Film Review: Justice League

The DCEU lurches to zombified life with faint glimmers of promise


Justice League avoids DOA status like Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, but Wonder Woman it is not. An attempt is made to inject much needed levity and fun to the franchise; however, a rotten foundation of previous stinkers, a cookie-cutter plot, and the worst comic book film villain in recent memory sabotage the film. Mild spoilers ahead...

Contrary to what you may have heard from Internet shitposters, there is no elaborate conspiracy to "tank" the DC Extended Universe of films. Rotten Tomatoes is not a shill for Disney (ironically, DC's parent company Warner Brothers owns a minority stake in the review aggregator); and Joss Whedon, who took over Justice League director duties from Zack Snyder after the tragic passing of his daughter, is not a Marvel "booby trap." 

I'm a DC Comics fan at heart. The DC Universe was my first exposure to comics, and I have a special fondness for all of its iconic heroes. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman (the so-called Trinity) stories were a huge part of my adolescence. I've read The Killing Joke countless times, I devoured Greg Rucka's legendary run on Wonder Woman in the early 2000s, and first printings of All-Star Superman are proudly on display in my apartment (much to my wife's chagrin). So trust me when I say that there is no secret cabal engineering the destruction of Warner Brothers and DC Comics, and I would also like to think that true comic fans have a vested interest in seeing both companies flourish in the world of cinema. Funnily enough, however, I sometimes wish that there actually was an elaborate Illuminati plot, because that would mean that we would have quality films from the DCEU instead of the muck we've been subjected to so far. Sadly, the reality of the situation is that the vast majority of the DCEU films are patchy rush-job attempts at capitalizing on the "shared universe" concept. Where Marvel films are carefully measured and patiently cultivated with years of mythology and world-building, DC films are relentless cash-grabs that prioritize box office numbers and keeping pace with its competitors over character and story - and although it comes close to rising above what we've come to expect from standard DCEU fare, I'm sorry to say that Justice League is no exception. 

With Superman dead following the events of the absolutely stupid and ludicrously titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) take it upon themselves to find other metahumans to protect the planet after mysterious flying creatures begin attacking the populace. Their new recruits include Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the heir to the underwater throne of Atlantis; Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a college student imbued with super-speed by a bolt of lightning; and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a football star that becomes half machine after a devastating accident. It's a real shame that the story and script are so flimsy, because the cast is perfectly serviceable in their roles, and all of the actors could have benefited greatly from a script that better matched their caliber of talent. Much of the somnambulist ensemble (with a few exceptions detailed below) trudges through some of the most exposition-heavy and clunky dialogue ever put to page, and the barely 120 minute runtime does the dialogue and story no favors when it has to introduce more than half a dozen new major characters.

There is an interesting dichotomy at work within Justice League. Don't get me wrong, most of the film seems to be written by third graders with no grasp on how to develop a compelling story (with apologies to Chris Terrio, as Justice League is no Argo); the barely coherent plot is heavily reliant on ridiculous deus ex machinas and a trio of Macguffins that I'm 100% sure is complete nonsense, but there also seems to be a creative element behind the scenes that is genuinely interested in making a quality DC team-up movie. Sprinkled in among this mess is evidence that at least some people behind the film know what they're doing. The cast largely rests upon the shoulders of two standout performances, with Ezra Miller's Barry Allen bringing humor and levity that helps him steal every scene he's in, and Gal Gadot's Amazonian charm carrying over from the far superior Wonder Woman mostly intact.  Justice League is also at its best when its heroes are able to just be heroes: a hostage rescue by Wonder Woman early on is quite thrilling (although the hostage-takers themselves and their motivations remain an impenetrable mystery), and Batman's "save one" speech to the Flash is genuinely inspiring. Fun fan-service moments are also a high point - a genuinely surprising cameo halfway through the film had the entire audience in my theater gasping with delight, and a showdown between the Leaguers and a newly resurrected and confused Superman (Henry Cavill) is exhilarating and quite funny at the same time.

Unfortunately, that's where my praise of Justice League ends. These great and fun moments are sloppily stitched together with a barely-there story and a criminal misuse of Ciarin Hinds (Rome, Game of Thrones) as one of the most eye-rollingly boring comic book film villains of all time. All CGI and generic villainous platitudes, Hinds' Steppenwolf is neither threatening nor interesting, and his dull presence drags down the entire film. Even the development of our heroes is stunted; without their own movies preceding this team-up to flesh them out, ancillary scenes with Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg carry little to no weight. There is just no reason to care about tertiary background characters that have been shoehorned in like Mera (Amber Heard), Henry Allen (Billy Crudup), and Silas Stone (Joe Morton).

Zack Snyder's films have always been hit or miss with audiences and critics alike. However, one could label the controversial director as a visual auteur: his films may be middling, but at least they're always visually striking. Justice League is an ugly exception: an over-processed and muddy brown filter looms over the celluloid, and most of the fights and battles are a mess of confusing lights and a jumble of computer-generated limbs; and the less said about Henry Cavill's CGI mustache removal, the better. In general, the film just seems half-baked with sloppy CGI and poor editing.

The DCEU has a lot of work ahead in rehabilitating its image and quality. While Wonder Woman was a tremendous step forward, Justice League seems to be two steps back in the wrong direction. There are promising tidbits here and there, but in the end, the iconic characters of the League deserve better.