Warner Bros.’ big, bloated ‘Justice League’ has been the subject of so many sneering editorials and clickbait news stories about reshoots that it’s almost a shock to see the movie even make it to theaters. Unsurprisingly, the flick suffers from a serious identity crisis.
Whatever it was that Zack Snyder initially planned for this ‘Batman v. Superman’ follow-up has been hacked apart and hastily rewritten to feel as much like ‘The Avengers’ as possible – even bringing in Joss Whedon to rework the material enough that he has a co-writing credit along with an obvious directorial hand in many scenes. However, it comes without any of the earned groundwork that made Marvel’s feature-length payoff so effective. The movie is a mess. That’s no surprise. It’s also innocuous and kind of dull, which is a surprise. Say what you will about Snyder’s previous DC movies, at least they had style and purpose, however misconceived.
Technically, the movie does have a plot, in that events happen in a structured manner that involves implied catharsis and resolution. Unfortunately, none of it is particularly satisfying. It’s a rush of perfunctory scenes necessary to line up all the superheroes that the audience paid money to see. Ben Affleck’s Batman takes a break from Batmanning around Gotham when he discovers a strange alien robo-bat creature that feeds on fear. Rather than assuming the Scarecrow is up to no good again, he quickly realizes that it’s some sort of intergalactic threat requiring a team of superheroes to stop. (I guess he saw ‘The Avengers’ as well and took notes.) So he decides to assemble that team. He gets Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) back on board rather quickly. He meets Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) in an isolated bar that conveniently has his entire origin story written on the wall. He meets a plucky kid fully established as The Flash and learns a little bit about a sympathetic backstory that goes nowhere. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) finds the gang himself so that he doesn’t have to explain of his convoluted backstory. No one seems particularly interested in forming the Justice League until a generic villain whose origin makes no sense unless you’ve read the comics shows up and starts smashing things while looking for boxes. Once he’s got those boxes, the team reluctantly join forces. There’s no Superman, though, because he’s dead and can’t possibly show up. Right? Oh yeah, he shows up too.
Trying to piece together what the narrative of the film is supposed to be is a fruitless task. Very little plot is worth remembering or exploring, and the lumpy movie has no real drive or purpose beyond linking up the big action set-pieces that Snyder clearly had the effects team working on from the start while everyone else frantically rewrote the script just days before production began when ‘Batman v. Superman’ landed with a harsh reception. ‘Justice League’ has no consistent style, tone or purpose. It’s one of the most glaring cases of “too many chefs in the kitchen” in the history of Hollywood. Even Snyder’s gift for gorgeous comic book splash panel storytelling feels lost outside of the action scenes. He must not have had time to plot out a visual approach because everything was changing so quickly. A number of scenes are clearly directed by Joss Whedon. (The quip-tastic dialogue gives the authorship away.) Those scenes are even more flatly shot, but at least have some sort of writerly personality, even if Whedon’s wit sits awkwardly next to the generic one-liners that serve as dialogue elsewhere.
With so many characters just barely given enough screen time to count as protagonists in this overstuffed two-hour superhero mashup, it goes without saying that there’s little depth. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman fares best, mostly because she’s riding the good will of a feature-length backstory that viewers saw just six months ago and can project onto her pensive posturing here. Ezra Miller’s Flash and Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman get the space to carve playfully amusing presences that serve as advertisements for the blockbusters that DC hopes to shove them into shortly. It says a lot that they both seem capable of carrying future films, even if they have precious little to do here other than pose for poster shots. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is sadly underused and tacked-on, as if no one really cared about the character. He’s included only because corporate powers-that-be chose him over Green Lantern when the Ryan Reynolds movie failed.
Ben Affleck’s Batman has an intriguing role to play as an aging hero feeling increasingly irrelevant next to the superpowered titans surrounding him, but any of that interior material is quickly dropped in favor of further quips. Affleck marches around in a performance that can only be described as perfunctory, and he clearly doesn’t want to be here. That’s a shame given that his performance was one of the best parts of ‘Batman v. Superman’, yet he seems infinitely less interested and committed only one movie later.
Other iconic DC characters make cameos, including J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon, but none of them register as more than fan-service. Token scenes are given out in an attempt to rile up comic book fans with excitement from familiarity. (Once again, Amy Adam’s Lois Lane is wasted, even more notably than before.) The less said about the big bad Steppenwolf the better. Even to provide a sentence worth of thought about the villain’s purpose would be dedicating more time caring about the character than any of the filmmakers did.
As a work of storytelling and as an iconic superhero delivery system, ‘Justice League’ is a mess. It’s an awkward collection of competing visions and desperate attempts at fan-service. Rather than commit to making this movie a brooding questioning of heroism or a colorful costumed romp, the movie attempts to be both and about a dozen other things as well in a desperate attempt to find something that fans can latch onto.
Some of the action scenes are OK, which makes sense since Snyder does that stuff well. However, even as a work of spectacle, ‘Justice League’ is a mixed bag. The big smashy-smashy fights that the effects team worked on for years look good, but the reshot material requires new effects that were sloppily thrown together – whether it be Cyborg’s entire suit or Henry Cavil’s awkwardly CGI-erased mustache (which frequently makes it look like his top lip has been shot up with cartoon novocaine). Given how long ‘Justice League’ has been in production and how many iterations the producers have slaved over, it’s amazing how cheap and flimsy the film can feel at times. This is one of the most expensive comic book blockbusters ever made, and while that sometimes shows, it also often feels like a Syfy Channel production because the effects team just didn’t have the time to complete all the work.
It should come as no real surprise to learn that Justice League is an absolute mess. That was pretty much inevitable after the endlessly troubled production. It’s not a ‘Batman & Robin’ scale disaster, luckily. The movie throws so many ideas, tones, explosions, and iconic characters at the screen that inevitably a few of them stick, if only by accident. It has a few very fun scenes and delivers a certain geeky joy in watching these characters finally march across the screen together. The filmmakers also wisely pandered to fan fantasies enough to please some anxious nerds.
Nonetheless, it ultimately can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. The cast is better than this and the characters deserve better. More than anything else, it makes you appreciate what Marvel has accomplished by actually taking the time to plan grand arcs for its franchises. ‘The Avengers’ had a built-in satisfaction that ‘Justice League’ can’t hope to capture no matter how many ideas it steals from that film’s success. Warner and DC really screwed this movie up in fascinating ways that will likely be discussed amongst nerds for ages, just not in the ways that the studios hope they will. There’s still a chance that the DC Cinematic Universe can be saved, but this sure isn’t the movie to do it.