Movie Review - Justice League
Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way right off the bat: This is not DC’s Avengers. After seeing the film twice within the span of 24 hours, I can tell you with some degree of confidence that it was never intended to be. And yet, to this point, I think that’s what every single reviewer (that I’ve read or listened to) has expected. Only one of them has suggested that it might be something else…but even he wasn’t terribly sold on it. Since this film does not meet that expectation, well, the score on Rotten Tomatoes says it all, doesn’t it. So, is this an instance where DC fans will once again insist that the movie reviewing community at large is in on a conspiracy? Has Marvel bias reared its ugly head again once more? Well, we’ve already talked about that fallacy…but yes, I imagine some DC fans will revert to this internet rallying cry, even though it has even less weight now in a post-Wonder Woman world that it did prior. Instead, no…this isn’t a conspiracy, it’s a misunderstanding. And it all lies within context.
The Avengers was the capstone to Marvel’s Phase 1. Five heroes were introduced over the span of five films…all building to The Avengers. [Hawkeye was introduced in Thor…so that’s six heroes. – Ed.] The movie-going audience was given an in-depth look at each character in each film (except for Black Widow, who proved second-fiddle to Iron Man’s sequel outing) before they were all put together to go through the usual team-up tropes: everyone fights until they realize they’re on the same side…then a larger threat presents itself (usually an invasion) so the team comes together and, boom, done, movie. With that through-line established, it’s pretty easy to see why reviewers looking at Justice League would make the mistake of comparing the two. On the surface, they appear to share in many of the same tropes.
But that’s just it. I said it in the opening: this is not The Avengers.
At this point, we have five films in the DC Films series: Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman and now Justice League. Of the heroes appearing in Justice League, we’ve only been properly introduced to three of them. [Look, we assume that even though he’s been absent from all the posters, much of the marketing and the majority of the trailers, you know that Superman’s coming back in this film…so, deal with it. We’ll try and be pretty minimal with the spoilers otherwise. – Ed.] And only two of them, Superman and Wonder Woman, have had their own individual films. [As someone suffering from Bat-Fatigue, it felt REALLY good to type that, didn’t it? – Ed.] So right off the bat, we should KNOW that this can’t be DC’s version of The Avengers.
Then what is it?
It’s the final chapter of Zack Snyder’s Superman trilogy.
The cycle should have been apparent to anyone the instant they killed Superman in Batman V Superman. I even said as much in my review for that film. Birth, death, rebirth. And while Superman is absent from a fair amount of this film, in those absences, he’s referred to quite frequently and as such, the movie is just as much about that absence as it is about the impending invasion by Steppenwolf and his Parademons. That focus, right there, is how this is different from Avengers. Yes, we're introduced to Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg here, but we're only given what we need to know about them to make this story work. The movie is well aware that these characters will be fleshed out in their own movies. To better grasp this, think of it in the terms of where these characters began: comic books. You wouldn't pick up a Superman comic only to read all about Cyborg, right? [Then why call the movie Justice League then, eh smartguy? - Ed.] This movie does serve as a fantastic spin off point for the three heroes introduced here. And yes, while the Editor makes a point that Justice League might be a bit of a misnomer, it certainly does feel like a Justice League 2 is almost guaranteed to be a straight up analog to Marvel's first Avengers outing.
