The first Justice League team-up film has been long-awaited by fans of the comics, cartoons, and movies that DC Comics has been churning out for decades. And while the DC Cinematic Universe has (rightly) received a fair share of criticism for its many fumbles, the success of Wonder Woman, followed by word of a course correction for the DC pantheon on screen gave reason to hope for the future of the series.
[No spoilers for the film.]
Sadly, the first serving of Justice ended up being more like a buffet no one ordered. Where half the dishes were not left in the oven for the full hour they needed to cook. And the other half of the dishes were really tacky desserts. This might have had something to do with the fact that the buffet was created by two different chefs who had never worked in the same kitchen before, and were known for wildly different styles of cuisine. But some of the food was delicious anyway? Which sort of made the whole spread that much more upsetting?
All of which is to say… this poor movie just does not work.
It is stuffed to the gills with Easter eggs and vague background stories and flashy fights and set pieces that are working desperately to make you awed at this new team of superfriends. Director Zack Snyder’s signature style does not play well with the story being told, however; his overwrought tendencies pull the substance out of everything and reduce it to occasional shots that make the audience go “oh, look, a single cool thing.” Everything is too much: too much slo-mo, too much grunting, too many landslides and explosions and throwing people into walls. His action sequences are baffling as ever, making all the important movement of the film incredibly hard to track. While we’ve moved away from “Collateral Damage” Superman (thank goodness), you just can’t stop Snyder from vomiting rubble onto the screen at every available opportunity.
After the refreshing work of director Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman, Snyder’s poor influence on the Amazons feels like a bright spotlight… quite literally, as he spends the majority of the major Amazon fight sequence in the film getting in every possible butt shot he can manage. He also takes every possible opportunity to shine bright lights on Wonder Woman’s butt and breasts, lights that literally come out of nowhere. This abrupt shift in how the Amazons are filmed, barely half a year since Wonder Woman‘s release, feels like a pointed slap in the face.
While it’s understandable that Snyder thought of bringing in Joss Whedon to work on the script with Chris Terrio–Whedon’s work on The Avengers makes him an understandable go-to in this department, especially given the new lighthearted direction DC planned to go in–his work on the script is so obvious as to be almost embarrassing. You could take a scalpel and cut around the “Whedon bits” of the dialogue. What’s worse is that the work he has contributed is quite good, often exactly what the film needs to brighten up and come to life. It’s just a shame that it stands out so harshly against the places where the script is muddled and the dialogue mealy.
The character work is dodgy all the way around, which brings us to the problem of stepping straight into the team-up film without a cinematic background for half of the characters. It should not be impossible to create a superteam film without a Marvel-style continuity build-up, but Justice League clearly feels awkward about skipping a grade, and doesn’t want to leave anything out. It settles instead for dumping huge amounts of information about all the new characters at oddly random intervals… but not always the information that the audience wants or needs. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman suffers the most from this approach, which leaves the character adrift in a film that’s never quite sure what he’s doing there (aside from showing off his pecs, which is admittedly a-okay). Ezra Miller’s Flash makes it out the best of these new team members, with just enough history, personality, and charm to make him an instant favorite.
The most frustrating of the new characters is Cyborg, who Ray Fisher plays with keen sensitivity and focus. Cyborg is more essential to the storyline of the film than Flash or Aquaman, which results in far too much of his background being scratched over for plot purposes. It’s a shame, because his and Wonder Woman’s arcs are the most interesting ones that the film has to offer, both of them working to step out into the world and reclaim their place in it. The film might have been served better by centering on Cyborg’s journey instead and branching out from there. We’ll just never know.
Seeing Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck step back into the roles of Diana and Bruce shouldn’t feel like such a relief, but they are the only people capable of anchoring the movie, and when they are on screen the whole picture almost fills in. Diana is fierce as ever, but the film makes sense of her appearance in Batman vs Superman, and tries to delve into her reasons for shying away from the world. And though it’s probably not a turn anyone was expecting, Affleck’s middle-aged self-deprecating Batman is exactly what cinema needs right now. It’s legitimately enjoyable to see a version of Bruce Wayne who is aware of his limitations and doesn’t think much of himself at the end of the day. Hopefully this version will stand in his upcoming solo film.
After a brief, aggravating detour, Henry Cavill is finally given the opportunity to behave like the Superman fans know and love. He is gentle, he is funny, he is soothing and kind. But nearly all his scenes for the film were reshoots that occurred while he was also working on Mission: Impossible 6… when he had a mustache. Instead of begging M:I 6 to please let him shave the thing and use a fake one for their movie, the CGI team was tasked with removing Cavill’s mustache in post–a move that leaps straight over the uncanny valley into nightmare realms. His face looks not-quite-right through the entire movie. There are maybe two scenes where it isn’t a problem. To have his first excellent turn as the character be marred by this unsettling feeling that perhaps a weird changeling has taken over Superman’s body is downright depressing to watch, especially when Cavill finally appears to be enjoying the role so much.
There is a weird highlight to this strange journey; because Danny Elfman was responsible for writing a good portion of the score, his Batman theme is used for Batman. When you hear it, the whole world kind of falls away and you get to go home for a moment. Good thing he sprinkles it liberally throughout.
Though the villain is ridiculous (Ciarán Hinds does his best, but he can’t really lend pathos to a guy who is obviously a second-string baddie with nothing more to offer than “You will all bow and kowtow and otherwise kneel to me because that’s kind of my thing!”) and the plot is trying to fold together dozens of extra scenes that could easily fit into the eighteen other films DC currently working on, there is a really fun movie lurking inside Justice League. And that is what makes the whole experience so frustrating to sit through–the moments when you point at the screen and go oh, there you are, no stay a while, this is the feeling I want. With that said, the film might work a little better for people who read the comics or enjoyed the Justice League cartoons; it’s easier to fill in the gaps when you already love the characters and have some idea of where the whole circus is trying to go.
When all is said and done, Justice League feels like a film that is constantly withholding its bright, shining center from the audience. While DC and Warner Brothers will likely continue to course correct as they continue this touch-and-go journey, it would have been nicer to get some reassurance that Wonder Woman isn’t the only solid camp they’ve got running in their wheelhouse.
Emmet Asher-Perrin would kind of love a series of short films about sad Batman’s aches and pains, while Alfred continues to snipe at him about not having kids he can grandparent. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.