You sort of always knew that Justice League was not going to be a success. As far back as the release of Batman V Superman, myself and others were easily able to predict both a commercial and critical failure, albeit one that I personally felt was pre-judged. Wonder Woman broke the trend for the DC movies, but the combination of elements that so turned people off for Dawn Of Justice was never going to be able to turn it around.
But man I hoped it would. I’ve loved these characters as far back as my first glimpses of Christopher Reeves’ Superman or Michael Keaton’s Batman, and I’ve loved the Justice League since Bruce Timm’s animated universe decided to cap off its various success with maybe its most triumphant representation of DC characters. And more recently, Marvel has shown that superhero team-ups are possible to actually do on the big-screen. DC’s first effort at combining franchises didn’t go all that well, but riding high on the success of Wonder Woman, maybe they could pull it together. Unless a blighted production torn apart by family tragedy and then reshoots and then multiple editing cuts had their way. Hmm.
As the world mourns the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) and slips into fear-induced anarchy, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) go about recruiting a team of super-powered individuals to meet a new threat. Speedster Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa) and cybernetic amalgamation Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) must band together with Batman and Wonder Woman to face down the invasion of Apokalips’ Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) and his army of parademons.
What is it that you look for from a film like this? I suppose there are two things: a rip-roaring superhero action-adventure story, and a character-driven teamwork narrative, two things that, say, Avengers Assemble had in spades. Mess one up, and you might as well have messed both up. And while Justice League has plenty of redeeming features and kernels of good ideas, it has unfortunately messed both parts of that equation up.
The characters? Well, it’s a really mixed bag. The differing directions and reshoots mean we struggle to settle in on a main protagonist: at times it’s Ben Affleck’s Batman, brooding but looking a bit less interested than he was the other year, and at other times its Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, whose importance to affairs here was likely rearranged by the second director. The two share a somewhat fascinating but occasional awkward semi-romantic connection but are mostly just leader-bait, with Diana being the much more interesting of the two. Affleck is best when he’s in the cowl, and Gadot runs rings around him.
But Justice League lives and dies on the new arrivals, and while Aquaman is entertainingly gruff and to the point (he couldn’t care less that humanity is poisoning the oceans, he just doesn’t want to get involved), Flash is suitably manic and awkward (a little bit of Sheldon Cooper in there) and Cyborg is mysterious and dark (if you get beyond the really questionable CGI), the meddling doesn’t go to plan. You feel as if everybody has been short-changed: Aquaman’s origin is breezed over in a few sentences, Flash’s pacifism is an interesting idea that never gets fully explored and Cyborg’s struggle to get control of his mechanical side is dropped abruptly by the conclusion. These are all potentially interesting characters, but we don’t get enough of them: an extra 20, 30 minutes may have done Justice League the world of good, and allowed us the chance to see a team of differing skillsets, moods and opinions really click, ala the Avengers did a few years ago. Part of me is a little interested to see Snyder’s original 170 minute cut, even if that would probably come with lots of new problems.
The rip-roaring adventure story? It’s just about all right, a base plot of alien invasion and tracking down MacGuffins, heavy on cameos and revolving around the goofy looking Steppenwolf, a real one-note nothing of a villain out to take over the world because he wants to take over the world. Loki helped keep Avengers Assemble together, but Ciaran Hinds’ CGI monstrosity can do nothing of the sort here. You can see the plot beats coming a mile off, and while it’s not unsatisfying, and isn’t all that far off any of the MCU offerings in terms of imagination, I wouldn’t say it was anything to get too worked up about. Previous editions in the DC canon had hooks in their plots: the return of Superman, criminals forced to fight for good, heroes fighting each other, the return of Wonder Woman. Justice League doesn’t have anything to really hook you in with its plot that you won’t have seen a dozen times over elsewhere (and recently too).
The division of the two directors is patently obvious on varying levels, and conspires to ruin Justice League tonally. The MCU has its problems with drama and comedy, but errs towards comedy lately: importantly, that’s the idea from the moment the film is being made. Justice League was made as a grimdark drama, and then it was reshot as a partial comedy, and the end result is, unfortunately, a tone-deaf mess.
Every scrap of humorous dialogue, most notably that given to Ezra Miller, reeks of Joss Whedon. The problem with it isn’t that the jokes aren’t funny, it’s that when you put them in on top of a Zack Snyder production, they seem painfully out of place. Case in point: as the newly formed league is about to confront Steppenwolf for the first time, the Flash takes Batman aside and explains that he’s “never really done battle, I’ve just pushed some people and run away”. Funny line right? That’s sandwiched in-between Steppenwolf executing people with his bare hands (he has a funnier line too, in response to one of his victims telling him that he has a family: “Why do people keep telling me that?”). Snyder and Whedon cannot co-exist effectively, here, no matter what the two of them have said publicly.
