Super Friends Unite in "Justice League". But Can They Save The DC Universe From Itself?
The immediate follow-up to the ill-fated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League had a lot going against it from the word go. BvS, though an ambitious attempt from director Zack Snyder to present two of the most iconic superheroes with political substance, was poorly received and even more poorly executed. To compound matters, it was relentlessly depressive for a superhero film. Due to tragic family circumstances, Zack Snyder exited Justice League just before post-production began. Joss Whedon, he of Avengers and Buffy fame, was brought on board at the eleventh hour to supervise post-production and to retool and rejigger much of the film as it already existed.
So, this is a film from two directors who could scarcely be more different in their approach, that's also a sequel to the most divisive superhero movie ever. It's a minor miracle that Justice League was released and completed on time at all. It's a major miracle that Justice League, for all of its problems and frustrations, is actually okay. I liked it.
Justice League succeeds on its sweetly modest ambitions, which is to develop and show off DC's stable of mythologically flavoured superheroes; world-building for future films and all that other nonsense is thankfully left by the wayside. The chemistry between Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash is the focus and it is right and heartwarming. So it's easy to forgive that the action sequences are sometimes a forgettable swirl of colourful digital fury; it's easy to forgive a villain who's as mindlessly destructive and personality-free as a tsunami. And at two solid hours – a rare runtime for blockbusters – its structure is remarkably sound. Nothing feels wasteful or inessential, barring a few too many one-liners.
It's not the best DC Universe film, not while Wonder Woman exists, but it is the most straightforward and eager to please.
With an ensemble flick like this, a sense of balance is paramount. Of the League, only Aquaman draws the short straw in terms of screen time. This is a shame because Jason Momoa has real presence, and the update of one of the lamest superheroes ever is the canniest creative choice made: a rock-n-roll, rowdy bro living his best life. He's an appealing contrast to Wonder Woman's and Batman's world-weariness and The Flash's youthful exuberance. Yet the sense of balance is not only about who gets to do what, but also in the details of giving the team an arc: There's just enough friction between these different heroes that when they come together because of circumstance or personal reasons, it's just believable enough that they'd have each other's backs by the end. Justice League more or less gets this tricky aspect right. Too bad that Cyborg is mostly relegated to exposition and plot macguffin detail and that Superman is mostly relegated to deus ex machina. What there was of them was compelling and enjoyable though.
It's unfortunate, then, that Justice League is mired in some muck that keeps the film soaring like it could.
The split between Snyder's vision of emo gloom and doom is interspersed throughout -- or rather, interrupts-- Whedon's poppy, adorkable take; the tonal mishmash produces an anonymous work at best and an incoherent one at worst. Moreover, on some level, it's deeply disappointing that Justice League is only pretty good and that that's a relief. When you get outside of the character interactions, it's an aggressively nothing-special film; aggressive as in general inoffensiveness seemed to be the target and they hit that with calculated precision. It's symptomatic of a creative approach where the only guiding vision seems to be terribly overreacting to the loudest complaints the last one engendered. If Batman v Superman was received with the singularly pyrrhic passion - either positive or negative - with which it was made, then all creative energy in Justice League seemed directed toward constructing something light and disposable. The special effects are sometimes the best that money can buy, but are mostly shockingly chintzy.
Justice League is more exciting for its potential than for what actually plays out in it. It's a plea from DC/WB to hear them out, because what if, like, these characters were actually good and enjoyable to watch? What if Superman smiled and was witty and kind and resembled his comic book counterpart? What if Batman wasn't a dour, sadistic bore? All fine and good. But Jesus, is that a low bar to clear. It's a pleasurable first-draft of a film that's keeping the DC Universe on life support. Hardly a ringing endorsement, I know.