Justice League (2017)
All in, indeed! I’ve honestly been psyched to see a Justice League movie since Warner Bros. announced their DC Cinematic Universe some years back. Then there was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), a film that was considered to be too grim and self-important by both critics and mainstream audiences — yes, Batman v Superman had its faults, but it really wasn’t that bad — which caused the already-in-production Justice League two-parter to be re-shaped into one. Consequently, the ‘Part 1’ was dropped from Justice League’s title, with the subsequent picture being removed from IMDb’s slate of upcoming releases. And yep, I was a little worried. Then the trailers dropped and I was kinda-sorta okay again, the ads, while still dark and melodramatic, having a much breezier tone — heck, there were even self-referential gags in there (gasp!) But still, I wasn’t sure if this lighter take would gel with the groundwork that DC had already laid out, director Zack Snyder teasing an epic, planet-shattering superhero-supervillian stand-off, with The Brave and the Bold facing off against DC’s big-bad, the tyrannical deity Darkseid.
Taking its cues from the ‘Fourth World’ storyline, created by comic-book writer-artist Jack Kirby, and based on the Justice League of America team-up, conceived by writer Gardner Fox in 1960, Justice League is set several months after the tragic events of BvS — aka, the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) — with Batfleck’s Bruce Wayne (who’s more quippy and less broody this time around) seeking the aid of other meta-humans, the Caped Crusader hoping to recruit allies to fight a looming threat, this after encountering some otherworldly, insect-like soldiers (known as Parademons) lingering in and around Gotham City — a sure sign that an end-of-days-type invasion was just around the bend.
Already in cahoots with the DCEU’s shining beacon, Diana Prince (a charming Gal Gadot), who Bats is clearly crushing on, the duo decide to band together enlisting the aid of an awkward, wisecracking speedster named Barry Allen/ The Flash (Ezra Miller), before later being joined by a tattooed-muscleman who can talk to fish, Arthur Curry/ Aquaman (Jason Momoa channeling his inner ‘surfer dude’) and a human-turned-cyborg named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), the latter two needing a little more convincing — look, it would have been nice to see the squad assemble itself via happenstance, as opposed to, ya’ know, the whole ‘recruitment’ thing, à la The Avengers. Anyhow, with the troop assembled, the newly formed Justice League prepare to square-off against Steppenwolf (voiced and mo-capped by Ciarán Hinds), a thousand-year-old, electro-axe-welding immortal, but, given the beast’s sheer stamina, speed and god-like strength, the crew might need the help of the recently deceased Supes if they intend on saving the planet from the impending Apokolips (see what I did there).
While it’s great to see these iconic superheros finally join forces (after four years of set-up), their movie suffers from cinematic lopsidedness, this bungle having a lot to do with Justice League’s troubled production. You see, after DC’s initial bunch of films received scathing reviews, a panicky Warner Bros. decided to do a frantic course-correct, the studio forcing director Snyder to ‘lighten’ his vision mid-shoot, seeing as the chief complaint about Dawn of Justice was its glum, doom-and-gloom tone, as well as its over-bloated runtime.
But, when Snyder showed the execs a cut of the movie, they still weren’t satisfied and thus, hired Joss Whedon — the guy who shaped Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) — to help re-jig the script. Not long after, Snyder departed from the project, the overworked filmmaker stepping away to spend time with his grieving family, this following the tragic suicide of his 20-year-old daughter (in March of this year). With Snyder gone, Whedon was handed the reigns, the ex-Buffy creator shepherding some (rather extensive) pickup shots, this leading to other issues such as the bulky mustache that Henry Cavill grew for Mission: Impossible 6. Although principal photography on IM6 was supposed to wrap before Cavill was needed for Justice League reshoots, this wasn’t the case, the English actor having to simultaneously jump between projects. Seeing as the folks at Paramount wouldn’t allow Cavill to shave his facial hair while production was still under way (due to a contractual agreement), his whiskers had to be digitally removed from Justice League in post. Yes, it’s slightly distracting, but I wonder if people would’ve noticed had it not been extensively plastered all over the Internet.
