Directed By: Zack Snyder
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller
If there's one point I want to emphasize about Justice League right off the bat, it's that it's a film that falls victim to squandered potential, not just its own but everything that has come before it. This is now the fifth entry in the DC Extended Universe - Warner Bros. and DC's own cinematic universe akin to what Disney and Marvel Studios' have been cultivating since 2008 - and yet it feels like it's constantly wrestling with the legacy of its predecessors and what it wants to be on its own merits, all to its own detriment. Like The Avengers back in 2012, Justice League is meant to serve as a milestone event, one that brings characters and plot threads together for the first time in order to kick the door open to a bigger, brighter future, but unlike The Avengers, which had the benefit of a solid foundation with films like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, Justice League has been built on a rocky one.
To be honest, I enjoyed 2013's Man of Steel, our introduction to Henry Cavill as our modern Superman, and even though it had its faults, there was nothing that couldn't be corrected going forward. Instead, what followed was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016, a film whose few high points (Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Ben Affleck as Batman, for example) couldn't overcome the fact that, to me, the film was an interminable slog, a film that failed to truly live up to or even want to celebrate the fact that it was the first time in cinema history we had DC's Holy Trinity on the big screen. It was, quite simply, a misfire, and coupled with Suicide Squad later in the year, this budding universe stumbled right out of the gate. Fortunately, Wonder Woman proved there was hope earlier this year, which made me think that maybe, just maybe, Justice League stood a chance at learning from how and why that film clicked with people the world over and Batman v Superman didn't.
Unavoidably, Justice League has to pick up where Batman v Superman left off, with Superman dead and Batman and Wonder Woman ready to honor his memory by keeping up the good fight. Nowadays, Batman is investigating the emergence of alien scouts known as Parademons, who have come to earth looking for Mother Boxes, three objects that, when put together, wield boundless power that can destroy worlds. The Parademons are searching for them on behalf of Steppenwolf, an alien being who once controlled the Mother Boxes but lost them thousands of years earlier in a conflict with the people of Earth and is now ready to recollect them and try decimating the planet again following the death of Earth's Kryptonian protector. As Steppenwolf begins to achieve his goal of collecting the objects, Batman and Wonder Woman reunite to put together a team in order to stop him, bringing together The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) in the hopes that they alone can stand between Steppenwolf and victory in a world without Superman.
Considering its status as a big team-up event that fans have been waiting decades to see happen, it's hard not to draw immediate comparisons to The Avengers for the sake of highlighting why Justice League both works and doesn't work. On a narrative level, on a character level, and even on a thematic level, The Avengers earned its team-up. By 2012, we'd spent time with Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk and Thor and Captain America individually; we knew their quirks, their personalities, and their backstories to the point that The Avengers could start rolling straight out of the gate. We'd seen what the Tesseract - the "weapon" of the film - was capable of in The First Avenger that when it showed up in The Avengers, there was a quantifiable danger surrounding it. And, of course, we'd spent time with the film's villain, Loki, in Thor, whose return in The Avengers carried with it real weight for both what we knew he was capable of and for the personal connection he had to the team via his brother. To put it simply, all of this added up gave The Avengers real stakes; these were characters we'd come to know and love coming together to face a threat we could invest in to protect a world that had sucked us in over the course of several movies.
Conversely, Justice League doesn't have that benefit. Yes, we've spent time with Superman in Man of Steel and Wonder Woman in her own movie, but this is the first time we're really meeting half the team here. It could be argued that we really didn't know Black Widow or Hawkeye too deeply in The Avengers, but that worked because we really didn't need to at that point, especially as they weren't marquee heroes in comparison to, say, Iron Man or Captain America. Here, though, we're meeting major heroes for the first time, like The Flash and Aquaman, and as such Justice League can't just get rolling along. Justice League has to convey as much backstory and enough about each of these individual personalities as it can in its first act, resulting in about 45 minutes of time that rushes through dumping so much information on its viewers about these new characters that ultimately shortchanges all of them.
To draw another parallel, compare Cyborg and the Mother Boxes in Justice League to Captain America and the Tesseract in The Avengers. Captain America had had experience with the Tesseract in his movie, The First Avenger, which gave him real motivation to want to stop Loki from using it knowing just what it means in the hands of evil, all before The Avengers itself even started. In Justice League, we learn that Cyborg's very existence is tied to one of the Mother Boxes, and compared to pretty much all of his fellow teammates, he should have the biggest stake in the fight. Instead, Cyborg sometimes feels like a second thought, all because we're never given enough time with him to learn enough about him to root for him. We saw Steve Rogers go from being a weakling with a big heart to the hero of a nation known as Captain America who seemingly died to save the world, and by The Avengers, all of that backstory had us rooting for him because we'd seen it unfold and we'd seen what he'd earned and lost. Cyborg has, perhaps, one of the more tragic backstories of all the members of the Justice League present in the film, but it's all relayed to us through dialogue, which completely undermines the character and the weight of the arc he's given in the film.
