Justice League Review
Fans have been waiting for a Justice League movie for a long time. Batman v Superman was meant to be a harbinger of hope but ended up an unmitigated disappointment. The signs were ominous. Warner persisted with Zack Snyder despite critical concerns about his steering of the franchise.
As it turns out, Justice League is better than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Now, that isn’t really saying a lot. After the extremely low bar set by said offenders, it hardly takes much to notch a win over them.
This is the DCEU’s version of Avengers. And it starts with the lynchpin and de facto leader of our merry men – the Detective.
There are a couple of things I liked about this version of Batman. Continuing from Batman v Superman, the caped crusader’s visual remains a striking one, cutting an iconic figure. This stocky, heavily-armored bruiser leaps straight from the pages of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Batfleck’s build is well-suited to this vision of Bats and he displays good physical acting prowess.
It is also commendable that this Batman’s vulnerability is examined. Contrasted with a host of demi-gods and aliens, Bruce’s human frailties are plain to see. There’s the troop carrier scene where Aquaman blurts out that Bats hasn’t got any powers, as well as the scenes involving Bruce taking super-powered hits from Diana and Clark (ouch). We also get a comical frame of Batman writhing on the grass, post-Kryptonian assault. One can’t help but feel sorry for the bruised and battered Batfleck.
Mr Wayne’s true power (“I’m rich”) is manifested in the form of the sleek Batcave and assortment of nifty vehicles. This is a notable respect in which Bruce takes on the Tony Stark-type role – the team’s financier and armorer. The Nightcrawler and “Bat-troop-carrier” are refreshing additions to the detective’s arsenal. They are low on stealth and high on firepower – a fitting reflection of this iteration of Batman.
Having said all of this, Ben Affleck is unfortunately just not very likeable. He is typically sullen and morose, and constantly looks hungover. I get that he is supposed to be a world-weary cynic. But, Affleck’s general negative energy hardly makes for compelling viewing. The problem with this is that the chief assembler of a super team needs to be, well, minimally likeable. That element is integral because it sets the tone for the team and movie. The charismatic Tony Stark and wily Nick Fury are always good fun, and without them, the Avengers would surely lack an important element.
Perhaps due to Joss Whedon’s involvement, there is a discernible effort to make Bruce Wayne a little more Stark-like. Unfortunately, that attempt ends up being somewhat ham-fisted. The “I’m rich” joke is contrived and awkward, and something that Batman is quite unlikely to utter. The bar scene with Arthur Curry and the “I hear you talk to fish” quips are also borderline cringe-worthy.
The punchlines aren’t built up to or earned, resulting in them inevitably falling flat on several occasions. That may well be a fault of the writing team (Chris Terrio and Whedon). But, it is also quite apparent that Affleck is just not suited for this type of comedy. His usual grimaces almost belie his own meta realization of that fact.
The Amazon continues to be a highlight of the DCEU. Word has it that Whedon brought in more scenes of Diana in an attempt to improve the movie. Gal Gadot maintains her fine form in Wonder Woman, and the actress’ charm and charisma continue to fuel her star quality. There is a weak attempt at character development, as her roles as a leader and icon are very briefly examined. And then there’s the obligatory reference to Steve Trevor and Diana’s self-imposed exile after his demise.
It was clear from the start that Kal-El would make an appearance. His dramatic death in Batman v Superman lacked resonance and impact simply due to this fact. I do however like Henry Cavill in the role. His Superman is noble and messianic, yet playful at times. In the limited scenes involving Clark, he manages to show why he is important to the team and the world.
Insofar as the characters without their own solo movies or TV shows (namely, Aquaman and Cyborg), there’s a desperate need for character development. We’ve been fed years of Superman and Batman movies, while the Flash has had two successful TV iterations.
This pared-down version of Justice League that hit the screens means that only minimal screen time is given to exploring the origins, motivations and personalities of the said supporting cast members.
Aqua-Lad (pun intended) turns out to be a caricature. Visually, he is entirely distinct from the comic book version of Arthur Curry. We are given a hipster Dothraki who behaves like a college jock (captain of the swim team, no less). His whiskey-swilling, juvenile antics border on the annoying. There are a number of unfortunate and awkward scenes where this surfer dude drops phrases such as “all right“, “mah man” and “I dig it“. It’s disappointing to see the limited vocabulary and communication skills of the purported King of the Seven Seas. The repeated “dress like a bat” jokes are also tired, and the overall impression is that Aquaman is a much less likeable and compelling version of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
The short scene featuring Amber Heard’s Mera gave us the briefest of insights into what an Aquaman movie might explore. The alluring and powerful Heard, unfortunately, does not get much screen time, and we are left with a few passing references to Arthur’s mummy issues to piece together the marine Dothraki’s history. From a story-telling perspective, the obvious question that is begged is – why raise something if one isn’t going to develop it?
Fortunately, Victor Stone AKA Cyborg is one of the better protagonists. Ray Fisher’s performance as a conflicted, soul-searching hybrid lends some depth and texture to Cyborg. Forged from the same alien technology as the Mother Boxes, Stone wields formidable yet unfathomable abilities. The sinister Apokoliptian source of his powers also threatens to consume and override him, and Fisher manages to channel nobility and heroism in the face of his fear of the unknown.
