REVIEW: Justice League (2017)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros.

The following is a review of Justice League – Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon.

A couple of months ago, I was looking through some old pieces of paper that I had found in a drawer. In it, I found a membership certificate for some sort of Danish Batman-fan club, and it had my name on it (actually, it was misspelled). This certificate was from when I was just around the age of six or seven.

I am telling you this to provide you with a bit of context for my own background and my love for DC Comics. I’m one of those kids who would hunker down and read Superman comics in the back of the store, while my dad was talking to the comic book store owner. Did I read Marvel Comics too? Definitely, but that shouldn’t take away from my love for DC Comics. I am now, and always have been, a fan of these characters.

But while Marvel Studios was creating the prototypical cinematic universe that each and every franchise wants to replicate, DC and Warner Bros. were busy with Christopher Nolan’s excellent The Dark Knight trilogy. Unfortunately, when DC had enough time to create a cinematic universe akin to their ‘rival’ comic book company’s connected universe, they didn’t properly plan it out.

Instead of slowly, but surely, building towards that exciting superhero team-up movie that comic book nerds like me have been waiting their entire lives for, the studio seemed to panic after Man of Steel got mixed reviews. What was supposed to be a direct sequel to Man of Steel, became a hero versus hero film, which, essentially, later became an overstuffed and uneven Justice League-prequel.

After yet another unfortunate film, DC and Warner Bros. finally made a film worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Richard Donner’s Superman — Patty Jenkins’ excellent Wonder Woman. It wasn’t flawless entertainment, but it was a return to the hopeful superhero filmmaking that identified the aforementioned first superhero blockbuster film. It was a huge step in the right direction, but Justice League now had to prove that Wonder Woman wasn’t just an exception to the rules of the otherwise rushed DC cinematic universe.

DC’s Justice League takes place after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman (played by Henry Cavill) is long gone, and both Wonder Woman — Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot) — and Batman — Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck) — are looking for other super-powered individuals to help them protect Earth.

Meanwhile, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) — an alien hellbent on finding three so-called ‘Mother Boxes’ that ages ago were split between the Amazons, Atlanteans, and the humans — has brought these winged creatures — the so-called ‘Parademons’ — with him to Earth, which is no longer defended by a Kryptonian.

Look, one of the biggest criticisms — or, rather, the most widely reported criticism — of the DC cinematic universe is that the universe is ‘too dark’ — to some even too serious or too grounded. It is, however, also one of the ways in which DC and Warner Bros. could differentiate its universe from the celebrated and colorful Marvel Studios extravaganzas.

This DC cinematic universe has been different. Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman was a much more complex character, who was introduced to us at a time in the character’s life when he didn’t represent the values that previous incarnations of the character did. So, when this iteration of the character died in Batman v Superman, the films hadn’t properly set him up as the symbol of hope that Wonder Woman has now started to become. Remember, this is a universe wherein Superman, a polarizing figure, was brought before a congressional hearing to answer for his mistakes.

Well, with Justice League, DC and Warner Bros. are abandoning that strategy — that sense of seriousness — in an attempt to course-correct the much maligned universe. In this film, Superman is now inexplicably described as the beacon of hope and justice that critics and some audience-members were clamoring for him to be, but it doesn’t feel like an honest in-universe representation of the universe’s worldview. Much like the rest of the cinematic universe, it feels rushed.

Also, while Justice League does still sometimes have that Snyder-look — there are plenty of slow-motion shots that I am, admittedly, not always a big fan of — it actually doesn’t feel like a Snyder movie. Zack Snyder was, unfortunately, forced to step away from the production due to the loss of his daughter, and, as a result, Warner Bros. hired veteran superhero movie director Joss Whedon to finish the production. Although Snyder is still credited as the film’s director, Joss Whedon’s fingerprints are all over this movie, and it sometimes feels like a tonal tug of war between the two different approaches to the cinematic universe.

