could’ve hoped for, without exception. Every member of the team both stands on their own as a likeable, interesting character, and works as part of the team. There are a few missing pieces, but they’re details instead of major meat.
The League’s new members – Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg – are all a blast to watch, with the first two being the absolute, bar none, best parts of the film.
As a newbie kid, the Flash (the Barry Allen incarnation, with touches of Wally West) is inexperienced in this movie. He’s frightened, overwhelmed, and doing the two things the Flash does best: run fast and cope with wisecracks. Even as a fan of the CW show, I’m finding myself impressed with Ezra Miller’s take on the character. He has almost all the movie’s best lines, and is constantly spouting gold. It’s hard to make a character as green as the Flash is in this movie without also making him a drag on the story, but the movie manages just that.
Similarly, a loner character like Aquaman can hold a movie back. Part of what makes him work is how thrilled actor Jason Momoa is to be there. Even when he looks pissed, it seems like the actor is having the time of his life. It’s infectious. I couldn’t help but smile whenever Momoa was on screen. But there’s also a sense to the character that he’s not a loner by choice. He’s resistant to join the team because he’s not part of *any* team. He’s not a true Atlantean, he’s not a true human. Even the village where he hides from the world and does good deeds semi-anonymously doesn’t seem all that thrilled with him. But he integrates himself with the team, and finds a smoothness and confidence there he didn’t find anywhere else before.
Even Cyborg, a character that could’ve been a boring placeholder, managed to have his own arc. I do feel like the movie could’ve done more with him, but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here. The source of his powers is a domino the movie sets up, then nudges and moves around, but never actually knocks over.
Even Batman and Superman have improved this time around,waking up from their dark dreams. It seems that the Superman that died in Batman v Superman really did die, because this guy actually likes being Superman. The writers went full cornball with his dialogue later in the movie, but the net effect is the most authentic Superman we’ve seen on the big screen in years. His superpowers act as a calling instead of a burden. That it’s the same actor in the same cinematic continuity playing this character seems almost incomprehensible.
Batman, too, has seen some improvement. I actually enjoy Ben Affleck as Batman and Bruce Wayne. I feel like he embodies both pretty well. I know that’s a contentious opinion. And Batman is one place where I feel like Zack Snyder’s Comic-Book-Meets-Ayn-Rand sensibility works in favor of the character. Despite being the only true human in the mix, he manages to stand alongside the other characters and not look out of place. When he’s on the battlefield, he moves like a superhero. Off, you can tell that meeting Superman changed him. Superman is a source of hope, and even the lone vigilante can see that. He feels like a man who spent a lot of time isolated and is now trying to come to terms with being part of the world. It’s a neat shift for the character, and Affleck does a great job portraying it. While The Dark Knight will likely always be my favorite Batman film, I think Affleck’s portrayal of the character in Justice League might be my favorite live-action Batman.
If anyone gets the short shrift, it’s Wonder Woman. It might just be her higher profile in light of her movie making it seem like that, as she’s in most of the movie, but it seems like she doesn’t have quite as much to do as her fellow heroes. She isn’t reduced to a love interest or made to look weak, it just felt like she wasn’t the powerhouse that she was in her own movie.
But for as good as the characters are, the themes the movie pays lip service to are never really executed on. They talk about how the Parademon monsters are fed by fear, but that fear never affects the heroes. Not even the wildly-inexperienced Flash, nor the very-much-mortal Batman. It’s used to hoist the villain on his own petard in the most predictable way, and that’s it. The same goes for the idea of hope. The heroes do most of their fighting far away from cities. It ensures we don’t have those bananas superhero-movie bodycounts, but it also means that when the heroes save the world, the world is an abstract concept. They could’ve been fighting in the middle of the desert, the Arctic, or even space, without the stakes changing much if at all.
The glaring seams on this movie make me think of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner compared to the version that just hit Ultra HD Blu-ray this year. The uncomfortable narration, the stitched together stunt shots, the weird dubbing. What we have now is a work of art, but the original product was something different altogether. I look at Justice League and wonder if there’s something like that in there. The movie comes in at a scant two hours. Between the inevitable cuts that come with making a movie, Joss Whedon’s reshoots, and the penchant the studio execs seem to have for meddling in DCEU projects – see Suicide Squad for another example – it seems like there’s probably a lot of footage there. I don’t know if there’s another movie hidden in Justice League the same way there was in Blade Runner. I don’t know if something can be salvaged out Synder’s oppressive grit.
But the potential shines through, all the same. DC’s iconic characters have finally come into their own in Justice League, and they alone make it worth watching, despite Steppenwolf, despite Synder. I’m looking forward to Aquaman, Flash, and even the Batman and Superman movies on the way because of Justice League. I can’t wait for these characters to come back. I just hope it’s in a more interesting film.