“Justice League” Review: A Small Step in the Right Direction

There isn’t a franchise today as reactionary as the DC Extended Universe. People didn’t take to the excessive carnage and Superman’s carelessness in the battle of Metropolis, so “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” goes out its way to constantly point out how there are no civilians present during Superman’s fight with Doomsday. However, audiences again rejected that film’s overtly serious tone, and “Suicide Squad” was reconfigured in post-production to closely reflect the upbeat tone of the trailer only for the movie end up feeling like a two-hour trailer. “Wonder Woman,” on the other hand, was left untainted by a studio desperately trying to course correct. It’s a film with a singular vision, and that vision best suited the character. If “Wonder Woman” represents what the DC movies will look like moving forward, then “Justice League” closes the door on the previously established template.

Director Zack Snyder’s ensemble film suffers from the same problems as his previous two DC efforts. The villains is poor, the structure (especially in the beginning) is disjointed, and the story feels hollow, which results in a lack of emotional investment. However, where the film truly shines is the Justice League themselves, with each character given their standout moment and all the actors fitting breezily into their roles, while also having terrific chemistry. It may be a massive stepdown from “Wonder Woman,” but Snyder’s film works best at getting you on board with these heroes and excited to see where they go next.

Sometime after the events of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is now vulnerable to new threats due to the death of Superman (Henry Cavill).With his newfound faith in humanity, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) alongside Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) work to recruit other metahumans such as Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to combat the imminent threat of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hands) who, with his army of Parademons, seeks to collect the three Mother Boxes on Earth, whose combined power could devastate all life on the planet.

If you’re wondering what exactly these three Mother Boxes can do, I can’t tell you. Even a lifelong comic book fan such as myself has difficulty explaining. Though there are certainly multiple scenes where characters exposit the capabilities of the alien MacGuffins, it all feels like a bunch of techno babble. The thing is this is only emblematic of a larger problem. “Justice League’s” narrative is incredibly rushed. The first act of the film feels out of sync, like there is a lack of causality and forward momentum. This problem does subside as the story progresses, but initially, I was concerned we were in for another “Dawn of Justice” scenario where individual scenes are just come and go without any impact.

One of the areas where this hurts the film the most is the villain. Steppenwolf is yet another generic villain with no nuances or intriguing motivations. He is about as surface level as villains in superhero movies tend to come by these days. The fact that he is even the main antagonist of the story already cripples our level of interest in him. In the comics, Steppenwolf is subservient to Darkseid, the tyrannical ruler of the planet Apokolips. By even putting him in this movie, the filmmakers are basically saying, “This guy is just an appetizer for the REAL villain. No need to waste your time investing in him.” On a side note, DC seriously needs to stop it with the CG antagonist already. It didn’t work with the last three films, and it definitely doesn’t work now.

On top of that, the stakes in this story just do not work. Yes, the world is under threat, but it hardly ever feels that way. Outside of the core team and an occasional scene in a desolate town where the climax takes place, the world seems largely unaffected by the drama unfolding. The action can certainly be thrilling and have a few inspiring moments (especially when the CGI doesn’t come off as cartoonish), but never is there a sense of danger for any of the characters. Even the point towards the end of the second act where the team is supposed to be at their lowest moment is not caused by circumstances spiraling out of their control, but more by their gross negligence.

Maybe these pacing and structural problems could have been relieved has the film been about 15 minutes longer (it clocks in at just two hours), but as it stands, “Justice League throws way too much information at you and expects you to keep up. This would be like if in “The Avengers,” the characters would constantly explain the nature of the Infinity Stones, and Thanos’ origin. Such complex concepts need to be carefully explained to audiences.

Yet despite all these disadvantages, when the film is strictly character-centric, it’s an utter delight to watch. Zack Snyder hasn’t exactly done justice (no pun intended) to the iconic heroes thus far, what with his Superman being a scowling, mopey, selfish Dr. Manhattan-ish alien detached from the human condition, or his Batman being an angry, murderous, psychotic xenophobe, or his Wonder Woman who was just there in “Dawn of Justice” to look cool until Patty Jenkins came along and made her a three-dimensional character. But here, he drops the self-important gravitas of his two previous DC entries and allows the characters to hue close to their comic book counterparts.

While much has already been said about the established players Affleck and Gadot (the latter is still the brightest spot of this cinematic universe), the three newcomers, despite not having solo films prior to this (Aquaman’s hits theaters next December), all leave lasting impressions. Jason Momoa’s gruff, masculine take on Aquaman miraculously never feels as obnoxious as it should, instead it feels oddly charming. Although Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is more integral to the plot than to the team, he is responsible for a few of the film’s emotional beats and his interactions with his fellow teammates, especially Diana, work well.

The real breakout character though is The Flash. Ezra Miller’s wide-eyed giddiness is so affectionate, and he is easily the best of the newly introduced heroes. Much of the film’s humor comes from him, and he bounces off the other actors better than anyone else. Though the biggest question mark heading into the film has to be Superman. The character sacrificed himself at the end of “Dawn of Justice,” and he’s been mostly absent from the marketing campaign. Unless you didn’t see the final shot of “Batman v. Superman,” it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Superman does indeed return in this film. The method of his resurrection I’ll leave out, but when he does come back, for the first time, Henry Cavill is finally allowed to give an actual performance as Superman

The conflict is that this works two different way. We at long last get to see a proper Superman performance by Cavill. He portrays everything Superman is supposed to be. Kind, noble, heroic, and full of optimism. In previous installments, Snyder kept the character at a distance so we were never able to identify with him or even understanding his inner-workings. Whether it’s because the director didn’t grasp the character or just flat-out disliked him (based on what I’ve seen thus far, I’m going to assume it was the latter), the point is there was a genuinely charismatic performance being suppressed, and the powers that be simply didn’t mind.

The downside is although Superman is allowed to be Superman, the film really wants us to believe that Superman has always been a beacon of hope and the world is worse off in his absence when that hasn’t been the case at all in this continuity. Snyder’s interpretation of Superman is a bully, one who would rather use force to solve problems than to try to resolve conflicts peacefully. He has no inspiring words of wisdom, and appears to care about Lois Lane, his mother, and absolutely nobody else. It’s not enough to just say he was an inspirational figure, we have to actually see him be inspiring.

While this functions sort of as a soft reboot for the character, ignoring past mistakes is taking the easy way out. I don’t want those films, as much I dislike them, to be ignored. There has to be effort. There needs to be a follow-up to actively resolve those issues. As much of joy it is to see the Superman we all know and love finally on screen again, the path getting here has been messy, and ultimately unsatisfying.

I really do wish I had liked “Justice League” more. I will always chose to see a good movie over a bad or underwhelming one any day. It does deliver on the spectacle and it most likely leave wanting to see more of these character. However, when there is such a diverse slate of superhero films every year, being competent fluff simply isn’t good enough. As it appears that Zack Snyder’s vision for this cinematic universe has drawn its last breath, there is hope going forward that these movies can have characters we can empathize with, stories we can be enthralled by, and messages of hope and heroism that resonate everywhere. I can’t wait until I’m able to write about them.