Cyborg, like The Flash and Aquaman, isn't given what he deserves because Justice League has to skip past all of it as fast as it can to get the team together to stop Steppenwolf, who also falls victim to being underserved. Again, to draw that comparison to The Avengers, Loki was an established threat with a complex history whose motivations were clear, while Steppenwolf just kind of shows up and starts doing what he does. It's teased in the film that he has a larger purpose - and DC fans will at least be happy to hear the name Darkseid dropped - but none of it carries any weight, because Steppenwolf's motivations are never made clear and he has absolutely zero personality to make up for that fact. Some semblance of charisma or even an ounce of wickedness can go a long way in allowing an audience to overlook weak motivations or shallow characterizations, but Steppenwolf is like a void of mediocrity. Even the DCEU's own Man of Steel relished every moment that Michael Shannon's General Zod was onscreen. Justice League leaves you eager to just get back to spending more time with the team whenever precious time is wasted on Steppenwolf. And since Steppenwolf and his threat is so underwhelming, by the time the Mother Boxes inevitably unite - come on, that's not a big spoiler - and the world is put in peril, it's just hard to care.
In essence, none of the stakes Justice League presents by the final act are earned, and that's symbolic of much of the film itself. It asks us to invest in these major, heavy-hitting characters, but without those personal connections to them through seeing who they were before this movie and who their friends and families are and what trials they've gone through and who and what they've loved and lost are, it rings a little hollow. You don't even have to look far to see that clear divide, as when Wonder Woman makes a passing reference to someone she use to know who loved to fly with a hint of sadness in her eyes and tone of her voice, it speaks volumes to where her character is at emotionally and what she's thinking more than any kind of information dump could convey, as we've seen what she's been through and who she lost in her own movie. Small moments like that have more characterization, meaning, and power in them than, for instance, when Aquaman briefly encounters Amber Heard's Mera under the sea and has an argument about his upbringing and past that should clearly hit hard but doesn't because it has absolutely zero context.
It all results in a narrative unevenness, an imbalance that detracts from the whole experience. As I said, the first act of the film feels thoroughly rushed, before the second "slows down" to get these characters acquainted a bit more (but only barely), before reaching the perfunctory final conflict that, big surprise, manages to feel rushed as well. Whereas Batman v Superman overindulged in itself to the point of feeling seven hours too long, Justice League could've used more breathing room. Since it spends such a huge chunk of its time rushing through introductions, it could've benefitted from the team spending a bit more time together once all that was out of the way to start establishing personal connections between these people who are destined to work together time and again, but even when the second act slows down, there's that ticking clock that the final battle has to happen that prohibits any real interplay between the individual characters other than a few moments between Batman and Wonder Woman or The Flash and Cyborg.
It may seem as though I'm ripping apart the movie, but I'm not, as there are high points, like, of course, Gal Gadot continuing to shine in her role, Ezra Miller being better than I expected as The Flash - I'm a little biased against him considering my adoration of the Grant Gustin-led The Flash series currently on TV - and Jeremy Irons' Alfred. And I'd be lying if I said that teases of the Green Lantern Corps. at one point in the movie or the appearance of a new villain in the film's post-credits scene didn't please the fan in me who wants each and every comic book movie, regardless of whether it's from Marvel or DC, to succeed. My issue is, though, that despite the fact it's nowhere near as dull as I found Batman v Superman to be, Justice League nearly suffers the same fate of its positives being crushed by its issues. As much as I loved Wonder Woman, for instance, one of my biggest criticisms was that the final act devolved into a loud, empty CGI battle, and that's something that Justice League succumbs to as well, delivering an underwhelming final act that ends in an incredibly, almost shockingly abrupt manner.
(And speaking of CGI, the film underwent reshoots while Henry Cavill had a mustache for the sixth Mission: Impossible film. Since he couldn't shave it, CGI was used to hide his mustache, but instead resulted in an absolutely terrible, distracting bare upper lip and teeth that's impossible not to be weirded out by, noticeable immediately in the film's opening scene. It's so odd that I couldn't pass up acknowledging it, so keep an eye out for it, though you most definitely won't have a hard time spotting it.)
Even the score, provided here by Danny Elfman, is a pretty big letdown. As much I enjoyed hearing brief reprisals of Elfman's old Batman theme born in 1989 or John Williams' iconic Superman theme, Elfman doesn't go all out, neither embracing the old sounds or the modern ones, like Hans Zimmer's theme from Man of Steel or Wonder Woman's theme, both of which also make fleeting cameos in the score. Elfman provides nothing new here, which would've at least been acceptable if he had just gone all out in picking an identity for the film using the past themes or the new themes, but he doesn't do anything with any of it. Even the Justice League themselves don't get any sort of instantly-iconic, hummable theme like they should have, which is easily the most egregious thing about it all, resulting in an otherwise generic superhero score dotted with the occasional reference to much better work. And ultimately, that's symbolic of Justice League's biggest problem overall: Flashes of greatness here and there popping up to remind you that you're watching an otherwise average movie.
I truly wanted Justice League to succeed. As much as I disliked last year's offerings, there's no world in which I'd actively root against a Justice League movie and the chance to see all these characters I've known my entire life finally up on the big screen together. And though Justice League still manages to be a step above Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, it doesn't come close to how enjoyable Wonder Woman was, and that's disappointing. There's still an undeniable thrill in seeing these characters fighting evil together, but Justice League needed to be something more than average. It needed to live up to the legacy of these iconic heroes, of Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, and it just doesn't. The cast is game, but they're almost all underserved by a weak narrative, while the lack of and/or rushed through characterization proves to be a bigger threat to the characters themselves than Steppenwolf. There's so much potential here and in DC properties at large that keeps getting wasted, and Justice League proves that yet again, a passable film that’s neither great nor terrible, though at least a step in the right direction away from Batman v Superman.
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