By Jack Dignan
The DCEU gets a lot of hate. As someone who enjoyed Man of Steel, Batman V Superman and Wonder Woman (let's not talk about Suicide Squad here...), I've always struggled to see what all the negativity was about. In my eyes, they remain good films. I like and own all of them. Going into Justice League was the first time I entered a DCEU film cautious. Worries of clashing styles between Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon (who stepped in to shoot the reshoots, which have reported to be about 20% of the movie) came to mind, as well as the somewhat mediocre trailers. Still, it was a live action Justice League movie. How could the comic book loving nerd inside me not be excited?
The lights faded to black and the film begun. But right from the get go, something felt off. This movie didn't feel like it should feel. There wasn't any gravitas or impact to what was happening on screen, the images just floating through space without consequence. But it could just have been an average start. After all, the first act of Thor: Ragnarok was a mess and I still ended up enjoying that. However, this weird feeling never left. It remained for the entirety of the runtime, making the flaws of the film even more apparent as time went by. I couldn't believe it. It was actually happening. I was finally started to see why everyone else hated these movies. Justice League, I regret to inform you, is not good.
Superhero team ups are what comic book fans like myself dream about. It's our favourite characters finally interacting and fighting alongside one another in the flesh. Justice League is DC's second big team up, after last year's Batman V Superman, which saw its two titular character teaming up with Wonder Woman, as well as glimpses of the heroes we'll come to meet here. We've got Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who are on the quest for allies against an intergalactic being named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), whose arrival could mean the end of our world. They travel the globe in search of heroes (but really only need to travel across town), where they meet The Flash (Ezra Miller), a young teen who can run super fast, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the king of the underwater city of Atlantis, and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a man who died in an explosion, only to be brought back to life with the enhanced features of a robot.
Together, these five heroes must stand side by side to take down an enemy far greater than any of them have ever seen before. Well, except maybe Wonder Woman. Based on her solo film back in June, she seems to have this whole fighting monsters thing down pat. As a whole, though, Justice League serves as an exiting stepping off point for the DC universe to follow, with character relationships firmly established and plot elements set up for future solo movies. Flash and Cyborg in particular have a great dynamic, but Flash manages to have a great dynamic with everyone in the team (particularly Superman, who I will delve into shortly). He's the star player. Ezra Miller kills it, making this a distinctly different and welcomed interpretation of the character that can hold his ground against his TV counterpart.
Unfortunately, world building isn't all a film should do. I hate to be the guy who compares DC with Marvel, but I'm about to compare DC with Marvel, so get your angry comments ready. Marvel, not always but frequently enough, have mastered finding a balance between the current story they're telling and setting up future installments. They find the perfect middle ground. Justice League doesn't. It's all set up for what's to come, playing out as an extended prologue. Even Steppenwolf is just a b-grade minion used to kill time before big baddy Darkseid shows up in the sequel (or another film down the line, depending on how they inevitably use him). It reminded me a lot of this year's Mummy movie, which isn't a good thing. The whole film is a two-hour advertisement for what's to come, but what's to come is looking very promising.
One thing Justice League does (mostly) right is character. All of these heroes have distinct characteristics and powers, and all the actors bring them flawlessly to life, if not a big exaggerated at times. There's so many show stealing, nerd satisfying moments throughout, whether it's a battle sequence or a hilarious character beat. One moment in particular where Aquaman talks openly to the entire team is a show stealer. Chris Terrio, and later on Joss Whedon who also receives a screenwriting credit, understands who these characters are. They play well off of each other, and the team dynamic is one of my favourite parts of the film. Even Superman (Henry Cavill), who only gets a minor role to play, but a bigger one than expected, feels rejuvenated and like the Superman he always should have been.
For every great character beat, there's a moment that's equally weird and out of place. It's a mismatch of humour that doesn't balance with the drama or the levity of the situation. The dialogue is atrocious. A lot of the humour works really well, but just as much of it feels really out of place. One character asking how they smell was an odd line, and only got a chuckle out of me because of how irrelevant and bad that line delivery was. A callback to Batman V Superman was equally cringe-worthy, but to describe it would be to spoil an aspect of this film, and that's something I wouldn't dare do, even if there's not all that much to spoil. It plays out predictably, and the plot that's there isn't very effective. It's all bone without any meat. Plus, several supporting characters, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane, feel crammed in and unneeded.
Zack Snyder is a very visual filmmaker. Occasionally, it leans into style over substance, but his visuals are to die for. Here, however, it doesn't feel very much like a Snyder movie. This film is ugly. And I mean UGLY. The cinematography and the visual effects are a nightmare. They're not pretty or creative, often cheap and cartoony, something that's been a continuing trend throughout most of this year's comic book movies. It all becomes even more apparent when you get to the CGI bonanza of a finale, as anti-climactic as it was. The red overlay is good in concept, but on screen, it looks cheap and unfinished. Henry Cavill was forced to film reshoots with a moustache, due to contractual commitments to Mission: Impossible 5, and the removal is... noticeable, to say the least. His inhuman face is going to give me nightmares.
If you know me, you'll know Batman is far and away my favourite DC character. Ben Affleck's performance in Batman V Superman was everything I wanted from an old, warn down Bruce Wayne. But in Justice League, he didn't work for me. He's got an interesting dynamic with the team and they all get along well (despite a complete lack of conflict, making a lot of their scenes not nearly as exciting as they should be), but Affleck's performance feels tired and uninterested. He's cracking jokes and smiling left, right and centre, and while it's okay for Flash or even Superman in this case to be cracking jokes, Batman didn't suit it. Or at least, he didn't suit how many jokes he got. It's overbearing. It's a complete 180 on the excellent character work established last year, which I even cited as having the potential to be my favourite Batman.
I really wish I liked this movie more. It's a live action Justice League movie for god's sake, but unfortunately, it's not a great one. There’s a strange self-awareness of the critiques fans have had previously, and you'll never be bored throughout its runtime, but nothing really screams with greatness. Its all your typical superhero movie quibbles dialed up to eleven, so if you aren't a fan of what's already come (or even if you are), don't expect this movie to blow you away. This isn't the game changer we were all hoping for, especially after the global success of Wonder Woman.
2 1/2 Stars
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