The pantheon's seeds are planted.
The DC Extended Universe soldiers on in the wake of the poorly-received excesses of MAN OF STEEL (2013), BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), and the appalling SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), as well as the delight that was WONDER WOMAN (2017), and what it gives us with JUSTICE LEAGUE is yet another very flawed effort.
I'm not even going to bother going into great detail on the story since the movie's only purpose is to hurriedly throw the assorted superheroes together. All you really need to know is that Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) seek to cobble together a team of fellow super-folk to take on the invading forces of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an extra-dimensional conqueror of worlds who tried to take over the Earth ages ago but was thwarted by the joint efforts of the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and mortal men. As for the nascent Justice League, the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) are recruited and they take the fight to the invaders. It soon becomes apparent that they are seriously outgunned, so they need to revive the deceased Superman (Henry Cavill) — whom you may recall was killed during the final act of BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE — to grant them the raw power they need in order to kick Steppenwolf to the other-dimensional curb. That's pretty much it.
JUSTICE LEAGUE is very obviously intended to fast-track the DCEU into Marvel movie territory, only without the well-planned slow roll-out that allowed moviegoers to get to know the characters and worlds of Marvel over what is as of this writing almost a decade and a total of seventeen interconnected films. Marvel took the time to weave an involved tapestry, a strategy that raked in the cash like a motherfucker, so the Distinguished Competition naturally wanted in on the windfall, but they allowed greed to cloud their judgment when it came to telling coherent stories and having the most basic understanding of long-established iconic characters. Most of the DCEU films are clearly the victims of horrendous editing and studio interference with the vision of a given film's director, and JUSTICE LEAGUE is no different, but in this case the reasons for the film's snags are easy to pinpoint. Director Zack Snyder left the production to deal with a genuinely awful family tragedy, so writer/director Joss Whedon was brought in to take the reins, and his pedigree as the helmer of the mega-hit that was Marvel's THE AVENGERS in theory made him the perfect guy to handle the screen debut of DC's flagship superhero team. Unfortunately, Snyder's "dark" take on the DCEU works in direct opposition to Whedon's more lighthearted and quippy approach to scripting and storytelling, and it's jarringly obvious as to which director handled which sequences. And on top of that, the studio's head handed down a corporate mandate that the film must run no longer than two hours, so it bears all of the earmarks of having a lot of material excised to bring it all in within that time restraint. But enough about the behind-the-scenes mishegoss. Here are some notes that get straight to addressing some key points:
- The film is entertaining but it is by no means great, and the plot and villain are almost totally irrelevant, as the film's only goal is to throw the Justice League together as quickly as possible. No lie, the plot and the villain are truly beside the point. The audience is there to see heroes that they love banding together onscreen to kick truckloads of ass and we do get that, but it's all just a by-product of a narrative that is merely perfunctory. The heavily CGI-rendered Steppenwolf could not possibly be less-interesting as a threat, and he's arguably the most "Who cares?" villain in a modern superhero movie since Malekith in THOR: THE DARK WORLD, which is saying a lot. The film would have been better served if he had not been in it at all and instead the team got together over lunch and just hung out talking.
- The film is CGI-overdosed up the ass and as a result the film is pretty much like watching a 2-hour videogame. If CGI were a natural resource, the world's CGI mines would pretty much be empty in the wake of this movie's production. Nearly everything is shot in front of a green screen and a lot of character stuff is rendered in effects that could easily have used several more months of refinement. For example, Steppenwolf's aforementioned artificiality, the awful look of the Para-Demons, and Cyborg's atrocious-looking body.
- Perhaps in response to the criticism of how his basic character was previously mishandled, this film is a much-needed course-correction for Superman. Once he's back from the grave, he displays an identifiable personality for the first time in Henry Cavill's three turns in the role, and it's good to see Superman smile. And one question has nagged at me since the ending of BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, and that's how in hell will it be explained to the world that Superman is back from the dead, and where the hell had Clark Kent concurrently fucked off to when Superman fell? Clark had a job and an apartment, plus he was buried and even had a gravestone, so what's up with that?
- Amy Adams continues to be totally miscast as what gets my vote as the worst Lois Lane in the character's nearly 70 years of being portrayed in live-action. She has no real presence and serves almost no purpose in the narrative other than to be the romantic interest that she's been since 1938. It says a lot that I didn't give a shit when Lois and Clark are reunited after his resurrection, but instead I got genuinely choked-up when Superman was reunited with his overjoyed mother (Diane Lane).
- The Amazons have taken a gigantic leap backward in interpretation in the six months (or so) since the release of WONDER WOMAN. Instead of being the tough-as-nails warriors that we met and marveled at in that film, this time around they've been redesigned and attired in garb that would have been right at home on a generic heavy metal album cover or as found airbrushed on the side of some stoner dude's bitchin' van/shaggin' wagon. And considering how hardcore they were seen when fighting in WONDER WOMAN, they came off as a bunch of damp squibs here. It reeked of what many of us feared they would be like if handled from the point of view of the dreaded "male gaze," and it disappointed me as a guy who loves and appreciates female fierceness.
