Man, I desperately wanted to like this. I will go to my grave defending Batman v Superman (particularly the Ultimate Edition, where the story actually made sense), but Justice League is, unfortunately, a bit of a mess. A fairly enjoyable – at times – mess, but a mess, nonetheless, and I’m not sure whose fault it is. Directed by Zack Snyder (with substantial reshoots and editing supervised by Joss Whedon) and written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, Justice League is the DCEU’s equivalent of 2012’s The Avengers (also directed by Whedon). It brings the mightiest DC superheroes – Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Superman (Henry Cavill) – together for the first time as they team up to defend the earth from an intergalactic – and multi-dimensional? – threat: Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). (Mild spoilers ahead)
The biggest problem with Justice League is that it’s painfully obvious that scenes are missing. I mean, Batman v Superman was a three-hour long monster that was cut only by half an hour, and that film’s theatrical cut suffered from this. Being familiar with Snyder’s work, I’d anticipate that Justice League was of a similar length, but was cut down to a mere two hours – and it shows. Especially towards the beginning of the film. It feels like chunks are missing and, as a result, scenes just sort of happen with no logical narrative flow between them. We cut from one thing to another, to another, and that back to that first thing with no real rhyme or reason behind it. It’s made even worse by the sheer amount of characters and exposition that has to be introduced. All the characters have to be moved into place by the middle of the film so the preparations for the climax to begin, but the film has to introduce such a large cast of characters and the plot of the film in under an hour and it just can’t. It would be somewhat okay if all of the superheroes in the film had had their own films and had been building up to this, but as it is, only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have had films so far. Out of the three films, only one of them – Batman v Superman – built up to Justice League, and even then it was more of an easter egg (that took away from the overall quality of that film) than actual plan-setting. So three entirely new heroes have to be introduced, as well as the reintroductions of the other heroes (and side characters from the two Superman films), the plot – and its related backstory – have to be introduced, and the villain has to be introduced. It’s just too much to accomplish in fifty minutes and I highly doubt it was originally the plan to do so.
Justice League is a film that desperately would have benefit from the luxury of slowly building its way to the climax. For all its problems, Batman v Superman knew at what pace its story needed to be told. Yes, it was slow – especially the Ultimate Cut – but it was slow on purpose. It allowed the story the room to breathe and the characters the room to be fully established in the world and with each other. Justice League doesn’t allow this to happen. At all. Add to that the fact that none of the new characters are written particularly well – Barry Allen is the stereotypical too-socially-anxious-to-know-how-to-function-and-it’s-played-for-laughs character, Arthur Curry is the typical macho man, Victor Stone is the angsty teenager/young adult who angsts a whole lot, and Steppenwolf is the typical alien bent on world domination. That’s the extent of their characters. None of them are given any development or any motivations for why they do the things they do. Next to no attention is paid to them in the script at all. Even characters who were developed well in previous films – Batman and Wonder Woman – don’t get a whole lot of material to work with. They’re all just chess pieces being moved around. Again, for all its problems, at least Batman v Superman spent time trying to establish character development and motivations (whether or not it succeeded is up to individual opinion – I feel like it did – but at least it tried).
That’s not even all of the characters in this film! You’ve got Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Silas Stone (Joe Morton), Mera (Amber Heard), Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), and others. The thing is, they all play such a relatively minor role in the story that it’s barely worth mentioning them at all. They’re in the movie solely to move various elements of the plot along as needed. None of them are given any agency or personality – even if they had it in previous films. It’s a shame because the film is full of talented actors and actresses who are given literally nothing to do. Even our main three – Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman aren’t given a whole lot to do. All three of them are great actors and actresses, but their performances are weak in this film because there’s nothing there for them to perform.
As for the plot, it’s nothing to write home about. I’m so bored of superhero films where the superheroes have to fight some alien threat. What about all the threats on earth? The reason so many of the superhero stories are fun in the first place is that the villains in the source material are awesome. The Joker is literally a mad clown, Lex Luthor is the definition of a malevolent billionaire, Wonder Woman has a villain that’s a human/cheetah hybrid, the Flash has a villain that’s essentially the anti-Flash, etc. But instead, all these superhero films keep going with the generic alien baddie. I know that Steppenwolf and Darkseid are big villains in the DC Universe but they only work because there have been so many issues of comics devoted to making them stand out as more than your average alien baddie. These films don’t have that kind of time to do that, especially the ones that are introducing said alien baddie for the first time. Steppenwolf falls squarely into that category. Where is he from? Why does he want to take over the world? Who is Darkseid? Why should I care? The film answers next to none of these questions and it’s a shame.
Aside from the villain being the very definition of ‘meh’, the plot itself is also executed haphazardly. Exposition is just dumped in blocks of forgettable mush because the film has no time to properly sprinkle the exposition in amongst the story. The stakes are never really established, especially since a lot of the damage/scare level of the villains is just a rehash of Doomsday’s destruction from the previous film, so it all just falls flat. It’s not a bad story, but it’s not particularly original or executed well enough to be memorable. I hope beyond hope that future sequels stop going with alien threats and just establish human/superhuman threats for the League to fight against. (Thankfully one of the post-credits scenes hints that this might be the direction they’re going in. Fingers crossed.)
