Going back to the start of the 2017 movie year “Justice League” gave us two of the easiest things to predict. First, “Justice League” would (one way or another) get a lot of attention for Warner Brothers. Second, the majority of film critics wouldn’t like “Justice League”. Okay, perhaps the second prediction was a bit cynical, but lets just say with one prominent exception (this year’s “Wonder Woman”) critics haven’t responded well with the DCEU’s approach.
DC films have a much different flavor than their rival, Disney-owned Marvel. Marvel movies tend to be lighter and often poke fun at themselves for their overall absurdity, so much so that several of their films could be called all-out comedies. DC movies are darker and considerably more serious. In many ways they are more like their comic book inspirations in how they tonally treat their stories. Therefore critics who have a hard time taking comic books seriously equally struggle with DC’s movies.
Contrary to some, I’ve enjoyed the DC formula (minus “Suicide Squad”) and for the most part “Justice League” sticks to it. Yet this movie is far from humorless and there’s no denying that the creative heads have made it a point to inject some laughs. But the serious tone and dire threat is still there, just to a slightly lesser degree. Personally I think that is a good thing.
The story begins with the world still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). In his absence an increase of crime can be seen from city to city. Fear sets in which attracts the attention of an interdimensional conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of parademons. Recognizing the weakened earth’s vulnerability, Steppenwolf sets out to resume his centuries-old hunt for three powerful energy sources called Mother Boxes.
Batman (Ben Affleck) is the first to get a whiff of the impending invasion. Superman’s death and the reality that he can’t handle it alone drives Bats to contact Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to help him form a team. Enter Arthur Curry a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) also known as The Flash, and Ray Fisher who is called Cyborg. Each have their own demons that keep them on their own, but each are faced with personal trials that eventually bring them together.
Returning director Zack Snyder once again plays with a lot of moving parts but manages to keep them all within a cohesive working universe. Several smaller characters with connections to past films return – Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Ma Kent, Jeremy Irons as Alfred, Connie Nielsen as Hyppolyta, J.K. Simmons as James Gordon. They never feel wedged in and each have their moments that serve the story well.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (who worked with Affleck on “Argo”) wrote the screenplay based on a story he developed with Snyder. But Snyder left the project in post-production following the heart-breaking loss of his daughter. Joss Whedon came aboard to finish up and received a screenplay credit. The trio work hard to balance the fantastical with the human element and for the most part get it right. Some personal stories are better and more fleshed out than others. Perhaps the most surprising is Cyborg – a failed experiment whose story pulsates with a Frankenstein’s monster vibe. Fisher is excellent at juggling the proper amounts of sorrow and anger. Ezra Miller is the wide-eyed comic relief who dances close to the line of overkill but never crosses it.
As for the big guns, Affleck has the dark brooding side of Bruce Wayne down and (for better or worse) he’s not asked to do much beyond that. While I’m ready for the character to show a tad more life, I do like how he is written here. He’s older, tired, and unsure of himself. He knows he can’t lead a team and we get a good sense of that internal struggle. Gadot’s Diana hits nearly every note that has made her the star of the DCEU. She’s strong, courageous, and upright yet she too sports her own personal scars. Then there is Cavill’s Superman, long accused of being dry and lifeless (I’ve never fully agreed with that take). We see him in the trailer and I won’t go further than that, but I’ll say this is a strong depiction of what makes Superman great.
“Justice League” isn’t without a few minor issues. It has been difficult for comic book movies of all sorts to truly nail their villain and it’s no different here. There is actually a cool otherworldly background alluded to but ultimately Steppenwolf comes off as a little thin. You’ll easily recognize him as the familiar cosmic threat here to take over our planet. There is more just under the surface but we never get a good enough taste. There are also instances where the CGI and green-screen backgrounds are far too obvious. The bulk of the action is fun, but those instances do stick out.
It was no surprise that “Justice League” was met with the same consternation as “Batman vs. Superman”. And even though it addresses many of the complaints hurled at its predecessor, “Justice League” and its audacity to take itself and its story seriously is sure to set the film up as a fashionable punching bag. It’s unfortunate because this is a solid DCEU installment that expands the established characters, introduces compelling new ones and does some nifty world building. It will do nothing to win over those uninterested in the DCEU or the superhero genre as a whole. But for fans, especially those who want something that doesn’t strictly adhere to the Marvel formula, “Justice League” is a fun ride.
VERDICT – 4 STARS