After the colossal failure of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the execs at Warner Bros. knew they needed to right the DC ship immediately. Wonder Woman’s success instilled a small hope all was not lost, making the anticipation up to the penultimate Justice League that much more nail-biting.
Let’s be clear about something, everyone wants Justice League to succeed. Everyone. In comics and pop culture, the Justice League is iconic and resonates with so many people. Whereas few people understood why Batman and Superman would fight each other, everyone understands the Justice League. Superheroes coming together to save the world makes sense.
So, with a heavy heart and a clear conscience, it needs to be said: Justice League doesn’t succeed.
Justice League’s problems are hauntingly similar to Suicide Squad’s. The villain Steppenwolf is a poorly computer generated and completely one-dimensional prop to superficially provoke conflict. The tone is disjointed, the pacing flat, the special effects poor, and the fight scenes are all loud noises and CGI blurs, grinding their way to completion like watching a small child smashing his action figures together until his arms hurt.
It’s not all bad. You can tell the film makes significant storytelling changes over Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, including a bucketful of humor, light-hearted moments, genuine camaraderie between the characters and, thank goodness, a shorter run-time.
Still, none of it solves its core flaws and acts more like a fresh coat of paint over a rotting, moldy, and roach infested wall. The only way to truly solve it is to tear it down and start over.
Directed by Zack Snyder and written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, Justice League starts where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice left off. Superman is dead. With the discovery that the Earth is under attack by the villainous Steppenwolf, Batman leads the way to bring together the Earth’s mightiest heroes to stop him.
Something Justice League does fairly well, considering the compact run-time, is character introduction without exposition and giving each an emotional anchor and minor backstory. Barry Allen, also known as The Flash, has a connection with his imprisoned father. Cyborg struggles to come to terms with his new condition. Aquaman is a bit of an orphaned prodigal. Each character also has their own unique traits, tics, and personalities that help further distinguish themselves.
Their chemistry and camaraderie, for the most part, works. While Marvel’s Avengers struggled to work together as a team, the Justice League inherently work together without much conflict. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a storytelling flaw but it doesn’t come across that way. It’s good to see them coming together without contrived tension. More of their teamwork revolves around making compromises and encouraging each other.
Of the movie’s many characters, The Flash stands out the most. He provides the most comic relief, has the best arc, and keeps the story interesting. He’s a great example of how a comedic character can simultaneously show heart and emotional transparency. He and Batman particularly have a solid moment which only adds to The Flash’s dynamic character. It’s something the movie could have used more of with the other characters. If they had to choose a standalone movie to make next, a Flash movie should be it.
Speaking of humor, if you bemoaned its absence in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, then you’ll be in for a treat. Taking a note out of Marvel’s playbook, Justice League throws in plenty of humor with each scene and for the most part, it lands. It’s well balanced and even a little different in its style and tone. Many of the best jokes are spoiled by the trailers but, rest assured, they still tuck many others away.
When Snyder left and Whedon took over, news spread Whedon not only did reshoots but cut the movie down by fifty minutes. It can’t be overstated how grateful we should be. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was preposterously long. And, while it’s easy to see how Snyder could have bloated Justice League, Whedon proves you can have a story with lots of characters and keep a taut runtime. If anything, the movie might have benefited from a little more padding and build up. But, let’s not get carried away.
Okay, it’s time to take the gloves off.
Steppenwolf is one of the worst villains in a superhero movie since Apocalypse from X-Men: Apocalypse. However, unlike Apocalypse, Steppenwolf is a poorly made CGI character, looking like they ported him straight out of a video game. His CGI-Face is downright offensive to the eyes, his voice is boring, and nothing about him intimidates or builds tension. Most of his scenes show him smashing and bashing everything in his way while he says some trite statement afterward but none of it evokes real emotion or fear.
While Wonder Woman enlightens the audience of his motivation in a nice bedtime expository scene which just regurgitates Zod’s motivation in Man of Steel and Ares motivation in Wonder Woman. Which is – “evil man wants to recreate the world and kill everything in the process.” At least Zod and Ares have scenes trying to convince the hero to fall in line with their plan. They try to show their side of the story.
