It’s been an interesting journey to get to this point. When Man of Steel opened in the summer of 2013, it was met with lukewarm reception by critics and an even more divisive response from fans. That wouldn’t even compare to the polarizing reaction Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would receive three years later. Suicide Squad met an even ghastlier fate, but Wonder Woman all but single-handedly saved this DC on film franchise.
That brings us to Justice League, a splashy union of DC’s finest superheroes that’s a step down from Wonder Woman, but still a damn good time at the movies nevertheless. It’s been getting a predictable lashing from critics as reviews started flooding in last night. That’s to be expected, as the film races toward its climax barely holding together at its seams. It’s by no means a perfect film, with imperfect edges and an even more faulty finish, but what holds it together are characters you can root for and a tone that’s unabashedly charming. Justice League, after the doom and gloom affairs of the first three DCEU films, really, sincerely wants you to love it. It wears its intentions on its sleeve, and I can’t fault it for that.
What I can fault it for, however, are the film’s glaring imperfections. The road to Justice League was bumpy before it reached production, but the road curved and weaved significantly more when the film’s director, Zack Snyder, had to walk away from finishing the film due to a family tragedy. Joss Whedon, who had already been writing additional material, was then assigned to take over directorial duties and oversee post-production. The end result is a film that feels uniquely like a Zack Snyder film, with some added Whedon humor for good measure. The styles don’t always mesh – some of the humor seems forced, and you can really tell where the reshoots came in. The CGI at times is blatantly obvious, like a Batmobile whose wheels are falling apart and the screws are definitely still visibly loose.
This is something where I think simply pushing the film back to spring or summer 2018 would’ve benefited Justice League greatly. The problems I have with the film – the disjointed attempt to make the reshoots seamlessly blend in with the original footage, the shoddy CGI – could have been easily fixed if Warner Bros. simply spent more time finessing the final product. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was hindered by the studio releasing a truncated version of a film that was meant to be three hours, resulting in a film filled with editing mishaps and storylines not making coherent sense as a result. Justice League makes more coherent sense, but given the studio’s two hour mandate, exists a film that could and should have been so much more.
What does the film get right? Well, for starters, what Justice League gets right it really gets right. The film’s biggest success are its main characters. Ezra Miller is the true standout as Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash. He brings a sense of boundless energy to the role that’s infectious and adds a forward momentum to every scene he’s in. Gal Gadot once more shines as Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, elevating scenes simply by being present in the narrative. Jason Momoa brings a distinctively unique and edgier take to Aquaman, which totally works in the context of the film. Momoa and Snyder had the difficult task to re-imagine Aquaman for modern audiences, and for the most part it works. I think I’m more excited to see Momoa as Aquaman in his eventual standalone film, scheduled for December 2018. There’s more to the character that only bubbles at the surface here, and at the end of the film I wanted more.
Ray Fisher is perfectly solid as Cyborg, even if I think he was the weakest link of the team. Even if I wished he was fleshed out more, I give the film credit for pretty much giving every character an equal amount of screentime. There doesn’t feel like a character that hogs the film, even when it is clear Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman are the clear leaders of this ragtag group of heroes. As for Affleck’s Batman, he’s a much more affable Dark Knight in this version. He’s learned he has to play well with others if he wants to save the world, and Affleck does a fine job brooding significantly less this time around. As for his former nemesis, Henry Cavill’s Superman feels like a superhero reborn. This is a Superman that isn’t constantly questioning his place in the world. He’s a lot more confident, assured and well… happy this time around. Yes, he smiles a lot more, which should please some hardcore DC fans of the character that bemoaned Superman’s brooding nature in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman.
As for the film itself, Superman’s reborn identity feels like an analogy for the film. If there’s one thing I noticed most about Justice League is that it has an irresistible desire to please its audience. The film is wholeheartedly charming, right down to its witty banter among its lead characters and its overall sense of silly fun. Yes, the film is silly, but it’s no more silly than any recent Marvel film. As much as I had a problem with some of the forced humor, a lot of the film’s humor is actually rooted in character. It’s honestly a joy to watch these characters interact, and if anything Justice League made me like these people and more importantly, it made me want to see more of them when the credits rolled.
The film’s narrative is also simple, and sometimes too simple. The film opens with a montage of criminals running amok set to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”. Snyder has always been a visual virtuoso when it comes to opening credits (see the opening title sequence for Watchmen) and Justice League is no different. From there, we see a world without Superman as Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince partner to build a team to save the world from Steppenwolf, who needs multiple Mother Boxes to destroy the world. There’s really not much else to the narrative other than this description. Bruce and Diana subsequently recruit the members of the Justice League, starting with Momoa’s Aquaman and proceeding with Miller’s Flash and Fisher’s Cyborg. The team butt heads plenty of times, although the film refreshingly never borderlines on bombast.
Justice League isn’t a perfect film, and there will be some who will criticize that and some who will defend that. After four films with only one that has been universally loved by critics and audiences, Justice League will find a difficult time warming up to everyone. There will be some who will appreciate that Justice League is a film that doesn’t take itself so seriously and has a good time with these beloved characters. Then, there’ll be some who will ask, “Is that enough?”, and not remain content with a film that clearly has many bumps and bruises. For some DC fans, the fact that Justice League works as well as it does will be more than enough. For people that grew up with these characters, there’s a certain nostalgic delight to seeing Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg fighting side-by-side. For me, that is worth the price of admission alone.
However, the novelty of seeing these beloved heroes fighting alongside one another will only get Warner Bros. and DC Comics so far. While Wonder Woman was a step in the right direction for DC on film, Justice League definitely feels like a couple steps backwards. However, I cannot condemn a film that is this shamelessly enjoyable. It feels like a Saturday morning cartoon of the Super Friends, with playful repartee among its characters and a tone that begs you to have a good time.
As bumpy a road as it has been getting to this point, the future seems very bright. James Wan is directing the eventual Aquaman spin-off, and I think that character is in good hands. Patty Jenkins is coming back to lasso Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman 2, and Matt Reeves (coming right off the successful Planet of the Apes reboots) has been hired to give the Caped Crusader his own brooding adventure in The Batman. Even Shazam is getting his own film.
These are talented filmmakers, and if they are given the creative autonomy to tell their own stories, hopefully we see more movies like Wonder Woman. Justice League was understandably held down by a bunch of different variables, from a script that was rewritten prior to filming to a change in directors less than a year before release. It’s not a home run, but it’s still a great time. It closes out Zack Snyder’s superhero trilogy in satisfying fashion. Moving forward, there are so many limitless possibilities where these characters can go from here. The journey may have been bumpy before, with crevices and fissures along the way, but something tells me the journey is going to be a lot more sturdy from this point onward.
Justice League doesn’t save the DC film universe, but it doesn’t let it die, either. It rises to the challenge and has a damn good time doing it. This ride ain’t over yet.