Far be it from me to ever give a movie too much slack, but it’s a minor miracle that Justice League isn’t a total 12-car pile-up. After all, this is a movie that had at least 2 major creative sharp turns during the course of it with the critical failure (albeit commercial success) of Batman v. Superman and the tragedy-laced departure of director Zack Snyder to be replaced by Joss Whedon, two directors who could not have styles more worlds apart. Had it been an absolute mess, we could have simply sighed, understood, and moved on.
So again, let reiterate the petite miracle that Justice League kinda works. It is by no means a rousing success. There’s enough flawed narrative and weirdly bad CGI to make sure that this falls just short of managing to come in for a smooth landing or even a landing where it doesn’t take some damage. But a better-than-expected set of characters and a more resonant thematic work helps make Justice League something that you can at least see steering towards a much better place, finally.
Picking up in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, the world has fallen into chaos. Its beacon of hope-
By the way, let’s take a brief early sidebar. In this film’s attempt to essentially right the ship of DC state, one of its most jarring (but very welcome) choices is to not only change the character of Superman, but to pretend that was how we always was. He’s not the controversial, complicated (like your bad high school boyfriend), and feared figure of Batman v. Superman. He’s a corny, charming and human hero that the world mourns deeply and falls apart without. I get the need to reboot without rebooting and I’m certainly happy they did it, but it is odd.
has gone out and darkness looms overhead. That darkness is in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a general of Apokolips who has come to terraform in its vision. Standing in his way is Batman (Ben Affleck), who’s figured out the invasion is coming, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who knows the power of this ancient enemy.
Together, the two must recruit other superpowered individuals across the globe. From Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a troubled loner seeking solitude, to The Flash (Ezra Miller), an eager young man hoping to get his father (Billy Crudup), to Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former football star who was stitched back together with mechanical enhancements after a devastating accident.
Our scrappy group of heroes is perhaps the best thing about this movie. Of our returning (that I can talk about), Gadot has such a star quality, a charismatic screen presence who’s enrapturing to follow, and her Wonder Woman is a very classical sort of superhero, with shades of that fundamental decency and belief in good that Christopher Reeve had. Affleck’s Batman is still sadly underdeveloped, but he gets more room to breathe with the ability to make a dry joke or two and lighten the character up just a little bit.
But hey, you knew that. It’s the new ones you came to see, so let’s just run down them.
Ezra Miller has been a star on the rise since Perks of Being a Wallflower and here you see what he can do in a bigger picture. He gets to play a Spider-Man role, a young hero in awe of the adults around him trying to figure out his place. The effects for him could use some work down the road, but there’s an exciting quality to a superhero who doesn’t come in ready to fight, playing more with nervous energy than many of the characters around him have.
Momoa is functionally playing Aquaman at his bro-est, think a Zack Snyder version of The Brave and the Bold’s cheesy, over-the-top-at-all-times Aquaman. It’s an enjoyable enough performance, though underdeveloped given that he’s the reluctant member, filling in a role that Batman often plays in team-ups like this. If they given him more room with his place in Atlantis, we might really see something interesting.
Fisher is the newest actor here, so naturally anything he’s gonna do is the biggest surprise. Fisher is actually really good here, giving Cyborg a little more substance than the Frankenstein monster he’s written as. There’s a cool, calm relaxed assurance to his character, something I wasn’t expecting but that Fisher really sells.
And perhaps most importantly, Justice League gets a team dynamic right. While Steppenwolf may not necessarily be the threat the movie needs (is he really that much more powerful than Ares?), there’s a sensible dynamic that brings them together. If The Avengers are a team of the personally flawed who had to get over themselves, then the Justice League (never called that in the movie) are a team of the tragic who have to move on. Each of them has lost something and they have allowed it for too long to consume them who need to save a world that has lost something and been consumed by it.
Justice League is essentially a movie about how those around us can help us move through tragedy. How the depths of despair can be escaped with a hand reaching down.
It’s a shame how much it gets right because the disastrous production got just enough wrong to keep it from really succeeding as it should be able to.
Steppenwolf may rank as one of the worst comic book movie villains period, down around Malekith the Accursed or Enchantress. His motivations are completely muddled, his threat is unclear, and the mythology behind him is only glancingly referenced, avoiding the substance an obscure villain like Steppenwolf would need. The lack of physical presence from Steppenwolf is noticeable too, an all-CGI character might be fine…
If it wasn’t for the weirdly terrible effects work in this film. I get that reshoots likely forced a lot of quick fixes, but the sheer amount of CGI might also come some way towards explaining why none of it felt focused on. Terrible green-screen, a lot of clearly visible actor replacements, maybe one of the most jarring human effects I’ve ever seen, and Steppenwolf himself looks plasticky and fake, like someone’s having an action figure fight the Justice League. Cyborg also falls victim to this from time to time, his design is just too busy to really look good. There’s a very substandard quality to something that takes up so much of this movie.
Which’d be fine if this film worked well narratively. To its credit, Justice League fixed Batman v Superman‘s pacing problems. This is a snappy, fast-paced narrative that’s always got something happening. The problem is that it’s got it happening way too fast. The jump from moment to moment can be jarring, much of the actual machinations don’t hold up to much scrutiny (I’m sure), and there’s a lot of introductions to people that only matter for a scene.
We’re given an early moment to a terrorist group led by Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) that Wonder Woman defeats. They get introduction, a monologue, and a whole action sequence and then are unceremoniously dropped without any explanation of why they got that much time. There’s multiple things like this throughout the film that just don’t work.
Plus your mileage will absolutely vary on the mechanics of the writing. Between Terrio and Whedon, the dialogue is…corny. This one feels like a Saturday morning cartoon more than anything else, and not necessarily the Bruce Timm cartoons. Your enjoyment of this film is really going to depend on how the film’s sense of humor works for you and how much you can get over some clunkers.
I’ll say this much. I could vibe on Justice League‘s sense of humor and the clunkers didn’t bother me much. There’s an entertainment value to this movie that works, character moments and beats and sequences that really do soar and get the fist pumping. This is the worst superhero movie this year, but it’s more the fault of the quality of the rest rather than simply the issues here.
Justice League is an enjoyable enough ride and one that steers the DC ship in the right direction. It feels like a purge of the universe that came before it and the creation of one that may be far more sustainable. One more full of heroes that want to do good and a world that is worth saving.