Solid Character Work Barely Captures “Justice League” Audience
If there’s one good thing I can say about “Justice League”, it’s that the league itself is in top-notch shape. DC’s greatest heroes have excellent chemistry with one another while remaining interesting on their own merits. It truly is a shame, then that they inhabit what is otherwise, at best, a thoroughly mediocre movie. Any strong character work fades away in the face of an incredibly choppy story, tonal issues, a boring villain and poor visual effects. What should be a major pop culture event winds up feeling like yet another poorly-made blockbuster.
The movie takes place sometime after the end of “Batman v Superman,” (BvS) with Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) setting out to build a team of metahumans to protect a world that has been left without Superman. Alongside Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Batman and Superman must stand against Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds, performed via motion capture) and his army of Parademons as they attempt to destroy the world.
If this description seems vague it’s only because there is one crucial spoiler that I am avoiding, even though that spoiler is an open secret considering the end of “(BvS)” and how much the marketing has played it up. The sad reality is that the plot of “Justice League” really is that generic: unite the team, spar with the bad guy, do the spoiler, fight the final battle. If that was the only problem, I could forgive it. However, the film winds up being incredibly choppy and disjointed despite such simplicity, especially the first act. The movie jumps across the globe from scene to disconnected scene, all the while exposition is thrown in the audience’s face and a dozen new characters are introduced, half of whom won’t even be relevant until future movies. It’s a whirlwind of events and not in a good way.
As previously mentioned, the characters are what keep the audience invested in the movie. Affleck and Gadot maintain the chemistry they had in “BvS,” and their dynamic provides a real human anchor in the midst of all the action movie insanity. Miller’s take on Flash as an awkward neurotic who isn’t comfortable going into battle is certainly a nice change of pace, although he does verge a little too close to the “randomness equals humor” mindset for my taste. Momoa thankfully does not play up the dude-bro surfer persona for the entire movie, landing some surprisingly deep moments as well as one of the movie’s funniest scenes. Cyborg is more of a mixed bag, as Fisher’s subdued performance winds up getting overshadowed by his more attention-grabbing teammates. But, this could have been fixed by giving Cyborg more time to reflect on how the line between man and machine starts to blur in his mind — and possibly his soul. Additionally, the character’s design is bulky and awkward, with poor CGI effects not doing it any favors, though this is somewhat addressed by the movie’s end.
Now, I am going to talk about that one open-secret spoiler I mentioned earlier. If you’ve somehow managed to stay out of the loop and want to be left completely unspoiled, skip this next paragraph.
Henry Cavill is back as Superman and it is his best performance yet. He is finally allowed to use the natural charisma and charm that he has demonstrated in previous roles, and it is a real joy to have him back. His first post-resurrection encounter with the rest of the Justice League is the best scene of the movie and really highlights why Superman is essential to the DC Universe. However, the digital removal of Henry Cavill’s mustache is one of many visual effects-related annoyances, especially when the most egregious moment is within the first ten seconds of the movie.
Then, there’s Steppenwolf. I really want to know whose idea it was for Steppenwolf to be the big bad of “Justice League”. He is, bar none, the worst villain in the history of modern comic book movies, a title I do not give lightly. He was never a heavy hitter in the source material, but the movie removes even the interesting aspects of his comic book incarnation. His fight scenes with the League are excessively boring to watch due to a powerset consisting entirely of “jump” and “hit with axe.” Visually, he’s entirely forgettable and the CGI on him, his minions and his lair is often reminiscent of something out of the early 2000s. Finally, Steppenwolf’s motivations for conquering the planet boil down to “because I’m evil,” making him a literal warm up boss and errand boy for the next big Justice League villain. This is not the kind of threat you want all your heroes debuting against.
It was announced a few months ago that Joss Whedon would be taking over production and direction of re-shoots after director Zack Snyder left “Justice League” due to a personal tragedy. Many fans, including myself, were wondering if and how Whedon’s lighter style would come across in the midst of the grim tone of the Snyder-helmed DCEU. From a visual standpoint, the movie is all Snyder. The gothic cityscapes of Gotham, the murky Icelandic coast and the hellscape of Steppenwolf’s lair all scream out his style. However, the majority of the dialogue, along with the general feel of the movie, has Whedon’s name written all over it. I found it distracting, but I can see others not having this issue, considering how the tones are internally consistent. The real issue is how blatant some of these reshoots are. In one especially awkward scene, we see Aquaman standing in knee-deep water before the movie cus to him doing an awkward back-flop into a suddenly deep ocean.
It seems like every other review I write on a DCEU movie discusses how the film deals with criticism of previous entries in the universe. “Justice League” is no different. Overall, it does so with mixed success. For example, it was obvious that this movie would have to deal the oppressively somber atmosphere of “Batman v Superman.” On the positive side, Batman does not murder criminals anymore, and our superheroes get to act like real heroes. On the negative side, Batman has gone from being a terrifying and brutal storm of nature to a smart-aleck wisecracker, a change that is too sudden to be believable. I feel like “Justice League” overshot the mark regarding this complaint and others like it. A subtler change, hopefully one resulting in a universe that could feel operatic while still being fun to watch would have been for the best.
I honestly don’t think I could recommend seeing “Justice League” in theaters to anyone who’s not already a fan of the characters. While the interpretations of those characters may be mostly delightful to watch, there are so many more negative factors weighing this movie down. It’s not insultingly terrible, but “Justice League” feels like a mediocre B-movie when it should have been one of the movie events of the year. These characters and these actors deserve better, and I hope they get it in their solo films.