Are we being too hard on Justice League? I was, shall we say, underwhelmed when I wrote my initial review, and it seems I’m not alone. But is it really that bad?
The truth is, the movie starts really strongly. True, the Superman cell phone video that opens the film suffered from the now-infamous CGI-moustache-removal issue but wasn’t it nice to see Superman actually being Superman? Then Batman chasing down a thief on the rooftops of Gotham, and confronting a parademon? The visuals in that scene were awesome; straight out of the comic pages.
Wonder Woman foiling a terrorist attack on London…okay, that could have been better. I have no problem with the scene itself, but the dialogue was…oh, so bad. She lassos one of the bad guys and asks him for an explanation. Okay so far. I can even forgive her the line explaining that the lasso forces him to tell the truth. It’s cheesy and utterly unnecessary but I suppose it’s possible that someone in the audience needed the explanation. It was his reply that got me. “We’re radical terrorists.” I mean, really? Even with that truth-compulsion, that is not how terrorists describe themselves. They claim alleigance and cause. It sounded so ridiculous.
But that’s a moment, and moments can be forgiven. For a while longer, for most of the first half, really, the film remains strong. There’s Bruce’s meeting with Arthur Curry/Aquaman. I have no idea why he had to approach a coastal village from above (too accustomed to leaping off roofs, perhaps?) and it seems a bit odd that Bruce fails to recognise Arthur as the man he’s looking for (after all, he has Lex Luthor’s video and Amander Waller’s files at this point), but on the other hand, Bruce did the same thing with Clark in BvS and he certainly knew at that point that Clark was Superman. So maybe that pretending ignorance is just his modus operandi. That quirk aside, the scene works well and I liked their interaction. Our introductions to Victor Stone/Cyborg and Barry Allen/Flash are similarly strong. I could almost forgive Ezra Miller for not being Grant Gustin.
The first big mis-step is the battle on Themyscira because not only are Amazons dressed like comic-con booth-babes, they are also useless as fighters. Yes, yes, they are fighting with bows and arrows against alien super-tech. But as we learn later, they have fought Steppenwolf before, so they really should have been better prepared for that kind of battle. And when Steppenwolf breaks into the vault (or whatever it is) that holds the mother box, their solution is to run away with it? Run away from the teleporting alien and his winged henchmen? I mean, isn’t that, like, the worst battle strategy ever? A Roman-style turtle might have been more effective. Also Steppenwolf’s little speech to Hippolyta comes across as really creepy and rapey. I think he was meant to be referring to transforming them into parademons, but that sure isn’t how it came across. So, yeah, just in case you didn’t realise you’re watching a Zack Snyder film, let’s shove in a speech about turning strong women into adoring slaves.
Changing the look of the Amazons had another side effect: that battle goes so fast we don’t have time to recognise them as Amazon warriors we have already met (other than Hippolyta who gets a couple of close-ups). It was only reading the cast list on IMDB I realised that some of the deaths were characters I cared about, however briefly, in Wonder Woman. Being aware of that as it happened on screen would have made a big difference.
But even that, I might have overlooked if it were the only mis-step.
The inevitable misogyny (I expect nothing better from the creator of Sucker Punch) aside, there are, I think, three fundamental problems with the film.
1. Studio interference.
I get it. Batman v Superman was (deservedly) critically panned. Wonder Woman was critically lauded, and perhaps slightly more than it deserves. WB is in the business of making money, and they had already sunk a huge investment into Justice League. It makes sense that they wanted it to do better. But the specific area in which we know they interfered was the movie’s run time. And this film needed to be longer. An ensemble movie with no preceding solo outings for four of its stars (I’m including Batman: BvS wasn’t a solo), needed more time to devote to showing us who those people are and why we should give a crap about them. Almost everything in the early trailers didn’t make it into the finished film, and there are a lot of places where just a few more seconds, just a little more information, would have made a difference. I have a feeling that, as with BvS, some essential scenes were left on the cutting room floor. There’s no excuse for that.
