It’s no secret that DC Comics and Warner Bros. are a bit late to the superhero renaissance we are still experiencing thanks to the runaway success of the films put out each year by Marvel Studios. They lost a lot of ground with films like the dull Superman Returns (Singer, 2006) and Green Lantern (Campbell, 2011) – even though I personally actually enjoyed Green Lantern and thought the movie was worth salvaging in further DCEU films – and often focus too much of their attention on Batman at the expense of their massive cast of superheroes. However, amidst the many and ongoing critical debates surrounding Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (ibid, 2016) and the disappointment of Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016), they apparently scored a far more meaningful success with Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017) and their films have been profitable enough to keep the idea of a cinematic universe alive, even if rumours abound every day that it is on life support. Now, I never saw Wonder Woman, for reasons of my own, and I actually really enjoyed not just Man of Steel but also Batman v Superman so, for me, anticipation was high for Snyder’s third cinematic effort, Justice League. While a personal tragedy saw him leave the production process and be replaced by formal Marvel guru Joss Whedon, the film is still credited to Snyder and carries many of his themes and ideas over but does it deliver?
Justice League begins in a world still mourning the loss of Superman (Henry Cavill), which hasn’t resulted in world-wide chaos but has resulted in appearances of insect-like Parademons across the globe. Having witnessed a glimpse into a nightmare dystopian future where these creatures have overrun humanity, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) has been investigating the creatures and their weaknesses amidst attempting to recruit a superpowered team alongside Diane Prince (Gal Gadot) to fight what he believes to be an inevitable invasion. On Themyscira, Diana’s home island of Amazons, the ancient Mother Box suddenly awakens and opens a Boom Tube, through which appears Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and an army of Parademons. Slaughtering the Amazonians, he claims their Mother Box and promptly disappears, forcing Bruce and Diana to step up their timetable. Bruce is initially unable to convince Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to join their cause due to his desire to be left alone but has far more luck in recruiting Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who, disillusioned by the wrongful incarceration of his father (Billy Crudup) and struggling to live in a world that now seems painfully slow in comparison to his superspeed, joins up as the Flash without a second’s hesitation. Meanwhile, Diana is able to channel her own experiences with isolation and loss to convince Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) to put his recently-acquired and still developing cybernetic powers to good use in the fight against Steppenwolf.
Aquaman is finally convinced to join the team when he is forced to return to Atlantis to defend the second Mother Box from Steppenwolf, only to be suitably humbled. With two of the boxes in the hands of the enemy and the countdown to the destruction of the planet imminent, Batman struggles to galvanise the team in using the final Mother Box to resurrect Superman to lead the final battle for the fate of humanity. I’m going to say something now that may cause a stir; I’m a fan of both DC Comics and Marvel. Yes, it is possible; for me, just seeing comic book superheroes on screen and coming together is a thrill in and of itself. I don’t get weighed down with debates between which company is better or criticise DC for failing to follow Marvel’s gameplan; however, I do admit that they are very clearly playing catch-up. This was massively evident in Batman v Superman, where Wonder Woman was introduced with a lot of intrigue and mystery surrounding her but which also wedged in cameos from the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. It felt like the movie was trying to do to much but, at the same time, those small glimpses served the purpose of a larger narrative and didn’t distract from the film at all; instead, they were weaved into Batman’s character arc of moving past his misguided vendetta against Superman and towards rejoining the world and uniting a team.
While Justice League does suffer form some pacing issues in the first act, each member of the team gets an ample amount of screen time to shine and show some layers. Although I could’ve done without it as we have seen the tale of Barry’s father played out in the first season of The Flash, it nevertheless helped to establish that Barry is currently in a very lonely and confused place in his life and that his powers only make things more difficult for him. Barry primarily serves as the comic relief, once again being infused with more of the characteristics commonly associated with the Wally West version of the character, but shows significant growth when he admits to Batman that he’s never actually been in a real fight before and, upon Batman’s prompting, learns how to be a superhero by simply saving one life.
