REVIEW: Justice League (2017)

Is DC’s first superhero team-up worthy of its rotten Tomato score? Cal swoops in to suggest pro-Marvel bias might be to blame. 

Spoiler Warning: It is difficult to fully discuss and evaluate Justice League without divulging what some may consider to be spoilers, at least while the movie is a new release. A spoiler warning is therefore in effect.

The good news is that 2017’s Justice League is not the downright disaster that many of us were anticipating, given the considerable behind-the-scenes reshuffling and the slipshod quality of its immediate predecessor, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is a bit of a mess, the narrative is too simplistic, and it’s not a home run by any stretch, but it’s also not altogether unappealing either, as Zack Snyder – and Joss Whedon – avoid the gloomy self-seriousness which has thus far characterised the DC Extended Universe. The action sequences are rousing, and there are enough goosebump-inducing moments of pure big-screen coolness that audiences will expect to see within an expensive blockbuster entitled Justice League. But what’s missing is all the connective tissue – the movie plays out like a highlight reel, with the bare minimum of explication and character beats. Forget about any sort of thematic undercurrents or emotional resonance; fast-paced spectacle is the order of the day.

With Superman (Henry Cavill) now dead, the Earth has become vulnerable to diabolical forces. A god-like being known as Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) rises in the aftermath, planning to use three powerful Mother Boxes to rule the universe, aided by an army of vicious Parademons. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) seeks to amass a team of heroes to defend the world, with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) warning him of the potentially devastating effects of Steppenwolf’s plan. Using all available information at his disposal, Wayne tracks down Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), hoping to unite them and prevent Steppenwolf from eradicating humankind. But even their combined superpowers may not be enough, prompting the newly-formed Justice League to explore the potential to bring Superman into the fight before it’s too late.

Even though Snyder is the sole credited director on the project, The Avengers helmer Whedon was recruited to oversee extensive rewrites and reshoots late into post-production, and received a co-writer credit for his efforts. Evidently, Whedon’s job was to lighten the tone, bringing a more pronounced sense of humour to the production whilst retaining Snyder’s proclivity for brutal, explosive action sequences. Previous DCEU movies have been criticised for lack of humour, with Batman v Superman in particular emerging as dour beyond belief, and Justice League endeavours to course-correct the franchise, with jokes and laughs scattered throughout. Though certain moments do work (such as an amusing aside during which Aquaman sits on the Lasso of Truth), other gags just come across as forced (see the awkward joking around after the climactic action sequence). Indeed, don’t expect Whedon’s best work, especially given that he didn’t have a great deal of time to hone the best possible script. In addition, Justice League is completely hollow, with nothing in the way of poignant emotion. There is a contrived aside in which a family get the spotlight and are rescued during the climax, but it feels too perfunctory and makes no impact.

It’s evident that Warner Bros. only really cared about two things whilst trying to salvage Justice League in the editing room: keeping it at two hours in length (narrative coherence be damned), and carving out at least a workable movie that’s jam-packed with colourful action scenes. It’s also evident that Justice League was initially intended to be more in line with Batman v Superman from a tonal standpoint before the studio got Whedon involved. (It’s not hard to see why Whedon probably didn’t want a directorial credit on the finished movie.) A new trailer was seemingly released every couple of hours, and therefore a lot of footage seen in the marketing materials did not make it to the finished movie. Indeed, it appears that Warner Bros. chose to deliberately excise any plot details that may have initially existed to set up future storylines – case in point: it seems that Steppenwolf’s plan could be a precursor to something more significant, like Darkseid who was initially rumoured to be part of the movie and was ostensibly set up in Dawn of Justice, but the storyline as it is seems deliberately standalone in case the studio nominates a different direction in the future. (The post-credits scene does imply another direction entirely.) Hell, Justice League doesn’t even provide any payoff to the time-travelling Flash, or to Batman’s nightmares from Batman v Superman.

