Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE

Justicers, League-ify!

I find myself wishing that Lewton Bus had been around in March of 2016, when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hit theaters. Zack Snyder’s film, ostensibly about a clash between two of our biggest pop cultural heroes, was bad in a variety of ways, from tone to themes to pacing to character. It was just an avalanche of bad creative decisions, and that’s not even getting into the role it was supposed to play in the burgeoning DC Extended Universe (DCEU). But there’s bad and then there’s bad. Batman v Superman was bad in interesting ways. Baffling ways. To be clear, I’m not defending the film — I’m just saying that it would have been an interesting thing to write about. It would have been sort of fun to poke it with a stick and pick apart the various ways it did and did not work.

But alas, I am not writing a review of Batman v Superman. Instead I am stuck writing a review of Snyder’s followup film, Justice League, and if you notice more typos than usual it’s because I’m stifling yawns while pounding at the keys. It’s not that Justice League is a bad film. I would say it’s the second best film in the DCEU, after the quite good Wonder Woman, but that isn’t exactly a high bar to clear. It’s also not particularly good. If you asked me for a blurb, it would be this:

¯\_()_/¯ – Shannon Ellery Hubbell, Lewton Bus

Justice League picks up during the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death in Batman v Superman. Everyone the world over is shown being Very Sad after the loss of that (supposedly) inspiring hero. It’s the first of the film’s attempts to course-correct and subtly retcon the franchise, and you can practically feel it being weaned from its previous shallow cynicism. In Superman’s absence, even the crooks seem lost. Who will protect us from all these cosmic horrors? In one quick gag, Superman’s death is placed in the context of all the real-world cultural heroes we lost to the Grim Reaper in 2016.1

Bruce Wayne (aka Batman, aka Ben Affleck) is spending his time hunting down demonic insect dudes called Parademons that seem to be popping up everywhere. They seem to smell fear, although I don’t know how Batman figured that out. I guess he is the world’s greatest detective after all. He’s also trying to pull together the set of metahumans we saw clumsily teased in Batman v Superman, so they can all band together and face a greater threat. How he knows there’s a greater threat, I don’t know. Greatest detective, et cetera.

But it turns out he’s right! Alien baddie Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) pops down to Earth in search of a trio of Mother Boxes: ancient artifacts that, when combined, do a whole Wrath of Khan Genesis Device thing, destroying the world and remaking it in a more Steppenwolf-friendly way. After Steppenwolf’s previous attempt to destroy the Earth thousands of years ago, the Mother Boxes were split up like Rings of Power between the Amazons, the Atlanteans and the humans. Now he’s back. This time for sure, right?

Steppenwolf, despite having been born to be wild, is incredibly dull as an antagonist. I’d say he looks like he stepped off of a heavy metal album cover except that would make him sound more interesting than he is. I have no idea why he’s entirely CG. Other than his extreme height, he’s a humanoid with bad skin and a lot of armor. Given the character design, a practical actor composited in creative ways would have been much more convincing than the dead-eyed, digital mannequin we got. But that’s just window dressing. The real problem is that Steppenwolf doesn’t exist as a character beyond his generic, villainous lust for power and conquest. Some people give the Marvel films a lot of guff for featuring boring baddies, but at least most of them have understandable motivations. Steppenwolf is a cosmic Snidely Whiplash, and not much more.

Steppenwolf wants the Boxes. Batman and his Superfriends don’t want him to get the Boxes. The MacGuffin chase begins. Lots of punching. Lots of shooting. That’s the long and short of Justice League, and that’s okay by me. The DC crew obviously paid attention to criticisms of the previous films and moved away from the dour and vapid “deconstructions” of the previous films and have opted instead for a light and quip-heavy tone that works better for the most part. The new heroes — Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) — are saddled with some clumsy exposition, a side-effect of the ass backwards way the DCEU has been built, and they are slammed together into a “team” without much fanfare, but they play off of each other in fun ways. Affleck is good as Batman, now that he’s gotten past the truly nasty tendencies he displayed in Batman v Superman, and Gal Gadot is still great as Wonder Woman. It’s trite to say, but she’s the flagship hero of the franchise at this point, and this movie only reinforces it.