Before the movie came out, I hedged my bets on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman being a kick-ass, breakout character; for years, people have ridiculed Aquaman because “all he does is talk to fish” when that’s simply not the case. Now, I’m not the biggest Aquaman fan because, honestly, he can still be pretty lame for other more pressing reasons, but I am a fan of the Peter David version of the character, which had long hair, a beard, a more armoured outfit, and was a no-nonsense, stern ass-kicker. Momoa’s Aquaman may not have a harpoon for a hand but, man, is he bad-ass! He’s more like a rock star than a clean-cut prince, revelling in the heat of battle, carrying himself with a sense of narcissism, and generally approaching every situation with a nonchalant attitude. He looks fantastic and really brings the muscle to the team in Superman’s absence, but there’s also a sense of a much larger world and backstory behind him through his return to Atlantis and interactions with Mera (Amber Heard).
Probably the character with the most controversy surrounding him is Cyborg; personally, I’ve never liked the idea of Cyborg being on the Justice League, primarily because he’s so closely associated with the Teen Titans and I feel it’s a just a reason to have racial diversity on the team. However, for the purposes of this film, he serves a key purpose; having been created through the machinations of a Mother Box, Victor’s cybernetic parts are constantly evolving and hold the key to interacting with and stopping the Mother Boxes from uniting and destroying the world. Everywhere I look people are bad-mouthing the CGI on Cyborg and, honestly, I don’t see why; Justice League is filled to the brim with top-notch special effects, to the point where even a $300 million budget can be stretched pretty thin. Cyborg is a 90%, at least, CGI character so, obviously, he’s going to have a lot of CGI used on him. Would it have been better if they’d tried more of a Robocop (Verhoeven, 1987) route? Probably, yes. Did I think the sleeker, Teen Titans-inspired look he adopted at the end of the film would’ve looked better than the Transformers (Bay, 2007 to 2017) look? Definitely, but I never let the fact that he was largely comprised of CGI parts distract me from the film and, honestly, if you do then you’re clearly not that interested in the film to begin with.
Gal Gadot continues to impress as Wonder Woman; despite my reservations about her, she is an extremely attractive young lady and her accent actually becomes less distracting the more you hear it. Diana’s arc here is directly tied in to the events of Wonder Woman as she is still apprehensive about rejoining society in the spotlight. Bruce even calls her out on it and accuses her of not being able to move past the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), which only galvanises Wonder Woman’s resolve. Henry Cavill also returns after the team successful manage to resurrect Superman using the same Kryptonian birthing chamber that spawned Doomsday. Unlike the comics, he does not sport a mullet or a black costume, but his memories are briefly fragmented, leading to an awesome fight between Superman and the rest of the team. Superman is actually amazing in this film; he’s clearly overjoyed to be alive again, smiling and cracking jokes, and finally shines as an optimistic symbol of hope to rally behind. His initial period of disorientation also showcases his intense rage as he spits Batman’s “do you bleed” line back into Batman’s face as he is poised to crush Batman’s head. The only things I slightly disliked about Superman were that they didn’t make any effort to address how they explained Clark Kent’s sudden return to life and his resurrection felt like it came too soon; I expected him to return right at the very end, but it comes just before the third act, so it does raise the question of why kill him off in the first place (though I’m glad they did because at least it meant they got that aspect of Doomsday right).
Ben Affleck returns as Batman, despite a new rumour springing up online almost every day saying that he wants out of the franchise. When he was first cast, I had my doubts that he would stick around for sequels and, honestly, the more I hear about him wanting to leave the more annoyed I am that he was ever cast in the first place. The fact that he is a fantastic Batman makes it all the more annoying; Warner Bros. seem to want to evoke Marvel Studios’ attitude towards Robert Downey Junior and build their DCEU around Affleck so I really hope that they do everything they can to convince him to see it through because he put in another brilliant performance here. Now focused on facing Steppenwolf’s impending threat, Batman has turned his mission from vengeance and death towards forming a team, saving the world, and atoning for the decisions he made that led to the death of Superman. The guilt he feels is evident and he even descends into some trademark Bat-dickery by manipulating Diana into following Superman’s example and being an inspiration for others. Additionally, the idea that he is so worn down and beaten up from twenty years of being Batman and that he now craves an honourable death continues in Justice League as, even with the team assembled, many of his plans revolve around him making a suicide run; during Superman’s resurrection, Batman even faces him head on with the intention of dying so that Superman can take his place as the more suitable leader of the team, and his joy at seeing Superman returned to life is clear on his face even if he quickly adopts a more stoic façade to save face.
