Director – Zack Snyder
Cast – Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, JK Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Henry Cavill
Rating – 3/5
Of course it makes all the sense in the world for Justice League to have turned out the way it did.
As lifelong fans of these characters – an arrangement that affords the filmmakers certain liberties, yes, but also makes them vulnerable to more scrutiny – we’ve shrugged at Man of Steel and we’ve seethed at Batman v Superman, we’ve tolerated Suicide Squad and we’ve celebrated Wonder Woman. And as strange as it sounds, Justice League is emblematic of all these ups and downs, these ebbs and flows. More than being the movie we need (or, to dust off that old chestnut, the movie we deserve), it is a movie we must learn to accept.
Because this Justice League certainly isn’t for everyone, and even as I write this, I wonder if it is for me. It is the sort of movie that can be excruciatingly dumb at any given moment; with forced jokes that have the hit rate of a drunk stormtrooper, jaw-droppingly inane plotting that often pales in comparison to the original DC animated series, but it can also make a houseful crowd of excited fans positively palpitate with pure joy.
And part of the reason for this unevenness is the story – credited to director Zack Snyder and Oscar-winner Chris Terrio. It requires you to be well versed in the polarizing plots of the DC Extended Universe, and hinges precariously (and quite bafflingly, considering how many people detest the film it happened in) on one particular event: The death of Superman.
Superman’s demise has sent the planet into mass mourning, with large black banners draped over the world’s most iconic landmarks in his memory – and in a particularly terrific opening scene in Gotham City – pushing even criminals into a full blown existential crisis.
But Superman’s death – besides striking Bruce Wayne with plunging guilt – has also made our planet vulnerable to alien attacks. As hinted previously (in BvS) – once again, this movie is sort of exclusive that way – a powerful otherworldly being (but more of a minion, really) who calls himself Steppenwolf arrives on Earth in search of a magical object known as a mother box. There are, if I followed the inelegant plot correctly, three in existence — one underwater, with the Atlanteans, another with the Amazons, and a third, on Earth.
Sensing Steppenwolf’s arrival, Bruce (now all jacked up on hope) lassoes Wonder Woman in on the plan, and together they embark on a mission to unite the metahumans first glimpsed in those terrible QuickTimes in BvS.
In Central City, Bruce finds Barry Allen, aka The Flash, who is unfortunately relegated to being the comic relief – to the extent that I genuinely believe he never says anything with a straight face in the entire film, even his odd literary references. There’s a sense that a lot of Ezra Miller’s screen time – as with the others’ – was left on the cutting room floor.
Meanwhile, Diana makes a feeble attempt at convincing Cyborg, who is essentially the modern day equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster (his real name’s Victor, you guys), into joining the team. This he later does, after vaguely turning her down, seemingly on a whim.
On a different corner of the planet, Bruce runs into Arthur Curry, aka the Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa, who is – and it’ll be hilarious if he admits to it in some interview – doing a (fairly spot-on) impression of James Hetfield from Metallica.
United for the first time on a Gotham City rooftop – with the Bat Signal illuminating the dreary sky above, and Commissioner Gordon’s weathered shoes splashing in days-old puddles down below – Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and the Flash make a decision. Through silent looks and palpable concern, they vow to defend Earth from the forces that threaten it.
Justice League continues the DC Extended Universe’s bizarre trend of producing films that are direct reactions to their immediate predecessors. Batman v Superman made an ambitious attempt to address the nihilistic third-act mayhem of Man of Steel, and failed so spectacularly that it derailed the entire franchise, forced Warner Bros to shelve at least half-a-dozen future films, and with only a few months to go, drastically alter the tone of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.
But these are details that would not concern the average moviegoer. Which begs the question: Do they even matter? Because Justice League will certainly play differently to those who have been closely tracking the behind-the-scenes drama that went down over the past few months.
To us, for it to have turned out OK (don’t lie, you were worried too, weren’t you) is almost miraculous. For a film to have lost its director essentially midway through production, and to have the antithesis of that director come in and finish the job would be a reasonable cause for concern for anyone.
But against all odds, the diametrically opposite tones of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon have come together (right now!) to find – if not harmony – but (at least) synthesis. This is unprecedented on such a scale, and with a similar tactic being employed over at the Han Solo Star Wars movie, also quite worrying about the role of the filmmaker on big studio pictures. On paper, the idea makes all the sense of Barack Obama writing a letter of recommendation for Donald Trump, or Rahul Gandhi defecting to the BJP. But in practice – God save us all – it works.
But now I address you, the average moviegoer directly: Do you even care? If you skimmed the last couple of paragraphs, you probably don’t. At the end of the day, when the warm sunlight has cut through the blood-red skies of Justice League’s fever dream of a final showdown, we’re all looking for the same thing: A superhero movie that shows us a good time.
And for all its faults – an ugly third-act show down that looks like a mid-2000s PlayStation 2 video game, Danny Elfman’s instantly forgettable (and shamelessly rehashed) musical score, one of the most unimaginative (and cheap-looking) main villains in recent memory, and more than an hour spent on just build-up – Justice League isn’t as terrible as it could so easily have been.
I cannot tell you how long I’ve waited to hear Bruce Wayne utter the words “I’m putting together a team.” And I cannot express the wave of nostalgia that struck when the familiar notes of childhood escaped the cacophony of Elfman’s terrible score (did I mention it is terrible?).
And it is with these small joys that Justice League accomplishes its epic mission. It is the least ambitious of the DCEU films, and often feels almost too slight an entry in this famously mythic franchise, but it is a film that has hope in its eyes and optimism in its heart. It would be mean to burst its bubble.