It’s truly difficult to not pity the beleaguered Justice League movie. The long-awaited comic book team-up flick arrives with low expectations thanks to the twin dumpster fires of Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad, plopped down in the combined shadows of the half-dozen or so other, better comic books flicks that dominated the year. It’s production was an ugly one, fraught with rewrites, reshoots, and a director swap-out that saw Joss Whedon (The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) take the reigns from Zack Snyder after a personal tragedy.
Any praise lobbed its way seems qualified at best, which is unfortunate as there are praiseworthy aspects of it. It’s still a clunky mess with some seriously rough edges though, and the specter of what might have been hovers over much of it.
The story is outline-draft simple, and exists mainly as a delivery mechanism to justify a half-dozen disparate super-powered loners banding together for mega-battle that is surprisingly not quite as littered with massive collateral damage as usual.
In short: The world is still mourning the apparent death of Superman (Henry Cavill), with some folks losing hope while others are emboldened to commit crime and terrorism (a detail given minimal lip service). Bruce Wayne/Batman, aware that some sort of alien invasion is brewing, proactively attempts to recruit a band of super-powered allies to defend the world: a more hardened Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) than the one we met this summer, indifferent and hard-drinking merman Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), callow speedster Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller), and scarred man-machine Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
Their responses are mixed, at least until the mounting threat arrives in the form of Steppenwolf (a visually mediocre CGI villain voiced with gravitas by Ciaran Hinds), an ancient playing-killing conqueror seeking to recover and unite the Mother Boxes, three hyper-tech artifacts that will destroy mankind when united and activated.
Or something. It’s a vague plan set in motion by a thinly drawn villain in a loosely plotted movie, par for the course for many comic book movies. On the upside, there is a refreshing shortage of pretension.
Justice League succeeds in at least one key area where its more dour and self-serious predecessors failed: it’s content to be dopey fun. Fans expected the worst when reshoots helmed by Whedon were announced, and understandably so. It turned out to be a good move; JL is thoroughly silly (mind you, not intentionally silly like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies or Thor: Ragnarok) and Whedon gamely takes that ball and runs with it. He, like James Gunn and Taika Waititi, knows that every now and you have to open a valve and vent some of the pompousness from these things before they blow. There’s a momentum at work that keeps us from spending too much time picking apart the details.
Whedon’s style also balances out some of Snyder’s excesses, who is verging on self-parody, recycling tropes from his earlier movies (Watchmen in particular) and doubling down on the visual overkill. The climactic final battle is a green-screened monstrosity that, once again, takes place in a conveniently abandoned urban setting to allow for maximum destruction with minimum consequences. It’s quite entertaining to watch the movie and ponder which scenes we’re directed by whom. [Warning: turning this into a drinking game is not advised.]
The actors achieve mixed results. The supporting cast consists mainly of reprise performances from Connie Nielsen, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Irons, with brief appearances of J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon, Billy Crudup as the Flash’s inmate father, and Amber Heard as Aquaman’s deep-sea love interest Mera — most of whom aren’t given time to leave an impression.
As for the main cast, the big three leave us wanting. Superman doesn’t arrive until the third act; Snyder, Whedon, and co-scripter Chris Terrio do little more than objectify Wonder Woman, but Gadot manages to rise above most of it; and Affleck continues to struggle with their bland interpretation of Batman, and in some scenes you can tell he’s questioning the life decisions that led him to this.
It’s the new guys who keep things afloat. Momoa lets his hair down as Aquaman, playing him like the world’s most happy-go-lucky biker from Atlantis. Miller’s Flash is of course meant to fill a Spider-Man-esque niche as the team’s insecure, wise-cracking youth, and he lands most of his comedic punches. Fisher’s tormented Cyborg is an intriguing enigma, and although his performance calls for a mix of brooding man and distant machine, the actor nevertheless generates a magnetism to go with it. They leave us wanting more, much the same as Wonder Woman did in Batman V. Superman.
Which brings up a positive aspect of Justice League: It largely sidesteps the minefield that comes from spending too much of a movie’s running time on setting up sequels in lieu of telling a story. Tidbits are dropped, Easter eggs are found, and origins are hinted at, but for all the narrative missteps Whedon and Terrio do at least keep their attention on what’s in front of them.
It’s not going to fix everything that’s wrong with the DCEU, but it is a course correct. A strong case for movies and a cinematic universe based on these characters is finally being made. Most days, “it’s not great but at least it’s coherent” would be a backhanded compliment; in this instance, it’s high praise. A Justice League 2 just might be something to look forward to.