The action in Justice League is very big and very loud; explosions happen all over the place, water crashes everywhere, buildings topple, and hits land with a satisfying impact. Amidst what could be described as chaos, but actually is a far more cohesive end-of-the-world scenario than the one seen in Suicide Squad, is a fabulous score by Danny Elfman. Elfman even weaves not only his classic Batman (Burton, 1989) theme into the score but also John William’s classic Superman (Donner, 1978) theme; as much as I enjoyed the score from Snyder’s previous films, hearing the return of those classic, iconic, and irreplaceable themes brought a warm feeling of joy and nostalgia to my heart. Probably the biggest issues with the film are easily the most predictable; pacing and the villain. With the film being mandated to be two hours long, there’s a real sense that a lot of content was trimmed back and I look forward to seeing it inserted back in for an extended cut. While I did not experience any jarring leaps in continuity or pacing, it is unavoidable that a large chunk of the film’s early runtime is devoted to introducing and fleshing out not just the new characters but also existing ones; the plus side of this though is the clear influence of Joss Whedon, who not only infused a bright, vibrant colour palette but clearly worked on the film’s dialogue, resulting in a truly enjoyable rapport between the protagonists. As for Steppenwolf, he’s there for the team to unite against and defeat and his motivations are as one-note as possible; he wants to destroy the world, no more and no less. Diana relates his backstory through a pretty impressive flashback that shows that Amazons, Atlanteans, tribes of men, Old Gods, and even a Green Lantern fighting against Steppenwolf and his Parademons, which helps give a sense of the scale of his threat. His name-drop of Darkseid hints that a greater threat could be looming on the horizon but it cannot be avoided that he largely disappears for a big portion of the film. Again, though, this results in better characterisations of the protagonists and, unlike some Marvel villains, Steppenwolf actually makes up for it in the third act by not being a complete push-over and taking on the entire League all at once.
Given the after credits scene, in which freshly-escaped Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) recruits Slade Wilson/Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) for a League of their own, I really hope that Justice League does well enough to continue the DCEU and help flesh the protagonists out even more in future films and therefore allow for better characterisations of the villains when they appear. While I may have criticised Eisenberg’s Luthor, I am still glad that he returned as it means there is a chance for the character to grow and evolve beyond Eisenberg’s madcap portrayal; if they had simply recast or abandoned the character, that hope would have been completely dashed and we would be forever deprived of the possibility of a good interpretation of Superman’s greatest nemesis. Honestly, the fact that I’ve heard so much negative criticism about this film really bugs me. Similar to Batman v Superman, I just don’t get it; sure, it isn’t perfect and it has flaws, but it’s actually a really good action romp, with some witty dialogue and some fantastic cinematography. Also, unlike the films of Marvel Studios, the thrill of seeing DC superheroes onscreen individually and as a group has not worn thin yet; it’s pretty amazing to finally see Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, and (I guess) Cyborg all together onscreen at last. I really hope Affleck sticks around and that Justice League does well enough to continue to DCEU as this felt like a massive step in the right direction towards forging the distinct big screen superhero universe that they have wanted for so long now.
Recommended: For comic book fans and DC fans, definitely, for the thrill of finally seeing the Justice League on screen, and also for fans of action movies. For those expecting something other than a fun action romp? Maybe stay away and keep your mouths shut.
Best moment: Any time the entire League is onscreen together is always great, especially in the finale, but also the scenes involving Batman and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons).
Worst moment: Three things were annoying: Steppenwolf, as you’d expect, though again I’d rather have more screen time for the protagonists in a team-up movie; Cyborg, just because I prefer him on the Teen Titans, and all the Amazonians except for Diana were pretty disappointing actresses.