Directed by: Zack Snyder
Screenplay by: Joss Whedon, Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Ciaran Hinds
Review by Stephanie Pouliotte
Usually we keep the final verdict of a review to the end, but like the trailers for Justice League basically gave the film away, so will I deliver the goods early. My overall first impression: Meh. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, but it had me engaged and laughing, so that’s a win after sitting bored and stone-faced through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As people filed into the lobby after the advanced screening in Toronto, there was a collective tepid reaction in the crowd, with most of the buzz surrounding the after-credit scene (yes stay until the end, does this even need to be said anymore?) I heard many verbalize my own blasé impression as they shrugged, content with the fact that at least the film didn’t herald the downfall of the DCEU as feared. It was still a fun superhero flick despite its flaws, and while it was a bit of a narrative mess, the compelling characters really did save the day (as well as the fate of the DCEU).
Justice League was entertaining, but not mind-blowing; action-packed, but lacking in substance; a decent introductory set-up, but with a poorly executed plot. It definitely looked like a Snyder film, and there were lots of things to geek out over, but I actually think bringing in Joss Whedon when Snyder had to step away (despite the clear problems with representation in the Avengers franchise) allowed Justice League to move away from the polarizing tone of BvS. There was more banter and way more heart to the characters, but it also had some of the typical issues that usually creep up in Whedon’s work (which I’ll touch on later). Seriously though, if you plan to see Justice League and you’ve managed not to see the trailers, do not watch the trailers. All the coolest scenes are in them, and at just under 2 hours, it felt like I’d seen half the film going in, and the other half followed the same predictable structure that broke down by then end.
The first half of the film was introductory, as expected: rallying the troupes, establishing the backstories of the new heroes, setting up the villain’s end game (total destruction of Earth… didn’t see that coming…) It was pretty formulaic, but I still think Justice League started out strong before petering out. The first scenes tried, somewhat successfully, to tap into our divisive social climate and did a poignant job of showing what a world without Superman (or more broadly without hope) looks like. Throughout the film, a common theme kept reemerging that really resonated with me, the idea that the characters don’t recognize the world anymore, that it has lost its way. It certainly hits close to home, and also alludes to the idea that the DC cinematic universe is also in a state of flux and is still trying to figure itself out. Though there was some carryover of the darker tone from BvS, especially early on, I felt it was balanced quite well and eventually the film found its heart through the characters.
Justice League seriously lost steam after the halfway mark though, and the structure went out the window as the pacing couldn’t keep up. The stakes just weren’t there for most of the characters, and really didn’t work in raising the tension (aside from the imminent destruction of the Earth, which is par for the course in superhero films). Sure, the team all had their personal issues, most of which were communicated to the audience through straight-up exposition by the characters themselves, but I felt that only Flash and Cyborg had any nuanced character development. But before I get into all that, let’s take a quick look at the villain.
Steppenwolf is absolutely flat and uninteresting. He bursts into the story with a brutal onslaught on the Amazons in what I personally felt was the film’s most engaging fight. You really feel the weight of his power against the valiant struggle of the Amazons, who are just badass in their resolve. But afterwards his presence gradually wanes until each encounter with him is exactly the same. He’s a forgettable villain who doesn’t bring anything new to the table, which is disappointing considering he’s one of Darkseid’s generals on Apokolips. When he was revealed in the trailers, I was really excited at what might go down in that final battle. Well it turns out not much at all. The film falters at the climax, almost negating the struggle the team had to go through until then by wrapping things up a little too easily and conveniently.
The narrative is redeemed only by the actors, who make the characters compelling in what will ultimately be a lackluster addition to the DCEU. Bruce has a complex, as always, but I’ll admit that Affleck’s Batman is starting to grow on me. His first appearance in the film was quintessential Bats and not a brand in sight! However, he’s still not the Batman we’re used to, which I suppose is the point, and I’m starting to accept that’s totally fine. In Justice League he’s still wrestling with the fallout of BvS, but he kind of swings in the other direction. He’s also just not all there as Batman, something’s off, but it’s not addressed or even noticed really, it’s just how he is? Things seem to get by him, he loses sight of the big picture more than once, and his big contingency for one of his risky plans midway through was obvious, even without being completely telegraphed by previous scenes. It also made zero sense because it should have been Plan A, I mean it was evident shit was going to hit the fan here Bruce. Alfred was a delight as always, his character seems like a constant in every iteration of Batman. He always has his own charm that just works. Well, I suppose that’s what snappy one-liners are made for!
The hero I didn’t think would blow me away was Cyborg. I expected him to be a little generic, thrown in to round out the team, but he’s by far the most interesting character! He owned his scenes and brought real, conflicting humanity to the screen. Seriously, I had chills in his first appearance, and I wasn’t terribly bothered by his overly CGI body; I was able to look past it thanks to Fishers strong delivery. He was the character who arguably had the most development from start to finish, and now I just really want a standalone Cyborg movie. He was a bit overshadowed in group scenes, but that’s to be expected with so much star power standing around him, and Ezra Miller certainly stole the show with his hilarious quips and boundless energy.
