It’s worth taking the time to really look at the circumstances that Justice League was made under. You have a movie that was meant to be a sequel to Batman v. Superman and was well into production when the earlier movie was released. However, instead of Batman v. Superman being the smash success that it was expected to be, it ended up being one of the most divisive movies of recent memory. While Batman v. Superman has its defenders, by and large the movie was criticized for it’s tone, it’s story structure, it’s handling of beloved characters, it’s sensory overload, it’s plot devices, it’s inconsistent pacing, and just about everything else under the sun. And now, elbow deep in production of what is supposed to be a triumphant follow up, and instead DC is panicking, and trying to course correct. It doesn’t help that many of the creative talent who made the decisions for Batman v Superman are working on Justice League as well while the general public is pointing fingers of blame at them for every issue that exists in the movie. Add to all of this, director Zack Snyder had to leave during post production to deal with a family tragedy, and Joss Whedon was hired to finish the movie, a job that ended up including directing extensive reshoots and changing enough of the script to end up getting a writing credit. Justice League is a movie that feels all of this pressure. It’s trying to please a dozen different masters at the same time and while it has several high moments, it still feels like a step in the right direction at best and not the “course corrected, everything’s better now” that Warner Bros. wishes it were.
Justice League picks up with Batman and Wonder Woman still trying put together the members of the Justice League email we saw in Batman v. Superman. In fact this takes up most of the first half of the movie. We meet Aquaman, the too cool for school loner who doesn’t have time for silly things like teamwork and friendship, Cyborg, the one who views his powers as a curse instead of a gift, and Flash, who is excited to be a superhero, but doesn’t quite have a handle on his powers yet, and serves largely as the comic relief. The threat of the movie arrives in the form of Steppenwolf, an exiled Apokoliptian New God. If you want to know that however, you’ll need to get the information from the comics or asking a friend. The movie is never really clear on what exactly Steppenwolf is other than he’s strong, he’s evil, he’s a major threat, and he’s looking for three boxes.
Contrasted with Luthor’s overly convoluted scheme from Batman v. Superman, Steppenwolf’s goals are remarkably straightforward. There are three Mother Boxes out there that he needs. The Amazons have one, The Atlanteans have another, and the tribes of men have the third. The movie isn’t exactly clear about what the powers of the boxes are but it’s clear that it will bring about some form of the end of the world, and that it needs to be stopped. But that’s the really the focus of the entire movie Other than a brief side plot about (Spoilers if you somehow thought death in comics was a permanent thing) bringing Superman back to life, the entire movie is focused on Step 1: Bring together the League, Step 2: Stop Steppenwolf.
Justice League never really finds a tone that it likes and settles into it comfortably. Some of that would be easy to blame on Whedon’s work clashing with the earlier work that Snyder did, but more likely this is probably a result of being overly aware of criticism that was leveled at the earlier film. Flash is a fully comedic character, which some would argue is something the DC movies desperately need. However there are one or two moments that could have been great character development for Flash (At one point he’s talking to Cyborg about how they’re the two members of the League that got their powers by mistake) but it’s brushed aside quickly to make sure we don’t stray too far from the light heartedness of the character.
This isn’t to say that Flash isn’t a well developed character. On the contrary, this movie features some of the best character work we’ve seen so far in the DC movies. This will likely be an issue where there’s some disagreement because several characters vary wildly from their popular comic iterations, but there’s no character that drags down the other five members of the league. Aquaman stands likely to be the big breakout star as most of his lines are some version of “cool guy” quips, but Jason Momoa makes it work, and it does a lot to combat the reputation that Aquaman has with the general populace. It also feels like Henry Cavill is finally starting to get what kind of person Superman is supposed to be. Maybe it was the unending criticism of the killing then brooding Superman of the past two movies, but this movie features a Superman that fits a lot better with what you would expect Superman to be like.
Because only two of the League have had solo movies at this point (Man of Steel and Wonder Woman) Justice League is also burdened with being an origin story for half of it’s main cast. This unfortunately, causes some drag on the first hour of the movie as we have to wait through individual scenes for everybody before they can finally all get together. Then ends up making the movie feel like the buildup for a later, bigger movie. So much of this movie is dedicated to putting the team together and undoing the death of the previous movie, it feels like the forward progression of the story is being saved for another movie. Steppenwolf as the villain doesn’t help this feeling either. There’s not a lot of time given to the character or to his goals and motivations. You get the feeling that Steppenwolf’s in the movie just because somebody needed to be the bad guy and DC wasn’t about to waste Darkseid in this limited villain slot.
Ultimately while this movie definitely feels like it’s learned from the mistakes of Batman v. Superman it seems like in some ways it’s gone too far in the other direction, playing it safe at every turn. Batman v. Superman has a lot to say about terrorism, vigilante justice, the perils of hero worship, and a whole other host of subjects. And while the end result is a giant mess, at least there was an attempt made. If Batman v. Superman is an over the top swing and a miss, then Justice League is much closer to a safe bunt up the third baseline. It gets DC on the base where it desperately needs to be, but it’s hard to forget that this is clearly the movie that was supposed to be the home run.
Tags: Aquaman, Batman, Cyborg, DC, film, Flash (DC Comics / Barry Allen), joss whedon, Justice League, movie, review, steppenwolf, Superman, Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder