Zack Snyder has yet to learn that grit and gravitas aren’t the same.B
At the risk of getting scalped in the public social media square, I’d like to be forward in regards to my thoughts on Justice League. I’d first like to say that what you read herein is my attempt at objectivity on a narrative-basis and that despite my opinion, if you’re a DC fan and you’re going to watch this movie anyway. There’s nothing I can do to stop you from seeing this, nor do I have a reason to prevent you from doing so. That being said I’m going to attempt as spoiler-free a review as I possibly can with the exception that if you have been following the DCEU canon and press releases –
*spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler*
you’re fully aware that Superman comes back in this entry. Other than that, I will attempt to conceal any other major plot details to the best of my ability.
The theater goes dark. We sit in silence as the iconic DCEU intro plays us in, and the screen goes black again. Just as soon as the light had left us, it’s back with camera phone footage playing something that looks like a Snapchat video. Three children speak offscreen, in awe and wonderment as Superman stands ten feet away from them in the aftermath of yet another incident- resolute, satisfied with a job well done. They rush to him, wide-eyed, curious, and inspired. They bombard him with questions, pointing their cameras up to him from below. And with a graceful calm, Superman looks down at them, at the audience, and at you, and talks of hope, with love in his eyes.
For the briefest of moments, I believed Zack Snyder had finally got it right- and then there was nothing like that in the whole film ever again.
Pretty soon after, we’re given an intro sequence that displays The-End-Is-Nigh types alongside a pair of skinheads assaulting a Muslim woman and trashing her store. In Diana’s first appearance, she tackles a group of “reactionary terrorists” which is ridiculous, as that’s literally how they define themselves when lassoed (and let’s not even get into the politics of this unpolitically-political scenario as it would take me five pages to even address it properly- just know it felt out of place). While I understand the juxtaposition of hope and despair- of the presence and absence of Superman in our world, Zack Snyder repeatedly fails to sell us the whole package. Instead, we get half of one and a third of the other.
Snyder, unfortunately, refuses to define ‘Hope’ and ‘Despair’. As far as I could tell, Snyder’s idea of ‘Hope’ is the return of Superman, and while many would agree with that or even point out the obvious marketing towards that idea, it comes into question when you’re forced to define what “Despair” means in this context. Is despair our human condition? Is despair prejudicial violence? Or is despair just the Evil flavor of the day? It’s easy to assume what he meant, but it’s not the audience’s role to do that for a director or writer.
Past the struggle to find the emotional center of the film, the plot is incredibly exposition-heavy. While exposition is necessary, and all superhero films do it to a degree- Justice League beats you over the head with it. Ironically, however, JL boasts the best and worst examples of exposition I’ve ever seen in a superhero film to-date. The worst being the laziest walk-and-talk/flashback sequence I’ve ever seen between two characters, and the best being the one we all saw in the trailers, in which The Flash and Batman reveal themselves to one another via their abilities- a piece of visual exposition that pushes the narrative forward with the audience rather than taking them aside to explain it. (to be fair, even during the more tedious exposition piece- there’s still a bit of significant lore and foreshadowing for future entries that fans will enjoy)
Snyder tries to make the plot feel significant- this film is a major superhero team up after all, but he even fails to do that, and that pains me to say it.
Steppenwolf is an unconvincing villain, and his introduction doesn’t really sell his significance. Steppenwolf feels less like a harbinger of something greater, and more like an assistant manager at Evil Costco. I felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, not realizing that this was genuinely the flavor of the day, and no, I wasn’t gonna get chocolate this time, I had to settle for the vanilla bean.
Add a mediocre villain to an unpopulated world where we don’t feel the weight of these events on the populace, and the stakes feel incredibly low. There was a small attempt to fill the world with bystanders, but a subplot with a family of four in the middle of nowhere doesn’t really sell the magnitude of this threat. Even worse than that is a significant fight that happens in the middle of a major metropolitan area and the only witnesses are two cops completely under qualified to handle the present threat. While I understand any attempts to avoid the mass destruction of a city and its populace (a choice that put a bad taste in many people’s mouths in Man of Steel), the solution isn’t to completely remove your characters from their world- what could have been a compelling story about saving the world and the people who live there was made into a parking-lot brawl outside of Evil Costco affecting no one other than the people in the immediate vicinity.