And you can see it in other aspects too. Snyder is a big picture kind of guy who likes his expansive green-screen frame, Whedon wants the focus to be on people primarily. Snyder like his dark palette, Whedon prefers things at bit brighter. Snyder likes montage (the title sequence is so similar to its Watchmen equivalent its almost parody), Whedon prefers things a bit looser. Snyder likes action cliché dialogue, Whedon prefers jokes and quips. Snyder likes Batman. Whedon likes Wonder Woman. It’s not all that difficult to parse out which director did which scene, and its actually quite a shock to see how much of the production is Whedon’s, at least a full quarter of the experience.
And what of the Man of Steel? Is it really a spoiler to say that Henry Cavill’s Superman is back in this one? Not really. His inclusion in things really just calls attention to two very different but vital aspects of his character. The first is that, presumably in line with reshoots, this Superman is a bit different to the one of Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman. This one smiles, tells jokes and occasionally appears to have a sense of joy, which is radically out of kilter with the hero we have seen previous to this (with the exception of bathtub shenanigans). It’s a pleasant change, but one that is brief, requiring greater study in an expanded role. The second aspect is his goofy face, that has been digitally altered to remove a contract mandated moustache Cavill grew for another role, and boy is it obvious. Eye-raisingly, distractingly, laughably obvious. In the very first scene of the film, a bizarre looking Supes chats amiably to two young boys, as the audience struggles to not guffaw at how dumb his upper lip has been made to look.
A horde of other minor things accumulate rapidly. In the jump between directors, the idea of establishing shots was apparently thrown out the window. The world descends into chaos after Superman’s death, and this even inspires “reactionary terrorists” to try and blow up a chunk of London to make people afraid, in the name of “holy fear”. Batman is stunningly uncaring about maintaining his secret identity, announcing in public that he’s speaking to Alfred back in the Batcave, and casually jawing with Arthur Curry about how he’s Bruce Wayne. And there is a general sense that, if you are not an aficionado of DC, like I am, you’re going to be lost among references to Green Lanterns, mother boxes, boom tubes, Darkseid, Apokalips, and even Gorilla Grodd.
But what works about Justice League? Wonder Woman works, being written and portrayed well, graduating to a leadership role. Her relationship with Batman is a bit compelling, and I wouldn’t mind it being explored more. There is a sense of a well-working team coming together at times, with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and later Superman being the heavy hitters, Batman taking on the mooks, Flash saving innocent bystanders and Cyborg providing technical support of both a hacking and laser gun variety. The Flash has some nice back and forths with Wayne, Cyborg and Wonder Woman. The action is decent, and the finale is actually quite well put together, minus the terrible red glare that tinted a lot of it. The supporting characters bode well enough for the future, most notably JK Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon.
And there is a general sense of things slowly being pulled together. Yes it’s still a badly edited beast and yes large parts of it could have been done better. But there is effort here, a conception, a basis for the future that makes it appears as if this universe is at least evolving, and not stuck in Snyder’s grimdark, which I enjoyed for a while but that no one can enjoy indefinitely. There is a sense of fun about this Justice League and not fun like “lets turn the Thor franchise into slapstick” or a “lets do a quip-a-minute Avengers franchise”. I just mean fun, like, the characters are enjoying what they do, are finding a thrill in it while also being in a very serious situation and acknowledging it as such.
Before I conclude, I feel compelled to talk about Zach and Deborah Snyder. It’s fun to criticise movies, and it’s fun to be a bit mean in doing so. Batman V Superman, right or wrong, was the subject of a lot of that. Other films have been lambasted by me in a manner that was occasionally hyperbolistic in pursuit of punchier writing or eliciting laughs. But when the Snyders have to make public the fact that their daughter has committed suicide, as to do otherwise while leaving the production of Justice League would inevitably result in misjudged commentary and likely taunting, well it makes me a little bit sad. I have tried to never get personal when it comes to film critique, or needlessly hypercritical. I have only consciously deviated from that when I feel that a director or writer has become, through obvious intent or unintentional laziness, insulting towards their audience in the craft that they have made. I will renew the effort to hold true to that sentiment, so I can play even a tiny insignificant part in producing an atmosphere among internet film criticism that allows private griefs to remain private.
Back on topic, and to conclude, Justice League is not a perfect, great or even good film. It’s groaning under the multitude of problems that it must deal with: the varying styles, tones and artistic direction of its two directors, a by-the-numbers plot, a rubbish villain and a wonky narrative that has, ala Suicide Squad, been the victim of a few to many edits. But there are good things here and there as well: the cast is mostly good, the action is fine and when Justice League gets going and its elements fit together, it really does come off as a film worthy of the characters and team it is trying to represent.
Bruce Timm’s show remains the pinnacle of how the Justice League have been portrayed outside of print media, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. But there’s signs of hope in the Snyder/Whedon Justice League, that DC and Warner Bros might be able to turn this ship around. Perhaps a refocused effort on their singular stories – like stand-alone films for Aquaman, Batman and Flash, not to mention sequels for Wonder Woman and maybe even Suicide Squad now that they have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t there – will produce more digestible, and financially viable, fruit. But for now I must acknowledge that Justice League is another bump on the road for this universe, but one that might just be worth seeing, even if it’s only via streaming in a year or so. Partially recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).