Does the DC film, a product of two directors, suffer from an Identity Crisis?
The best aspects of Justice League are the chemistry between its cast and the film’s individual depiction of each superhero. Unlike in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, these characters, Batman included, are decidedly heroic instead of unlikable and impersonal. They make an effort to save civilians and spare lives, and, ahem, come together to help each other. Justice League has some good moments and some bad ones, but it ultimately ekes out just enough entertainment value to warrant a look-see.
That said, Justice League seldom delivers any truly “wow!” moments of finally seeing these awesome superheroes assembled together onscreen the way The Avengers did. This first big screen union of DC Comics’ top-tier superheroes is ultimately just an adequate adventure flick. It’s marred by a very choppy story, a run-of-the-mill villain, some shoddy visual effects, and an overall haphazard execution.
The fairly skeletal and disjointed plot is set many months after the events of BvS. Justice League finds Batman seeking out meta-human allies to battle the imminent cosmic threat he’d previously foreseen. With help from Wonder Woman, he recruits Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg to prevent the alien invader Steppenwolf and his army of parademons from conquering the world. If only Superman were still alive to help the Justice League save the day …
The story spends so much of its time trying to establish the new characters — and to cheer things up after the dreary BvS — that the movie never quite finds its rhythm. There’s plenty of exposition and ample action scenes but overall, as a story, Justice League is a mess. It’s only through the charm of its cast and its depiction of its heroes that the movie is saved from being a misfire.
Thankfully, the Justice League itself works as a balanced team. Although Batman’s agenda clearly drives the plot, no one member hogs the limelight more than the rest. Each character gets moments to shine and make a positive lasting impression. It’s to the movie’s detriment then that the film never quite offers this appealing lineup of heroes a worthy enough opponent to face or establishes any real doubt that they won’t overcome any of their challenges.
Batman has a redemptive arc here, accepting that he went too far in BvS and that he needs to play well with others in order to defeat this new enemy. Affleck remains solid in the role. His Bruce Wayne/Batman can still be a self-righteous jerk at times, but he’s far more self-aware and self-effacing here. This less brutal, more human take on Batman is arguably closer to Val Kilmer’s Caped Crusader in Batman Forever than the vicious, one-man-army introduced in BvS.
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is still the moral compass of the DC movieverse. She’s good, powerful, and graceful yet willing to reveal her own shortcomings. The chemistry between Gadot and Affleck remains palpable, and the dynamic between this duo helps provide a human center to this otherwise cartoonish, VFX-heavy tale.
While they technically first appeared in cameos in BvS, Justice League marks the first true screen appearances of Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. Thankfully, these three new characters work more often than not. The trailers have presented Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry as more Aquabro than Aquaman, but the film does offer him a few moments to feel a bit more genuine and less like a musclehead spewing one-liners. His underwater scenes here look far better than his “holding his breath” cameo in BvS, but there’s one particular scene in Atlantis that raises more questions about the character and his journey than this film adequately explores or clarifies. On a better note, Aquaman does get arguably Justice League’s funniest scene.
Ezra Miller’s Flash — a far more neurotic and humorous depiction of Barry Allen than viewers of The CW series might recognize — is a standout and scene-stealer. He’s funny, sweet, and excitable, and has a good rapport with all the other heroes even when he’s annoying them. Meanwhile, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg ends up being far more integral to the plot than some might expect, giving him a chance to prove himself as an intriguing character. His steadfast belief in heroic ideals helps keep him human even as his body becomes increasingly machine-like and alien to him.
Now… if you’re really shocked to learn that Superman lives in Justice League then you’ve done well in insulating yourself from the advertising barrage. I won’t delve into the details of how Superman returns, but suffice to say it includes a fair share of dicey choices made by both the characters and the storytellers. (Oh, and the digital removal of Henry Cavill’s mustache is painfully obvious in a few very dodgy shots.) It may have taken him three films, but in his performance here Henry Cavill ultimately finds the warmth and soul that makes Superman such a hopeful and heroic icon. It’s nice to have you back, Superman.
Faring less well is the villain Steppenwolf (a character voiced by Ciaran Hinds and performed via motion-capture). Like BvS’s Doomsday, Wonder Woman’s Ares, and Suicide Squad’s Enchantress and Incubus, Steppenwolf is a wholly digital character, but not an entirely convincing-looking one. He’s another one-dimensional bad guy with a rote agenda and lacking any distinct personality. Steppenwolf never proves menacing or original enough to leave much of a lasting impact beyond indifference.
Earlier this year, Avengers helmer Joss Whedon took over production and the direction of reshoots on Justice League following Zack Snyder’s departure due to a personal tragedy (the final film’s direction is credited to Snyder with Whedon receiving a co-screenwriting credit). This led to many observers, myself included, to wonder: Would Justice League suffer from an Identity crisis as a result of two such very different directors working on it?
The film largely maintains a visual uniformity with Snyder’s darker, more operatic aesthetic established in the early trailers; to the ear, though, many scenes bear the distinct voice and humor of Whedon. In other words, Justice League still looks like a Zack Snyder film, but it sounds and feels like a Joss Whedon movie.
Some reshot sequences do stand out like proverbial sore thumbs due to obvious continuity differences. But at least emotionally and tonally, Justice League is fairly consistent throughout. It does not feel like a movie with an identity crisis as much as I’d feared.