2. Too many changes in reshoots.
Massive reshoots don’t necessarily make a bad movie. Every big budget movie has some reshoots – that’s the nature of film-making. We know that Rogue One, for example, underwent extensive reshoots and the finished product speaks for itself: it was really good. But in this case, the reshoots were done under a different writer/director and it really shows. (I’m aware that Zack Snyder needed to step away due to a family tragedy and therefore, this isn’t really his fault.) I know that Joss Whedon was brought in, in part, to give the film a lighter tone. But that’s why it doesn’t work. There are tonal shifts all over the place that don’t make sense and Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue just doesn’t fit the established characters. The wisecracks and gags may please the critics and a lighter tone may fit the comic book characters (well, some of them), but it doesn’t serve the movie as a whole. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but honestly, I think because it’s following BvS, this needed to be a darker movie than it is.
3. Not enough character, not enough plot
And this is the biggie. On one hand, Marvel comparisons are unfair; the DCEU is a completely different beast. On the other hand, Marvel’s formula works for a reason. They built up to Avengers with years of solo superhero movies. DC chose to give us Justice League as an introduction to Aquaman, Cyborg and Flash. So it was really important that those characters appeal to the audience.
Aquaman got some character development, but really not enough and not in ways that fully make sense: from rejected by Atlantis, to caring enough to go there when he learned of Steppenwolf’s attack. From loner to loving being part of a team. From angry and brooding to joyous in battle. But with no real transition point for any of those changes.
Cyborg was broody and broodier, but his is a tragic backstory (not that we got to see much of it) and that made sense in context. But he never really got a character arc either. Maybe his final scene was meant to be his acceptance of the technology that powers him, but if so the message wasn’t clear.
And Flash. With Flash the backstory is more fleshed out: we see him visit his father in prison and learn that he’s effectively living off the grid, though it’s not clear why. But this doesn’t quite fit with his cameo in Suicide Squad (where Flash captures the unicorn-fetish guy during a bank robbery). His youthful enthusiasm for joining the team takes a hit when faced with battle and that in turn is overcome – a decent character arc. But it still feels very thin.
The plot is also thin. BvS had too much plot: Luthor as the behind-the-scenes manipulator made it complicated in ways that didn’t work. But Justice League suffers from the opposite problem. The plot is like a series of checkboxes: set up the villain – check. Bring the League together – check. Bring back Superman – check. Big fight – check. Throw in a few jokes and gratuitious butt-shots and shirtless men and you’ve got a movie! Yeah…no, you don’t. Thor: The Dark World is generally considered the weakest of Marvel’s movies, but it had a villain whose motivations were clear and made sense: Malkeith intended to resurrect his race as a power in the universe. It also had a second villain, Loki, which provided colour and contrast to the main baddie. Justice League fails to provide any motivation for Steppenwolf beyond a vague sense that he has a grudge against Earth because he lost last time he tried to conquer the planet. But that begs the question of what he’s been doing in the meantime: we are repeatedly told that the timing of Steppenwolf’s attach is significant: he is attacking now because Superman is gone, leaving the Earth vulnerable. But there has been no Superman for at least 2,000 years before that – was the Earth not vulnerable enough then? It makes no sense. Steppenwolf’s parademons are mere shock-troops. There’s a flashback moment early on where we see fallen warriors being transformed, but the potential terror implied by that is never revisited – no one who fights them morphs into a monster, they just die. And no one we care about dies anyway. The stakes are high – the fate of the world! – but never personal.
Yet the threads are there, the potential to deepen the plot and raise the stakes is there. Since Snyder has already shown he’s willing to throw out comic canon to build his universe, I wonder why it didn’t occur to him to give us a Green Lantern as a ‘redshirt’ to make those stakes personal. To bring in someone whose power set comes close to compensating for the missing Superman, have him or her cut down in battle, the ring vanishing to its (off-screen) successor and transforming what remains into a parademon would really hammer home the threat and what defeating him will cost. Similarly, as much as I loathed that “Knightmare” sequence in BvS, it did lay the groundwork to show Darkseid as the force behind Steppenwolf, so why not double down on that and make the villain a bit more layered? And tease out the other threads from that vision: who was the “him” Future-Flash warned about and why is Lois Lane “the key”? And for Lex Luthor to be missing but for a post-credits cameo is just as weird. I suppose introducing him might have made the story too complex, but he’s the perfect secondary villain in this type of story, just as Loki was to Malkeith.
I don’t want to be endlessly negative, though. There is a lot that Justice League gets right.
- Batman being Batman in the opening rooftops sequence – the best I’ve seen and genuinely worth the price of admission on its own.
