I feel bad whenever I start a review like this, but: I went into this movie with low expectations. It may seem a bit harsh to say, but, to be fair, the DCEU has earned their reputation of not having a clear focus and well-received vision of their films since The Dark Knight. Granted, Wonder Woman struck a positive note, but I didn’t have an overwhelming faith in the latest movie. With that in mind, Justice League felt like it might be a chance for redemption.
Justice League was originally under the guidance of Zack Snyder, who left the project to focus on family while Joss Whedon stepped in to conduct re-shoots, edits, etc. At times, yes, this left the movie feeling a bit disjointed with two very different styles trying to work together. Nothing so jarring that it really took me out of the film, but that might be because I was more closely paying attention to other issues I had with the movie.
The DCEU has been known for its very dark tones. Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad all had a murky quality to them. This time out, there seems to have been a conscious decision to make the movie a bit brighter. We actually see these heroes and their alter egos in places other than darkened alleyways and secret caves. It’s a welcome change, but doesn’t do much to alter the dark moods of most of the characters or their situations and once or twice even seems a little out-of-place. Bruce Wayne takes walks along the shore near his lake house. Believe it.
The actors all do their roles justice (hey-yo!). I still like Ben Affleck as a crusty old Batman. If he does do a solo film, I’d like to see that explored further with him training a replacement. Nightwing, Batgirl, or whoever. Henry Cavill continues to look the part of Superman (aside from the horrible digital removal of his mustache) and carry it with some gravitas. Gal Gadot still shines as Wonder Woman learning to be a leader. Ray Fisher played a very thoughtful and self-aware Cyborg. Jason Momoa was born to play the noble-yet-lunkish-punching-bro take on Aquaman. Ezra Miller brought some much-needed energy and humor as The Flash. And Jeremy Irons is all smarts and sass as Alfred. The misguided slips from DC and Warner Brothers isn’t so much the casting as it is the overall story execution.
Justice League is the story of a world without its greatest hero, Superman. The beacon of hope for humanity was very publicly killed and now the world is left to decide whether they want to rise up to his example, or go completely mental and grief-spiral into abject chaos. Humanity has nobly chosen the second option. Seizing this, a force known as the Mother Box has summoned the exiled Steppenwolf to Earth so that he may attempt to conquer it and reshape it into a hellscape of his own design. Batman is still set on creating a team of gifted beings to safeguard the world and so he does what he can to unite Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman to be champions for the planet. When he learns of a way Superman may yet be revived, he decides that is the world’s greatest hope.
This leads to two of my favorite scenes, but also, sadly, what I feel to be the greatest missed opportunity. Yes, Superman is revived, and in the confusion of his revival he fights the other members of the League. The highlight of the fight is The Flash trying to flank Superman for an attack. While he’s moving at top speed and the world around him seems frozen, Superman’s eyes move to follow the speedster and prepare for the attack. True to form, Superman can never quite touch the Flash, but he’s never taken off guard or surprised. The other highlight scene for me was Bruce talking to Alfred on why he’s going to such lengths for Superman and the League. He outright admits that Superman is “more human than I am.” It’s a strong moment of the most human member of the team confessing that he’s sacrificed that very thing to be a hero and that cold, fear-inspiring figure is no longer what people need.
But does that idea go anywhere? Not really. They mention it and that’s pretty much that. I feel like that motivation would make the audience care more about Batman and by letting that be the crux of the film, the other characters could also endear themselves to the viewers. It never went that deep, however, and it felt like a very surface-level motivation for each character that got them on the team and was quickly glossed over.
So then what’s the message of the film? On one hand, you have the movie poster pitch-line of “you can’t save the world alone.” However, even when everyone joins forces, they still fail to beat Steppenwolf. Only when Superman shows up do they start gaining ground. So the message instead becomes “you can only save the world by relying on an outside force/secret super weapon/other-worldly savior.” It takes some of the agency of humanity’s own power and hope from their hands. While I know that’s a possible harsh truth, for a superhero movie that may be a key to why Marvel seems to have a better reception of its films. Let these characters be a somewhat relatable representation of self-agency.
But I could be over thinking this.
Overall, I’d give Justice League a 3 of 5 stars. That’s possibly being very generous, but I think there’s a seed of potential there that could become something really fun. We’ll see as more movies come out.
BONUS: The first post-credit scene of The Flash and Superman having a race was a nice bit of character and banter that would have been welcome in more of the movie.
BONUS BONUS: The second post-credit scene with the reintroduction of Lex Luthor and the debut of Joe Manganiello as Deathstroke is one of those possible seeds of something really fun.