[SPOILER WARNING: Some plot elements, including third act events, are discussed in this review.]
Hot on the heels of the summer blockbuster Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon present Justice League, the all-star showdown between Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, The Flash and Superman. Does it soar like the man of steel or stink like a wet fish? The answer is middling, and a lot more troubling for the future of DC movies.
• Director: Zack Snyder & Joss Whedon
• Exhibition: 2D
• Rating: M (Mature, Australia)
• Run Time: 120 mins
In full disclosure this review contains spoilers and is tainted with bias. So spoiled has the consumer been over the last few years with multiple seasons of DC Superheroes on television, including the standalone series Gotham on FOX that it was always going to be hard to walk into any DC movie expecting the same standards. As a direct sequel to Batman vs Superman and then Suicide Squad the tone has been set for a raucous, ridiculous, dark and violent epic in true Zack Snyder fashion.
I like Zack Snyder films for the most part. I loved Watchmen and while Sucker Punch hit all the right notes, was let down by a lackluster and shallow story compared to the seminal 300. Enter Joss Whedon (of competing Marvel and Avengers fame) – What should have been three hours of glorious introspection on the meaning of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death and the armies of man; joining forces with Atlantis and Themyscira to overthrow the world eating Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds – instead becomes less than half that, a story that forgets what it is and degenerates into slapstick jokes and macho bravado.
A lot has already been written about the directing woes of Snyder on Justice League and how Whedon was bought in by Warner Brothers to edit, re-shoot and generally make the movies writing funnier. Kudos for supporting Snyder in his time of need though – it simply doesn’t work.
Since Batman (Ben Afflek) fought Superman and had visions of the hell planet Apokolips ruled by Steppenwolf, he has been trying to assemble a team that could come together to prevent what he believes is the end of men on Earth. Bruce Wayne, though he won’t admit it, is also looking for successors, someone to carry the torch and represent the whole world in lieu of Superman.
This premise is a good one, and the first half of the movie does a reasonable job of fleshing out each character, where they are in life and why it matters that they join Batman in his crusade. Justice League begins with a lot of assumptions though, as the first scene sees Batman already hunting the Parademons of Steppenwolf with many preexisting relationships between Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) and Alfred (Jeremy Irons).
What Snyder does well is marry over wrought serious melodrama or long conversation with moments of intense action and violence and then cut to something like a Lord of The Rings size battle that includes Green Lanterns and all the armies of existence taking down Steppenwolf on an Earth that the world has long since forgotten.
What Justice League doesn’t do is justify why any of the heroes are any good at fighting, as they all seem highly reclusive and unskilled. The Flash (Ezra Miller) is homeless and living off the grid, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is a shut in and angry at the world, Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) is a drunk, ruler on none and Wonder Woman, well, Wonder Woman is pretty old by this stage and yet is seemingly the most reticent to step up and do anything although having existed on Earth for over 80 years. Batman has apparently been saving Gotham for over 20 years and is generally broken and tired of the fight.
This is where Snyder’s contribution to Justice League ends as the assembled team plays keep-away with Steppenwolf as well as resurrecting ‘you know who’ in the meantime. Justice League takes a sharp turn into the uncanny valley of over saturated CGI madness that only two competing directors could come up with. Towards the end of the movie what should have been an epic, inclusive world war against the forces of hell becomes a muddied, blurry juxtaposition of special effects that is like watching video game quality cut scenes and it’s impossible to tell where any real actors start and the CGI begins.
That said a high point of the movie, and a controversial one was the portrayal of Steppenwolf himself. As a fully realized character, I personally really liked him and liked that the movie established him quickly from the start with backstory allowing him to appear well before the final act and actually on screen almost as much as anyone else. Whilst his motivations were pretty broad seemingly appearing only because ‘fear’ had reentered the world sans Superman, his character was wholly and greatly better than Aires in Wonder Woman whom I found both weak and terribly emasculated for what he should have been.
Let’s not dwell on two of our favorite superheroes grave robbing the man of steel or literally reusing plot points from Batman vs Superman. Let’s not pretend that said superheroes were not so in awe of Supes’ coming back to life that they left the very thing Steppenwolf was looking for behind and, you literally see him in the background make off with it, while they are not looking?
- Superman describing being dead as “itchy”
- Lois Lane telling Clark “he smells good (after dying)”
- The Flash falling on top of Wonder Woman
- Clark Kent’s mother telling Louise how Clark thinks she’s “thirsty”
There was a literal point in the movie, where as a conservative viewer I caught myself looking at Gal Godot’s butt. So much so that I thought maybe it was just me. My only take away from the whole movie was that the cameraman was having a joke, and I must have been imagining the up-skirt and low angle shots. Turns out a cursory search on the internet proves I wasn’t the only one.
As a contrast to Marvel, DC and Zack Snyder’s movies in general are almost always darker, grainier over saturated films of monochrome color with the contrast turned up high, layered with particle effects, lens flares and slow motion CGI shots in-action. In this regard, Justice League doesn’t disappoint. Whether it was the cinema the movie was showing in or the number of close up and mid shots, most of Justice League actually appears out of focus, with a strange depth of field on the lens. Faces and people are in focus in the fore ground but with muddied and blurry backgrounds.
What was established in the Marvel X-Men movies as a method of filming slow motion tracking shots between objects for someone who is actually moving very fast is butchered in Justice League without the care and attention or ironic musical interludes that one would expect.
Justice League, is a movie that on paper shouldn’t work. Yet to see the titular DC Heroes together at last doing their thing on the big screen almost negates the sore points. If the film had been set up as an ironic buddy comedy along the lines of Suicide Squad, then Snyder may have been onto something special. Instead awkward dialogue and a reversal in the second act of the movie undercuts the former halves seriousness and epic premise of a superhero Lord of the Rings.
*Steppenwolf is also actually the name for a rogue planet that may support life in our universe.
This week, the CW is showcasing a DCU three hour crossover event on TV that is the culmination of six years of Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Touting 20 superheroes at once on screen and more Nazis from Earth–X than you can shake a stick at, do yourself a favour; stay in and watch that instead.