It’s been a long road for comic book fans of all stripes to get to Justice League. We’ve endured false starts, writer strikes, and contractual arguments. With each one, our hopes rose for that one moment when the Gods of DC Comics would finally make the successful transition from comic page to television to the silver screen. This is finally that day as director writer/director Zack Snyder unites the DC Trinity of Clark Kent/Superman, Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman with Barry Allen/The Flash, Arthur Curry/Aquaman, and Victor Stone/Cyborg to save mankind from an other-worldly threat which seeks the destruction of all life on Earth.
The world is spiraling in fear and despair in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death. Criminals are braver, terrorists are bolder, and the parademons of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) nightmares, harbingers of a greater terror yet to come, roam the skies looking for victims. Using Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) notes from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as a guide, Bruce and Diana (Gal Gadot) seek out three metahumans – Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) – to join them in a fight to defend Earth that will take more than a goddess and a man with money to defeat; it will take a league of heroes. The enemy that’s coming from the skies is an old evil known as Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) who is bent on reforming Earth in his image.
Finally seeing this team-up on the big screen should be a time of joyous celebration but it turns bittersweet as the behind-the-scenes troubles of Justice League clearly made an impact on the final product. After suffering a terrible personal tragedy, Snyder and his producer wife Deborah stepped back from the project and Joss Whedon (Avengers/Serenity) stepped in to oversee reshoots, manage script rewrites, and complete the film. Combined with a continued focus on style over substance, reliance on exposition, and intense retconning of the DCEU, audiences will feel the inherent disjointedness of Justice League’s rushed, messy final product.
Just as Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad before it, Justice League is comprised of cinematic choices referencing iconic moments from DC Comics’s extensive history – to the great delight of long-time fans – that once more fail to hold the emotional weight of the original stories. This places an unnecessary burden on the filmgoers less familiar with the narrative, creating a reductive experience to the overall film. Moments don’t move a story forward. Actions do. Conversations do. Bruce going to see both Barry and Arthur is an excellent use of cinematic style as initial meetings establish interpersonal relationships. The tonality, language, and even the physicality of each character as they engage one another tells the audience something about how each views/feels about themselves in relation to the other. For example, Bruce engaging with Barry immediately infers a mentor/mentee relationship as Barry interrupts Bruce’s plea for help to accept. He’s eager to connect with others like himself. This connection is both tangible and emotionally engaging, adding weight to their dynamic. However, the bulk of the film, especially in its mad-dash to gather the league of heroes together, simply throws things at the audience with the assumption it should mean something. For example, the appearance of the parademons is heavily significant not only to the plot of Justice League, but ties back directly to Bruce Wayne’s nightmare in Batman v Superman. Here, though, it goes unexplained or explored. It’s a thing that happens and continues to happen. It may make DC Comics fans excited, but it’s otherwise meaningless. The dependence on moments like these to seek to highlight the heroes and villains of the story, but all it manages to do is undercut any genuine significance.
Moreover, like the previous films, the narrative struggles in its central theme of “hope returns” as Justice League relies on exposition too heavily to convey feelings. The filmmakers prefer to tell the audience what to feel, rather than induce the feeling which is likely a byproduct of rushing to catch the audience up to where they need to be to make sense of the final act. Exposition is a useful tool for every filmmaker but there’s an enormous difference between watching our leads do something that conveys meaning versus having them tell us the meaning. Seeing Superman try to take the fight away from populated areas in Man of Steel or seeing him portrayed as less of a hypocrite regarding his perception of Batman in Batman v Superman would do far more than Lois’s repetitively constant statement of Superman as a symbol of hope. (This continues to be the primary function of Lois in Justice League and it’s a waste of Amy Adam’s talent.) This particularly hurts Justice League because beyond the brief introductions of The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg in Batman v Superman, audiences don’t have enough information to become invested. This means that the narrative serves four masters: establish new characters, establish the villain, gather the league, and put on the final fight. With so much exposition from the start, Justice League devolves into a series of hard transitions as we jump from one character to another. This gives each character their own trailer-worthy moment, but that’s it. They’re really just trailer-worthy, singular moments. Cramming in an entire film’s worth of setup drags on the central story and makes the whole of Justice League a half-thought out mess.
This becomes even more glaring when you notice the apparent retconning – or reinterpretation of previously established information – throughout the film. The two most notable retcons focused on Wonder Woman. In Batman v Superman, she establishes that she’s stayed away from humanity for the last decade after seeing the ruthlessness of man; a statement which was absolutely contradicted in her standalone feature Wonder Woman earlier this year. Justice League chooses to spend a great deal of time explaining her statement in order to address this glaring inconsistency. Additionally, the MacGuffin for Justice League is an object of immense power known as a Mother Box – first seen by audiences in Batman v Superman during the Cyborg vignette – that goes unexplained until now. Wonder Woman expresses zero recognition for the object in Batman v Superman, yet seems to know everything about it now in Justice League. Perhaps this is a causality of “too many cooks” during production or was simply overlooked during development, but it’s one of several issues the DCEU can’t seem to get away from. When you create a world, it requires consistency.
All that said, there is good to be found within Justice League. Affleck and Gadot return with engaging performances that move their individual arcs forward in clever ways. Newcomers Momoa, Miller, and Fisher are great additions that fit nicely within the cinematic universe, even if they don’t match up with audience expectations. Momoa makes the typically-viewed-as-weak Aquaman a fiercesome warrior whose boyish bravado and surf-dude “Yeah!” attitude provide a nice offset to Bruce’s dour demeanor. Miller’s The Flash is different enough from many iterations of the character to feel new, interesting, and unexpected, yet still familiar. He’s clever and quick, but this Flash is still new to heroics and seems more of an extension of the audience – thrilled to be included, yet mostly useless to the core narrative. Fisher’s Cyborg, possesses the most interesting backstory and individual arc as he comes to terms with his new identity. Given the heavy CG used to create Cyborg, it would be easy to discount his overall realness but Fisher’s ability to anchor Cyborg with humanity makes him the most fascinating to watch of the newbies. Combine all of this with a stellar Danny Elfman score which utilizes elements of the 1989 Batman score he created, as well as John Williams’s 1978 iconic Main Theme March from Superman: The Movie and both old and new fans alike get a small inkling of what Justice League could be if Warner Bros Pictures would stop rushing and take their time.
While Justice League is far more successful at capturing the hopeful tones, the playfulness of its leads working together, and the uniqueness of its individual players well-established by the source material, it fails to coalesce into a strong, fully-engaging story worthy of this decades-old series. Sure, the characters do begin to gel together, but that’s after what seems like a sprint to get them to there. It may be fun to watch them collectively combat Steppenwolf, who proves to be a formidable foe for the heavy hitters, bringing to mind the better parts of the Justice League Unlimited animated series, but, unfortunately, these moments are fleeting and are not enough to make Justice League a strong entry into the DCEU. Its reliance on audience’s prior knowledge, its hurried exposition to force narrative movement, and its inconsistency within its own universe overshadow what could have been with a slower pace and more time. All DC Comics fans can do is hope that next time will be better. Like we do every time.
2.5 out of 5 for the average Film-goer.
3 out of 5 for Justice League Unlimited fans.
3.5 out of 5 for hardcore DCEU fans.