This new, lighter tone is Justice League’s greatest strength. Unfortunately, it also illustrates its greatest weaknesses. If you’re the type of die hard DCEU fan who believes that the only alternative to Batman v Superman’s tedious self-importance and “grit” is a bunch of jokes and absolutely nothing going on under the surface, Justice League isn’t going to do anything to change your mind. This year we’ve seen some lovely superhero films like Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that were comparatively light in tone but had at least a modicum of thematic weight to them. By comparison, Justice League is an utterly empty construction of quippy dialogue and rather dull action scenes, redeemed by some good performances by its titular team. With this shift in its approach, it’s not that the DCEU is taking the wrong lessons from other films’ successes. It’s taking some of the right lessons, but not all of them.

You can’t slather some jokes onto a film, call it a day, and expect it to resonate with people in the same way as, say, Diana’s arc toward disillusionment in Wonder Woman, or the parent/child/sibling relationships in Guardians 2Justice League only takes those few, easy steps in the right direction, and the result is watchable yet utterly forgettable, defining “wait for Netflix” in a way that its inferior predecessors never could.

  1. As opposed to the ones we lost to sexual assault allegations this year. What a simpler time that was.
  • Andrew Clark

    “Steppenwolf, despite having been born to be wild, is incredibly dull as an antagonist.”

    Hahahaha

    Are we going to do a Spoilerdome for this later in the weekend? I can save my in depth comments for that…

    My percentage breakdown of the movie, in the meantime:

    20% stuff I genuinely loved
    30% stuff that was okay
    50% stuff that was fair, bad, or terrible

  • YayMayorBee

    Alien baddie Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) pops down to Earth in search of a trio of Mother Boxes: ancient artifacts that, when combined, do a whole Wrath of Khan Genesis Device thing, destroying the world and remaking it in a more Steppenwolf-friendly way.

    This is literally the plot of MAN OF STEEL. Recycling plot lines within 5 movies is pretty impressive, I must say.

    • Yes, but you see, this time… the alien bad guy wears A HAT.

      See? Totally different.

    • Jams

      At least there’s no sky portal? (Tell me there’s no sky portal.)

    • Missed opportunity to not recycle the same “prevent world destruction” we’ve seen a gazzilion time by making the alien-in-macguffin-quest about an alien in a stealth earth mission to get his macguffins back because he needs them to go do something really evil on some other planet far away in the cosmos… and the heroes have to choose if they fight, because they could stop the baddie before they do something terrible in some other planet, but at the cost of fighting him on Earth.

      Oh, how does the league figure what’s up? I don’t know, is there some intergalactic space cop character who maybe could show up and explain things and ask the league to fight this guy in earth to prevent a major galactic war, like if Steppenwoof gets the Mother Snoozes back he’ll try to go to war against Darkseid and it will be V BAD?

      I mean maybe this DILEMMA gives the heroes an interesting self-sacrificing arc to earn their heroism? Maybe it gives Batman a real scenario to deal with his Zod-broke-my-building trauma because he has to choose between picking a fight with an alien or letting him kill countless people on some far away planet, should he care about them? Also maybe gives Diana a new war-themed character conflict as now she can PREVENT a bigger war by GOING to a smaller war?

      Why does it have to be end-of-the-earth every goddamned time.

      • YayMayorBee

        Here’s where you went wrong: you thought creatively and logically, both of which are not preferred when you’re in it just for the revenue possibilities.

        • Justice League: “Originality, schmoriginality.”
          Thor Ragnarok: “Hold my mead.”

  • Yep. I expect we’ll be pretty much on the same page after I finally get around to seeing this film.

  • Jams

    I’ve said it elsewhere, but it bears repeating: If, after 5 movies, the best a franchise can say is ‘we’re getting there,’ it’s probably time to board up the windows and lock the door on your way out.

    Also, can I just say it’s good to see so many familiar Disqus handles again? Hope y’all have been well.

  • Public Mistake

    It suffers from the SNL skit aspects we saw on the extract where the team meets Gordon.
    The Levity is definitely the best and the cringiest part of the enterprise.

    Your review really brings this out. It’s on point.

    But I’d lie if if I said his movie didn’t make me grin even in the first 2 minutes. They finally finally got Superman sorta right. We’re not out of the woodshed yet, but it’s getting closer to something I’m actually looking forward to follow with my nerd on.