Justice League desperately needs to be about an hour longer. I know it’s unusual to genuinely think a film would benefit from being longer, but Justice League would in the same way that Batman v Superman did. There’s just so much story crammed into this film and none of it’s given any room to breathe. Things just happen in rapid succession, one after the other. The characters aren’t able to have any moments between each other where they’re really allowed to connect. There are a few moments in the middle of the film that are really nice, involving Superman and Lois Lane, but they’re far too short and really the only ones of their kind. The movie just needs to be able to take its time to properly build all the layers of the story. It’s like if you took Blade Runner: 2049 and cut an hour from it. The film wouldn’t work as well. Yes, the pacing was slow, but it was deliberate so the story could build its layers and layer its characters. You can tell that that was originally what Snyder wanted Justice League to do. Many of the same narrative elements are present in Justice League that were present in Batman v Superman, so it’s not a stretch to think that if Justice League had a longer runtime it would benefit in the same way that Batman v Superman did and we’d be able to see how all the narrative elements fit with one another while also getting the character moments we need and not feel rushed with all of that. This film should’ve been allowed to run closer to three hours. It would have been a better film.
As for why Justice League has so many problems, I’ve heard conflicting reports as to who’s at fault for this film: several reports suggest that Whedon is at fault for much of the dialogue and character tweaks (making Aquaman and Flash make a lot of suggestive – and unfunny – jokes towards Wonder Woman (that reportedly the cast didn’t even want to do) amongst other things) and WB required the film to be cut down to a less-than-two-hour runtime at – relatively speaking – the last minute. It would seem that those reports would be a good place to start. Much of the dialogue reeks of Joss Whedon. His dialogue hasn’t evolved at all over the decades he’s been working. It’s the same schlock it’s always been, only, now, we’ve all caught onto his schtick and what used to be funny isn’t anymore. Additionally, it seems that studios love to meddle in these big team-up films.
Similar reports came out about Marvel’s meddling with Age of Ultron back in 2015 and here is WB doing it with Justice League. I dunno what Snyder’s original vision would’ve been; we’ll never know since the studio deemed it “not good enough” even before Snyder had to step aside from the film due to a tragedy in the family. I’d assume it would be something like a mashup between Batman v Superman‘s melodrama and Wonder Woman‘s sense of humor. But, with Whedon, we’re stuck with what feels like a collection outtakes from a Marvel film that was so unloved the company wouldn’t allow it to be put on the DVD as deleted scenes. Warner Bros. and DC are just desperate for this movie not to suck after the dismal reviews for all the other movies in the DCEU (aside from Wonder Woman) that it should surprise nobody that they’d steal the person they thought brought Marvel’s films the admiration they have (clearly Whedon was not the magic ingredient). I’d love to know what Snyder originally intended. I feel like if he’d been able to stay in charge, he’d have kept Whedon’s rewrites to a minimum and made sure the film still had some level of cohesion. But, Snyder wasn’t around, so Whedon went to town to tweak the film as much as he could and in doing so ruined any level of structural integrity the film had. He replaced too much of Snyder’s style with his own and the film collapsed under the multitudes. Plus, it might also be a good idea to get Chris Terrio off of these movies. He keeps being at least partially responsible for crummy scripts and I’m sure he’s of equal blame here.
It’s not even that the film is bad. It’s just kind of… boring and messy at times. There are a lot of really fun moments – particularly the fight scenes, but that’s always been one of Snyder’s gifts and it appears that Whedon didn’t touch any of them. Danny Elfman’s score is rather strong (I love the callbacks to previous scores for DC films that he uses – especially the callback to the theme from Tim Burton’s Batman films that Elfman composed). Any time the League is actually able to be around and fight with each other, it’s lots of fun. I mean, I grew up with DC characters (and the Justice League cartoon), so I love these characters and I love seeing so many of them on screen together. For that, alone, I had a lot of fun with this film. There are several jokes that do land, but for every well written and executed joke, there’s a poorly written, immature joke (you can guess who’s most likely at fault for the poorly written jokes!).
For as cool as the fight scenes are, the cinematography and color correction are still not so great. All the DCEU films have this problem where they look muddy, boring, and ugly – and Justice League very much falls victim to this. So far, none of the DCEU films have escaped this problem, but at least in Wonder Woman, Themyscira was exempt from the rule that everything must look like mud was spilled on the camera lens. This is not the case in Justice League. It’s amazing how they could make even Themyscira look ugly, but they did it. Justice League just isn’t a pretty film. It’s muted and boring visually, even when the action sequences are visually interesting. The characters fall flat. The plot is by-the-numbers. It’s just not a good film. It’s not a bad film, either. I had a lot of fun at a lot of times. I just can’t help thinking how Snyder’s original cut may have played out (and, as someone who liked Batman v Superman, how much more I’d have liked his version) and I can’t help thinking of how much better this film could’ve been with a more cohesive vision, better-plotted story (and dialogue), and an unrestricted running time. It’s a real shame. The worst thing a film can be is boring, and that’s largely what Justice League is.
2.5 out of 5 wands, largely because of the action sequences.
Pingback: REVIEW: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (The Snyder Cut) | Thoroughly Modern Reviewer