(2017—Director: Zack Snyder)
(out of 5 stars)
“Sorry, guys; I didn’t bring a sword.” — Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), transferring mid-battle into the tank-like Nightcrawler
Potential spoilers below
Compared to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and Fox’s X-Men franchise, Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has struggled to recognize the need for legs and feet before one can run. I remember leaving the theater with naïve elation after 2013’s Man of Steel, but that emotion converted in short time to bewilderment at the film’s plot holes, lapses in logic, heavy-handed Christ imagery, and a literal disaster of a third act. 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice further multiplied those negatives to unforgiving degrees, while (*sigh* the Academy Award-winning) Suicide Squad poorly contrasted its light-hearted action romp with muddled, chaotic visuals on top of a far-fetched story foundation. Wonder Woman and its First World War setting may have become the best DCEU film by default earlier this summer, but not without its small share of narrative issues—most of which threatened to derail the film’s third act.
One, then, can view Justice League as the response by Warner Bros., screenwriters Chris Terrio (Argo, Batman V Superman) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers), and director Zack Snyder towards the DCEU’s limited progress and the dwindling favor of audiences and critics. This long-awaited collaboration of the most iconic heroes of DC Comics on the big screen sacrifices the DCEU’s misplaced ambition and gravitas for harmless, yet bland and CGI-heavy blockbuster storytelling and a near-absence of compelling inner turmoil. In other words, Justice League is the DCEU’s Avengers, minus the well-generated hype and diluted to the quality of average and brainless popcorn escapism.
Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the end of the previous film, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) lets his newfound inspiration and hope for humanity guide him as longtime Gotham vigilante Batman in hunting down the flying and bug-like Parademons involved in several recent abductions. Such creatures also invade the fabled island of Themyscira, where they aid their godlike leader Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) in stealing one of the three powerful Mother Boxes, defeating many of the island’s Amazon warriors in the process. From afar, the Amazons warn Diana (Gal Gadot), who has left her life as the Amazon princess to live among mankind and defend them as Wonder Woman. In need of a larger team, Batman and Wonder Woman work to recruit the speedy Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Mamoa, HBO’s Game of Thrones), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). There is little room for any squabbles and insecurities among team members when the fate of the world is in their hands.
There are few things I love doing more as a film critic than seeking a few silver linings in average and brainless popcorn escapism. I find, more often than not, that films of that ilk tend more towards an absence of bold dazzlement and nuanced characters rather than pure mediocrity. Justice League falls more under the former than the latter. Most of Justice League’s actors give their all, from the secure Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot to two-scene turns by J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) as Gotham Commissioner Jim Gordon and Billy Crudup (Spotlight, Alien: Covenant) as the incarcerated Dr. Henry Allen. The film surprised me by featuring Ezra Miller’s socially-inept Flash in intermittent small doses, which was the wise path for a character bordering on obnoxiousness. Moments of cheeky amusement like Wonder Woman sneakily using her Lasso of Truth on Aquaman are among the few moments worth welcoming in Justice League.
Yet for all of Justice League’s attempts to keep me smiling, its plethora of plot conveniences still leaves me underwhelmed. For example, the Mother Boxes (or Tesseract triplets, as I’d like to think of them) not only link Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg too easily, but also trigger and attract the wrath of Steppenwolf upon Superman’s death. If the film explained a causality between Superman’s death and Steppenwolf’s arrival, then I cannot recall it taking up more than, if I had to guess, one or two lines of voiceover, if at all. Poor Ciarán Hinds as Justice League’s stock villain Steppenwolf comes off as a mere bargain-bin Ronan the Accuser from 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Lastly, the Justice League members all become instant collaborators, with competitive spirit as their ounce of inner turmoil and resurrecting Superman as their first project. As with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, bringing back someone who died in a previous story amounts to gratuitous fan service as well as an emotional gutting of the previous story. These lazy blockbuster conveniences and welcome but undeserved fun moments are the few elements that can thrive in Justice League‘s unattractive CGI-landscape.
Justice League’s resurrection of Superman and rapid superhero bonding begs the question of whether the DCEU’s past blunders were worth their efforts. Answering that question is crucial now that Warner Bros.’ DCEU is at a minor impasse, both critically and commercially. No, Justice League does not waste the extra life afforded to the DCEU after Wonder Woman, but it makes me wonder where the DCEU will proceed. Will 2018’s Aquaman and 2019’s Shazam! follow the over-ambitious route of the DCEU’s early entries, Justice League’s bland blockbuster route, or Wonder Woman’s promising and balanced route? I leave that choice for those films to answer in due time.
(Parental Note: Justice League has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for sequences of sci-fi violence and action.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate fantasy violence” and rated A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “constant stylized violence, two uses of profanity, a milder oath, several crude and a couple of crass terms, and some bleeped-out swearing.”)