Justice League - Review: An Imperfect Yet Fun DC Team-Up
Ben Affleck is looking for a Batmobile ejector seat and Gal Gadot is threatening to walk away unless a certain heavily accused producer doesn’t. Things are not well within the DCEU towers. What they really need right now is a win. A positive to show whatever is going on behind-the-scenes will be worth it in the end. Will the much anticipated Justice League be that film? Not entirely but it's a marked improvement on their last superhero crossover.
With Superman dead, Steppenwolf, The End of Worlds will return to Earth with an army of Parademons to transform it into a nightmare world. Only the united heroes of Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) stand in his way.
This film has no shortage of problems but it is a better film than Batman Vs Superman and confirmation that the DCEU can make a multi-character team-up work. In fact, it’s best viewed as a sequel to BvS rather than a stand-alone because the League’s first accomplishment is the way it successfully builds upon those BvS events. As you may have seen from the trailers, this is set in a world after Superman, dealing with his death and a general sense of losing hope. Wonder Woman’s introductory action sequence looks like a bank robbery but is, in fact, an embodiment of this hopelessness. Instead of criminals, it’s a group of activists trying to destroy financial institutions believing nothing else can save this failing world (led by Stannis Baratheon, no less). This propagates Batfleck’s character arc in seeing the value of Superman and how the world needs the Man of Steel as a symbol much more than a night prowling bat. Finally, it justifies the entire alien invasion story film. With its champion defeated, they attack the Earth now because it is vulnerable.
Next, this film really worked for me as superhero team-up because of the great variety of characters and character experience. If we take 2012's Avengers, all 6 of Marvel’s team went in as experienced heroes at the height of their game. Justice League takes a far more staggered approach. At one end of the spectrum, Batfleck is the aging Frank Miller-esque Dark Knight questioning how long he can keep doing this. Then, we have Barry Allen’s Flash presented as a clueless young rookie, a Cyborg still coming to terms with his evolving abilities and a reluctant hero Aquaman. It gives the overall team greater purpose as they learn and develop from fighting together, whether that’s Batfleck and Wonder Woman stepping up as leaders or The Flash getting mentored in heroics. A lot of the fight and action scenes focus on the team working together and combining their powers rather than making them shine as individuals.
The film has a lot of great action sequences but the most enjoyable are those that work in the wider supporting characters and extended DC affiliates. A first act set piece of Steppenwolf attacking the Amazons of Themyscira sees a few welcome returns from this summer’s Wonder Woman movie and turns into a great affair of desperation in keeping him from a crucial object. Then there’s The Lord of the Rings style 5000-year flashback of all Earth’s forces and races uniting against Steppenwolf’s first invasion in a colossal pitched battle. It’s got nice scale to it, cameos the Old Gods and even our first on-screen look a Green Lantern in the tease of 2020's Green Lantern Corps movie. You’ll probably recognize many action moments from trailers but there are still plenty more you won’t.
We’ll never know exactly how much Joss Whedon changed when tagging for Zack Synder in the re-shoots but it feels like he’s the reason the film has a lot of good comedy, consistently across its duration. It’s the key tool in getting several of the new characters over. I went into Justice League with, “Grant Gustin is my Flash” practically tattooed on my forehead but I left with a complete love for Ezra Miller’s take on Barry Allen and can’t wait to see more of him. They nailed his tone of being very excitable yet socially awkward. Miller’s comedic timing was on-point with running gags (...sorry, couldn’t resist) like having a poor sense of direction going down a storm. They even developed a fun Flash/Cyborg relationship buddy relationship as, “the accidents”. Similarly, Jason Momoa’s powerhouse suffer dude Aquaman was played well for laughs and prevented anyone taking him too seriously. He has charisma dripping off him like arctic seawater across abs and puts a fork any Big Bang, “Aquaman sucks” jokes.
And the bad? This film’s evil and failures have a face. It’s villain Steppenwolf. Imagine every Marvel villain labeled disposable: Yellow Jacket, Maleketh, Ronan... the works. Steppenwolf makes all of them look like Heath Ledger’s Joker by comparison. He is an utter and absolute waste of screentime with no discernible personality or likable qualities other than obscure mother issues. He’s nothing but an ill-defined, shambling mass of mo-cap CG that sometimes doesn’t even look good. Even his ending is a terrible cop-out with a poor resemblance to 1998s Lost in Space film. The Parademons fair little better. Yes, they’re nothing more than flying monkeys/cannon fodder and they fill that role but they feel completely out of place against the more grounded areas of the film.
The story also has its fair share of problems. Rumour has it, studio executives forced the film to be less than 2 hours long. As a result, several sections feel skipped over and go without sufficient explanation or exposition. Yet bafflingly, several scenes of a random Russian family still made the cut. This meant to make them more relevant when placed in during the final battle... but it doesn’t because their scenes have nothing memorable about them. There is too much Amy Adams/Louise Lane for such little content.
Then there is Superman. Now, his return has been so widely reported for a good year that I’m not going to call it a spoiler (he’s on all the merchandise!). I really liked what they did in terms of bringing him back because it provided the necessary mid-film inter-team conflict over whether or not their crazy resurrection attempt should be done. Rather than finding an excuse for the team to fall apart over little, purely so they can reunite again for the final fight, this conflict felt very natural with clear opposing viewpoints. The problem is not Superman returning, it’s how the film uses him when he does. That is, as little more than deux ex machina in the final battle. His impact is so big and decisive that it actually feels detrimental to the rest of the team. It makes the five other heroes combined look weaker than Superman and therefore, the whole Justice League team-up redundant if Superman had been there in the first place. While of course, they want to show Superman as being a powerful figure, the balance is painfully off and stands as the biggest lesson to learn for any Justice League sequel.
I left BvS with negatives of the film but positive feelings towards future DCEU films like a Wonder Woman solo venture. Justice League was the same but with more positives about the film itself. I left thinking Justice League was passable to good entertainment but really excited about the planned Flashpoint film and next year’s Aquaman solo venture. So the DCEU still isn’t what many would want it to be and may not be doing its league justice but there are signs of improvement. Justice League may frustrate many devout comic readers but casual fans are likely to enjoy it as a fun and funny spectacle.