  • Here’s a spoiler I excised from this review for the sake of people who are living under a rock:

    Oh, and hey! Superman comes back! During the comparatively little screen time he has, he smiles more than in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman combined. Cavill was always perfectly cast for the role, but until now he was let down by some shoddy writing that really missed the point of the character. This time he actually feels like Superman, and it’s pretty great.

    • Jan

      The Uncanny Void where his stache used to be though… 🙁

      • Everyone’s talking about that, but to be honest I didn’t even notice!

  • jeves23

    Part of me wants to just wait until it hits the cheap theatre or VOD, and part of me wants to see it this weekend. I have a feeling I will probably find enough to enjoy in it to not make it a total waste of time for me, but just reading the synopsis was making me feel tired, so….? I guess it will depend on how much time I have this weekend.

    • Unless something pops up this weekend, I think I’m VODing it too

  • So… no Green Lantern then, or is that still a secret?

    • You see at least one alien Lantern during a flashback to Steppenwolf’s initial assault, thousands of years ago. Nothing modern day, though.</spoiler?

  • Public Mistake

    Biggest issue of most climax battles happening in DCEU (Highly CGI bad
    guy in blank space versus people shooting or wrestling him) is almost
    addressed. there’s a sense of space and of movement, beyond a one on one
    pure CGI beam fest. At least it’s better for my money than Suicide
    Squad and Wonder Woman abysmal final bosses.

    But again, not being completely let down on seriously low expectations is not a marker for quality.

    • Vtek

      I liked the final battle of Wonder Woman. It started as blank space, but then the sheer overkill of Ares, throwing every conceivable weapon at WW, was bizarre and fun. A bit like she was fighting the personified War from Pink Floyd The Wall.

  • Brian Lippman

    It’s better than BvS because it didn’t make me violently angry. It just left me confused and baffled that this movie actually got made.

  • Jan

    Some random thoughts on JL:

    – Miller’s Flash was insufferable. Partly due to Miller completely overdoing it with the irritating nerd shtick. And the other part due to how he was written to begin with. You can get the DCEU further away from the deconstruction, but you can’t get the lust for deconstruction out of the Snyder. Great. After he broke Superman and Batman, he went on to interpret the Flash as someone made socially inept and isolated by his powers because everyone’s so slow and he’s not. Clever. Watching Arrowverse’s THE FLASH, it never crossed my mind that Barry’s speed should kick him out of sync with every other human being. Sure, you can interpret the character like that. But it’s a sad and annoying version of the Flash. So… why?

    – Momoa was fun as Aquaman, but the movie couldn’t be bothered to characterize him in any way. I mean… Cyborg was horrified about himself, the Flash wanted friends, Wonder Woman wanted to do good… I guess? Batman wanted to redeem his BvS fuckups. And Supes… I don’t know. What did he want other than live, and obviously kick some villains ass? But Aquaman was nothing other than a funky bro.

    – Supes’ resurrection was handled with approximately the same elegance that brought us the JL laptop trailer show in BvS. It goes like this: We can’t beat Steppenwolf, so we have to resurrect Supes, because for some reason he obviously should be able to do the trick. Oh, nice, it worked. Oh, shit, he’s turned evil and cites ‘do you even bleed’… even though he had already reconciled with Bats in BvS. Does dying make you forget your most recent changes of mind, or something? Then again, even BvS’s Superman didn’t want to kill Bats for attacking him. He wanted to subdue him and then talk to him. But they had to have their evil Superman moment, right? It’s utterly pointless. It doesn’t say anything, thematically or narratively.

    – The CGI’d away stache. Good Lord. That was ROGUE ONE Tarkin level irritating.

    – Steppenwolf was an insult. He dragged every single image he was in down into the Uncanny Valley. And that’s while they weren’t even aiming at animating a photorealistic human face. They wanted him to look weirdly otherwordly and monstrous, and completely failed at that. It’s a terrible design and it kept me from buying into the movie’s reality and suspending my disbelief. It was worse than the most weightless shit from the HOBBIT movies. Why on earth didn’t they just use Ciaran Hinds as an actual actor?

    – [approx. 50 other points]

  • Michael

    There is something genuinely beautiful and moving about these commentators coming to *this* site for a discussion of *this* movie. It just feels…right.