- Cyborg’s battle with the technology inside him – I would like to see that explored in more depth.
- Bruce pushing Diana to anger: Bruce Wayne always knows the buttons to push and when he pushes them, it’s to a purpose. Batman survives as a superhero without superpowers because he thinks his way through every angle and contingency. It was good to see that, finally. (But I hope she broke at least one of his ribs – he was asking for it!)
- Superman seeing Flash move in the Speed Force – oh, boy was that a great moment!
- Aquaman’s confession-by-lasso: while many critics have taken issue with his objectification of Diana, I don’t a) because that’s what men do with a beautiful woman they don’t know yet and b) because it was a lovely call back to Steve Trevor doing almost exactly the same thing (saying far too much because he doesn’t realise he’s sitting on the lasso) in the Wonder Woman animated movie.
- Batman helps Flash become a hero in the first battle – as with Diana, I like that this came from Bruce. Flash is scared of having to fight and seems ready to bolt. Bruce tells him don’t fight, just save one person. Just one. Flash asks, “then what?”. Bruce: “You’ll know.” And that’s exactly what happens. Flash doesn’t need to be a fighter – he’s the one fast enough to save lives while the others do the fighting.
- Wonder Woman’s connection with Victor/Cyborg: especially pointing out that she knew he was watching them at the lake. It’s not so much a “gotcha” moment as an acknowlegement of his ability as well as her own.
- Flash’s “Quicksilver” scene – might have been more effective if the X-Men movies didn’t get there first but it was a great moment to see him inside the Speed Force, surrounding action almost frozen, doing just enough to make the difference in the battle around him.
- The scenes with Bruce and Diana alone; I think the movie struck just the right balance between friendship and UST, although the commentary from Alfred made it look more one-sided than I like. I would rather ship the hell out of them in private and keep the on-screen relationship platonic, so what we saw worked for me, particularly as we see them in conflict as well as in harmony. I may go see it a second time just for that.
- The meeting under the Bat-signal – we saw it in the trailers, but Gordon’s reference to Batman having a team around him “again” means a lot. The Bat-family is out there, somewhere!
For me, what matters most is how a movie ends, because that’s the feeling that stays with me as I leave the theatre. And it’s the second half of Justice League that lets it down: too much action, no real satisfaction in the victory. But I was left with some hope – Superman is back, and much closer to being Superman, and the post-credits scene with Lex and Deathstroke actually did make me look forward to the next installment…until I remembered who would be making it.
So, what next?
All in all…I come away from this with the same feeling I did from BvS: that there’s actually a really great movie in here struggling to get out. Somewhere in the team behind these DCEU movies is the right combination that will give us the DC superhero movie fans are still waiting for. They just haven’t quite hit on it yet. They have the right cast. I got the feeling that Ben Afleck was a bit less committed in this movie, but he is still a good Batman. Gal Godot is perfect. There isn’t a mis-cast role in the bunch. Zack Snyder is one of the best visual directors working today, he just needs less story control and a woman (not his wife, who produces most of his work) overseeing the dailies and stamping out the worst of his treatment of female characters. The core plotting is good, but they need a truly great script doctor to erase the worst dialogue and exposition. And they need to work much harder on a consistent tone that will work with the characters. All the elements are there. They are so close!
But. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… I don’t know if continuing to build on such a tarnished brand is a good idea.
Wonder Woman was awesome. I have perhaps foolishly high hopes for next year’s Aquaman. If that turns out to be as good as it could be, I hope WB will concentrate on their solo outings before attempting a new Justice League. We need a Man of Steel 2 and Wonder Woman 2 (and 3, 4, 5 etc.). We need a Green Lantern movie (I didn’t hate the first one, but it’s not what GL should be) that sets up the character to join the Justice League at some point. We need a solo Batman movie with a really good Batman villain (dare I hope for Red Hood?). And all of these need to be good, if not awesome. Flash and Cyborg need to appear in one or more of the above and/or get their own solo outings. Other films they have announced (Batgirl, Nightwing, Suicide Squad 2, Gotham City Sirens, Justice League Dark) can happen or not: they need not be part of this game-plan. Then, when the fans are begging for it and it can’t possibly fail, we should get the next Justice League. Or, better yet, a Trinity movie. Yeah, that would be the sweet spot…