Few films have the kind of rocky origin story that Justice League has had. Its predecessor, the “surefire hit” Batman v Superman, was savaged by critics and audiences alike. The harshest responses of all came from the fanboy community, who reacted as if Zach Snyder had broken into their houses and destroyed all their memorabilia in front of them. Warner Bros., a studio that has become the poster child for overreacting, proceeded to butcher Suicide Squad in hopes of making it more audience friendly (they failed) and started trying to micromanage JL.
Things got worse last March when Snyder had to leave the project entirely due to the tragic suicide of his daughter – something that more than a few fanboys treated like poetic justice for making a comic book movie they didn’t like. Snyder’s replacement for the (extensive) reshoots and post-production couldn’t have been more different from him; Avengers director Joss Whedon. It wasn’t until the release of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman that the tide started to turn in Justice League’s favor. WW was a terrific, optimistic film that somehow managed to balance the stylistic throughline of Snyder’s films while avoiding the bleakness that made those films harder to enjoy. Now is the moment of truth. Now we all get to see for ourselves if a film whose genesis was this tumultuous can actually be any good.
Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes-Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash-it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.
Justice League is a beautiful, chaotic mess of a film. It’d be naive to think that this isn’t due to having two very different directors, not to mention a studio that demanded a runtime of no more than two hours. The characters and tone go from being brooding and intense (Snyder) to flippant and jokey (Whedon). Snyder’s dense, cinematic visuals occasionally give way to something that looks like an expensive TV show when Whedon is at the helm. Major philosophical and ethical dilemmas that help to give the story much needed weight are blown through quickly and forgotten. As someone who actually enjoyed Batman v Superman (despite its flaws), I was worried that this course correction would mean throwing out the baby with the bath water; a concern that was not unfounded. BvS tackled major ideological and philosophical conflicts, and while the film’s handling of those conflicts could best be described as “clunky” those big questions gave it a sense of gravitas. Justice League has shades of that ambition, but its been buried under a mountain of fluff.
This change in tone isn’t all bad, though. The visuals are a little more vibrant (skin tones look like skin tones) and definitely pop more. If Batman v Superman felt like a continuation of Snyder’s previous movie Watchmen, then this film feels like a live-action multi-part episode of the Justice League animated series. The heroes are truly heroic, actually going out of their way to save innocent people from the collateral damage of their battles. The dialogue is peppered with humor that works well for the most part; though it feels false when Batman is given overtly silly lines to say (c’mon Whedon). There are moments and flashbacks that hint at the greater world that the follow-up films are bound to explore. We’re a long way from Diana clicking on thumbnails to see video of future superheroes.
If there was one thing that people agreed was awesome about BvS, it was warehouse fight. It was the single greatest cinematic fight scene involving Batman EVER… You’d actually be hard pressed to find a more thrilling fight scene involving any superhero. Sadly, The Dark Knight doesn’t get to bring the pain the way he did then; if anything, he seems frustratingly outmatched by the demigods and Parademons. Now, he often has to resort to extensive use of gadgets to win fights. The other members of the team, however, get some truly great battle scenes. Watching Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman team up in battle is something to behold. The film does a great job of incorporating their unique powers and abilities into the choreography and it’s all presented very cleanly (no shakycam!). The film also doesn’t devolve into a faceless henchmen slugfest the way Avengers did. In most cases, the League have to fight a single enemy: Steppenwolf, who is powerful enough to take on several metahumans at once. Steppenwolf may not be the most interesting villain of the year, but he’s definitely no slouch in combat; a fact that is made immediately clear when he shows up and WRECKS the Amazons toward the start of the film.
An area of the film that has received justified praise is in the portrayals of its heroes. The film is at its best when they’re all together and interacting. Comparisons to the Avengers are inevitable, so let’s not dance around it: The members of the Justice League all feel a little more unique from each other than the Avengers. They don’t squabble childishly and each one is going on their own personal journey in addition to trying to save the world. All the returning heroes have changed considerably, most likely the result of their experiences since Batman v Superman. The most changed of all is (spoiler, not spoiler) Superman. The world’s view toward Supes changed considerably after his death and now his worldview seems to have changed along with it. Henry Cavill finally gets to become the Superman he was always meant to be by displaying the charm we all knew he had.
Of the new characters, The Flash (Ezra Miller) makes the strongest impression. Barry Allen has a manic energy and quick wit that allows him to effortlessly steal every scene he’s in. Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) is the perfect halfway point between badass and jokester; watching him rib on Batman every chance he gets is a joy. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is the tortured member of the team. He spends much of the story struggling with the new powers he can barely understand or control. This movie also marks the DCEU debut of Commissioner Jim Gordon (J.K. Simmons) who doesn’t get near enough screentime. Simmons’ take on the character feels like a more heightened version of his predecessor Gary Oldman; he’s a character who you’ll lament not seeing more of.
Overall, the things that Justice League gets right (characters, action, cinematography) easily outweigh the things it gets wrong (story, villain, uneven tone) making it a solid B (or maybe B+) movie. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of the first Avengers movie, but no one expected it to; that film was lightning in a bottle that even Marvel hasn’t been able to replicate. As it stands, Justice League is an enjoyable if not disposable movie that will make you want to see more solo movies featuring its awesome characters. Now if they could find a way to balance the lighter tone with the more substantial ideological conflicts (like Wonder Woman did), then the DCEU might just become a real contender.