6 out of 10
Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne / Batman
Directed by Zack Snyder
Justice League Review:
Well… it’s not awful. That’s a victory of some sort.
The road to the first onscreen collaboration of DC Comics‘ most famous characters (and in some cases their first big screen appearances ever) has been a fraught one, from various near misses over the last 15 years to the start and stop approach beginning with 2013’s Man of Steel. In the process there have been hits and misses, interesting ideas, novel approaches and severe miscalculations in tone, the most egregious being a focus on power and devastation over empathy or more old-fashioned heroics. The lingering question has been could director Zack Snyder, who has shepherded the last several years of this long, strange trip, recalculate his take on some of the most famous superheroes of them all into something less bombastic and more humanistic?
The answer is yes, more or less (with some help from co-writer and substitute director Joss Whedon), but that success brings problems of its own. Justice League is a zesty, quick-moving piece of superhero extravaganza with a laser focus on traveling from A to Z no matter the cost. When Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ended, Superman (Cavell) had died saving the world and with him has gone all hope, leaving behind a planet reeling in existential crisis and more willing than ever to embrace the worse angels of its nature. The timing couldn’t be worse as galactic warlord Steppenwolf (Hinds) has arrived searching for three magic boxes with which he can destroy all life on Earth. And now it’s up to a rejuvenated, repurposed Batman (Affleck) to bring the heroes of Earth together to save the world, or at least go down fighting.
Criticism of the films leading up Justice League have focused on dark tone at odds with the characters involved, emphasis on destruction, over-seriousness and general lack of heroics. That criticism has clearly been heard and the end result is a better experience all around, but it’s been achieved in the clumsiest manner possible.
Though it starts out in dark place, Justice League quickly makes with the jokes and mood lightening almost literally as Snyder’s trademark darkness is done away with in place of a brighter palette. Many of the gags are well-designed and well-delivered, particularly any given to Ezra Miller’s Fastest Man (Boy?) Alive who approaches world-saving and superheroics with a wide-eyed innocence that practically begs an audience to identify with him. Miller is a delight in almost all of his scenes, while also having the benefit of a superpower which invites strong visualization (e.g. X-Men’s Quicksilver). He’s matched (among the other new cast members) by Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, who gets the strongest character development in part because his backstory is connected strongly to the MacGuffin driving the plot.
And that’s important, because backstory is all we ever get of most of these characters. With no previous films used to introduce half of the Justice League members, the movie has to give us some idea of who they are for context, but it also wants to sprint to action scenes as quickly as possible. This fills the first half of Justice League with scene after scene of characters who have known each other for a long time telling each other things they already know so that we can learn it. Confused about Aquaman’s (Momoa) relationship with his mother and how it has led to his sullen personality? Don’t worry, it’s going to be explained to you with an easel and a chalk board and lots of easy-to-follow diagrams whether you like it or not. It’s the worst way in the world to handle exposition and Justice League indulges in it over and over and over again, killing any chance we have in carrying for these characters as characters rather than well-known icons.
The returning cast for the most part doesn’t get saddled with that particular problem, but no one’s quite sure what to do with them when they’re not fighting, either. Gadot remains as solid as ever as Wonder Woman, this version worldlier and shut off than the younger character seen over the summer, but left on the sidelines in order to make space for Affleck’s Batman. In a lot of ways, Batman is a walking, talking microcosm of the problems with Snyder’s change in focus; an embodiment of the director’s dark, brooding ethos suddenly forced out into the sunlight and made to deliver one-liners. Affleck does his best and sometimes it works, especially in his scenes with Gadot or Jeremy Irons’ Alfred (who saves every scene he’s in), but often it is jarringly out of character, providing not entertainment but puzzlement. The issue of coloring every character with the same broad brush of black paint which so vexed Dawn of Justice has been replaced with a brush of all white paint and getting very similar results.
And, with so much time spent on the heroes (or backstory of the plot, including an extended flashback which plays like a cut scene from Lord of the Rings), there’s almost nothing let for the villain. It would be charitable to describe Steppenwolf as one dimensional – he exists only to give the League someone to fight and try as they might, no one but Cyborg ever gets any real connection to him. Even if that weren’t the case, it would still be impossible to believe in him because he is simply unbelievable. Though many of the effects from Weta Digital are top notch (again, particularly Cyborg and Flash), Steppenwolf is one of the worst-looking digital leads of the last decade; he doesn’t just live in the uncanny valley, he’s pitching tent in the uncanny Grand Canyon. It’s amazing something this unpolished was allowed in a major studio release; it feels as if no one could decide what he should be like resulting in the final version being rushed out.
That more than anything else describes Justice League: rushed. It’s in such a hurry to race to the action that the League building feels perfunctory and the characters ill-defined, as if all anyone really wanted was to see all these guys fighting together on screen (which may well be true but doesn’t make for a great film). And once the action starts, it’s in a hurry to get to the next beat and the next and the next, rarely taking a moment to make even the quality moments connect together. By the end, it’s even rushed past its initial bleakness and into a sunny new day where everyone smiles and laughs at each other in a way that never feels earned. In its great hurry, Justice League never manages a steady stride but instead regularly trips over its own feet.
There are plenty of solid moments, enough to see a better Justice League film lurking inside this weak one. Snyder still knows his way around a super melee and there are more than a few fan moments which genuinely land, particularly a group-wide melee with a recently-resurrected Superman. The moments, however, come not from Snyder or his stuntmen or his cast but from composer Danny Elfman, taking the reins from Hans Zimmer. His brassy score, heavily redolent of his Batman work, brings all of these superheroics to life in a way Marvel has never managed in their films and even synthesized all of the disparate elements mixed into Justice League. Attentive listeners will hear the return not just of Elfman’s classic Batman theme but John Williams’ Superman March, along with reprises of Zimmer’s own Superman and Wonder Woman themes. Though the film itself never quite lives up to its ambitions, the score does and then some.
None of that is enough to make Justice League an unqualified success, but it’s not a failure either. The tone is all over the place, the plot’s a mess and Batman should never be cracking jokes. On the other hand, watching these icons gather together to fight evil is a reward all its own and the set pieces are invigorating. Sure it’s six of one, half dozen of the other, but considering where we started, I’ll take it.
And as always, stay for the end of the credits.