At this point, I guess we should probably talk about that plot. Disturbed by both his visions and his prison conversation with Luthor in BvS, Batman is driven to assemble a team with the help of Wonder Woman as he fears an alien invasion is imminent. The kidnapping of scientists from both Gotham City and Metropolis as well as an attack on the island of the Amazons reveals that the invasion isn’t coming, it’s already here as Steppenwolf uses his Parademons to track down the three Mother Boxes left on Earth: one for the humans, one for the Amazons and one for the Atlanteans. When combined, these Mother Boxes will give Steppenwolf the power to destroy the earth, regain favor with his lord, Darkseid, and as such he’ll ascend into the ranks of the New Gods. Now, every review I’ve read or listened to up to the time of this writing have all pretty much agreed that this plot is a mess or thin. In my viewings, I saw neither. Sure, it’s not very deep per se…but I can’t think of a single Marvel film that’s anything more than superficial either. Instead, we have to ask ourselves what does this story have to accomplish? We have to assemble the team, revive Superman and repel/defeat Steppenwolf and his hoards. Does this movie accomplish those three beats? Yes. Yes it does…and it does so at a pretty brisk clip. That leads to another criticism I’ve heard a lot…the pacing. Some say it’s uneven, others bemoan that it’s too quick. Well, I certainly didn’t find it to be uneven…everything propels forward pretty quickly…but not TOO quickly. Besides, hell, one of our POV characters is the Flash! [Bad joke. – Ed.] Here’s the thing, Warner Bros. mandated that this film be no more than two hours. When the studio implements this kind of restriction, well, it’s almost always idiotic and bad for the film. BvS’s theatrical cut, when compared to Snyder’s Ultimate Cut, is a clear example of this. The fact that Justice League, to me, feels solid even with that restriction in place is a credit to Joss Whedon’s work after Snyder was forced to leave the film due to a family tragedy. That being said, knowing the entire drama behind the scenes of this film, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do see an extended cut home video release…and if so, I’d be all in favor of that. While I felt the film as it was presented was a great, fun rollercoaster ride, having some time to catch one’s breath and allow for extended character moments would certainly be whipped cream and cherry on the top of this great little dessert. Speaking of Whedon, his jokiness is present throughout the film and it’s mostly okay. There’s one joke Batman makes that I felt was a little excessive, but on my second viewing I at least understand why it’s there and why they chose to have it there. To Whedon’s credit, I will say this still feels like Snyder’s film…so there’s no real jarring transition between stuff that might have been part of the reshoots versus what Snyder had originally filmed in his time on the project.
Now, let’s look at the plot again…but this time under the context of the final film of Superman’s trilogy. The first act is very clearly a world without a Superman. Whether it’s the opening montage of all the flowers, flags and other various salutes and markings of his passing or Batman tracking down his list of candidates (or the scenes introducing or building up said candidates) or the introduction of the threat that is Steppenwolf and his Parademons (who we got a sneak peak of in BvS), it’s very clear that Superman’s absence is the defining trait. In the first we see the public’s reaction to the loss, in the second we see both Batman’s reaction (not only to the loss but to his complicity in it) and his reconstruction…he’s chasing Superman’s ghost in both trying to assemble the team and being worthy of being someone the team will gel around and in the third we see a threat that only Superman could’ve saved the Earth from. As we move into the second act, the revival of Superman, we still have our looming threat of Steppenwolf, but there’s also the gambit: will this revival work? Obviously, there’s more to talk about here, but I’ve gotta stop myself because we’re tip-toeing up to the line of spoiler country here. Fast-forwarding to the third act, we have Superman back and it’s time to bring the story, and the trilogy, to a close. This is a good point to bring up another criticism of the film: there was no urgency to Steppenwolf, no sense of stakes…no feeling that the team was ever in any danger and no sense that there was ever any doubt to the outcome. I can see that but I have two counterpoints on this. First, take a look at The Avengers…was there ever any dramatic doubt in that outcome? Not really. The film was about the team coming together…and thus that was always going to be the end result. The team’s not going to come together if they’re smote by the end of the film and the bad guys win. But, as I said before, this is not The Avengers. And thus, the urgency is different. The urgency is NOT the invasion of Parademons…the urgency is whether or not Superman can be revived. Because once that is accomplished…that’s it, threat over. Otherwise, Steppenwolf wouldn’t have waited for Superman to die before kicking off his invasion. There’s only one thing I can fault this movie for, plot-wise, and that’s in its conclusion. At the end of the film, we see Clark Kent walking the streets of Metropolis, turning to face the camera, rushing down an alley all the while doing the classic pulling back of the shirt to reveal the S logo. What we didn’t get is something…ANYTHING…even remotely hinting at why it’s okay for Clark Kent to be back! I mean, he had an obituary in the Daily Planet and hell, his boss was there at the OPEN CASKET wake and burial. And given the tone set by Man of Steel, I’d have been perfectly fine if Lois and Clark went into Perry’s office and shared their little secret with him. Then it’s just a matter of telling the rest of the staff…those that didn’t go to the Kansas wake…that Kent had been alive the whole time, just buried under the rubble from the Doomsday fight.
