JUSTICE LEAGUE Makes The Best Of An Utter Mess
Wonder Woman was two steps forward. Justice League is an entertaining but sloppy step back.
Warner Bros. has had a time of it with their DC films, but none more-so than Justice League. A tumultuous, heavily-publicized three year production has left us all on the edge of our seats wondering how this epoch would turn out. $300 million dollars, some hefty reshoots, rewrites, and a Joss Whedon later: what's the verdict?
Honestly, it's enjoyable... And that's about it.
It's strange to feel so many of the same thoughts echoing for JL as they did for Thor: Ragnarok, the film's only superhero box-office competition this season. Both are franchise-course-corrections with rag-tag teams of heroes looking to prevent the end of their respective worlds, but the comparisons will have to stop there or they'll overtake everything else - Because, really, neither does something a dozen comic book movies haven't done before. Justice League does, at least, accomplish the end product's clear goal: entertain those that despised Snyder's previous entries in the DCEU.
Fans mostly come in two camps with WB's pre-Wonder Woman attempts (Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, and Dawn of Justice), they either loved or loathed all three.
Critics, however, were virtually unanimous as each was unabashedly panned. Chances are if you're reading this then you're overly familiar with the troubled history of this franchise, but it has to be touched on to understand how we ended up with the anomaly that's headed to screens.
Justice League is a mess. Not in the sense that it's hard to follow; quite the opposite. It's a mess because Zack Snyder birthed it under strict studio guidelines to make it less like his own films. It's a mess because Snyder then had to leave due to a horrible family tragedy (the death of his daughter). Above all, it's a mess because the studio brought in Joss Whedon to Aveng-ify it. None of this is the true anomaly here, though. The anomaly is how enjoyable this mess ends up being.
Amid painfully obvious re-shoots (including composited backgrounds that read like a smack in the face - and the CG-ousted mustache of Henry Cavill that actually looks like said actor was smacked in the face), shoehorned character beats, and a complete cluster of a first act, JL could be so much worse. But instead, it manages to weasel its way into the dopamine-inducing corners of your brain and hook you along for the movie equivalent of your favorite Taco Bell menu item.
If you come into this film expecting the same quality as Wonder Woman, you'll be utterly disappointed. If you come into it expecting to experience the opposite emotions that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made you feel (i.e. please kill me and everyone else on this planet), you'll be pleasantly surprised.
If the end product accomplishes one thing, it's that each of this league's heroes are absolutely unique. The newcomers of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg could not be more different from one another and the established heroes of Wonder Woman, Batman, and the big guy with the red cape that may or may not be in this film according to which poster you're looking at.
This is where JL shines. Ezra Miller's Flash was expected to be a standout, and he absolutely is. Miller is utterly unique as an actor, and casting someone of such ilk really elevates the Flash above the sort of bumbling comedic relief this character's archetype is usually limited to. Make no mistake, he is full of both bumbling and comedic relief, but each comes from the nature of his character rather than cheap laughs or sacrificing of circumstances, and that's why it works. His Barry Allen is eager for something larger than himself, and brings a natural levity to the affair that works much better than when said levity is forced on others.
Cyborg comes in as a direct juxtaposition to Flash, and Ray Fisher sells the character with a performance that shockingly allows you to get past his Transformers-esque design. Fisher's Victor Stone is a young man well-aware of his horrid appearance. Resentment for both himself and his father (the scientist who saved his life by making him as such, a cyborg) makes for a foil to Miller's Flash, one that has no intention of being a part of this team or the public at large for that matter. Fisher's talent sells the brooding, and we're gifted with a new hero that shows a lot of promise with more screen-time down the road. Their crafting also earns a big nod for the writers & studio, as each hero is closely molded from their comic roots; their origins and defining attributes very-much intact.
The third newcomer, Jason Momoa's Aquaman, stops just shy of being a breakout alongside Flash & Cyborg. Momoa does great work with what he's given, accomplishing an intimidating swagger without becoming a full-on a*hole. Outside of this, though, the movie's not really sure what to do with him. Is he a would-be king-warrior-guy? A dude-bro? A mythic figure from the oceans? He's all three, depending on the scene, but to Momoa's credit his Arthur Curry never overstays his welcome or makes you wish he wasn't a part of this ensemble.
