Written by Shawn Eastridge
Fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.
These days, writing a review for a Warner Bros/DC film feels a bit like kicking someone after they’re down. With the exception of Wonder Woman, the studio just can’t seem to catch a break. The mediocre Man of Steel tripped them up right out of the gate, and the atrocious tag-team attack on cinema and good taste that were Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad kept them flailing. And now Justice League, a film intended to be the triumphant culmination of the franchise up to this point, ala Marvel’s The Avengers, has received a less than enthusiastic critical response and the lowest opening weekend numbers of any DCEU film thus far.
I almost feel bad for Warner Bros.
So, yeah, I won’t beat around the bush here: Justice League is not good. Damage control has been the primary creative motivator behind every one of the WB/DC films with each new entry serving as a kind of apology for its preceding entry. Justice League feels like everyone skipped the apology, threw their hands in the air and said, “We give up. Just release the damn thing already.”
I’ll admit the film isn’t close to being as terrible as Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad, and yes, there’s an almost involuntary thrill that comes from watching this team of heroes interact and take down bad guys together. But the film suffers from a kind of ‘let’s just get this over with’ mentality that drags the whole thing down. Any glimmer of creative vision or identity has been squeezed out by studio heads desperate to shape it into a crowd-pleasing product. Batman v Superman, as misguided as it was, at least had the benefit of a bold vision. Not good, mind you, but bold. Justice League has little vision or identity. It’s bogged down by the weight of its ‘filmmaking by committee’ approach. The stink of studio meddling and clashing tones and visions is all over this sucker.
No doubt, this is the direct result of Joss Whedon’s humor-heavy ideology not meshing in the slightest with Zack Snyder’s grim and dark take on the material. (Whedon was hired to do reshoots after Snyder exited the film due to a personal tragedy) Snyder receives full directing credit, but this doesn’t feel like his film in the slightest outside of the messy plot and over-reliance on CG action. Whedon does what he does best, inserting his trademark, quippy one-liners at every opportunity, but in the context of what’s come before in this universe, it all feels wrong. Seeing a visibly disinterested Bat-fleck deliver a snappy punchline is really embarrassing.
Let’s move on to the plot. It’s your standard ‘Evil bad guy must obtain items so they can unleash the apocalypse and our heroes must unite to defeat him,’ and not much more than that. But where Marvel’s mastered the art of distracting from their story shortcomings with colorful characters, punchy dialogue and exciting action, Justice League offers none of the above. Its special effects are underwhelming and its color grading is a disaster. Honestly, it looks like they color-corrected the entire film to combat Snyder’s generic grayscale aesthetic and give it some visual flair, but the decision clashes with the production and costume design, revealing hiccups and flaws Snyder’s dark shades and low lighting would have muted.
There’s little method to the madness regarding how scenes are constructed and edited together. The pacing is off and certain moments feel out of place, such as Bruce’s first meeting with Aquaman or the extended action sequence that introduces the main villain Steppenwolf. The latter feels as if it was intended to open the film before someone on the creative side realized it was too similar to The Avengers’ opening. Another action sequence involving Wonder Woman feels shoehorned in as a direct result of her solo movie’s popularity and has little bearing on the plot.
Where the film shows a semblance of creativity is when the action starts and we get to see the team working together to take on an enemy. The cast plays off each other well enough, with Ezra Miller’s jittery, sincere performance as Barry Allen/The Flash being the clear standout. Everyone else sort of blends into the background. Ben Affleck looks like he’d rather be anywhere else and Gal Gadot seems embarrassed to be involved at all. As Aquaman, Jason Momoa makes barely an impact and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg disappears into the background.
And yes, Superman does make an appearance in time for the big finale, and for once he actually behaves like Superman, opting to save civilians over bashing bad guys senseless and causing mass destruction. It’s a nice change of pace. His personality might stand in stark contrast with the moping, sad-sack character we’ve come to know and not love in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but hey, at least they’re trying. (Although I’m not sure how they’re going to explain Clark’s sudden re-appearance at the Daily Planet, seeing as how, you know, he died and all.)
Justice League’s core problem when it comes to these characters is that with the exception of Batman and Wonder Woman we don’t really know any of them. I’d argue we don’t even really know Batman. In the last movie he was pretty much a cold-blooded murderer, gunning down people left and right and showing no mercy. Now he’s like the grumpy old dad, serving as a mentor in one scene and giving inspiring speeches to rouse the team in others.
The script tries to generate empathy for the Flash and Cyborg, and to a certain extent it succeeds. The pair gets a really nice scene together in which they both recognize the similarity of their origin stories, but their subplots go undeveloped, lost in the CG mayhem and action. Aquaman gets a couple solo moments to strut his bro-tastic stuff, but even with those luscious locks and washboard abs, he doesn’t make much of an impression. It’s difficult enough to connect with the video game-style action, but it’s worse when we know so little about these people or why we should care about them.
Ugh. Sorry. I feel like I’m just jumping on the bandwagon to rip this movie apart. Let me see if I can think of anything else I liked.
Well, there’s Danny Elfman’s score, which is far more uplifting than BvS’s doom and gloom approach. He throws in familiar notes of John Williams’ Superman theme (which shows up briefly at the most inappropriate moment) and his own classic Batman ‘89 theme. I’m not sure why, seeing as how this franchise has tried its utmost to pave its own creative path separate from those already established. Their inclusion feels more like a ‘hey, remember those movies you like!’ moment than a creatively motivated one. It ends up having the opposite of what I guess was its intended effect, serving only as a reminder of how far these cinematic icons have fallen since their glory days.
Ugh. I couldn’t even maintain the positive outlook on an element I liked. DCEU movies have that kind of effect on me.
More than anything, Justice League feels like the final weary sigh of Snyder’s involvement in this universe. It’s a product that needed to be released to clear the sinuses, more so than a creative endeavor anyone involved seemed to actually care about. It’s a step in the right direction in that its heroes are actually behaving heroically for once, but it just can’t overcome its shortcomings in the story department.
My hope is that with Justice League is out of the way, Warner Bros no longer feels tied down to a specific plan and can devote their full attention to salvaging this franchise. They seem to be on the right track with another Wonder Woman on the way and a new Batman film directed by the brilliant Matt Reeves. I really hope they find their way. These characters and their fans deserve so much better than this.