Flash is just… well… the Flash, so he’s the main source of comic relief. I feel like I always scrutinize Flash so much more because he’s my favourite hero, and so I have a strong nostalgia-fueled picture of who he is (Wally West from the Justice League the animated series is the best Flash, that’s just a fact). So saying that I liked Ezra Miller as Flash is really saying something, for me at least. I didn’t get a good feel for him from the trailers since he mostly just delivered the jokes, I’ll admit I was worried he wouldn’t be more than the sum of his parts. However, even though he’s basically there to make us laugh, he has a stirring backstory and is also the only other character that has some semblance of an arc. As he’s vastly overpowered by both his own teammates as well as those he stands against, he makes small strides towards his calling that become quantum leaps as he finds his legs. I’d say this bodes well for his stalled solo movie Flashpoint, whose future may hinge on the success of Justice League at the box office after BvS and Suicide Squad were widely panned by fans and critics.
I had a weird feeling that Aquaman was going to be my least favourite going into this. I was initially blown away by his character design and his presence in the trailers, but it turns out they didn’t delve much beneath the surface. Momoa’s acting was fine, he was certainly very charismatic and had some funny moments, but he’s basically portrayed as the League’s resident bro, and it was played up in his every interaction. I didn’t feel like he had a lot of screen time, but I didn’t want to see more of him to be honest. Aquaman has little to no character development, and what we do find out about him is fed to us in an expository deluge where the situational humour (that is actually pretty funny) is undercut by his shitty, chauvinistic gaze. Honestly, his part could be neatly lifted from the script; he didn’t really do anything memorable aside from what’s shown in the trailers. Aquaman was definitely one of the film’s biggest missed opportunities.
I’ll be honest, Wonder Woman was the big draw for me here. Gadot is more confident in her delivery than ever, and she was the film’s anchor despite having a weak character arc. She’s still a little stiff when she’s not at the center of the action, and she always seems to have the same concerned expression; Gadot’s emotional range only comes out when she has someone to play off of. Diana really does ground the team and tie them together though, all while kicking some serious ass. She’s the most powerful member of the team, and she’s always the first to get into the thick of things.
Now I didn’t expect Justice League to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. I mean just look at the line-up. I’m pretty sure the only conversation that occurs between two women is Lois and Martha talking about how much they miss Clark… so yeah (By the way, I love Diane Lane, even in a small role her skilled acting outshines many others.) I’m ok with it though, not every movie has to pass the test to be progressive or inclusive, but they could have at least not made Diana the focus of everyone’s sexual feelings. I’m not going to argue that Diana isn’t an Amazonian beast that is absolutely stunning and should be unashamed of her own sexuality, but note that I led with Amazonian beast. She is so much more than her looks, yet she’s regarded multiple times by different male characters as an object of desire, and the film continues to lean into the typical awkward sexual innuendoes, so typical in fact that I rattled them off before we even stepped into the theater.
I’ll bet someone ends up awkwardly lying on top of her during a fight, of course someone will joke about how Bruce just can’t get a date, and obviously a fellow warrior’s honest opinion of her will have nothing to do with how she’s stronger than all of them combined and everything to do with her phenomenal body. Like ew, please can we not? Had just one of those occurred, I’d let it go. People can be attracted to other people, but it just came up in small ways again and again. In a film that’s clearly benefiting from the success of Wonder Woman and whose female lead is the only one strong enough to go toe-to-toe with an all-powerful denizen of Apokolips, you’d think her teammates would be more impressed with her talents than her body. But it’s fine guys, because Diana smiles playfully after each encounter, so she’s totally ok with it! (I see you Joss Whedon.)
Of course there are after credits scenes, the first of which teases the answer to one of the DCU’s most common debate. The final secret scene revealed some familiar faces and new additions to the playing field, foreshadowing what’s to come. It’s also telling that this scene elicited the strongest reaction from the audience of the whole film, with whooping cheers and loud applause. Seemingly the general consensus was that while the film was slightly underwhelming, it was certainly entertaining and wasn’t a total failure, so audiences already have their eyes on the next installment. So I suppose Justice League is a success, in that it didn’t completely turn audiences off of the DCEU, and Flash’s debut made enough of a mark that I think we’ll see WB move ahead with Flashpoint.
Justice League certainly feels like they’re rebranding the darker image into something more accessible, and I do think it’s taking the DCEU in the right direction, but there is still a ways to go. The plot won’t blow you away, but it’s a fun superhero film and you’ll leave wanting to see more of the characters, particularly Flash and Cyborg (Wonder Woman is a given, she was clutch!) There was enough to make me excited for what’s to come, and hopefully Justice League will learn from its mistakes and deliver a better narrative and a more interesting villain in the sequel.