With less than 7 weeks left until 2017 year in movies ends, one of the final big blockbuster releases of the year arrives in theatres after years of expectation. Justice League hopes were high as Warner Bros and DC Comics put a lot of work and rework in a picture fans will hopefully love, critics will appreciate, and mainstream audiences will embrace the way they did with Wonder Woman this past summer. The film is the definition of an adequate studio production: no more, no less. If fans get excited about it, that may mostly be because they are excited about getting excited. Yet the movie is no cheat. Although Batman vs Superman combined equally dramas about two of the most overexposed fictional icons in pop culture, it stumbled toward a reasonable cliffhanger to kick-start the next instalment.
Now that Superman is no longer around, it has fallen on Wonder Woman and Bruce Wayne/Batman to assemble a league of superheroes, even if, by now, we have been through these ritual assemblages once too often: in the Avengers, X-Men, in Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, you name it. Justice League was the one legend missing. I must acknowledge the fact that I may be biased on that one as I grew up waking up earlier than everyone on Sunday mornings just to watch Justice League cartoons with my bowl of cereals. The movie, which gathers up half a dozen comic-book immortals on their way to kicking ass, is never messy. It is light and clean and simple, maybe too simple at times, with sharp repartee and duels that make a point of not going on for too long. “There is strength in numbers,” “taking an active stand is more satisfying than brooding,” and “being involved in the flow of the world is part of what makes us human” are themes that all feel more relevant to the current social and political moment than the question “Why does humanity need heroes, and why do we so often fail them?”, which has preoccupied DCEU movies from Man Of Steel to Wonder Woman.
Indeed, our heroes have a relatively black and white battle ahead of them, without existential questions about whether humanity deserves saving, or whether they deserve to save humanity. That fact lets the characters cut loose that shows them each to their best heroic potential. I will start with the one major critic I have on the movie, enter Steppenwolf: a destroyer of worlds in the disguise of a Dungeons and Dragons reject. This villain, far from being one of the most successful ones in the DCEU, is a sternly old-school CGI medieval warrior with devil-ram horns and an electro-bass Vader voice, provided by Ciarán Hinds. He made his first appearance in the comics in 1972 but could just as well have been dreamed up by a sleep-deprived video-game designer. Moreover, there is a clear video-game-style quest to collect powerful objects, a series of escalating fights as the villain gets each of them in turn, and a gradual awakening as the heroes realize they need to drop their personal baggage and work together.
In my opinion, there tends to be a more-is-less quality to movies about superhero teams. It is almost a law of physics to me: If any one of these lads and lassies is so amaze-worthy, then why do we need six of them? They slice up the pie chart of invincibility. That being said, Justice League lets each of its characters carve out a crafty space in which to nurture his or her own ultimate ability. In most superheroes movie, the Seven Samurai style recruitment of heroes would be only a prelude to the central action, but in this movie, because the characters are so interesting in their own way, they are the focus of our interest.
Ben Affleck surely approached this film knowing that a lot of people hated his debut as Batman, which places him in a tough spot. And so, like almost everything else in Justice League, he finds a careful middle ground. He plays Batman with a restrained version of the Gruff Whisper and goes through the paces of bruiser antihero in a way that is just understated enough to get by. It also helps that he gets to engage in a flirtatious relationship with Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot builds on her star-making performance in Wonder Woman by giving Diana Prince a glow of hidden fury that burns even more brightly than before. Now in her third round as Wonder Woman, she elevates the movie whenever she is onscreen, twirling her lasso of truth and staring down each threat with the symbolism of feminist rage. Though, true pain has been banished. The death of Superman has been handled in a way that did not keep us up at night. When it comes to comic-book movies, spoilers can get a critic killed. So we won't state the obvious when it comes to questions about the Man of Steel's fate. Plus, the movie also features the name of Henry Cavill up front in the opening credits. That might, of course, be an indication that Superman, who is officially deceased, appears in prominent “flashback”, by the end of Justice League you will be grateful, indeed, that Cavill is in the movie. It needs every inch of his square-jawed stud-demigod command. And OMG I am so grateful.
