OnScreen Review: 'Justice League'
- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has been at a serious disadvantage compared to Marvel and its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). While DC and Warner Bros. were basking in the audience and critical success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Marvel was laying the groundwork for the MCU; building a brand and creating capital with its audience to the point that non-mainstream properties like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man became box office hits. Rather than copy Marvel’s blueprint, DC decided to go its own way in the connected franchise realm, with very mixed results.
Last year I wrote unfavorable reviews of both Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. Both were messy and uninspired films draped in muddy color tones. Earlier this summer, Wonder Woman ended up being a revelation and a genuine surprise in how good it was. Despite that success, I still did not hold out much hope for Justice League as a continuation of the DCEU. So perhaps it was because of lowered expectations, but I found myself enjoying Justice League far more than I anticipated, even though it is far from being on the same level as Wonder Woman or your average Marvel movie.
Picking up in the aftermath of (*minor spoiler*) the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the film rather hastily cobbles together the Justice League, comprised of Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). The newcomers, Miller, Momoa, and Fisher are given the briefest of brief backstories in their introductions, with Batman and Wonder Woman tracking them down to recruit them. Fisher, almost a complete unknown, is burdened by being subsumed beneath inconsistent-at-best CGI.
Why they are being recruited is because of an impending invasion of a being known as Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). Steppenwolf’s origins are murky; is he an extra-terrestrial like Superman, a god-like creature like Wonder Woman, or an inter-dimensional being of some kind? Regardless, he arrives on Earth with an army of parademons (not a typo, their actually called this) seeking three Mother Boxes, which will remake Earth into a hellscape of his making if he possesses them. The implementation of these Mother Boxes in the story is convoluted and more than a little incoherent at times, a little deus ex machina at other times, and more than a little goofy at other other times, especially visually when they meld together and melt some random obelisk.
Part of the success of superhero movies is attributable to the quality of the villain(s) involved in the movie. Batman has a great rogues gallery; the same can be said of Spider-Man. Steppenwolf is not a very impressive villain for this film. Hinds is a fine actor, but his voice work doesn’t stand out as particularly menacing here. And the CGI involved in making Steppenwolf a hulking 9 ft. monster is, frankly, not very good.
The storyline overall is pretty nonsensical, and the villain is hardly compelling, but there are some glimmers of hope to be found. While the overall story is generally lacking and amounts to little more than an excuse for several big punch-em-up action scenes, the action itself is notably better and more visually appealing here than in the previous Superman movies or Suicide Squad. It all eventually devolves into fighting in front of a too-obvious CGI background, but it is clearer what is happening in the action and, thankfully, not all at night in an oppressive downpour. That’s a small, but important step forward for DC. Also a small but positive step in the right direction is that they finally managed to shift the action, which is heavy on large-scale destruction, away from a heavily populated metropolis, like… Metropolis…, and to do so in a way that didn’t require an incredibly ham-fisted line of dialogue where somebody says, “They’re fighting in the downtown district, but it’s a weekend, and thankfully it’s mostly empty.” The climactic fight at the end takes place in a remote place in the world that is purposefully off the radar to prevent detection.
The cast and the dialogue seem to have received an upgrade overall too. Gadot continues to shine as Wonder Woman, getting foregrounded more in the action, almost certainly in reshoots given the massive success of Wonder Woman this summer. There has been a lingering question as to whether Affleck is actually engaged in this material at all, and to his credit, I don’t think he is going through the motions, though I’m not 100% certain on that front. Their characters are the de facto leaders of the team, especially with Superman sidelined in a grave to begin the film. They have some tension in how best to take on Steppenwolf, and the script maybe throws in the faintest of half-hearted attempts at romantic tension between them as well, which is hard to tell because if it is they don’t pull it off very well.
Momoa and Miller are net positives as additions to the cast, with Miller being a genuine highlight of the film. Momoa, saddled with arguably the weakest of superpowers from the comic books in the eyes of many, seems like an overcorrection on the part of DC to make the character compelling on screen. They take a few light jabs at the “talking to fish” nature of his superpowers, and Momoa is able to roll with it, bringing a bit of comedy to the character in addition to his imposing physical presence. Miller gets to shine as the character that truly stands out from everyone else, a kid in comparison to everyone else involved in the fight, his Flash brings the most levity to what has too often been a dour and overly serious DCEU.
For whatever reason, Marvel has found a pretty good balance in bringing high stakes and blending in laughs to leaven the seriousness of it all to keep the stakes from being too cumbersome for audiences. It’s probably no coincidence that Joss Whedon’s involvement in re-writes and taking over for Zack Snyder on post-production due to a family tragedy results in a funnier and slightly lighter tone to the overall proceedings. In fact, the climax of the film is immediately followed up by two of the least human members of the Justice League having the perhaps the most human reaction in the moment and sharing a laugh together. And, thankfully, there are far fewer lines of dialogue that made me cringe to myself in the theater; no repeat of the infamous Marthas scene.
DC had its work cut out for it after a rough 2016 which featured some serious missteps in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. 2017 might mark a turning point where they began to find their footing. Wonder Woman remains an outlier, and perhaps may continue to be for a while still, but Justice League is a modest step in the right direction. Things are more up in the air behind the scenes for the DCEU given the uncertainty of Snyder’s involvement going forward, and it remains to be seen how much autonomy they give to directors like Matt Reeves for his standalone Batman movie (and whoever gets pegged for the Aquaman and Flash spinoffs), but there are reasons to hope where there were not before. Justice League is nowhere close to Wonder Woman, but it is a marginal improvement over Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars