A Justice League movie shouldn’t exist — at least, not at this present time.
Using the fifth movie in your cinematic universe to bring your stars together in a big, grandiose mashup isn’t a problem in itself. The blunder comes from attempting such an ambitious crossover when half of your previous films have been short-sighted, poorly executed ensemble movies that failed to establish enough of your staple characters in the way that solo outings would. Without having the groundwork laid for the majority of its cast, Justice League already had the odds stacked against it when it was first being conceived.
If that wasn’t already apparent on paper, Justice League solidifies it with an opening third that’s as rocky as Superman’s and Batman’s relationship in Dawn of Justice. We’re treated to a series of introductions to three brand new (but familiar to longtime superhero fans) metahumans who will go on to be members of the eponymous group, along with some looks at the heroic deeds that Batman and Wonder Woman are up to now that they’re the holding down the fort in Superman’s absence. We also get to see that they’re hot on the trail of something nasty coming to earth, which leads them to start recruiting the aforementioned metahumans who, collectively, have had about ten minutes to endear themselves to the audience by this point.
This is all while our big villain, Steppenwolf, his backstory, and his calamitous return vie for their share of the spotlight.
And don’t forget about Lois Lane and Martha Kent.
Justice League attempts to cram in a gaggle of abbreviated backstories and personal conflicts, at the same time trying to establish the antagonist and the threat that he brings. It should be no surprise that it crumbles under all that weight. There’s no grace as we transition between looks at superhero after superhero.
The introductions to the new faces feel like wasted space when it could have been used for some much-needed exposition on Steppenwolf and his goals. The character, while not a household name beyond hardcore DC comic fans, is ripe with potential. He’s one of the New Gods, searching out the legendary Mother Boxes–relics of unspeakable power that are among the most important objects in DC lore. He’s Darkseid’s uncle, for goodness sake. But, you’ll only know this if you’ve read DC comics for years or delved into some Wikipedia pages.
Nothing encapsulates the issue better than the contrast between two very similar scenes–one where the characters are established, and one where they’re not. When Batman and Wonder Woman talk about her inner struggles, particularly those rooted in Steve Trevor’s death, it actually feels poignant because we’ve seen what Diana is alluding to. When Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the Queen of Atlantis, Mera (Amber Heard), discuss Aquaman’s apparent inner conflict about his sovereignty in the underwater kingdom, it has no context. It’s impossible to be engaged in it when we’re out in the cold on what has Aquaman conflicted, in the first place.
At least most of these characters, new and old, can still pique your curiosity for one reason or another. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) has one of the greatest backstories of any superhero, which will hopefully get its turn to shine in his tentative 2020 spinoff movie. His origin from one Mother Box’s power, and the moral questions that stem from him once being a human who would have perished if not for the intervention of unprecedented scientific and technological measures are fascinating material that don’t get their due attention in this stuffed two hour flick.
Aquaman is a hard-edged, withdrawn rebel, who, as we learn during the movie’s raucous climax, loves the thrill of a death-defying stunt. He, too, has an intriguing background as the unwilling ruler of the rich, wondrous Atlantean kingdom, but, once again, Justice League just doesn’t have the minutes to spare for it.
Ezra Miller’s Flash is the awkward, awestruck, timid member of the team who, despite his incredible superhuman abilities, doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of these battle-tested warriors. Miller’s portrayal of the character is loaded with some truly hilarious quips and gags, bringing the greatest dose of levity to the often grumpy, moody team of superheroes. This introverted, boyish Flash may not be in line with how Barry Allen has traditionally behaved, but the fresh interpretation proves a pleasant surprise that vindicates its risk-taking.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman continues to be as natural and as seamless of a portrayal as you can find. Ben Affleck’s grizzled Batman hasn’t lost a step, either, except when he’s pining away for Superman, which still comes off as weird given that we don’t know why he’d be so obsessed with the Man of Steel. Following Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne practically reveres Superman and all that Kal-El stood for, claiming that ‘[Superman] was more human than me.’
But why does Bruce feel so…inhuman? Why have the events of the current DCEU stories made him so self-loathing? We don’t know, exactly. Hopefully, The Batman corrects that.
It’s amazing, then, that the film eventually manages to settle down and become reasonably entertaining. Once the members of the League are together and they’re actually on screen to show off their personalities, they’re a fun group. Casting has rarely been an issue in the DCEU, and the actors here in Justice League continue that hot streak. Each character is distinct and intriguing in their own way, a quality that leaks into the narrative as they bring unique merit to their team. Watching them clash, but learn to build off one another’s individual skills and knowledge is genuinely satisfying. They all take it on the chin at some point early or midway through their mission to thwart Steppenwolf’s conquest of earth, but by the end of it, they’ve all made personal strides while figuring out how to best utilize their awesome powers.
Tee Shirts: Cool collection of Justice League Tee Shirts
The film strikes a balance in the tone, much like Wonder Woman did earlier this year. It has its comic moments that lighten the mood and make you laugh, but it doesn’t have them in excess that they kill the gravitas when the story attempts to be serious. You can absolutely see the presence of both Zack Snyder’s and Joss Whedon’s creative minds at work here, which is yet another production hurdle that this movie remarkably overcomes when all is said and done. The influence of two very different directors with two very different styles occasionally creates some disarray in the imagery on screen, and how some of the action is laid out, but rarely detracts from the mood. Snyder is known for his austerity, and Whedon for his levity–when Justice League needs either, it usually applies them appropriately.
You might say that this film is the light at the end of the tunnel for the DCEU. Production was already far along on Justice League when it became blatantly obvious that Warner had bungled their initial strategy for the DCEU. They salvaged it just enough with a better tone, great characters, and neat worlds to explore. The next step is to bring on those solo outings to help us properly build toward a Justice League flick that achieves the renown that it deserves.
Justice League succeeds because of its cast’s likability and chemistry, and fails because it doesn’t have the opportunity to fully explore all of their backgrounds. It ultimately squanders the grandeur that could have been from this first time team up of the DCEU’s heroes, having not illuminated why many of them behave the way that they do, but they darn sure are fun to watch when together. If nothing else, the film charts a promising course for the DCEU. With a brightened tone and a gang of potential-laden superheroes, Justice League nudges us toward a more competent future for the franchise than what it began with.
+ A terrific cast of heroes, all of whom fans should be looking forward to seeing more of in future films
+ Finds a sweet spot with its tone, being either serious or funny when the scene calls for it
+ Sets up so much potential for the world building and conflicts of eventual stories set in the DCEU
— Too many of the characters are thrust into the spotlight before having their backgrounds properly explored
— With just so much going on at once, the conflict with Steppenwolf never has the opportunity to expand beyond a by the numbers “good guys vs. bad guys” scenario
— Some visuals aren’t so clean on screen, particularly a few moments of questionable CGI
Jeff Pawlak loves DC Comics, but he’s not about to give a free pass to the DCEU on anything. He’s very relieved that the streak of ensemble movies is about to go on hiatus as the DCEU now heads toward several solo, origin movies that it has needed all along. Catch him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs to find him often chatting about superheroes.
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