“We're not enough,” Bruce Wayne declares upon experiencing a setback with Steppenwolf. “The world needs Superman.” And so, it gets him, over halfway through the film. Suffering from psychological and memory issues. He needs to be reminded of who he is by Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while he wanders around his native farmland, shirtless, until finally coming to his senses with the declaration, “I'm back now, and I'm gonna make things right.”
Justice League throws off sparks of sharp comedy kicking the movie along even when nothing of overwhelming or important is happening.
Aquaman: “You really are out of your mind.”
Batman: “I’m not the one who brought a pitchfork”
There are plenty of threads worth pulling on in Justice League, and Bruce Wayne’s devotion to compensatory gadgets is one of them. On the surface, he is the badass who jokes that his superpower is wealth. Behind the scenes, he is aware that he is ageing and physically vulnerable compared to the other heroes around him, and he is not likely to be able to keep up heroism long-term. It is a relatable plot thread, but it is also a mighty thin one. There is so much going on in Justice League that it can only devote a few lines to that vulnerability, or even to Barry Allen’s emotional isolation and social awkwardness, or to Diana’s long-lasting grief over Steve Trevor. Arthur Curry/Aquaman starring Jason Momoa, a half-human/half-underwater creature who resembles a giant Viking of legend. Momoa’s coolness protector of the Oceans makes a solid first impression; providing cautious hope for his December 2018 solo movie. With his long rocker hair, boozy swagger, and frescoes of scaly tattoos, Jason Momoa looks like a cross between Michael Phelps and a member of the Oakland branch of the Hells Angels. You could argue, as comics lovers have for ages, about how critical it is for this team to have an ambassador to the deep, but Momoa ends up getting one of the movie’s best scenes. For instance, during one of the group’s impromptu gathering, Aquaman begins to insult all of the other superheroes and their backstories - except for Wonder Woman, whom he has a thing for. He thinks he is just saying all of these brutally honest things in his head, not realizing that he is actually saying them out loud because he is sitting on Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. The scenes of the League members together, bickering and bonding, add humour to the film and genuine feeling; creating a rooting interest in the audience. Without it, the film would crumble. Indeed, as directed by Zack Snyder and, more importantly, co-written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, characters are more than destiny here. It is the key reason Justice League is a seriously satisfying superhero movie.
The director, once again, is Zack Snyder, though Snyder parted ways with the project in March following the tragic suicide of his daughter. About four-fifths of principal photography had been completed, and the post-production process, including the rest of shooting, was overseen by Joss Whedon. A perfect choice, though a rather ironic one given that Whedon’s Avengers series competes directly with this one. Justice League is seamless enough that it is hard to say where one filmmaker leaves off and the other begins. But the film’s flavour balances more toward Whedon than Snyder, whose pop grandiosity is radically played down. Every moment feels like it has been test-driven for our pleasure. As a piece of product, Justice League is “superior” to Batman v Superman but it is also about as close to generic as a sharp-witted high production comic-book movie can get. There is hardly a scene in it you have not seen before.
It is not perfect, the film features plot holes so vast they have a kind of Grand Canyon-like splendour, still, part of you wants to hang around to see what they look like at sunset. Tellingly, the film’s two best sequences both showcase the citizens of Themyscira. In the first Wonders makes an explosive entrance by putting those bracelets to dazzling use, while a dynamic battle between Steppenwolf and the Amazonians is filled with exactly the kind of awe-inspiring acrobatics and selfless acts of heroism that made Patty Jenkins’ box office smash such a stirring experience. Though, It is a Zack Snyder movie AND a Joss Whedon movie, which may ultimately work better for audiences than a pure project from one or the other, given that both men have their fans. It is just a pity they could not have consciously worked together to create a cohesive, coherent vision that merged their sensibilities thoroughly. Say what you will about Batman v Superman, but at least it had ambition and vision. Justice League is a superhero movie made with a familiar recipe. Competently assembled and largely coherent, sure, but it is sad to see DC Comics so transparently chasing Marvel’s tail…
Overall, Justice League is a decent crowd-pleaser, preferable in every way to the cynicism of Suicide Squad. But sometimes shadows need to fall to show us what to be scared of. In the end, this all-star team-up is too afraid of the dark to work its way into our dreams.