Well, since I’ve already brought it up, let’s go ahead and go through my negatives. It’s a pretty short list. The big one is the quality and inconsistency of the CG effects. And I’ll start by saying that just because I understand why it is the way that it is doesn’t excuse it for being that way. With all the drama that happened behind the scenes, it’s a miracle that the film came out on time as it did. However, having effects shots that look incomplete and in need of further rendering, particularly in a very competitive market with an audience that is very savvy and sophisticated when it comes to said effects, it’s just plain inexcusable and at its worst can serve to pull the viewer out of the movie. The two most CG reliant characters in the film, Steppenwolf and Cyborg, end up suffering GREATLY for this. Steppenwolf more often than not ends up looking more like a video game character than a full-fledged movie CGI character. Cyborg, on the other hand, ends up suffering from Green Lantern syndrome. Remember the problems that arose from Ryan Reynolds’ CG costume in the 2011 film? That didn’t work out so great then…but with the advancements of 6 years, you’d think they could’ve done better…but to be honest, I almost want to say poor Cyborg might actually look worse. There’s one scene toward the end leading up to the final battle with Steppenwolf where he (Cyborg) looks just downright awful. A minor beef is present in some of Whedon’s inserted humor. Most of it works, but as I mentioned earlier, some of it does fall flat whereas perhaps if those that didn’t work were put to the side in favor of Chris Terrio’s more serious take, some scenes might have come off better. Lastly, from Snyder’s previous films we’ve seen how he likes to insert the music that he likes…be it Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen so on and so forth. Most of the time, it contributes to the picture but here, aside from the opening rendition of Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’, it just didn’t work for me. To be fair, I wasn’t exactly a fan of the music when it was put in the trailers and if I’m brutally honest, if I never hear that rendition (or really any rendition) of ‘Come Together’ for the remainder of my days, I think I’d be okay with that. To think I actually liked the song prior to Justice League’s marketing campaign.
On the topic of music though, a special shout-out needs to be given. I never thought I’d find myself typing these words, but Danny Elfman’s score is sensational. Not only is it an actual symphonic score…as opposed to the extremely percussion-heavy BRAAAAAM-fests that Hans Zimmer has been churning out since whenever my headache began…but it also manages to blend Zimmer’s themes for Superman and Wonder Woman into the classic themes for Batman (that he himself composed for the 89 film) and John William’s Superman. Oh, to hear that again, especially WHEN it played in the film, was SUCH an eargasm. [Seriously? Eargasm? Dude, you’ve got issues. – Ed.] I’ll admit, at the time the announcement was made that Junkie XL was being replaced by Elfman, for me it was like being asked to pick my favorite Menendez brother. [Does that joke even still have any mileage left to it? – Ed.] Did I want death by percussion or for the damn movie to sound like every score from every Tim Burton movie ever? Fortunately, Elfman rises above himself here and produces a very enjoyable listen. Hell, I’m listening to it as I type this review!
To wrap up, I want to tell you a story about the second time I saw the film. About halfway through the movie, I looked to my left and saw a young girl who couldn’t have been any older than 10. Her posture had her leaning forward, into the screen…being constantly engaged and drawn in to what she was seeing on the screen. And she didn’t move…not until the end credits came up. Movie critics pride themselves on their sophistication, their ability to dissect a movie, find its faults and air them for all to see…all the while flogging any parties, be they actors, directors, writers or so forth, they feel are responsible for what they personally didn’t like. I think at times they forget to stop and look at the audience…take the time to see the kid who is making the same discovery they did long ago…this vast imaginative world of heroes and villains writ large on a silver screen. Like Justice League…or hate it…but if it serves as the foundation for the next generation of filmmaker that will bring us the further adventures of these timeless heroes, can it really be that bad? Is it worth the insults, the fighting, the conspiracy theories or other divisive rhetoric that comic book movies seem to bring about these days? No. No it’s not. I’ve made it clear in this review that I’m a big fan of the film and would highly recommend it…as well as my reasons as to why I think that it, like its predecessor Batman V Superman, is likely to be widely misunderstood for not being something that it was never intended to be. And even if you don’t end up agreeing with me on my points, just take a moment during your screening of the film to take a look at another audience member, especially if they’re young…and if you have an experience similar to mine, where the wonder is so obvious…I want you to take a moment and bask in that. Sure, the movie may not be to your taste but somewhere there’s an 8 year old out there that has just been exposed to the same heroes and villains that you grew up with and care about…and is in awe of them. Isn’t that a win for us all?
As for a rating, we're going to go with a Happy Cat for now, knowing that more than likely an extended edition or ultimate cut of this movie will likely get the Hypno-Cat it deserves once it's released to home video.