- As expected, Diana, in the wake of her inaugural flick's rousing acclaim, is given much of the spotlight and whenever she's in action, we get to see the very definition of the term "ass-kicker." Superman may be the team's undisputed powerhouse, but Diana is absolutely the one you would NOT want to face in a fight involving actual combat skills. But, much like the aforementioned gripe about the treatment of her sisters, Diana is often viewed through the male gaze, which does a great disservice to audiences seeing her first and foremost as the hero that she is. There are a lot of shots that place Gal Gadot's admittedly toothsome bum in the frame's foreground, along with some that could be considered brief "upskirt" fan service, and Diana's choices in civilian wear that seemed at odds with what we know of her character. Yes, Diana is a world-class beauty, but did she ever strike anyone as the type who would rock her off-duty attire with the sensibility of a Manhattan fashionista? There's also a a bit I'd like to address in which Diana is pushed out of possibly lethal harm's way by the Flash during a battle sequence, and in tackling her he lands on top of her with his face lodged in her cleavage. He gets off of her at hyper-speed and awkwardly/nervously looks in every possible direction, except directly at her, while she picks herself up. Some female critics have complained about that moment being gratuitous and juvenile, but when one considers this version of the Flash's self-admitted social awkwardness, I did not find it offensive or gratuitous at all, and instead felt his childlike reaction was the polar opposite of lustful or a case of Benny Hill-esque "sauce." And Diana herself did not react at all, which speaks for itself.
- I'm not totally sold on this interpretation of the Flash as a character. He's a Flash we have not seen before, though he does seem to bear traces of the Wally West iteration's goofiness, and I may be wrong about this but this interpretation of the character, in the way he's written and played seems like he may have Aspergers or be what some would call high-functioning autistic. Pay attention to how he describes himself and how he communicates when he meets Bruce Wayne and you'll see what I mean. It's intriguing, especially for those of us with loved ones who have that way of interacting with the world. That said, the depiction of his super-speed is AWESOME, despite what some critics have describes as him "running funny." I was not put off by it at all and was reminded of the long, arcing gestures of Olympic speed skaters.
- I'm mixed in my feelings on Aquaman. He's a tad too "dude/bro" for me and in no way resembles any version of the character that I've ever encountered. That said, Jason Momoa's personality comes through and is apparently a real crowd-pleaser, so I'm probably in the minority with this opinion.
- Aquaman's wife/queen in the comics, Mera (played by Amber Heard), has a brief appearance during an underwater battle scene, and I liked her a hell of a lot more than I liked Aquaman. We even get to see her use her hydro-kinetic abilities, so I'm now really looking forward to spending more time with her in Aquaman's upcoming solo film.
- Cyborg, though utilized intelligently, did nothing for me, which has always been the case with the character whenever I've encountered him outside of his context as a member of the comics' Teen Titans (as opposed to his completely different comedic version in the popular cartoons for kiddies). Hopefully more will be done with him in future installments.
- Ben Affleck, one of the sole saving graces of BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, reprises his take on Bruce Wayne/Batman with aplomb, and this time is clearly seen as a fragile lump of meat and bones when teamed with a pack of teammates who all have actual superpowers and are in some cases outright nigh-indestructible demi-gods.
- There are two points in the narrative in which both Batman and Superman's secret identities are outed in front of several witnesses, and yet no one seems to notice or remark about it. In Batman's case, it could be glossed over by it happening when Aquaman blabs it in front of several Icelandic fishing villagers who don't speak English (with the notable exception of a previously-seen translator who was not present at the time), but when Superman resurrects, he does so in the presence of the other heroes (who knew anyway, so no problem there) and some members of the Metropolis police department, who cannot possibly have missed Lois Lane directly addressing him as "Clark." I call sloppy writing.
- There are two scenes after the story proper, so stick around. The first happens just after the cast credits and is something done just for fun, but the scene at the very end of the credits is a major setup for future events, which is all I'm saying...
So what we get at the end of JUSTICE LEAGUE is essentially a narrative placeholder that serves to get our heroes together via the McGuffin of an inconsequential baddie in a story that plays out like watching your kids play with their action figures. There's little meat to the tale, but it is at least fun to watch if you just want to see super-people bashing the crap out of CGI bug-men. It's an improvement over all of the preceding DCEU films, with the notable exception of WONDER WOMAN, and hopefully this soft course-correction for the brand moving forward will see the subsequent helmers forgetting about mining Jack Kirby's Fourth World/New Gods material or maybe saving it for later down the line, and instead turning its focus to threats that would be more familiar to the civilian/non-comics-reading audience. (Which the Easter egg at the end of the film is absolutely hinting at.)
Theatrical teaser poster.