The Flash is quite likely the fan-favorite. Ezra Miller’s take on the scarlet speedster is unique and refreshing. Here, we have essentially the DCEU’s version of Tom Holland’s “Stark Spidey”, save that Allen is infinitely more awkward and socially inept. That naturally makes for great comedic value.
A number of ponderous scenes are saved by Miller’s quirkiness and dorkiness, as he so often adopts the everyman persona (making him the most real of the team members). There is a sense that Miller almost oversteps with his excessive exuberance and foot-in-mouth antics. But, he manages to stop just in time to remain the most likeable and relatable of the Leaguers.
The Flash’s costume however looks like a cobbled-together cosplay project. In contrast, CW’s Flash’s suit appears a lot sleeker and refined. The same criticism can be levelled at Deathstroke’s post-credit scene, where Slade’s costume appears to be a cheaply assembled cosplay rush job. It’s almost as if Miller’s costume (which looks more like armor) reflects his more unpolished, awkward character. If that is the intention, then kudos to the designers. But visually, it really isn’t imposing or appealing.
Justice League gives us some enjoyable, visually dynamic scenes. These include Steppenwolf’s assault on Themiscrya, which features a high-octane chase scene involving some daring horseback antics.
There’s also the titanic showdown between Supes and the other League members. Geekdom celebrated as we were given the first live-action brawl involving said characters. Suffice to say, the Kryptonian’s excessive might is on full display. The chasm between Kal-El’s powers and those of his opponents is starkly accentuated, as his opponents are ever so easily dispatched. Batman’s vulnerability is once again highlighted, as he narrowly avoids getting crushed by Clark’s god-like power.
The Flash-Superman race scenes are another highlight. There is a unique dynamic between the two, and their fun interactions are something that should be further explored in the next installment.
The CGI work is abject and excessively distracting. As a flurry of amateurishly created/enhanced images unfurls on screen, the result is often sheer cacophony.
And that brings us to Steppenwolf – the pastiche villain that is, visually, so poorly designed and realized that every time he makes an entrance (along with his pixelated bug-eyed minions), one feels like one is abruptly transported into a video game. The effect is disconcerting and discombobulating. Quite apart from his look, the villain is utterly one dimensional – basically, a war monger who goes around collecting Mother Boxes.
Joss Whedon has recently taken flak for liking the following tweet by one Vanity Fair writer: “Steppenwolf is the worst comic book movie villain of all time and not even Malekith the Accursed comes close“. Harsh as it sounds, it must be said that said assessment is not altogether baseless.
The parademon hordes only serve to accentuate the CGI sensory overload. Their incessant, dissonant chittering-fluttering heighten the chaos and confusion. Themiscyra’s opening shot also features some very rudimentary computer graphics, reminding one of an old PC game.
Tonally, there are palpable issues. The images are shot in monochromatic, desaturated shades – in seemingly-typical Snyder style. To be fair to Snyder, it is hard to tell what Joss Whedon (who was brought in late in the day to doctor/reshoot/complete parts of the movie) had a hand in.
Reports suggest that Whedon’s involvement in the process was fairly significant, and the Avengers director (despite his alleged efforts to distance himself) must therefore shoulder a large part of the blame.
Justice League’s dark tone permeates the film, which is interspersed with a smattering of wisecracks. That simply doesn’t sit well, and the humor feels unnatural and contrived at times, resulting in a schizophrenic feel.
A number of plotting issues are evident. Steppenwolf has apparently received a notification upon the death of Superman. That’s well and good, and makes some sense (because, well, Supes is so formidable that any would-be invader would surely be deterred by said Kryptonian). But, that doesn’t explain the 5,000 or so years when Kal-El wasn’t around. Early on, Hippolyta mentions that the Amazonian temple flame hasn’t been lit for that length of time. Which begs the question – what were the hordes of Apokolips waiting for?
50 minutes were cut from the movie, leaving us with a 2 hour-long collection of snippets and scenes. Naturally, the victims of this undoubted commercially-motivated strategy (shorter screen time means more viewings) are exposition and character development. At times, one feels like an hyperextended trailer is playing on the screen.
So the movie feels pretty messy. While the first hour plods on at an ok pace, the latter half of the movie descends into a chaotic frenzy. The Superman-resurrection sub-plot is plonked in amidst jarring scenes of Apokoliptian shenanigans. On that note, there is hardly any moral dilemma as regards the decision to bring Clark back to life. There’s a little bickering between the teammates about leaving him to rest vs. needing him to save the world, but there’s ultimately nothing really compelling or care-worthy.
The soundtrack/score is not very noticeable. Perhaps the only two moments in which I actually took note of the score were: (a) Diana’s trademark war-drum theme by Junkie XL and Zimmer; and (b) one of the Batman scenes involving the distinctive Batman (1989) theme by Danny Elfman, which was a highlight.
I don’t think the replacement of Junkie XL with Elfman makes a marked or significant impact. The rationale appears to have been to give the movie a less “metal” and more classic feel. That hasn’t been achieved, and Elfman’s selection of iconic themes just doesn’t score with the dark, dystopian feel of the movie.
It is a difficult undertaking to create a movie that seeks to tie together so many different strands of the DC universe. While we are given some decent scenes, the sum of Justice League‘s parts ends up looking like a stitched-up, patchwork quilt – one that isn’t easy on the eye (and senses).
In post-credit scene #2, it is galling to see the return of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. The character was one of the very worst things about Batman v Superman. My hope is that his reappearance is not an accurate portent of things to come in the Justice League franchise.