Were someone to ask for a two-word review of “Justice League,” I would sum up the DCEU film as “entirely underwhelming.” The film series may have partially righted the ship with this year’s incredibly impressive “Wonder Woman,” but this Zack Snyder-helmed project (Joss Whedon has a screenplay credit) is closer to last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” also from Snyder, than the superior Patty Jenkins film.
The issue is not (necessarily) one of director. “Wonder Woman” takes place in the past whereas the other two are present day and “Justice League” is forced to reckon with its immediate temporal predecessor and the gross missteps of that film.
A large amount of “Justice League” then is focused on doing what every single person leaving “Batman v Superman” knows has to take place (yup, talking about the ending of “Batman v Superman” if you think that’s a spoiler, be warned) – resurrecting the Man of Steel (played again by Henry Cavill). Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is convinced that this is necessary in order to save the world from a new evil, an invasion by other aliens led by Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds and depicted as a CGI leftover from Middle-Earth).
As for Batman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and their too-easily assembled squad of heroes—Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—they all only take a minimal amount of convincing to take part in this effort and merely give lip service to questions of morality and ethics. These last, as we saw in “Batman v Superman,” are both wholly malleable and easily dismissed elements, a trend that continues here.
Crafting a compelling villain has proven difficult for both Marvel and DC in their various filmic universes and that problem crops up once more in “Justice League.” While we are offered the history of Steppenwolf on Earth, he remains nearly as much a mystery at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning. His motivations are poor, his powers rather nebulous, and his henchmen (the parademons) are confusing at best.
So, the audience watches in “Justice League” as the inevitable takes up a large percentage of the film, and does so without vigor or enthusiasm. In fact, audiences could easily piece together nearly the exact method of Superman’s resurrection simply by watching “Batman v Superman.”
While that earlier film deals with questions of the potential problems of having a God-like creature on Earth, predictably, those elements are missing from “Justice League.” Superman is needed to battle Steppenwolf because the rest of this group of heroes aren’t a sufficient match. It is irrelevant to the plotting of this movie that one single member of the League more than held his own against Superman in the last film.
Then, when the climactic battle in “Justice League” does arrive, it is set in a radiated wasteland with a notable, but scant, population. This, presumably, serves to allay any possible fears that these super beings might again tear down a portion of a densely populated urban environment. It is better than the weak explanation in “Batman v Superman” as to why there aren’t people where they are fighting, but only just.
There is little in “Justice League” which doesn’t feel like the result of a cynical calculation, including the post-credits sequence. Throughout the film we are treated to small moments with plenty of famous faces, repeatedly offering the idea that these characters will become fully fleshed out when the members of the League are given their own movies. At that time we’ll truly understand the relationship between Aquaman and Mera (Amber Heard) or Barry Allen and his father (Billy Crudup) or the way this Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) works with Batman or the drive felt by Victor’s father, Silas (Joe Morton).
On the plus side, these side moments work far better into the larger story as a whole than did Bruce Wayne’s discovery of metahumans in “Batman v Superman.” And, those other stories being hinted at throughout “Justice League” feel potentially compelling.
Some of this may result from the fact that these other heroes are far more captivating than either Superman or Batman. Gadot’s characterization of Wonder Woman has, to this point, shown itself to be the best thing on offer by the DCEU and with good reason – she is a strong character whose struggles are neither mopey nor self-indulgent. Cyborg and The Flash both are dealing with things beyond their control and struggling to figure out their, very human, place in the world. Superman’s issues with being a god and Batman’s world-weary nature are nowhere near as engrossing. As for Aquaman – after “Justice League” he remains the biggest mystery of the bunch.
If Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the best character to this point, Miller’s Flash is easily number two (with Cyborg just behind him). There is an infectious enthusiasm to the way Miller portrays Barry, making him a character to follow as the universe progresses (hopefully though he gets a better suit).
Watching this film one almost sense an attempt to wipe the slate clean of “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” that the DCEU is going to move away from brooding pompousness and towards something better. There is, without a doubt, a tonal shift from those movies to this, which is far more lighthearted. The biggest concern is that the entire affair offers up exactly what everyone might have expected it to offer from the beginning. It features no surprises, lacks enjoyable action sequences, is still plagued by moments of illogic, and is generally rather ho-hum. All of which means that it is better than “Batman v Superman,” but it’s no “Wonder Woman.”
photo credit: Warner Bros.