Warning: I’m going to discuss a thing that is obvious, but some may consider a spoiler so don’t read if you’ve been in a cave for the entire marketing campaign of this movie.
Well they did it, folks. DC made two movies in a row that don’t suck. So… good for them. Well done.
Justice League is not the mess it could have been, and that is actually saying a lot. The film was shot, reshot, lost Zack Snyder as a director, gained Joss Whedon, reshot again, removed mustaches, and then was mandated to come in under two hours by WB. Not to mention the fact that it had to introduce three entirely new heroes, establish a villain, expand a cinematic universe, and resurrect Superman (seriously, if you didn’t know he was coming back stop reading).
With all that taken into consideration: bravo. Batman v. Superman was an incoherent mess, Man of Steel was tonally off, and even the fantastic Wonder Woman fell apart in the third act, so the fact that Justice League is a coherent film that’s at the very least fun to watch actually stands as quite the accomplishment.
Now to tear it apart.
Director: Zack Snyder
Release Date: November 17, 2017
The plot, of course, is pretty standard by this point. Steppenwolf, a really big bad guy, is about to destroy the world by collecting the mother cubes, which will let him… destroy the world. The only way to stop it is to form a team — a team of justice. With Superman (Henry Cavill) gone, Batman (Ben Affleck) decides he has to pull this team together and recruits Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). So that’s what he does via the first third of the film, which is nothing but exposition and character establishment.
Look, this one isn’t going to win any screenwriting awards. It can be ham-fisted in its messaging and as blunt as a mallet in its delivery, but for whatever reason it works. It’s fun, the team feels like a team, and in the few moments it isn’t cramming in exposition, backstory, or action, the movie hits some interesting notes. Maybe it’s just that the bar has been set so incredibly low, but I’m perfectly happy with a Justice League movie that does almost nothing more than move from plot-point-A to plot-point-B and so on until it ends.
That being said, Justice League suffers from being exactly what it is. It’s hard to say a movie doesn’t work because it didn’t have umpteen movies building up to it, but that’s a major issue for this film. Comparing this to anything Marvel has pulled off isn’t fair given the way the two different cinematic universes came about, but Justice League could have really used four or five more movies leading into it. While the character introductions are handled admirably, they are clearly rushed, especially for The Flash (no pun intended) and Aquaman, whose introductions leave open so many questions they’re nearly plot holes. The beginning of the film jumps around so much from character to character it’s tough to ever focus on what’s actually going on.
That’s probably for the best. What’s going on is as basic as possible. Steppenwolf is as dumb a big-bad-guy as you can get both in backstory and action. He’s only there to destroy and make a mess of things while punching our heroes really hard. It’s all the movie really needs to prompt the rest of its story, which mainly centers around Batman and Wonder Women coming into their own as the world reels from the death of Superman. That death hangs heavy over the film, and the movie shellacs its social message as thickly and clumsily as one would expect from Snyder. It’s a worrisome start for those of us looking for a film that is a bit lighter than Snyder’s last outings.
Thankfully the movie doesn’t nosedive into doom and gloom. Instead it pulls itself up into something that’s between Marvel’s bantering heroes and DC’s frowning icons. It’s a lifesaver of a switch. This doesn’t make the movie truly great, but it makes you feel like you’re watching human beings instead of depressed robots. The team members banter and fight, and it sets a tone that is unique to the DC Extended Universe. The world still feels grimy, but all that hope and love and truth and justice that Superman is always on about feels possible. It’s actually fun to watch this one.
The mix of moods comes courtesy of Joss Whedon’s reshoots, and also the studio forcing more Wonder Woman into the film after her movie did so well. You can tell from the tone (and the crummy CGI mustache removal), which scenes are Snyder’s and which are Whedon’s. What’s surprising is that it holds together well. Snyder’s action is as iconic and ballistic as ever, while Whedon pulls it together with a few subplots on leadership and teamwork. There’s some great jokes that hit but don’t overwhelm the movie with humor. Justice League should be a mess, but it winds up a cohesive whole, one that manages to hit its emotional notes when it needs to, especially when it comes to Superman.
Let’s talk Superman. He finally seems super.
Death does him well, and his surprisingly early return allows Cavill to show off Superman’s likability more than one would expect. The actor seems to have finally learned how to smile, and brought his boyish charm to full force. For years I’ve wondered why he landed the role, and now I can finally tell why. Of course the death and rebirth of Superman crammed into a two hour movie with a plethora of other things going on is a shame. It could have its own movie, or a major subplot across multiple films in the DCEU. Instead the story is set up, executed, and solved in the span of 30 minutes. It makes for one-hell of a return moment, but imagine just how good it would have been with years of build up behind it. Again, though, I can’t blame a movie for not having other movies, and as such Justice League does a decent job doing what it needs to do.
The rest of the cast ranges in quality. Affleck’s Batman is once again a highlight, often saving scenes that could have fallen flat. He impressively keeps the edge of darkness while expanding the character out of the trope he had to be in BvS. Gal Gadot once again shines, and adding more of Wonder Woman to the movie was the right call. One wonders how dour things would have ended up with less of her. Wonder Woman often balances out the team, standing in as a surrogate for Superman. Jason Momoa is fine as Auquaman-with-tude, but never really goes beyond that. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is woefully underdeveloped and overpowered, but he handles the role decently.
My biggest concern is Ezra Miller as The Flash. He’s clearly the comic relief for the film, being the least experienced and the wisecracker, but he never seems to really take hold of the role. Maybe it’s because Barry Allen is already done so well by Grant Gustin on TV. Miller seems like he’s not comfortable in the role of the fastest man alive.
I mentioned Cavill’s poorly removed mustached — it’s really noticeable in a few scenes — but that isn’t the end of the bad special effects. There are moments when you can tell a new team was brought in to complete the reshoot special effects, and the poor CG can take you out of the film. Thankfully, the majority of these moments are not during the action scenes, which at times are some of the best I’ve seen all year. As I’ve said in all of my reviews of Snyder’s DC films, the guy can direct a brawl, and he does it here with panache. Complex fights are coherent, well-paced, and often pulled me to the edge of my seat. Having Steppenwolf serve as a giant bludgeon allows for a lot of ridiculous superhero antics, and it leads to some pretty memorable moments in terms of the fights.
I’d love to come out and say that the DCEU is on track for greatness now, but Justice League just isn’t special enough to make me sure of that. It tells a good-enough story, and executes it in a good-enough way, so it’s good enough to make me excited for what’s to come, but not for what it is. There are a litany of issues with Justice League, but, for the second time this year, it’s easy to overlook these problems and actually have fun with a DCEU movie. Hope (and Superman) live again.