As flawed as the Zack Snyder DCEU movies have been so far, one thing they must be applauded for is ambition. Sure, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice were dower, overly serious affairs with pacing issues and far too many plot points and themes to properly develop, but at least there were plot points and themes. I and most of the general public may look negatively on both of these films – with last year’s Batman v. Superman being the worse of the two – but there are those who passionately defend both of them (that defense often comes in the form of attacking Rotten Tomatoes or threats and personal insults from people hiding behind fake names on social media). Although Justice League is definitely an improvement over Synder’s last attempt at a DCEU movie, it’s hard to imagine anyone being that passionate about defending its many, many flaws. Not even Warner Bros. In this way, Justice League comes off as an apology for Dawn of Justice. In the end, perhaps the best thing that can be said about this newest entry in DC Extended Universe is that it isn’t horrible.
(Just so you know, this review contains spoilers for Dawn of Justice, but that should be expected since this film is a sequel and most people who didn’t see the previous film probably won’t want to watch this one.)
Beginning with an odd vertical video where a pair of young boys asks nervous questions of an even odder looking Superman (a result of actor Henry Cavill choosing not to shave his facial hair before reshoots), Justice League wants to establish the deceased figure as one of worldwide inspiration rather than the divisive part savior-part tyrant of the last two films. We get a glimpse of a world without Superman, an apparently hopeless, depressed place because there are a couple instances of the exact sort of street crime that happens every day in America (except that in Justice League the criminal aren’t as well armed) and because there are large black banners of the “S” logo draped over famous landmarks. In this sense we’re supposed to believe that the entire world is mourning the loss of someone who in the previous films had been held responsible for destroying half of Metropolis and blamed for the bombing of a congressional hearing, killing hundreds more. Interestingly, neither of these events are ever mentioned. There isn’t even any pay off for Batman’s several ominous dreams from Dawn of Justice. Instead, Superman is a beloved figure whose apparent death has cast a dark shadow over the entire world and caused aliens to see Earth as open to invasion… for… some reason. Justice League isn’t exactly great on story, or details, or development, or fights, or…
After being introduced in Dawn of Justice, Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman serve as the guiding points of the film as the other pieces, Erza Miller’s Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, inevitably come together to fill the hole left by Superman. Each of these characters present as many positives as they do negatives. Affleck’s Batman is presented as more of a hero in this film than he had been in the previous, but is often bored and less interested in stopping the criminals of Gotham than in filling his superhero fantasy team roster. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg has a tremendous amount of potential limited by a lack of character development and surprisingly poor facial animations. Ezra Miller’s Flash is fun and an immediate standout whose infectious energy creates some of the film’s best moments, but his neuroses and too-eager attempts at banter recall any character from a 90’s New York sitcom. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman has one particularly good exchange in a comedic setup, but is otherwise a very one-note hard-drinking musclehead. Meanwhile, Gadot’s Wonder Woman fairs best simply by sustaining off the love earned from her far superior solo film earlier this year, although the heavy reliance on her adorable little smile to punctuate several scenes gives her the air of the put-upon mother in whatever family sitcom it was which aired before the “edgier” one Flash has been plucked from. While each hero has their requisite “type” and time to shine, there is little in terms of individual arc. Self-doubt is never examined, tensions go nowhere, trust is earned less by action than by default, and scenes close with Wonder Woman’s little smile to cue the laugh track’s applause. It’s hard not to think that the film as a whole would’ve worked better if DC and Warner Bros had devoted the time to developing these characters on their own before throwing them all together in a rush to catch up to another prominent cinematic universe (I’m trying not to mention that name, but the comparisons are inevitable).
It’s long been my belief that the worst movies aren’t those which are merely bad, but those which have the ability to be great. This is precisely why, in my opinion, Dawn of Justice was such a mess. It had the characters, the world, the look, the budget, and the big ideas to make a landmark film. It simply failed to make those elements tie together. The shift from Zack Synder to Joss Whedon actually appeared promising as the latter has shown the ability to tie together characters and ideas in a way the former couldn’t, while the former has demonstrated an intensity and sensibility the latter lacks. Sadly, the end product is barebones and perfunctory, lacking the strengths of either filmmaker.
Fans of Synder’s previous work applauded it for the dark, serious, what they describe as “realistic” tone (which they set as a contrast to the other unnamed cinematic universe). Justice League has none of this. Where Dawn of Justice left its myriad themes unexamined, Justice League has no themes. Where Dawn of Justice was obsessed with its own sense of foreboding self-importance, Justice League hops from scene to scene with little concern for what came before or after. Where Dawn of Justice took every moment as earth-shattering, Justice League is so light as to be inconsequential. Where Dawn of Justice used striking imagery to play up its intensity, Justice League appears clunky and unclear, at times even ugly; the superhero shoots are cheesy and Superman, as seen in the opening and in the trailers, looks straight-up weird, but far worse is Steppenwolf, the most generic of generic supervillains, whose animation seems out of sync with Ciaran Hinds’s delivery. Dawn of Justice was far too long. Justice League is way too short. Dawn of Justice wanted to be a sprawling epic of big events, big actions, and big ideas. Justice League just wants to get it over with. It’s a sigh in place of a scream.
DC and Warner Bros clearly want their universe to catch up with that of their rival. The result of this effort is something that isn’t entertaining enough to be a fun superhero flick, isn’t dark enough to be a serious superhero film, and isn’t smart enough to be an interesting superhero movie. In trying to be Marvel (dammit!), DC and Warner Bros have created a film that has no identity. They’ve driven to the middle of the road, and thrown together a house with whatever scraps they could haul. Frankly, these characters deserve better.
Last year I wrote of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
“…the honest review, in my opinion, is to acknowledge that Dawn of Justice is a mess and should end Snyder’s tenure with DC, but also state that the film isn’t the disaster early viewers have claimed. As with all messes, there are good things to be found, you just have to dig for them. No, the disaster is what comes later, if no one cleans the mess.”
Justice League is less an attempt to clean up this mess than to move the rubbish from one side of the room to the other side of the room. The mess has moved, but the mess remains.