Justice League is the culmination of so much for the DC film franchise. Four films of varying quality introduced us to this world of Gods among men. Of course, the greatest of those Gods is still Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), given the groundwork laid for her by this summer’s massive hit and first great film in this franchise. While striving for brave new ideas, Man of Steel, Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad all suffered from sprawling ideas that ultimately came up short. Now, Justice League has arrived and one can see the ship attempting to be steered back to harbor. It’s not an outright terrible blockbuster. Yet, it’s still guilty of something none of these earlier films seemed to exhibit: a total lack of ambition.
Justice League swings for mid-field out of most players’ way and succeeds at that by a hair. Much of what transpires plotwise and how it does stylistically can only be described as “serviceable.” Basically, a big bad villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) comes to earth and threatens several different colonies of Earth dwellers, eventually forcing Wonder Woman, Batman (Ben Affleck), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to form a… Coalition of Righteousness, if you will. Justice League is about as inoffensive a major blockbuster can get in terms of plot. That’s not entirely a slight, either. Despite lofty goals, the first three DC movies failed because of how badly they juggled their own shared universe concept. Simple isn’t necessarily a bad thing and makes this a far breezier ride than most of these others films in the series. Yet, that lack of ambition also makes the action scenes competent yet unremarkable on most every level. Director Zack Snyder made his career on the back of gorgeous pieces of action, but the visuals here are far more mechanical and workmanlike.
Pretty unavoidable with a villain as bland as Steppenwolf. Crappy forgettable villains aren’t exclusive to Justice League, but Steppenwolf is the textbook example that may outdo someone like Malekith from Thor: The Dark World in terms of unmemorable monologues and underwhelming fight scenes. Him and his flying monkey-style lackeys are adequate to see storm against heroes, but the generic diatribes about “unleashing the motherbox” feel so lacking in personality. Even when Steppenwolf has moments for one liners, it seems jarring. He’s such an underdeveloped character that any semblance of a personality crawl out, it doesn’t seem to fit Steppenwolf’s clammy cold CG husk of a body he lumbers around in. He’s just an excuse for generic minions to menace our heroes and eventually have a giant figure to throw through walls a la the Injustice series of games.
Of course, this is all just window dressing for the titular group of superheroes to come together as one group. This is probably done most cohesively with Batman and Wonder Woman, given those characters have some kind of a relationship that’s firmly established. Gadot carries that same compassionate warrior persona that made her the surprise hit of this summer, but Ben Affleck isn’t a slouch against her. He’s carrying baggage from the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), selling it far more than any previous scenes with the two of them in Batman V. Superman where he and Cavill scowled at each other. The foundation in general coming from the previous movies is the albatross hanging around Justice League as it tries to course correct. The Wonder Woman and Batman scenes do the best job of that course correction, as Batman acts like a cad with a dangerous yet fair idea for the group to consider. They feel the most like larger than life personas clashing about power and responsibility without over monologuing like Batman V Superman. With Diana calling out Bruce’s asinine behavior and Wayne apologizing to Prince. Character growth is always fun when it doesn’t involve people screaming Martha.
Speaking of Superman, there’s a lot to go into that might spoil what his role is given his death at the end of Batman V Superman, though it should be pretty obvious from that ending that he’ll be soaring the skies at some point in Justice League. Yet, most of the problems with the effects work and the troubled production blatantly come from Superman’s presence. The biggest one is literally right under his nose, as the computer effects used to get rid of Cavill’s moustache during reshoots throw The Last Son of Krypton straight into the Uncanny Valley. Now, despite the modern news cycle of big budget films like Justice League, I try to not have production problems skew my thoughts on the film itself. Yet, this rush job is so noticeable that it takes you completely out of the proceedings and mutes much of the attempts here to return Clark Kent/Superman back to the roots of the character. Though it’s once again based within the foundation that doesn’t follow through, given the opening is focused around the “Hope” Kal-El inspired that looked far more like fascist fear mongering in the earlier films. This is all despite the best efforts of Diane Lane and Amy Adams who are far better used here than in the previous DC films. For what that’s worth.
The other members of Justice League are a bit less consistent from there, though none of it really has to do with the performers. There’s an awkward pace going on during the first half of Justice League, as if this is more of a collection of short films about each character rather than one film. The stand out of the other members is honestly Ray Fisher, carrying the mopey tragedy spirit of this franchise with actual weight that makes sense given his origin story. His scenes with his father Dr. Silas Stone (Joe Morton) were some of the more compelling moments of superhuman drama, almost coming across as a Frankenstein monster style tragedy… that works best the less we see him in full Cyborg form. The computer effects aren’t Superman’s upper lip awful, but they occasionally render out in a fashion that makes Fisher look far more plastic than flesh and metal.
Flash and Aquaman are more of modern and grounded characters meant to balance the team out a bit. Ezra Miller gives the speedster superhero an appropriate manic energy, though his comedic one liners rarely if ever hit. As does most of the humor in Justice League, honestly. Yet, the constantly jittering metabolism and fan boyish joy of being around superheroes made him at the very least a likable presence when used properly. Even if his Flash run is silly as all hell, at least the scenes of him moving fast make for the best use of Snyder’s speed up-slow-mo since 300 a decade ago. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman adopts a more “Thor as surfer dude bro” approach, but it’s not a bad turn at that concept. There’s a confidence and brashness that sells his distance from Atlantis far better than random moments of universe building featuring Amber Heard do. Momoa has a brashness that makes him stand out, which hopefully results in an Aquaman solo film that’s just as confident.
All of this results in a Justice League film that really disappoints by simply being tolerable. Objectively it’s a more cohesive film that most of the predecessors in this universe, but that lack of ambition also results in less oasis high moments or memorably awful ones that made Batman V. Superman, Man of Steel and Suicide Squad weird cultural talking points. Removing the production problems that resulted in Snyder and writer/reshoot director Joss Whedon sharing a bit more shared credit, this still feels like a more consistent film story and character wise, which is a step in the right direction for the DC films moving forward. Yet, the wild tonal shifts and rather choppy scene to scene editing that especially plagues the first half of Justice League is noticeable regardless of that news weighing in on it. Justice League doesn’t inspire full on blind confidence as much as it does a small sigh of relief. Emphasis on ‘small.’ The future doesn’t look as bright as the sun that gives Kal-El his powers, but it’s at least not as dim as Snyder’s usual Instagram filter lenses he gives to his cinematographers.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Creepy Cavill Close Ups
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