Whedon’s Avengers-films were great successes, but the quippy and fast-paced humor, which Whedon has attempted to inject into this film, is nothing like what has previously been laid forth in the DC cinematic universe. Thus there are some tonal shifts that are very jarring.

It is, thus, clearly an attempt at aping the formula of the Marvel movies that exist in the prototypical cinematic universe. Justice League has its charming and funny moments, and, at times, it is refreshingly colorful. Unfortunately, it feels like some scenes — even one of the jokes — were lifted from Whedon’s Avengers-films and inserted into Justice League without any forethought of how these DC characters ought to interact in the DC cinematic universe.

This is one of the reasons why I think that Justice League is very derivative. There is even this large exposition dump about the backstory of the aforementioned ‘Mother Boxes’ that was written and delivered similarly to the excellent, and very memorable, opening exposition dump from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Some say that a movie is only as good as its villain, so let’s talk about what is probably the biggest problem I have with this movie — Steppenwolf. I was excited to see how far they would go with Steppenwolf and the New Gods in this film, and I was, ultimately, disappointed by what we get. Steppenwolf is one of the most awful and generic blockbuster movie villains out there. There is absolutely nothing memorable about him, and there are certain action scenes with him that look like video game cutscenes.

Which brings me to the computer-generated environment and location that the third act takes place in, which I would describe as very ugly. You’ve seen it in the trailers. Everything is red — distractingly so. Generally, the CGI is very distracting, and I wish they would’ve maybe pushed the release of the movie to make the CGI-heavy scenes more palatable, so to speak. One of the central characters has supposedly had a mustache removed via CGI, and you definitely notice. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I’ve never stared so intensely at a man’s upper lip before.

As I know some people have speculated online, this film should have been longer than two hours. Justice League is a busy movie, and it rushes from one character introduction to the next without letting any scene properly breathe. Of the newly introduced characters, Barry Allen (played by Ezra Miller) — the Flash — probably works best as they actually do give us a scene or two with his father. Aquaman (played by Jason Momoa) has a really great moment with the Lasso of Truth, but I found his scenes underwater to be fairly confusing. Also, although I like Momoa a lot — I’ve been a fan of him since his time in Stargate: Atlantis — I think his character’s behavior is a little bit too silly for my liking.

Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) deserves so much more than he gets to do in this film. It feels like the studio cut a lot of scenes or background information for his character that would’ve been useful in expressing to the audience what kind of character he is. In general, his CGI ‘armor’ also doesn’t always look that great.

On the other hand, my favorite thing about this movie is how they managed to improve one of the cinematic universe’s central characters, whose involvement in the story is the worst kept secret in Hollywood. What was once so dreary about him is eventually more upbeat and colorful. It is a shame that the film’s best character, in my opinion, needs to be ‘shoehorned’ into the film due to a bad decision in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Speaking of the heroes from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was disappointed by the handling of both Wonder Woman and Batman. Affleck’s version of Batman was probably my favorite thing about Batman v Superman, but as I was watching this film I couldn’t stop thinking that it looked like Affleck, who I am a fan of, didn’t want to be there.

Now, I should say that people have questioned whether or not Affleck will continue as the character ever since the first reactions for Batman v Superman started rolling in. Therefore this may just be an idea that I had stuck in my head as I was watching the movie.

But what really bothered me is the way Wonder Woman was filmed. The way the camera lingered on Wonder Woman seemed overly sexualized — it felt like a distinctly different perspective than what we had gotten in Jenkins’ Wonder Woman — and that actually really did bother me.

Ultimately, although it is sometimes charming or funny Justice League is a deeply flawed film and a bit of a mess. It is an uneven film that feels way too rushed. They obviously hired Joss Whedon for a reason. I know that Warner Bros. probably wanted to ape the style of Marvel Studios, but often with this film feels like they’ve overcorrected their cinematic universe in a way that is just unearned.

5 out of 10

This is an updated review which was amended in March 2021 in anticipation for the upcoming release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which is a director’s cut version of this film. 

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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