The most goosebump-inducing moments in Justice League come during the first few minutes and when the film begins to run its end credits. A cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” by Sigrid gives the opening scene some surprising emotional weight and makes you think you could be in for something quite memorable here. The film then rages into its closing credits with a bombastic cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” by Gary Clark Jr. but this song was used in one of its trailers so perhaps this being a defining moment is a bit of a cheat.
I bring up these two musical moments because it’s never a good sign that the most praiseworthy moments in a heavily hyped superhero mash-up is its choice of songs. The film that populates the runtime between these moments of triumph is a bit of a mess. The film feels rushed, there are complete tonal issues and the script is littered with cringe-worthy sequences that had me laughing during times I wasn’t supposed to be (and not laughing during times I probably should’ve been). Adding to this is the lack of visual creativity courtesy of Zack Snyder. In my #TBT Reel Review of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I gave credit to Snyder for being a strong visual filmmaker but what’s on display here is mostly dour with no substance. There is nothing that really pops visually and some sub-par CGI is thrown into the mix to further muck up the waters. It’s a real shame that a lot of this doesn’t come together because there is great potential but since Warner Bros. is playing catch up with their DCEU and desperately trying to compete with Marvel, they’re dropping the ball and I’m a bit done accepting their level of mediocrity in this battle royale between these comic book brands.
Most of the problem is that Justice League is forced to do too many things from a narrative standpoint. It has to re-unite Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), fresh off her own film (and in a far better league than the other DCEU films we have gotten) with the Ben Affleck iteration of Batman. Because Affleck hasn’t gotten his own stand-alone film, we still don’t really know this rendition of the character and that problem is more evident here. Sure, he looks like the character we have come to know and love over the years, but he doesn’t infuse him with a distinct personality. I don’t necessarily blame Affleck for this (although he looks bored and appears to be phoning it in at times) but it’s a shame that as the would-be leader of this team he isn’t given enough depth for us to root for him beyond our familiarity with the character from times before. It would have helped immeasurably if the DCEU had taken the time for a proper re-introduction of a signature character but who has time for that when you’re so many steps behind Marvel in the first place. The film tries to help by reintroducing key things about characters through the appearances of familiar supporting players. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) are on deck for the Wonder Woman and Batman contingent while there’s the necessity of resurrecting Superman (Henry Cavill), because that character remains a key foundation of any DCEU movie even though he “died” at the end of Batman v Superman. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are on hand to represent the Superman support section. The movie also has to introduce Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and provide them with mini-origin stories, all with a 2-hour running time.
This is simply too much for just about any film to take on and Justice League isn’t particularly good at it. Marvel took time building its Cinematic Universe with all but two of The Avengers getting their own solo films before that fine representation of popcorn movie bliss was unleashed upon us. We got to know the key players and that made us care when they all got together. Justice League wants to get them all together while also filling in the blanks of their personalities and it simply doesn’t work. This is primarily why the film feels rushed and the fact that so much money was poured into a product only to have it go through the motions and not give its fans 110%, is a bit insulting at this point.
Then there is the issue of the central conflict. Even some of the better Marvel movies have sub-par villains but at least so much of it works that you can forgive the lack of a compelling threat. On display here is a villain called Steppenwolf (a motion-captured Ciaran Hinds) who has a poorly-defined backstory and no personality beyond crush and destroy. He provides the catalyst that brings the Justice League together but he’s a poorly conceived creation. There is nothing interesting to be about villains who want to destroy everything in their path for the sake of doing so. There is no real motivation and since he’s a motion-captured creation, he’s mostly a CGI created a threat with no real depth. There is nothing compelling about his motivations and all he does is add more action and explosives to the proceedings that never seem to get the pulse racing. We’ve been there and done that with these kinds of villains and this is probably the worst one yet.
