Justice League marks the fifth installment of the DC Extended Universe, the comic book giant’s attempt to take their friendly rivalry with Marvel to the big screen. Things…have not gone well. Vowing to take a grounded and cerebral approach to their films rather than copying Marvel’s now signature whimsical, this-is-all-silly-anyway style, DC and Warner Bros. have aimed for dark and grounded but achieved dreary and grotesque, most notably last year’s Batman v Superman, a movie so dour and joyless that a Zoloft should have come with the price of admission. And with the release of the universally panned Suicide Squad later that same year, the fate of Justice League seemed predestined: abandon hope, all ye who enter here. And then, Wonder Woman came out to much deserved applause and speculation began that DC’s efforts to compete with Marvel were not all in vain. If DC/WB is capable of making a good movie, what did that portend for Justice League? Could it be the film to expunge the sins of DC’s past and become canonized as one of the greatest the superhero genre has to offer? Well, this critic is here to tell you…no. Sorry.
But, it will do.
I’m going to suppress my urge to go too terribly hard in the paint on this movie for two reasons: the first is that it isn’t terrible and many of the facets I take umbrage with skirt the border of being my own preferences in taste. The second is that the process of making a movie is one of the most collaborative tasks yet invented, and this movie was burdened by both a massive impediment in it’s production and the four movies that came before it that it was expected to simultaneously retroactively fix and deliver on. What I’m getting is that the version of Justice League being released this Friday might be the best version that we were going to get under these circumstances.
Replacing director Zack Snyder–who left the film to deal with a family tragedy–with Joss Whedon, reads on paper as solid strategy. Whedon had a substantial hand in developing the first two phases of Marvel’s incalculably successful cinematic universe and set the precedent for epic superhero team-ups with The Avengers and it’s sequel. It’s reasonable to view Zack Snyder as the DC and analogue to Whedon, but the two directors differ vastly in craftsmanship, from the tone of the dialogue to the visual style. Snyder has proven his mastery of visuals but his story-telling is all over the map while Whedon has a better command of dialogue and plot cohesion but his films all share a non-distinct, TV aesthetic. With such complimentary skill-sets, the two directors would probably make a natural team if they were working in conjunction, but with Whedon doing reshoots and inserting them into Snyder’s film, Justice League feels wildly disjointed, often in the space of single scenes.
I can only postulate at how much of the film each director contributes to the final product, but, educated guess, I would say the film is largely Whedon’s, even if it only has Snyder’s name on it. This bodes well for five out of our six main heroes, especially the three new ones. Ezra Miller as the hyperactive, carbo-loading Flash is bound to be the breakout of the film—the comic relief characters usually are—but his comedy refreshingly relies on physical gags rather than an avalanche of rapid-fire quips like Rocket Raccoon or Iron Man. Ray Fisher and Jason Momoa as Cyborg and Aquaman get shortchanged (you think someone with command of THE ENTIRE OCEAN would be higher valued) but both get in a few good lines and prove their worth as leads in their inevitable spin-offs. Gal Gadot retains her commanding performance from Wonder Woman and Henry Cavill seems to have finally grown into the role of Superman, though his screen time is limited so I suppose I should reserve judgement. The movie is full of the small, banter-y moments that Whedon is proven to excel at and the joking never gets as smug/cutesy as it tended to when The Avengers were under his care, but some of the pithy humor does feel one-size-fits-all and not every character in the League is meant to be constantly cracking wise. We’ll get to Batman in a moment.
Snyder’s contribution to the film is most evident in the first and third acts, which are filled with erratic scene-shifting and explosions, rushing through the story to get to the action. Snyder’s personal oeuvre makes evident that he really likes two things: superheroes fighting in slow motion and superheroes posing in slow motion. To be fair, there’s some pretty good posing going on in this movie. I’ve always admired Zack Snyder’s eye for visuals; I think his cinematic tastes lend themselves well to the genre, especially when emulating famous panels from the comics and it’s pleasing to see he’s embraced the full spectrum of color, elevating from the dull blues and browns of Batman v Superman. He has not, sadly, lost his habit for portentous melodrama; the beginning of this movie brings back those old Man of Steel feelings that we’re watching a universe that doesn’t know the concept of fun, putting it in stark contrast to the grandiose fan-service that is Whedon’s second act. This tonal dissonance brings the film very nearly to it’s knees, but our main heroes rescue it from too jolting an affair. All except one.
Both Snyder and Whedon have a fundamental misunderstanding of Batman. Snyder seems to prefer the older, ultra-violent Dark Knight Returns Batman but does understand that Frank Miller’s classic comic was kind of a parody. Whedon, conversely, seems to prefer a version of Batman that’s a tad too similar to another famous superhero; one with a cocky demeanor and a comeback for everything who builds elaborate gadgets and armor in his basement, like some sort of genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. Maybe it’s because Whedon is uncomfortable writing a character not suited to his quippy dialogue that he seems so intent on turning Batman into Iron Man, but the blundering of this character is really a mortal sin. Ben Affleck does nothing to improve on this, supporting the rumors that he wants desperately to be recast.
The middle act of Justice League is what prevents this film from going down as an embarrassing failure. When the villain steps aside and the heroes reconvene to figure out their next move a little of that magic from the best parts of The Avengers is recaptured and there’s a fight scene that pits the League against an angry Superman that makes even the worst parts of the movie worth sitting through. I don’t know who the mastermind behind this particular scene was, but it’s the rare hero-on-hero fight that manages to showcase all of the characters powers equally. If that approach had been taken to the entire film we might have ended up with something truly special, but the film suffers from the conflicting visions of its two directors. Whedon clearly has nothing but reverence for the classic iterations of the Justice League, from the Silver Age comics to the mid-2000’s cartoon, and wanted to recreate that while Snyder seems to like these characters in concept but views them as fossils from a more innocent time in pop culture that need to be rebuilt with his own modern sensibilities.
When somebody asks me if a movie is good, my response is “in relation to what?” Compared to the whole of cinema, Justice League is garbage, but that’s admittedly an unfair barometer. But even side-by-side with its most obvious counterpart, The Avengers, the film comes off like the sort of bargain bin knock-off that your well-meaning grandmother would get you for Christmas. But within the scope of DC’s recent efforts to build a cinematic universe, Justice League should be considered a success; it has multiple specific, definable moments of goodness and manages, unlike its predecessors, to not be so awful that I walk out questioning my religious convictions. The film is solid and satisfactory, but sadness sets in when you realize that you’re watching a film starring several of the most important inventions of American pop culture, and it should have been so much more than that. You only get to do it for the first time once, after all.
Verdict: Justice League is not the film these iconic characters deserved, but it’s a serviceable time at the movies with enough good going for it to keep even skeptical fans interested.