Momoa's casting was a stroke of genius by Snyder & co. back in his heyday with the franchise. The actor's Pacific heritage is an inspired choice for a character tied to the oceans. Unfortunately, this is completely done away with as all his fellow Atlanteans are... very Caucasian. This isn't a fault of JL's casting, though, as his counterparts (such as Amber Heard's Mera) look like they walked straight out of the comics.
The film's strengths continue with the returning Gal Gadot, who shines in every scene she's in. Whether absolutely kicking ass as Wonder Woman or assembling this team as Diana Prince alongside Affleck's Bruce Wayne, Gadot continues to disprove every hater that deemed her unworthy of the role. Affleck is on-point here, too, when playing the restrained Bruce Wayne or battle-hardened Batman. He falters a bit, though, where the reshoots and forced hopefulness enter. These additions to the film by Whedon are painfully obvious when it comes to Batman, making it clear that no amount of money can ever successfully blend the polar opposite styles of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon.
And yes, Superman is in this film, and yes Henry Cavill is wonderful. He's been the perfect choice for a modern-day Superman all along, and hopefully we'll get a film worthy of his portrayal of the character some day. Justice League is not it, though, as his involvement in the film is limited to a plot-device and semi-reveal that plenty of posters, such as the one above, completely ruined. This doesn't detract from his charm or impact on the proceedings, it just leaves us wanting much more of the first superhero, especially in a Justice League movie.
We've made it this far without a single mention of the films villain, and that's because Steppenwolf is another oversized CGI cartoon meant only to give the heroes something to punch. On this front, he works perfectly. There is zero depth or menace to his presence, and not a second of his appearance looks real. All affairs concerning Steppenwolf, including himself and his backstory, are very Snyder-ized and play like an animated movie. Honestly, though, this is a film about the Justice League, and the villain is sidelined to give us more time with these heroes. In this respect it's forgivable, as the editing that assembles all the aforementioned characters is handled with about as much grace as Affleck's Batman in a china shop - to the extent that any more forced exposition would've surely sunk a first act that is already a blaring weakness.
Assembling this rag-tag group starts off unevenly, but results in an experience much like a pulp-serial: Simple, Fun, and Surprisingly Short.
Heroes aside, Justice League's other victory comes in the form of Danny Elfman's return to DC superheroes. Elfman conjured the unforgettable theme for Batman in Tim Burton's two films, one that has become synonymous with the character but lay dormant since the animated series of the 90s. Elfman not only resurrects his trumpeting bat-theme for JL, but also reanimates these heroes as something above the dour, ADD electronica proceedings of this franchise's past.
Perhaps it's Elfman's romping score combined with the constant bombardment of enjoyable character beats that leaves you feeling as if the experience catapults you along. Regardless, the comparatively-short runtime of 1 hour and 59 minutes feels like an oddly appropriate flash; much more-so than any other two-hour film featuring this many characters that I've ever seen. In this, though, a lot of Snyder's operatic heft from his two previous entries is completely lost, which is a mixed bag. It allows you to enjoy these famed heroes interacting for the first time in this franchise, but also shaves away any heft Snyder built around figures like Batman and Superman becoming modern-day mythology.
JUSTICE LEAGUE ultimately ends up a documented example of why grass will always being greener on the other side of the fence for audiences and studios alike.
We're on that other side of the fence now. We've got our happy, hopeful heroes and simplistic plot with minimal baggage and casualties. Gone are the days of Batman murdering criminals in droves and Superman, ironically, unwittingly doing the same to civilians. Now everyone can smile (even Batman) and enjoy saving the world together. But somewhere between these two extremes lies a solid middle ground that we know exists, because we have Wonder Woman.
Justice League's production began within a studio still pining for the unquestionable success of Wonder Woman, and ended a Franeknstein-esque culmination of Snyder's DCEU and Whedon's attempted aping of "what audiences want". Now that this is all behind us, here's to hoping Warner Bros. can meet us somewhere in the middle again, and stop throwing so much money over the other side of the fence.
Justice League may be a mess, but at least it's an entertaining and engaging one: a massive step up for a franchise who's previous exercises in team-building were the worst kind of messes. If nothing else, at least we now have an enjoyable, pulpy feature for the world's most famous heroes that can be re-watched without developing a subconscious hatred for all mankind. And like Wonder Woman before it, I actually want to re-watch Justice League.
JUSTICE LEAGUE Hits Theaters November 17th, 2017.
Have you seen Justice League? What did you think?
Was JL a Victory, Failure, or somewhere In-between?
Jon D. B.