After a string of films that were poorly received by critics, starkly divided fans, and yet still managed to pull in huge numbers at the box office, Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe earned its first real win with Wonder Woman. Diana’s solo outing, the character’s first ever feature film, was a smash hit – both critically and financially – and it greatly renewed interest in a shared universe that so many were ready to give up on.
And now, here we are with Justice League – the fifth film in this shared universe and the latest entry to serve as the barometer for whether or not the DCEU can succeed. And while Justice League does manage to tell an entertaining and mostly coherent story that will leave audiences excited to see its characters again, either in solo movies or another team-up, that isn’t the same as declaring Justice League a great movie.
It’s more a patchwork of two very different and at times conflicting visions. This film is inconsistent with Zack Snyder’s grim-dark vision of the DCEU and it utterly fails as a final entry in his trilogy. But it also isn’t a true fresh start, with the film hung up on trying to fix everything that audiences objected to in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. And though Joss Whedon will be credited with lightning up the DCEU, injecting it with his signature quips, his extensive re-shoots only rob the film of being anything but a mediocre superhero film in a landscape already saturated with superhero films.
So let’s get the worst out of the way first: the plot is generic and formulaic; the themes weak and threadbare; much of the visual effects look cheap and ugly (Superman’s digital upper lip is a travesty); the villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarin Hinds) is forgettable and hideously designed; and the Mother Boxes are turned into mere MacGuffins which are indistinguishable in their purpose from General Zod’s world engine. To put it simply, Justice League looks like a slapdash movie because that’s just what it is, rushed from start to finish until what they were able to cobble together became passable.
Justice League‘s one saving grace is its characters – the League itself, from the returning trinity of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman, to the relative newcomers of Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg – they are what bring joy to the film and are the only reason why anyone would wish for the DCEU to continue.
Coming in to this film, Wonder Woman definitely had earned the most goodwill and she is largely unchanged from both her appearance in BvS and her solo film. Gal Gadot brings such grace and beauty and a pure goodness to even this more disenchanted version of Diana, making her the very heart of the team as well as its most logical leader. Batman may be calling the shots, but in battle, its Diana’s lead they follow. And though the scene is superfluous to the film’s plot, her rescue of the school children early on in the film is alone worth the price of admission. The only unfortunate element to her role this time around is Justice League‘s baffling attempt at teasing a romance between Bruce and Diana; it’s a forgettable scene that feels forced and largely falls flat.
Speaking of Batman, Ben Affleck is more comfortable as the character in this outing, playing the role of a weary vigilante who is trying to leave the world a better place than he found it. Sure, all it took for this renewed optimism was the incredible guilt he carries over being an accomplice in Superman’s murder, but it’s an interesting arc to explore nonetheless. Affleck also nails it as a Batman whose frail humanity is getting the better of him, and there’s a real feeling that he senses his time as a crime-fighter is coming to an end. Not too mention, Affleck isn’t getting any younger and his time as the Dark Knight is limited at best. Justice League isn’t quite a passing of the torch moment, but the Batman solo film they still want to make should be, allowing Affleck a graceful exit from the role. (Unless they want to go for that old, weary Batman who mentors a young protégé à la Batman Beyond, in which case, do it.)
Superman’s return is barely a spoiler and it happens with hardly any buildup – yet it leads to what are arguably some of Justice League‘s best moments. Right after he’s resurrected, Kal-El isn’t exactly is his right mind and the rest of League need to restrain him. The fight goes exactly as we’d expect, with the revived Kryptonian proving more than a match for each hero, but it includes some neat surprises that develop into wonderful beats for each character – The Flash especially. Afterwards, once he remembers who he is, Clark joins in the final battle against Steppenwolf and it’s in these scenes Henry Cavill delivers the Superman many fans have been waiting for. His upper lip is still painfully obvious in all its rubbery glory, but in his earnest desire to help – be it stranded civilians or his fellow teammates – he finally embodies that sincere nature of the character.
Going in to this film, Cyborg had the most to prove. To mainstream audiences, his character is mostly unknown, and being that he’s an alien robot-human hybrid, there was ample opportunity for Justice League to lean too heavily on one aspect over the other. However, Ray Fisher finds just the right balance, giving us a Cyborg that’s afraid of his own alienness and determined to hold on to his humanity. His voice, in particular, doesn’t come of as monotonous but measured, befitting a character scared that at any moment his new body will do something he isn’t expecting. And for a film filled with horrendous visual effects, Cyborg comes off looking pretty good. Though it’s unclear just what the future of the DCEU is at the moment, Cyborg will hopefully have a role to play, because he’s been established as a character ripe for further development.
Similar to Cyborg, Aquaman is another character that though not quite an unknown quantity, is fighting against a perception he’s lame and can only talk to fish. Of course, comic book fans are already well aware there’s much more to the Sea King than that, but most movie-going audiences don’t. Which is why Jason Momoa’s casting is a stroke of genius, imbuing Arthur Curry with a fury and power (not to mention sex appeal) many were not expecting. Not only does he convey his displaced status, being neither fully accepted on the surface or in Atlantis, but he cares enough to help those he finds are in need. He’s also got a bit of cavalier attitude about him, making him a fun character to watch as he accepts the role he needs to play in saving the world. Aquaman is the next DCEU film slated to release and what’s teased here is intriguing, but the quick visit to Atlantis is superfluous at best. For example, Mera appears for the brief scene, but only to spout off some exposition at Arthur, making this scene the equivalent of those videos on Luthor’s laptop from BvS. Still, Aquaman makes a good impression with this outing, hopefully pleasing longtime fans and earning some new ones.
And last, but certainly not least, The Flash. Justice League is The Flash’s movie. Ezra Miller gives a performance unlike any the DCEU has produced – enthusiastic, selfless, but also timid and unsure of his full power. He steals each and every scene he’s in and is the character best positioned to become a star of this shared universe. If it’s Gal Gadot who is the true lead of the DCEU given her film and character’s universal appeal, then Miller needs to be a close second. His Flash is both true to the character and a refreshing interpretation, managing to differentiate himself well enough from the popular CW series while still appealing to fans of that show. So easily could Miller have been relegated to just comic relief, but his journey of discovering how to be a hero carries much of the film. His super speed is one of the film’s better effects, but even that varies by the scene, only another glaring result of the reshoots.
Justice League is sloppy. There’s so much that doesn’t work and looks bad. Still, the characters are charming and leave you wanting more. Will we get more? Maybe? Everything about Justice League feels like WB pushing out an unpolished, barely finished mess that they know isn’t good but hope will appeal to just enough people to keep its franchise afloat while they bank on Aquaman getting a reception even half as good as Wonder Woman’s. It’s a place holder of a movie, not at all their best work, but good enough that the DCEU won’t be written off just yet.