Visually, Justice League toes the line between recognizable ingenuity and standard-fair. The visually defining-moments came most often in scenes involving The Flash, Aquaman, and Superman. The Flash entering the Speed Force is electrifying (pun intended), Superman’s color palettes are so simplistically endearing and full of light, and Aquaman had, in my opinion, two of the most memorable shots of the whole film (keep your eyes on the sky and ocean, you’ll see what I mean). It may be conjecture on my part but there seemed to be an effort on Snyder’s part to lend each member their own specific visual style- not to say that it’s perfect, but the attempt is obvious when viewing Superman as opposed to Batman- an effect that was absent from BvS as they shared visual styles. I only wish the majority of scenes were much brighter, and that this deliberate shift of color palettes and styles between characters was more pronounced. At the very least, we seem to be moving away ever-so-slightly from the desaturated days of Man of Steel and BvS.
Performance-wise, Justice League is a mixed bag. Ezra Miller is a standout as Barry Allen, Jason Momoa brings a surprising levity to Aquaman, Henry Cavill gives an endearing performance as Superman, and Ray Fisher plays a convincing Cyborg. On the other end, Gal Gadot feels uncomfortably flat as Wonder Woman, and I still have trouble wrapping my head around Ben Affleck as Batman or as Bruce Wayne.
The biggest stumbles, however, were Cyborg, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
To be upfront, Ray Fisher plays Cyborg very well, but from a narrative perspective, I don’t feel like the writers did enough with him- that is to say, despite him being a major character, they foreshadow an inner conflict we never get to resolve or address. Vic directly references a pseudo-Frankenstein-Frankenstein’s Monster relationship between his father and himself, and it’s an incredibly interesting take on the core of his character that is never again conveyed or dealt with past the first fifteen minutes of the film. Furthermore, Vic has been legally dead for three years, but a random janitor offers his condolences to Vic’s father Silas in an incredibly random moment that should confuse anyone who paid attention to the details of his death three minutes ago.
In Batman’s case, it’s an issue in both the writing and the performance. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne rarely portrays the grace or modesty of the titular character, and Snyder has yet to give me a reason to enjoy his rendition of Batman- an obvious take on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (or as I like to call him, the Fash-Bat ). In the end, Ben Affleck never seems comfortable in either role, and it shows.
As far as Wonder Woman goes, Gadot often sounds like she’s reading her lines directly off of notes scribbled in sharpie on her palm. There is one singular moment and line in which I felt she truly embodied the character, but that wasn’t until the final act. For the most part, a lot of her dialogue comes off as flat and uninspired- and it’s consistent enough that she stands out as one of the least memorable performances, second only to Ciarán Hinds as Steppenwolf, and save for a few neat moments.
The rest of the main cast is stellar, including Fisher as Cyborg, and they remain highly enjoyable for the entirety of the film.
To briefly address the orchestration, the music was generally bland with the exception of some old and beloved musical motifs briefly making their way into the soundtrack. Additionally, some of the featured tracks were questionable at best, as the trailers used a unique and inspiring rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes as covered by Gang of Youths, but instead forgoes that for an odd and out of place cover of The Beatles Come Together in the final moments of the film. The DCEU has yet to find its sound, and like it or not, that’s a major factor in selling a film like this to its audience, even if it goes unnoticed by most. The ability to bounce from motif to motif, only to eventually blend them together is an incredible tool in a film where the title characters must unite. This is made even stranger as JL was composed by Danny Elfman- a veteran of DC film scores. Justice League lacks a cohesive and defining sound.
Overall Justice League is yet another mediocre entry in the DCEU that does something worse than ignoring its emotional core- it finds it within the first three minutes of the film and leaves it to rot until the end.
In the brief few moments that Justice League is good, it’s good. But four good performances, a few good visuals, a handful of good fights, and some funny one-liners, can’t save an emotionally devoid script and a barren world- not even if we called in six heroes to do it. For my part, I’m just happy to see Superman flying in blue skies again. I give Justice League a 5.5/10.