Steppenwolf is just a one-dimensional prop saying things at the heroes but never having a genuine conversation with them. Even when he says things, its hard to understand his philosophy or worldview besides “power is good.” At one point he tells the Amazons with a sincere and straight face before killing them, “You’ll love me.” Why, exactly?
At the same time, Zod and Ares’s threat felt imminent. Zod’s giant spacecraft hovered over a city, getting ready to obliterate it. In this case, Steppenwolf is conveniently tucked away in some unknown dilapidated Russian city. His threat feels too far away to really care. Without real stakes, tension, or a villain you can understand, Justice League doesn’t feel necessary.
Without question, the special effects in Man of Steel and Wonder Woman are seamless and fantastic. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice didn’t do too bad of a job either. So, it’s difficult to fathom how the special effects in Justice League look worse than special effects from superhero movies in 2003. Many of the scenes showcased Lord of the Rings level epic battles but with horrendously rendered effects. It looks so cheesy and poorly done it’s even more difficult to care about Steppenwolf, the hollow shell rage monster, killing things.
In one scene, weird tentacle blobs burst out of the ground, looking so pixelated it’s like something out of the original Tron, and heaven help us, Henry Cavill’s digitally removed mustache looks worse than if they just let him keep the stache. The green screen is also a little too noticeable at times, taking you out of the action and making you wonder who slept at the special effects wheel.
Before discussing the fight scenes, it needs to be noted how Snyder loves to create “moments” over “scenes” and how this undercuts the narrative. With moments, Snyder just shows things happening without any real direction or substantial conclusion. Stories need scenes with peaks and plateaus, positives and negatives, to keep pacing interesting and carry things forward. Not moments. In many ways, that was the inherent problem with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Snyder repeats much of the same mistakes in Justice League.
It’s easy to see this happening at the micro-level with how they structure each of their fight scenes. The build-up to a fight is almost non-existent and when the heroes enter the fray, its wholly removed from tension, breathing room, or pacing. Much of the pacing goes like this: fight scene, talking scene, fight scene, talking scene and its repetition becomes mind-numbing and dull. Once you enter a fight scene, it feels like you’re entering a hurricane of banging noises, punching, and falling, but no time to soak it in, embrace or enjoy it. By the end of each consecutive fight, you’ll feel more drained than thrilled and maybe even get a headache in the process.
The rare dialogue scene between Martha Kent and Lois Lane will feel like an oasis on a hot summer day.
With a prop villain like Steppenwolf and tensionless fighting, rarely are the fight scenes anything other than the filmmakers going through the motions. Not once do you feel like the heroes are in the slightest amount of danger. You don’t feel the heat. The sweat. The struggle. It’s just a lifeless cage match.
Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg. With so many cooks in the kitchen, it isn’t much of a surprise the tone of the film is all over the place. It’s fairly easy to see which scenes are Snyder scenes and which are Whedon scenes. Some of the dialogue tries to be profound but just comes across as trite and cheesy. Danny Elfman should not have been chosen to compose. Not only is Zimmer’s music sorely missed but Elfman’s music is forgettable and doesn’t elicit any emotion at all. He also had the audacity to toss in throwbacks to his old Batman theme and the Richard Donner Superman theme. It’s cute, but ultimately another sign of the studio’s creative bankruptcy.
As a side, let’s make one thing perfectly clear, putting in Commissioner Gordon doesn’t make any sense and J.K. Simmons deserves better. The man is an Academy Award-winning actor and he got roughly three pointless scenes that easily could have been rewritten. They’d be better off just putting a cardboard cutout of Commissioner Gordon than waste Simmons’ time.
The weird part about all of this is that despite Justice League’s many flaws, it’s at least an improvement over Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It has a ray of optimism, it’s not nearly as long, and the humor provides much more levity. At the same time, shouldn’t we require more of Justice League than being slightly better than its predecessor? If anything, its quality should be equal to or greater than Wonder Woman but it isn’t anywhere near as close.
Since Man of Steel, DC has had a long and bizarre saga of bad movies. After Wonder Woman, Justice League should have been the epic page-turner to those blights, getting them back on track and toward something really special. Instead, we got a mediocre superhero movie that fixes its past mistakes but makes a whole set of new ones, barely moving the needle.
Photos courtesy of: Warner Bros. Pictures.