I am filled with bitter nerd-rage after seeing Justice League. Not because it was bad, but because for a few brief moments, it was so good. We finally got a glimpse of what the DC movies should have been from the beginning and Henry Cavill FINALLY GOT TO BE THE REAL SUPERMAN! (Unless you live under a rock, that isn’t a spoiler) But Justice League was so weighed down by course correcting its cinematic universe that it couldn’t reach its full potential. It’s a promising house built on the sand foundation of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman.
In Justice League we finally get bright colors, smiling heroes and joyful moments of triumph. There were points in Justice League where the iconic images made me tear up. It takes a while to pull itself out of the grim Snyderverse, but it was a definite pivot in the right direction. This is the first of Snyder’s DC films that I’d be ok with taking kids to see in the theatre. You leave the movie feeling good. There is finally the impression that the heroes are the same characters that have inspired four-color comics for decades. This was my favorite recent DC film after Wonder Woman, and was light years more enjoyable than Suicide Squad or Batman v. Superman. It finally feels like we got a film made by someone who LIKES DC COMICS. It was a lot of fun. That said, there are also a lot of missteps.
The biggest problem with Justice League is its split personality. The accepted rumor in Hollywood is that Zach’s original vision for the film was terrible and Joss Whedon was brought in to “help fix it”. This is why he was already a part of the team when Snyder had to leave the project a while later, due to a tragedy in his family. Joss did a massive amount of reshoots and a lot of the new footage is obvious. The huge amount of trailer footage that ISN’T in the movie hints at how much the vision for the movie has changed in recent months. The final product feels like a filler issue between two big comic book story arcs. Its whole job is to be fun and set up the next story and in that, Justice League met its goal. It has a simple bad guy with predictable motivations, convenient plot devices to keep things moving in the expected direction, Krypton-sized plot holes, and lots of middling quality CGI. There are an overabundance of one-line jokes, but the humor is a big enough step in the right direction that many fans will forgive many large problems with the movie because of its lighter tone. There were some really great moments. There were also some real WTF moments? (No spoilers, but one of those moments is when The Flash and Cyborg are digging together. You will know the moment when you see it. Seriously, W…. T…. F???) Overall, I enjoyed the movie and was grateful for the change in tone. I think that if the project had changed hands sooner we would have ended up with a much better movie, but at least we got something fun.
In all superhero teams, each person fills a different need in battle. Some members are the fighters, others are the thinkers who solve the problem, while still others keep the civilians safe and out of the way. Despite having all the characters to make this work, Justice League’s script didn’t seem to think this aspect of superhero teams through. Each member of the League is given moments to shine, but we never really get a moment where they are firing on all cylinders as a team. The major battles end up being dominated by specific individuals making the whole “team up” portion of the movie less vital to the world’s survival than it should be. There is no telling if this is the fault of the original script or the product of the fights being reworked on the editing floor, but it was a disappointing aspect after seeing how flawlessly Whedon balanced the heroes’ talents in The Avengers.
Justice League also has a women problem. Yes, many of the Amazons wear bikinis in their scenes, both modern day and ancient. No, angry fanboys of the internet, there is no logical explanation for their vital organs being exposed. However the issue doesn’t stop at a troubling selection of costumes. After the revolutionary screen treatment of women in Wonder Woman, the repeated use of Wonder Woman/Diana’s butt to help frame shots in Justice League is obvious and awkward. Her teammates reference her physical appearance repeatedly which makes it feel like the Justice League’s next acquisition should be an HR department. It’s all jokes that we have seen in other movies and comments that women hear all the time in our daily lives, but that doesn’t excuse it. For a movie short on screen time for female characters, it’s troubling that the production team decided to spend so much of it focused on Wonder Woman’s “assets.” Maybe this was acceptable in a pre-Wonder Woman superhero film, but we now know that we can and should expect more, especially in a movie that takes place in the same universe. (I talk more about Wonder Woman’s depiction in the movie below in the spoiler section.)
I went in to Justice League expecting to hate it but, despite its numerous flaws and women troubles, ended up walking out excited about the new direction that DC is headed. While not a masterpiece, I feel that the difference in opinion between critics and fans is easily explained. It’s clear that this movie depended on prior emotional connections to these iconic characters to make it work. Many critics may not have enjoyed it because their recent connections to Superman and Batman are the other Snyder movies. It’s hard to come back from that dark place and understand why the world wouldn’t be glad that Superman, the destroyer of Metropolis, is dead. To them, this movie seemed out of joint with the DC world they know but was still trying to be a part of it. To long-time fans however, Justice League seemed like things were finally getting back to normal. We immediately connected with this return to the familiar four-color world that we love, and revel in seeing our heroes stand together on the big screen. There is a lot wrong with Justice League, but if this is the new foundation for DC’s cinematic universe, I finally have what these characters should have represented all along… hope.
DETAILED CHARACTER BREAKDOWNS – SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT!
Batman is fine in this movie. He isn’t great but he is much MUCH better than he was in Batman v Superman. It’s nice not having him be worse than the criminals he is catching. He has lots of gadgets and vehicles to help him keep up with his super-powered teammates, but we don’t ever see the brilliant mind that makes him one of the most powerful characters in the DC universe. He isn’t the “World’s Greatest Detective” (in fact, a random burglar in the first five minutes of the movie seems just as smart as he is) nor does he seem to be an especially gifted tactician. He saw clear footage of Aquaman in Batman v Superman, but doesn’t seem to know what he looks like in Justice League? His main role seems to be providing toys for Cyborg to take over and to provide dialogue that explains things to the audience, but he is Batman so he is still cool.
