Review: Justice League (2017)


Justice League finds the DC Expanded Universe in the midst of a course correction. It’s generally lighter in tone, much shorter in running time, and closer to the safe, modest entertainment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than Zack Snyder’s past comic book films. This is somewhat of a good thing, as the bloat and grimness of the DCEU thus far is not something that could be fruitfully extended into the future. But you can see and hear the film’s divided nature in almost every frame, with Joss Whedon’s snappy one-liners sitting uneasily alongside Snyder’s dour imagery in many moments.

As such, Justice League is appealing, but conflicted and noticeably unpolished. Had the film been delayed to allow for Snyder’s eventual return, or had Whedon written the script from the start, I suspect the finished product would’ve fared better. As it stands, Justice League is merely good, while aspects of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the presence of both Whedon and Snyder suggest that it could’ve been great.

The film picks up a year or so after Batman v Superman. Superman is dead. The world is still in mourning and alien monsters known as parademons are roaming the earth, feasting on fear. Driven by the aliens’ presence, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) round up other known metahumans (Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg) in order to defend against an inevitable attack from another world. Soon enough, this attack comes in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an alien warrior who wants to use three “Mother Boxes” to subjugate the Earth and recreate it as a hellish landscape similar to his home planet.

The plot is a familiar work, part “getting the band together,” part alien invasion narrative that’s par for the course of comic book films. The patchwork nature of the film is not necessarily an issue of narrative—yes, we probably would’ve felt more attached to the new heroes, the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), if they’d had solo films before this one, but I’m all for skipping over origin stories at this point in time. The patchwork really shows in the film’s tone and its lack of breathing room in signature moments like the final battle. Apparently the studio mandated a runtime of 120 minutes, and while the breezy runtime is appreciated in comparison to so many superhero films with unneeded slack, Justice League is a particular film that could’ve used extra time to revel in its characters’ powers.

At least the casting is wonderful. While Affleck and Gadot have already demonstrated their appeal in Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman, Miller, Momoa, and especially Fisher impress here, even with their limited screentime. Miller gives us a eager-eyed geek who has none of the grit or conflict of Affleck’s Batman or Henry Cavill’s Superman and gets the lion’s share of the one liners—a Pet Semetary joke midway through lands particularly well. Although seeming like he belongs in a metal video, Jason Momoa inexplicably makes his version of Aquaman work; every time he appears on screen to mock Batman or yell his now signature, “Ye-ah,” I couldn’t help but chuckle. Although Fisher gets the least to do as the Frankenstein-monster-like Cyborg, he conveys a depth of feeling and sorrow with every line reading. It was wise to cast an actor with such a magnificent voice in a role that’s largely CGI.

One of Justice League’s undoubtable strong points is the moments of camaraderie between the heroes, which is largely supplied by Whedon’s script. Drawing on his previous work, especially The Avengers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon knows how to balance a tone of comic book absurdity with self-aware banter, whether it’s the Flash’s one-liners or Aquaman’s disinterest in the other heroes. Of course, you also get moments where the one-liners gel poorly with the mythic version of the characters Snyder has created in previous films. For instance, Batman nursing a wound—”Yup, something’s definitely bleeding,”—seems too far away from the tortured character from Batman v Superman.

I appreciate that Justice League demonstrates a comic book lightness that is mostly absent in the other DCEU films (yes, including Wonder Woman). But I wish it had made more room for the grandeur of Snyder’s vision. We get moments of his singular talent for imagery—most happen early in the film, such as when Aquaman smashes a bottle of whisky before being pummeled by waves. But we’re denied these during the film’s action climax, when the presence of all these heroes in the same geographical space made me wish the film gave us some compositions that reflected panels by Jack Kirby or Alex Ross. The best it can do is have the heroes stand in a line ready for battle, which at least has them all occupying the same frame. But it isn’t stunning like some of the compositions we get in Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, whether Superman’s hand making the ground quake prior to flight or Batman perched on the edge of a water tower during a battle.

One thing that the film does get right is the re-introduction of Superman (it’s not a spoiler, Cavill has been doing lots of press and his name is on the poster), which leans into the character’s mythic appeal and incomprehensible strength and literally re-introduces some colour into the DECU. The one moment that best shows the thoughtful combination of Snyder’s visual power and Whedon’s wit has the Flash moving to save Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and Aquaman from a disoriented Superman, running at lightning speed (and shot in slow motion), thinking he can outrun Superman only to have Superman match his speed and parry his move. It’s both visually-stunning and clever, light but also mythic. It’s a moment that suggests what Justice League could’ve been had the tonal approach been considered from the start.

I cannot stress how much I wish Snyder had been able to oversee all the film’s visual components, and that Whedon had been writing since the get-go. The film is not as stunning as a Justice League film ought to be; the fight scenes are inferior to anything in Batman v Superman, especially that film’s warehouse fight which demonstrates Batman’s fighting ability better than any other scene in Batman movies. And none of Steppenwolf’s cosmic invasion captures the combination of awestruck imagery and madness that is present in Batman v Superman’s “Knightmare” sequence.

Justice League is a good film, but it shows the compromises made during its production more than many of the other troubled blockbusters of recent years. For a film that champions unity and teamwork, it is curiously divided.

6 out of 10

Justice League (2017, USA)

Directed by Zack Snyder; written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon; starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Joe Morton, Amber Heard, Billy Crudup.