It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of going to see a big budget Justice League would have seemed like utter nonsense. But now we live in that word, where the number of superhero films that we have all seen is growing exponentially, and they aren’t just about Superman or Batman, but now Superman and Batman. And their friends.
As others have said, Justice League is a movie that has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Fan reaction to most of DC’s extended universe of films has been mixed at best, with a lot of comments being made about movies’ and characters’ tones. So this film had to address all of that. DC is also eager to get some of the love that Marvel has managed to create, so they are looking to establish themselves quickly as a legitimate player in the whole superhero shared cinematic universe, and so Justice League has to prove to doubters (in the audience and in the studio offices) that this possibility is legit. And not just for comics, but big-screen-blockbuster-summer-tentpole-merchandising opportunity legit.
And then, you know, it’s a movie, so it has to succeed on that level. It has to have interesting characters, an engaging plot and some sort of narrative consistency. Really, what we should be able to expect from every big-screen-blockbuster-summer-tentpole-merchandising opportunity.
The peculiar thing about responding to Justice League is that it’s hard to do without viewing it through the lens of the four previous DC Extended Universe films. And amazingly, there are ways in which the movie is able to improve upon each of those outings. Some Spoilers ahead.
• Man of Steel was a reasonably told story about an uninspiring, unengaging, conflicted, confused Superman that compounded its problems by giving the feeling of wanton destruction and a lack of concern for civilian lives.
In Justice League, Superman (when he shows up) is much more the character that many of us have always hoped for. He’s impressively powerful, but also intelligent and recognizably human in his connection with Lois Lane, his mother, his fellow heroes, and yes…civilians. Indeed, one of the film’s best and most insightful moments comes when Bruce Wayne speaks of him and says that essentially, Superman is more human than Batman is.
• Batman v. Superman was a convoluted movie with terrible pacing, a well-acted but terribly-written Batman, an overwhelmingly dark approach and an underwhelming series of action set pieces.
Meanwhile, Justice League is pretty much the exact opposite of “convoluted”. The story is almost absurdly straightforward. There are pacing problems, but there’s no difficulty at all in tracing the plot and character motivations from A to B to C. Also, Batman is not a murderous psychopath, but rather an intelligent hero who just happens to have an intense approach to life, which is more as he should be.
The movie also has lots of deliberately light and airy moments. Many of these are awkward and forced, like they are coming from your embarrassing uncle, but they are welcome. The franchise so desperately needed a course correction to help it’s primary heroes (particularly Superman and Batman) explore some emotional dynamics other than “tortured”.
• Suicide Squad was a bizarre fever dream that looked like it had been written and edited by a deranged clown with a baseball bat during a poorly conceived fight with an evil belly-dancer. It’s a blithering mess in its conception and even worse in its execution.
Meanwhile, Justice League manages to stay mostly cohesive and internally consistent, in spite of the fact that it’s well known for having two different directors (mostly Zach Snyder, but also 15-20% Joss Whedon). It does a better job establishing its concept, serving its ensemble cast, and ultimately telling its story.
• And Wonder Woman was a strong movie with coherent storytelling and powerful characterization, marred only by a shoehorned-in climactic CGI spectacle at the end
Though Justice League is certainly an inferior effort, the climactic battle is actually better. Now, this might be because the whole movie feels a bit like a CGI spectacle, but the staging of the battle is good, and the characterization enjoyable, with their co-operation serving as something of a highlight. It’s routine, but ultimately satisfying, and not overblown.
However, if we take off the filter of seeing Justice League against its predecessors in the DCEU, there are lots of weaknesses that stick out. It’s a simplistic, by-the-numbers superhero film with a villain whose motivations are so simplistic that it’s a bit staggering. It’s a bit criminally dull for the first third or so, taking a really long time to get where it’s going–although to be fair, maybe it’d have been more fun if the majority of the that third hadn’t already been released in trailers, previews scenes, advanced looks, and so on.
Also, the middle of the film takes a strong swerve to the left in order to detail the return of Superman. This resurrection turns out to be a pretty straightforward plot point in which Batman has an idea and it basically goes as he thought it would. During all this, the main story takes a big backseat and it feels strange that the villain is holding back so much and giving the heroes the time to do their thing. And then it turns out that the heroes were being a bit stupid by just leaving the their big weapon lying around unguarded. Surely there was some way to keep all this a bit more integrated?
I was trying to imagine how to strengthen all of this my first thought was that maybe Steppenwolf’s body could have been dying and so he’d resurrect Superman’s body himself to house his own mind…but that’s a bit too close to Age of Ultron for comfort. Probably instead we needed to follow up some of the hints from Batman v. Superman and have Superman reanimated to use as a soldier for Steppenwolf (or his master). That would have been way more dramatic and powerful, but would have necessitated changing the entire second half of the movie–maybe even making the climax take place on an alien world? If it could have been pulled off, it would have been awesome and spectacular, demonstrating the potential the Justice League concept has always had (it’s much easier to imagine these characters traversing an alien landscape than it is with most of the Avengers). But the risk would have been the film becoming bigger than it could handle and more expensive than the studio was willing to risk.
The end result is that we are we are left with this safe and somewhat mediocre story that does its job of introducing three new heroes, while repositioning two others (Batman, Superman) into postures that will hopefully be more pleasing to audiences. This is not an enviable task but it’s a welcome one, especially with Superman. People keep talking about him all through the movie like he is/was an inspiration and beacon of hope to humanity, but really one would have to scrutinize the previous films pretty closely to find any evidence of this. When that Superman shows up in Justice League, it’s great to see, and one wishes there was a way to go back and redo Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman to make them consistent with what we see here.
Of the newer characters, the Flash was my favorite, not so much because of the performance, but because of the way the character and his powers are depicted. His abilities are perhaps the most visually distinct and the way they are brought to life in the action sequences is quite fun.
But really all the characters (and their performers) are basically fine and are well used in the movie’s big action scenes. Those scenes are really the best parts of the movie, and where the banter between the characters is hit and miss, their camaraderie in battle is really fun.
So ultimately Justice League is an okay story that is not one of the best superhero movies but not one of the worst either, but that sets up some potentially awesome stuff in the future. Of course, the question is how long do we have to keep waiting for this awesome stuff? Will it ever actually come? I’d be a lot more hopeful if I knew that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all on their way with standalone films with a clear vision in the next couple of years. Sadly, right now, we have about one and a half of those. Can DC pick up on whatever momentum is generated here (and still lingering from Wonder Woman) and start producing some consistently strong output? All the narrative pieces are in place, it’s time for the behind-the-scenes people to prove what they’re capable of.
Incidentally, what is the next absurd cinema/superhero dream that we might see actually taking place in our lifetime? A Legion of Super-Heroes movie? A Mr. Miracle TV series? How about…a Marvel/DC crossover movie? Completely implausible, right? Well, so once upon a time was a Batman-Superman movie. Or even an Iron Man movie.
So why not
Batman-Spiderman: Web of Darkness
Justice League-Avengers: Dawn of Infinity?
No doubt they would be the stupidest things ever that would still be guaranteed to get some money from me.