I’ve made it no secret that I do not enjoy the DC Cinematic Universe. With the exception of “Wonder Woman,” I’ve despised every entry in the series for being unappealing to the eye, far too serious for their own good, and above all else, dull and boring. Part of this is because DC wants to establish an identity for their films that is different from what Marvel is doing, by being dark, brooding and serious (in other words, every entry is trying desperately to be like “The Dark Knight” and mostly fails at it). But as “Wonder Woman” showed, you can still make a charming, funny, and poignant super hero movie without doing exactly what Marvel does.
But after watching the latest entry in the DC Universe, “Justice League,” I know exactly what’s holding these movies back – Zack Snyder. He’s directed nearly every entry in the franchise so far, including “Man of Steel” and “Batman V Superman” while also having his fingerprints all over “Suicide Squad.” While I think DC had good intentions by having one director for all of these movies, if the director you choose makes everything look like one big dark blurry mess crammed with far too many Jesus allegories, then you are going to be left with a disappointing product.
“Wonder Woman” broke the trend, partially because it had a different director, Patty Jenkins, and Snyder had little to no involvement in the movie’s production. With “Justice League,” we return to Snyder as director and we get many of the same problems that his previous films had – incomprehensible cinematography, an overbearingly dark and moody atmosphere, and fights that are hard to follow. While there is much more comedy and light-hearted moments than usual, I feel those scenes can be attributed to the films’ second director, Joss Whedon, the man who created “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Yeah, DC was so desperate to liven their big crossover movie up that they brought in one of Marvel’s biggest directors to fix their problems. If that does not tell you that Snyder is the problem, I don’t know what will.
Because of this strange hybrid of DC’s atmosphere and characters and Marvel’s writing and comedy, “Justice League” is a bit off-putting and strange. It feels like a movie that desperately wants to create its own identity, but is so wrapped up in the previous DC films’ attitudes and Marvel’s idea of success that it feels like a hodge-podge that doesn’t get either side right. I will say it is leagues better than “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” for having characters that you actually want to root for and enjoy being around, but this film is so crowded that it doesn’t give those characters enough time.
Set shortly after the events of “Batman V Superman,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (odd, considering the world didn’t seem to give a damn about Superman while he was alive, but whatever), and some heroes like Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) have used this as a new opportunity to step out into the light and make a difference in the world again. But when a thousand year old threat named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) returns to Earth with the intention of conquering it once and for all, the two heroes are forced to locate several other super-powered individuals across the globe so that they can team up to fight a threat none of them could take down on their own.
The aspects that I enjoyed about “Justice League” are few, but certainly worth noting, specifically the new super heroes. First is Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a thrill-seeker who isn’t afraid to speak his unruly mind and foul mouth. He is a brute and ends up being the least developed of the new characters, since we learn little about Aquaman outside of him being the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis and that he’s an outsider. Other than that, his best scenes come from the pure joy and excitement he gets from a good fight and when he accidentally sits on Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.
Up next is Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the techie with a tragic backstory and powers even he doesn’t fully understand. Of the new characters, he gets the most screen time and Ray Fisher’s performance sells most of his scenes, especially with his conflicted rage and confusion with his cybernetic body and implants and his fear that he could lose himself to the machine. He comes across the most down-to-earth and logical of the group, even if he never gets a chance to be funny.
Finally, we have the Flash (Ezra Miller), the comedic relief and the best part of the movie. He gets all the best lines in the movie, has great chemistry with Ben Affleck’s Batman, and it is refreshing to see a superhero with such a wide-eyed innocence and sense of fun to all of this. Erza Miller’s performance gives an honesty to the Flash the others lack – while people like Aquaman and Batman have to put on an act, with the Flash, we get the genuine article, a nerdy kid who likes to talk but has few people to talk to.
One of my favorite scenes in “Justice League” is when Flash admits that he’s never fought anyone in his life to Batman, and Bruce simply tells him to “save one life.” He uses his powers to do just that, and the reaction on Miller’s face feels so satisfying and proud that its infectious. We now share his desire and drive to keep going, to keep saving that one life and strive for more. For a character that was only supposed to be there to bring comedy, Erza Miller’s Flash also brings the most humanity and strength to the film.
As for the returning characters, Ben Affleck’s Batman is still his stoic statue-like self who only gets a couple of good scenes or one-liners about what his super power is. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman takes the character that was established in her solo film, of an godly yet innocent warrior turned flawed yet loving human, and adds experience and wisdom.
Finally, we have Henry Cavill’s Superman who finally gets a chance to smile and be more than just a reference to Jesus, even if he does get resurrected in this movie. It comes across like he’s finally having fun with his abilities and immense power, like in the opening when a bunch of little kids ask him questions and he answers them honestly. His character also ends up having great chemistry with the Flash, since the two consistently go out of their ways to out-do one another. This is certainly Cavill’s best performance as Superman to date.
With all of that being said about the characters of “Justice League,” because there are so many characters that are new to us, it doesn’t feel like any of them get enough time to shine. Characters like Flash and Cyborg were the best part of the movie, but they spend far more time developing the lame and forgettable villain Steppenwolf with his effects that would have looked bad in the late 1990s, let alone compared to today’s effects. There is hardly enough time spent on the more interesting aspects to make “Justice League” feel like a satisfying experience.
There is one other aspect I adored about this movie though – the music. Hiring Danny Elfman, the composer of the original “Batman” to do the soundtrack for “Justice League” was a stroke of genius because we got to hear so many classic superhero tunes. Elfman uses his original Batman theme, Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme from the Christopher Nolan films, John William’s Superman theme, and the new kickass electric guitar theme for Wonder Woman. It’s like a perfect mixture of the best superhero music of all time and sells many of the action scenes.
However that’s about all I can praise “Justice League” for. The rest of it is your standard superhero-fare, with overly dark and CGI-filled action sequences. It doesn’t feel like anything is at stake, mostly because Steppenwolf is a terrible villain with no plans or motives outside of being evil and a desire to conquer. He has about as much character as a Saturday morning cartoon villain, or a monster-of-the-week from Power Rangers and is undeserving of being the threat that brings the Justice League together.
Overall, there are some fun and enjoyable aspects to “Justice League,” but I feel like most of those are due to Joss Whedon’s influence. The acting from Affleck, Gadot, Fisher and Miller is great, the comedy gives the film a breath of fresh-air, many of the new characters are great additions, and the soundtrack is phenomenal. But the film is overly crowded and too busy for its own good, to the point that nothing feels satisfying. The action sequences are rather forgettable, the effects are laughable, and Steppenwolf is the worst villain in any DC film. This is the superhero definition of a mixed bag.
Final Grade: C+