Despite being hidden in the majority of the marketing materials, of course Superman makes his return here, but the Man of Steel’s resurrection is one of the biggest missed opportunities of the movie. Rather than taking a page from the “Death of Superman” arc (which would make sense, given that he fought Doomsday in Dawn of Justice), Justice League finds the heroes using the Mother Box’s powers to bring Superman back from the dead, and the resultant action set-piece of a confused Kal-El running amok is seriously awkward. In addition, the subplot feels too throwaway when it should be more significant, further demonstrating that squeezing so much material into one two-hour movie was a bad idea. It would have been more interesting to see Superman don the iconic black suit and battle the rest of the Justice League for real. Maybe this was actually explored in an earlier cut, and perhaps there was more to this subplot before the studio took a hatchet to the movie to keep it under two hours sans credits. Whatever the case, it feels like Justice League is rushing through plot points in order for the franchise at large to move on. The film was initially intended to be split into two parts, and there’s certainly enough material for two motion pictures to cover.

When Justice League gets into an agreeable groove, it works like gangbusters, providing plenty of lively action as the superheroes throw down against Steppenwolf and his Parademons. If nothing else, Justice League gets the characters right for the most part (more on that later), with perhaps the most definitive big-screen portrayal of the Caped Crusader to date (the costumes are dead on). Shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones), the movie is actually presented in an expanded 1.85:1 aspect ratio, meaning that there’s more to absorb in every frame of the movie. However, the cartoonish CGI is admittedly squiffy from time to time, lacking in tangibility. The digital removal of Cavill’s moustache looks amateurish at best, while the digitally-created Steppenwolf often resembles something from a video-game cut-scene. Some sequences are enormously impressive, to be sure, but there’s no consistency, which can probably be attributed to the reshoots and the rushed schedule to meet the longstanding, predetermined release date. For a major motion picture this expensive (a staggering $300 million before promotional costs, reportedly), it’s disheartening to behold such sloppiness. On a more positive note, bringing in composer Danny Elfman (to replace Junkie XL) proves to be one of the most welcome creative decisions of the entire production, as his score is more on the playful side as opposed to downright serious. Elfman even incorporates some notes from his 1989 Batman theme to nice effect.

Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have been properly introduced in the DCEU at this point, but Justice League is tasked with introducing Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash to the franchise (their previous tiny cameos don’t count), giving the movie plenty of baggage to work through. There’s just no getting around the fact that these heroes deserved their own solo flicks prior to Justice League, just as the standalone Wonder Woman should have been released prior to Batman v Superman. As for the thespians themselves, it’s… mostly good news. Affleck continues to impress as this older interpretation of Batman, and Gadot is still a charismatic treat. It’s certainly a real thrill to see Gadot back in action as Wonder Woman so soon after the release of her solo feature. However, Miller is a terrible Flash, playing the hero as a whiny, irritating, weightless Millennial stereotype, while Fisher doesn’t have much screen presence, though that could likely be attributed to the lack of a meaty introduction. Momoa is fine, some cheesy dialogue aside, and Cavill is welcomely more upbeat here as Superman. Hinds does what he can with the material, but Steppenwolf is still a bit of a dud villain. Nevertheless, it is commendable that Snyder and co. elected to use a villain who hasn’t previously featured in a live-action movie.

When Justice League works, it really works, providing breathtaking visual delights throughout, ensuring that the target audience will walk away happy. It’s an entertaining ride, if nothing else, but since we don’t yet know all of the primary characters intimately enough, the film is not as gratifying as it could have been. In addition, the movie is undeniably pared-down to the bare essentials – basically, anything that isn’t a joke, a character striking a dramatic pose for marketing materials, or a big action scene didn’t make it to the final cut. Extended cuts have become somewhat customary for the DCEU, as both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad received beefed-up editions on home video, and it would certainly be intriguing to see what could be done with Justice League with more story development and character interaction. Even more promising, though, is the prospect of a sequel, with (hopefully) a more carefully-written screenplay and a better fleshed-out team.

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