Cyborg is a really interesting character and Ray Fisher does a great job with the limited screen time he is given. His CGI body is not the best we’ve seen in superhero movies, but Fisher manages to act through that in spite of an unimpressive script. He gives us a hero we are rooting for and who has a clear character arch, no small feat in such an overpacked movie. There are tons of shots of Cyborg from the trailers that never made it into the film, so clearly his role and backstory were cut back to shave off time or CGI costs. I really hope that we get to focus more on him if there are future Justice League films or if an extended cut of this movie is released.
I was surprised that they went with Barry Allen’s dark backstory from the comics for Justice League. Honestly, when I heard the short run time of the film, I figured they’d just have him show up as some punk kid runaway and not get into it. The scenes between Barry and his dad are well done but I think they should have explained more about Barry’s strengths besides being fast. He built a hideout and speedsuit by using cutting edge technology, but that is never explored. I think it would have been a great way for him to bond with Batman or Cyborg instead of just being the awkward comic relief for the whole movie. Again, I feel like this was probably a time issue. The Flash was definitely an audience favorite and a great way to add some child-like wonder to the film through the eyes of one of the main characters. It was a relief to finally have a character who is enthusiastic about the idea of becoming a superhero.
I think this character suffered the most from the two conflicting visions of Justice League’s directors. In parts he seems like a dark, menacing drunk who saves people out of obligation. (Sounds like all the other DC heroes in Snyder’s movies, right?) Then there are the clear reshoots and comedic moments that are a total contrast provided by Whedon. A middle ground between those two visions was needed, but never materialized. Instead, Aquaman ends up just coming across as Jason Momoa flipping between overacting and not acting at all. It was especially obvious how little the production team thought about Aquaman when the final battle had no sources of water or way for Arthur to use his full powerset. It’s a team up move, right? Why write a final battle that completely handicaps one of the characters you just spent an hour trying to get onto the team?
Mera appeared in her skin tight underwater spandex, gold crown and super push up bra for only a few moments of the film. In the comics, she can control water with her mind to create solid objects, control the tides, or even kill her enemies through instant dehydration or forced drowning. Honestly, she should have been a major threat to even Steppenwolf in a battle at the bottom of the ocean, but all this Mera seems to be able to do is create air bubbles. The scenes in Atlantis were some of the most awkward of the film. We clearly have not mastered underwater scenes with acting or CGI. The Atlantian actors move like fish out of water (come on, I had to say that…) and the fact that they can’t communicate without creating an air bubble is laughable. I really hope they get those issues sorted out for Aquaman.
Other than her badass fight scenes, Wonder Woman was pretty underwhelming in this movie, especially compared to the high bar set by her solo film. Frankly, I am on the fence about if she passes the sexy lamp test developed by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Her main contributions to the team are to be the heavy hitter until Superman shows up, and to tell the history of Steppenwolf and the mother boxes. If they had found a note about Steppenwolf’s history stuck to a lamp, half of her purpose in the film would have been covered. Her fighting is great, but she never takes initiative and keeps falling into the trope of female characters only reacting to what happens around them. There are a few tender, almost maternal moments between her and the other heroes, but she doesn’t really inspire them or step into the role of team leader. The script actually goes out of its way to point out multiple times that she is not inspiring the public at large and is living in the shadows due to her long lost love. This particular point doesn’t make sense, since we saw her leaping into action at the end of Wonder Woman and she saves dozens of people at the beginning of Justice League too. She’s doing the job of a hero so why are we explicitly told that nobody knows about her? This is obviously just a case of bad writing. They want to make Superman’s return the most important thing in the movie, even if the only way to do that is by dimming all the other bulbs in the room to make him shine brighter. I can’t wait to see Wonder Woman back in Patty Jenkins’ hands.
The “Big Blue Boyscout” finally is back on the big screen. Superman is not a hero or beacon of hope in the previous Snyder movies. He was a brooding figure who seemed to dislike his self-imposed role of savior. His battles level cities and cause the loss of countless lives in Man of Steel. It’s horrific and lays the foundation for Batman’s hate in Batman v Superman, but it is never resolved. He helped fight one monster in an abandoned area of town, but that hardly seems to balance out the insane loss of life he caused smashing through buildings in the first film. And let’s not forget him making out with Lois on what is essentially a mass grave site in Man of Steel…. ugh. Justice League does its best to retcon some of this, showing us cell phone footage of kids talking with a more classic-looking Superman and showing the entire world in deep mourning for Superman. Even the John William’s theme from the Christopher Reeve films is used liberally to tap into nostalgia from the pre-Snyder versions of the character. I appreciated this clear attempt to undo the darkness of previous films in the series. When he finally arrives, despite the sometimes distracting CGI work on his face, the Superman in Justice League is worth the wait and is a hero worthy of the world’s admiration.
Justice League opened to a astonishingly low $96 million opening weekend. A lot of things contributed to this including the bad reviews of previous Snyder/DC films, months of negative production rumors, bad press about the Amazon’s new outfits (sorry, not sorry!), and the huge amount of drama surrounding the botched Rotten Tomatoes reveal of the score Justice League got on their website. I think that overall this was a much better offering from Warner Bros/DC than we’ve had since Nolan’s films, with the obvious exception of Wonder Woman. I hope the depressing box office numbers don’t cause Warner Bros. to give up on the Justice League’s future movies just when they FINALLY seem to be moving in the right direction. We will definitely be seeing a solo Aquaman movie and a Wonder Woman sequel in the future, but only time will tell if they take another stab at the JLA.
What did you think of Justice League and how they portrayed the characters? Comment below!