DC’s long-awaited superhero team-up is a step back from the success of Wonder Woman, but is nevertheless an enjoyable ride.
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons
In 2012, to the delight of movie-lovers everywhere, the prominent superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) became as one. Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America had hereto been seen in isolation, but not yet all together. Avengers Assemble went for box office records like the Hulk smashing Loki; audiences loved the vibrancy, the energy, and the effortless coolness of Joss Whedon’s unique brand of storytelling.
One may be forgiven for believing the Whedon co-penned Justice League has a chance of ascending to similar heights of achievement and glory.
It does not.
The films of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have forever struggled in the shadow of the more critically lauded MCU offerings, and with good reason. Justice League showcases many of the problems these films seem to be saturated with, including an uneven emphasis on style over substance and a frenetic lack of focus. These films are worlds removed from the bright, vivid comics that pioneered their stories.
However, as with Wonder Woman, there is a glimmer of hope in Justice League that the minds behind the DCEU are beginning, finally, to learn from their mistakes.
Justice League is set in a world mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). Having survived an encounter with an unfamiliar demonic creature, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) believes a catastrophic evil will imminently threaten the planet, and thus sets about forming a defence. With Superman gone, he turns to other individuals with superhuman powers: Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
Much of the first act of Justice League follows these five, and Bruce’s attempts to recruit them. Unfortunately, it is a good while before a discernible flow sets in. The staccato rhythm of one brief scene about one character immediately being followed by another entirely different brief scene about another character almost gives the impression that several, swift short films are being played consecutively. The transitions are so abrupt that the audience is scarcely given a focal point to fix on, and those unfamiliar with DC Comics or the DCEU could struggle to keep up.
Yet, unlike the much-derided Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, at least this approach annihilates any chance of boredom. The early scenes, including another day at the office for Wonder Woman as she saves hostages from a bomb threat, are action-packed and demand attention. Though there are some brief breaks for Bruce to consult with Alfred (Jeremy Irons), their dialogue is concise, and lengthy, unwieldy exposition is mercifully kept to a minimum.
As the heroes come together, the film allows itself more time to breathe, and to explore these characters both as individuals and as parts of a bigger team. Wonder Woman is a highlight, as are DCEU newcomers The Flash and Aquaman. Diana has already had her backstory explained in her solo feature film earlier this year, but those unfamiliar with Wonder Woman can still appreciate her determination, strength, ethical convictions, and warrior-like bravery. Gadot’s confident portrayal of both ferocity and love render Diana a complex, instantly relatable character.
Miller and Momoa are similarly impressive, easily garnering favour as they are both permitted a far wider scope for humour and informality than has been seen in the DCEU before. Yet, neither the Flash nor Aquaman is played solely for comic relief, and the motivations and beliefs of both characters are well realised. The planned solo cinematic outings for both these characters are warmly welcomed.
Unfortunately, despite a valiant attempt from Fisher, Victor Stone is far less appealing. Though it is understandable that the character’s traumas would siphon much of his joy from him, Victor’s generally solemn, bitter demeanour mean he is much more effort to invest in than Diana, Barry or Arthur. Affleck and Cavill, meanwhile, continue to be perfectly adequate in their respective roles, with neither Batman nor Superman offered any real development outside the realms of predictability.
It is fortunate that at least some members of the group possess decent depth of character, because the villain of Justice League is one-dimensional to the point of pure laughability. Ciarán Hinds has been woefully underserved in his casting as Steppenwolf, arguably the most boring antagonist to grace cinema screens for quite some time. Beyond the rudimentary concepts of “evil” and “power”, there is absolutely no incentive driving Steppenwolf whatsoever. Thus, his quest to find and unite three apocalyptic Mother Boxes – enigmatic, complex entities in the comics, reduced to deus-ex-machina plot points here – plays as achingly typical.
The paint-by-numbers storytelling arcs and basic good/bad dichotomy of Justice League mean it is not a particularly intelligent or innovative film. As a superhero story, there is very little here that has not been seen before. However, unlike previous DCEU instalments, there is no sense that Justice League is particularly trying to be grand, inventive or revolutionary. Conversely, as the DCEU’s shortest movie so far, it seems to be aiming for a lighter, more fun tone, focused on action and entertainment over complex narratives.
In this vein, Justice League certainly succeeds. Highly notable is its colour palette: reds, greens and blues are now stark and bright, compared to the muted greyscale tones of earlier DCEU films. Though the CGI is excessive at times – at some moments, Steppenwolf’s face seems to hover eerily before his skull – rendered in IMAX it is joyfully immersive. Zack Snyder’s distinctive style helps the tone rather than hindering in this instance, with his varying speeds and moving angles complementing the popping comic book colours and Danny Elfman’s stirring score.
It’s all style over substance, but DCEU’s previous attempts at substance have been so onerous that a self-consciously sillier movie is a welcome change. Indeed, Justice League might have been a more successful film had it taken itself even less seriously, embracing the enjoyment of the original comics while admitting defeat on emulating their sense of grandeur. The least compelling parts of Justice League are those which try to focus overtly on grave sentiment, such as Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) grief, yet fall flat due to insufficient investment.
Avengers, it ain’t. Justice League lacks the captivating narrative and keen focus of the Marvel superhero group’s inaugural cinematic venture, and boasts a villain so undeveloped that it’s difficult not to roll an eye. As with prior DCEU films, a flashy aesthetic cannot conceal a yawning dearth of solidity underneath.
Yet, the flash (or the Flash) is not to be stubbornly written off. The high-level energy and low-level exposition of Whedon’s script sets Justice League apart from its predecessors, rendering it a much more enjoyable experience. Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman are particularly appealing, and the whole thing wrapping up in two hours means it doesn’t feel like a chore to watch. Overall, Justice League achieves what it sets out to do, and is a thoroughly entertaining affair – as long as there’s no intention to engage the brain too much while watching it.