All of this was further compounded when Warner Bros. mandated a cut that needed to be no longer than two hours (its initial length was reported to be somewhere near the 170-minute mark), which leads to my biggest gripe with Justice League — it’s overly simple and way too rushed. For one, the premise is pretty basic; Steppenwolf wants three cosmic cube thingys, the Mother Boxes, which have the power to reshape the world, and our super-powered strongmen (and woman) must unite in order to try and stop him. That’s it. The intergalactic villain has zero characterization, he’s just a big, horned CGI brute, and neither do any of the new heroes — Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg — who have next-to-no back-story. Barry Allen’s entire introduction is shown in one of the trailers, the jittery hero who’s ‘never done battle’ given no substantial arc — bar a tiny C-plot that sees the Crimson Comet try to get his wrongly imprisoned dad, Henry (Billy Crudup), out of jail. Arthur Curry’s motivations are fuzzy at best, the Aquarian deciding to join the group after a confusing conversation with Amber Heard’s Mera, which takes place inside of an underwater bubble, while Ray Fisher’s Cyborg — aka, the DCEU’s answer to Iron Man — functions more like a plot device rather than an actual character.
Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who worked from a story by Terrio and Zack Snyder), the screenplay struggles to lock onto a tone, with Snyder’s distinct, heavy visuals jarring against Whedon’s self-effacing humor (insert Pet Sematary joke), these mismatching styles failing to fuse as a cohesive whole. The Man of Steel — who, let’s face it, is eventually resurrected (no surprise there) — goes from brainwashed demigod to laid-back funster, his earlier standoffish personality completely ditched. The same goes for that excellent ‘knightmare’ sequence from BvS, which has also been totally ignored. Even the soundtrack by the great Danny Elfman is a mish-mash of sorts, the score nabbing bits from John Williams’s classic 1978 Superman riff, along with Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s thunderous Wonder Woman theme and his own melody from Tim Burton’s early Batman films.
Justice League also features too many minor plot threads, most of which only get a few lines of attention. Bruce Wayne realizes that, apart from getting older, he’s also much more vulnerable than the other heroes, while Diana’s long-lasting grief over Steve Trevor gets a small mention. J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man (2002), and Jeremy Irons, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), show up for the sake of it as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred respectively, while Amy Adams, Arrival (2016), and Diane Lane, Unfaithful (2002), fail to leave any sort of impression as the women in Kal-El’s life.
It’s not all bad though, as most of the video-game-y action sequences are pretty impressive, albeit gimmicky — these teeming with Snyder’s signature speed-ramping/ slow-mo techniques — each escalating CGI-smack-down wilder, and more over-the-top that the one that preceded it. There’s a an ancient show-stopping clash set centuries ago that sees gods, aliens, humans and, yes, even Lanterns, square off against Steppenwolf and his winged digital minions, and a tumultuous city-leveling climax which is intercut with footage of a random Russian family trying to flee the scene (a Whedon inclusion, for sure). Okay, some of the VFX do look a bit iffy, but given all of the rewrites and reshoots, which, no doubt, forced animators to work on abridged schedules, the visuals are actually quite good, although no where near as refined as audiences have come to expect from their tentpole entertainers.
At the end of the day, what we have is a Justice League movie that’s fun, fluffy and easy to watch, even if part of me wishes that Warner Bros. had just stuck to Snyder’s original vision. In isolation, Justice League works fine, but, when placed beside its forerunners, it begins to fall apart, feeling messy and tonally confused. Sure, Wonder Woman, who’s a little more sexualized, remains insanely watchable, while a couple of post-credit scenes (since when do DC have post-credit stuff?) might pique certain fans’ interest — these obviously intended to take the series in an entirely new direction — I just wish this grand team-up wasn’t so, I dunno, disposable.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner