Justice League tries so hard to distance itself narratively and tonally from the earlier films in the DC cinematic universe, save for Wonder Woman. You could say it largely succeeds, but to who’s benefit? I will argue no one. There are no winners when you serve the campiest Bruce Wayne/Batman since George Clooney and his nipples. I took it personal. I found this version of Batman a pure anathema. Ben Affleck didn’t seem engaged and I don’t blame him. You sign up to play the cold, cynical, calculating and tortured Dark Knight but instead, you end up playing a damaged bumbling man playing dress up because he is rich.
Justice League was going to live or die on Batman for me. I swear by him and if he turned out fine, the expected mess was going to be manageable. I perked up when the opening featured our caped crusader perched on gargoyle statue like the menacing hunter he is. But it was all downhill from there. Batman v Superman arguably serves up the best live action Batman. We are down in the dumps here and let me stress again; Affleck is not to blame for this footnote of a portrayal. The unseen forces that had him doing physical humor are.
Now that the Batman woes are out of the way, what did the rest of the Justice League have in store for cinema goers like myself who turn into the Zombies Fela Kuti sung about when event films come around? I expected a jumbled and incoherent cacophony that would assault my senses in a bad way. That didn’t happen. What we got was something light and cheap – televisual almost, like a CW pilot for a Justice League show. Production troubles have been well documented and the reshoots mean I don’t even know what to make of the direction of Zack Snyder, who started the film off, and Joss Whedon, roped in to seemingly Marvelise proceedings.
The narrative is snappy, script basic and the set pieces almost obligatory in this film clocking under 2 hours. It doesn’t think too much of itself and wholly embraces its function as a rushed setup film. I suspect this simplicity is wholly Whedon’s doing. The new entrants; Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are given solid baselines serving as adequate teases for their solo films. The brooding Fisher as Cyborg was actually a pleasant surprise and he strikes a fine chemistry with Miller’s Flash, who provides the comic relief as the wide-eyed geek thriving of his social awkwardness.
Then there’s Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill). I’m still scouring the internet, looking for that interview confirming that his appearance was simply a Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) dream sequence. Aside the fun aspects of Superman here, weird and limp are the only word I can use to describe him. Weird not because of blatant facial CGI but because of Cavill is clearly in a different film. Limp because “Superman’s return” is sorely lacking in poignancy and emotional heft. Lois and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) seem to have been drafted in this regard but, like most of Justice League, they seem to be just serviceable.
Our five heroes come together for reason mind you: the dreaded world-conquering Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who is as drab as Ronan the Accuser from the Marvel universe or a “last killer” from some fantasy video game. He storms on-screen with the Parademons and the film’s CGI budget in tow. Steppenwolf hopes to conquer earth by recovering and merging three volatile extra-terrestrial cubes called Mother Boxes, that will execute the cheat codes for him to conquer earth. This villain is one of the numerous clichés, including the obligatory teammate friction and platitudes about teamwork and leadership that come to fore as we witness the formative stage of the Justice League.
The visuals here are strong and heavy-handed, in proper comic book fashion – consider the beacon of rectitude and decency that is Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) perched on the giant statue of Lady Justice. The shot of Cyborg’s bionic fingers caressing a kitchen counter as he essentially argues over his humanity with his father comes to mind. But they are not in service of any consistent idea. One of the things we note is the attempt to envision a world in decay because of the death of Superman. That is undeniably a compelling prospect but it is all disappointing lip service from our filmmakers. Why is any of this important? Why should we care? Is the world really in despair?
It comes down to the big studio machine and its rat race with God-knows-who. In Joss Whedon’s first Avengers film, the heroes assemble after their solo films, when we have a proper grip on character and the need for character depth is minimal. A world after Superman’s death is worth exploring, but not in the music video style opening credits sequence or sparing lines of introspection by some characters like when Batman expresses some guilt for the state of the world and concedes that he will never attain the levels of humanity Clark has.
Justice League is spiced with more witty humour than its predecessors and it is lighter in tone, almost to a fault. But action-adventure films are seldom judged on their ability to make audiences laugh. Character is a universal requirement of any story. Vulnerability of your heroes is screenwriting 101. But set pieces will make or unmake your superhero action film, for the most part. Think on Justice League and nothing of note stands out like the Batman warehouse action sequence from BvS which gave fan boys a rush of blood. The opening heist from The Dark Knight is legendary and I could go on and on.
Great set pieces give an audience a sense of care and precision from the film makers. The lack of any sequence of note in Justice League is its own indictment. I’m just happy I saw a late night screening after work so the only thing I feel like a sacrificed for it was sleep. Justice League is by no means rubbish. It just exists – and that is a problem.