Fan speculation and gossip ran rampant after Wonder Woman’s success this summer. How would the struggling DC cinematic universe adapt and capitalize on the newfound wind beneath their metaphorical wings? Well, the Justice League shoot stretched to an uncomfortable length and was plagued by reshoots… would the critically anticipated team-up be able to overcome this hurdle?
Justice League follows the return of our titular heroes: Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and (who are we kidding, no spoilers after the end of the previous film) Superman (Henry Cavill) as they are reunite to fight big bad Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Joining the action are newcomers The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Together they must (cue majestic Danny Elfman score) save a small Russian town from oncoming destruction.
Diving in, the movie continues DC’s inability to actually set-up their franchises. They should have learned with Suicide Squad… you can’t set-up half your characters back stories in the first act and have the movie play smoothly. Despite having a bit of ground covered in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the movie needs to cover who our three new heroes are, the aftermath of Superman’s fate, Batman’s arc, as well as the rise of the big bad… all in the first act. This is a heck of a lot of ground to cover in 30 minutes. As such, early on the film feels disjointed. Scenes hop around quickly, making sure all the required boxes are checked. This is an argument that doesn’t need to be rehashed… but when Marvel set-up Avengers we already knew the characters from their solo films…
The narrative throughout the film feels clunky at best. Steppenwolf is a big villain with a big plan. However, there’s been no set-up. As such, there are a number of parts where the narrative stops cold for exposition dumps. We don’t know this villain and the audience needs this information, but it is ultimately clunky with further ramifications on the later tone and pacing of the script.
Despite these struggles, the film’s MVP’s are two of our newcomers. Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa absolutely steal the film out from under our more experienced heroes. Both bring a likability to their parts, and Miller in particular brings a heart to Barry Allen. He’s witty and likable, and you want to see the scrappy underdog succeed. Meanwhile, Momoa brings a swaggering confidence to Aquaman in an example of perfect casting.
However, in the months which have followed since their groundbreaking success with Wonder Woman, DC has apparently lost their way. We read months of gossip reporting that the films were being altered to be more like Wonder Woman. If this is the case, DC has no idea what made Wonder Woman successful. This film doesn’t bring the heart or optimism of the popular period drama.
In fact, this film is trapped between two completely different cinematic voices. It comes as no surprise that Joss Whedon brings his own distinct voice to a film. Whedon has made a lengthy career with his distinctive, quippy tone. However, Zack Snyder is not quippy… rather, dark, intense and Christ metaphors come to mind when thinking of the director. Having both of these unique voices working so extensively on this film doesn’t work. They can’t find the tone of the movie, and it doesn’t feel consistent. As such, with the Whedon tone scattered so ineffectually throughout, the film ultimately feels like a weak imitation of The Avengers… not where DC wants to be.
Furthermore, this film stung as a female critic and fan of Wonder Woman. As a woman who cried with joy at the sight of the Amazons kicking butt on-screen, it was exciting to see where Justice League would take Diana (and the Amazons for that matter). Nowhere. All of their heart and power appears to have left with Patty Jenkins. In the hands of Snyder and (sigh) Whedon, we are left with armor bikinis on the Amazons, Diana being up-skirted multiple times and having Batman mansplain to her what she did wrong. DC should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Not only that, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) finds herself little more than a plot device. She’s reduced to delivering exposition, being used as a tool to fix Superman, listening to Superman’s mansplaining, and delivering narration. Amy Adams is a talented and awards caliber actress, and she is certainly capable of more than this movie is giving her.
Furthermore, this movie just didn’t look good. The graphics felt rushed and poorly rendered. As a villain, Steppenwolf could have looked better. At times, he and his cronies seemed little more advanced than a villain in a PlayStation Two game. To go along with this, small shots through the many fight scenes looked off. Bodies fly through the air with a lack of knowledge of physics, faces don’t seem to match up with bodies, and in general things look computer generated.
DC often seems to be guilty of checking the boxes, and this is what Justice League seems to be doing. We have all the superhero tropes… our heroes emerging from planes to swelling scores, superhero landings and quippy fight scenes. However, there’s no heart beyond the tropes. Even The Avengers made me worry (very briefly) for Tony Stark. Even if you know he’s going to survive, the filmmaking creates emotion. You don’t feel this emotion in Justice League. There is no tension as to who will win, not even much drama (or chemistry, for that matter) between the team. As a result, attention wanders. If you can’t hold your audiences attention in a superhero team-up then… when can you?
Okay… Justice League has serious problems. This movie is not ready for prime time, and DC should be ashamed of themselves for letting their wind from Wonder Woman completely escape. However, plenty will likely find this film enjoyable. Fans of the whole DCEU, don’t let this review detract you. If these are the heroes of your childhood, you should at least get a (matinee priced) ticket value out of the deal. Just don’t look too far below the surface.
Justice League is on screens around the country today.