Marvel movies, even when they’re flawed, are usually always fun. This has been a big debate between DC and Marvel fans because DC fans will argue that their films don’t need to be light and fun like their Marvel counterparts. They can be more dark and gritty which is something I’d be totally down for if the darkness served some kind of purpose. With the exception of Wonder Woman, why does this new wave of DC films feel like so much work? Why are the visuals so dark and muddy? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Christopher Nolan understood how to make the darkness organic and necessary to the DC films he made and that essential to their DNA. Not so with the DCEU films. The only one that really succeeds, Wonder Woman, does so in large part because director Patty Jenkins subscribed to a different aesthetic and allowed it to have its own voice. She wasn’t trying to copy a motif from similar comic book films. Even though Zack Snyder was replaced late in the proceedings by The Avengers’ Joss Whedon (as a result of a personal tragedy), Justice League adheres too closely to the tone that became an issue in Man of Steel and even more so in Batman v. Superman.
That being said, Justice League attempts to liven things up with humor and I suspect this was a Whedon addition and probably one mandated by Warner Bros. because of the criticism Batman v Superman received due to it taking itself way too seriously. The addition of humor is a mixed bag. Some jokes work while others feel extremely forced. Most of the stuff involving Ezra Miller’s The Flash worked (although you’ll find better student/mentor bantering in Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Jason Momoa’s take on Aquaman was pretty solid and offered up some laughs but many of the jokes just seemed awkwardly placed. It’s as if the film was telling itself it needed to be funny to keep up with the competition. The screening I was at didn’t seem to find a lot of it funny and many laughed at stuff they shouldn’t have laughed at. Honestly, the biggest laugh came courtesy of Diane Lane when she mentions to Lois Lane that Clark said: “she was one of the thirstiest girls he ever met”. Maybe the writers were unaware that thirsty has taken on a new meaning as of 2017 and isn’t exactly a compliment.
Fans of the individual characters will be happy to know that screen time is mostly evened out enough to allow every member of the team to shine. If you were a fan of Wonder Woman (and there were many) you’ll delight in the fact that she is pretty much a co-lead with Batman. In a film that is a muddled mess, Gal Gadot still manages to shine and her screen presence here shows that she’s honestly miles ahead of everyone else in the film. She knows this part in and out and makes her performance seem effortless. To bring up Ezra Miller again, he’s probably the best new addition BUT (and I know this is a nitpick criticism) I’m so used to Grant Gustin in the role after watching four seasons of The Flash that I couldn’t help but wish he was there over Miller. If I have to accept it, fine, Miller is adequate but I identify Gustin in that role because he has defined it for me. Ray Fisher was fine for me as Cyborg but his character’s origins are part of the rushed issues with the film. You don’t really get to know him or connect but Fisher is capable of the role. That doesn’t mean I’m craving a solo film though.
And what about Superman? The marketing team tried to cover up his appearance in the film as if we all believed he wouldn’t be resurrected here but I will say this aspect of the film is mostly handled just right. By far the best fight sequence in the film comes after he’s resurrected and he briefly faces off against the team and even though he’s not brought back until the second half, Henry Cavill does solid work. He’s definitely more at home in the role that Affleck is in as Batman but that’s mostly because Cavill had the benefit of a solo film before his next two outings. If anything his appearance here makes me want them to take another stab at another Superman film with Cavill, albeit maybe with a different creative team behind the camera. I’m still not buying into the great love between him and Lois Lane because Amy Adams is wrong for the part and looks like she’d rather be performing in a better film. There still isn’t significant chemistry and you can tell she’s there because she’s contractually obligated to be.
It would also be a shame to not mention Danny Elfman’s score because it’s also a highlight. He actually goes back to basics with his score while also throwing in shades of his work from Batman 1989. He also doesn’t ignore the work of previous composers and actually provides the film with a cohesive score that attempts to liven up the mundane scenes of cliched action. His score definitely deserves a better movie.
There are two post-credit scenes that also actually work. The first seems like another Whedon choice but I will admit being amused by it and the crowd got a kick out of it too. The second comes after all the credits have rolled and it offers up an intriguing direction for the films to take but as I sit here today, two days removed from my viewing, I’m not sure I can muster up the energy to care anymore. Bring on some of these solo films because at least they’re being made by filmmakers with better track records (James Wan has tackled Aquaman for 2018 while Jenkins is back on board for Wonder Woman 2 in 2019). If this mash-up of their best characters is the best Warner Bros can do, then I’m not sure I want to get the band back together. Perhaps the $96 million opening weekend (not good for a film tracking in the $120 million range) will be the wake-up call for them to do better. One can only hope.