Before we begin, a quick word on the fine balance between objectivity and subjectivity. To walk the line between evaluating a film on its own merits rather than your personal experience with it is tricky for any film, let alone one that contains as many iconic characters as Justice League. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in particular have shaped the childhoods of many a movie goer and it would be churlish to discount their views on these characters (and the media that informed them) in their evaluation of this film.
Given Batman V Superman‘s resoundingly negative critical reception juxtaposed with the high hopes held by many in the wake of Wonder Woman‘s success, the issue of objectivity becomes yet more troublesome.
What I’m trying to say is that I couldn’t write an entirely objective review of Justice League, even if my life depended on it. These characters (especially Batman and superman) are so ensconced in my psyche that it’s virtually impossible to get out of my own way when evaluating their appearance in any popular media.
If Batman V Superman taught me anything, however, it’s the importance of evaluating the film that’s there and not the film I expected to see.
While my love of the characters can only have influenced my opinion going in, I have to say…
I enjoyed the Hell out of Justice League.
On My World It Means Hope
Justice League’s tone is intentionally brighter, more hopeful and more optimistic than that of Batman V Superman. Tonally it occupies similar territory to Wonder Woman though the film doesn’t shy away from a few dark moments. The film opens on a world without hope in the wake of Superman’s death and the character’s absence feels as weighty for us as for the people of Metropolis. A lot of this is felt during a stirring and emotionally charged credits sequence that is pure Zack Snyder.
On the subject of directors and authorship, let’s get the obvious out of the way.
Understandably, Zack Snyder chose to step away from the filming of Justice League to spend time with his family after the tragic death of his daughter. Joss Whedon was entrusted with finishing the film, and while nobody could have asked for a safer pair of hands this has had an unfortunate consequence. A certain portion of the fandom appears to have spent the film’s entire run time trying to separate the “Zack scenes” from the “Joss scenes”. Personally, I can think of better ways to spend my time. Suffice to say that while Whedon has left some fingerprints here and there this feels (and certainly looks) like a Zack Snyder film.
It manages the tricky balancing act of feeling like a sequel to Man of Steel and Batman V Superman while pushing the ongoing DC Films universe in a slightly different direction.
The Marvel Problem
We might as well address the big red elephant in the room. As likely as Justice League is to draw comparisons from DC Films’ previous fare, it invites yet more parallels with 2012’s Avengers. Comparing the relatively nascent DC Films universe to the MCU may not be the fairest acid test but its deployment is sadly inevitable.
For my own part I remain an ardent lover of both cinematic universes and relish both their differences and similarities. Critics will inevitably make sneering remarks about how the film’s more optimistic tone represents a push toward the “Marvel Method”.
Such assertions aren’t just childish, they’re just plain incorrect. Batman V Superman was always intended to be the DC Universe’s Empire Strikes Back with an intended tonal shift to come in Justice League.
If this film feel markedly different to its forebears, it’s a deliberate choice. It’s not a committee decision made by executives in board rooms wondering how they can make their film more Marvelesque.
Gods Among Us
One of the film’s greatest achievement is its realisation of the characters. The first twenty minutes alone give us a stylish and intense Batman scene dripping with iconic images and one of the best superhero rescues in cinematic history courtesy of Wonder Woman.
The new members of the team are all well introduced and each gets room to develop despite the film’s economical run time.
Ezra Miller’s Flash is a slight departure from the comic book incarnation, but his boyish charm is so winsome few are likely to be irked by this. The awe with which he regards his surroundings and team mates, and a few moments where he actually geeks out at the prospect of hanging out with Batman, provide a lot of the film’s humour and heart. This is a hero right at the start of his journey and it would be a great shame if he were robbed of the possibility of a solo outing (and I’m not counting the proposed Flashpoint movie). There are so many interesting places this character can go that it would be a crying shame if he were only to pop up here and there in Justice League sequels.
Jason Momoa as Aquaman is one of the most compelling, charismatic and (may as well admit it) sexy screen presences in superhero cinema. If Warner Bros. want a counterpoint to what’s been going on with Thor over at the MCU, then here’s their man! He may have more action moments than character moments but given that he’s the only Leaguer who’s next outing is guaranteed, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
I was personally worried that Cyborg’s character would be the least developed since he’s the character with the least cultural currency among mainstream audiences but I’m delighted to say that both the characterisation and Ray Fisher’s performance are on point. I’ve never disliked Cyborg but I’ve never been that big a fan either. This film changed that. The film portrays Victor Stone as a tortured character trying to make sense of his new form (while also working through a difficult relationship with his father), but he’s neither joyless nor without optimism. His relationship with Diana (who becomes a mentor of sorts, coaxing him out of his shell) is a source of genuine warmth.
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is as good as ever and Ben Affleck’s Batman is better than ever. The film contains some of the best times I’ve had with either character on screen. The two are excellent apart and even more excellent together as the de facto parents of the league. The two actors have phenomenal chemistry and it is my sincerest hope that this isn’t the last time we get to see them share a screen.
Despite what you might think from watching the trailers the film doesn’t attempt to gloss over Batman’s previous enmity towards Superman, nor does his newfound belief in Superman come over as presto-chango.
Look, Up In The Sky
Like many Superman fans, I was a little apprehensive going into this film. I was worried that Superman would be sidelined or that his necessary absence throughout most of the film would mean that the character wasn’t done (excuse me) justice. I had faith in the film makers but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried.
Believe me when I say that this film has some of the best Superman moments not only in the DC films canon, but Superman’s entire cinematic canon. Whether you loved Cavill’s performance or the way the character was written in Man of Steel or Batman V Superman or not… If you love Superman, you’ll love how he’s handled in this film.
It’s difficult to get into without veering into spoiler territory but the way in which he’s brought back is well handled and his return to super heroics is given the emotional gravitas and awe that it deserves.
If you had misgivings about his death, this film will hopefully turn you around. Because it’s in his absence that this world has realised just how much it needs Superman.
Looks Like Heroism, Sounds Like Heroism
The film looks and sounds great. I have absolutely no idea why some reviewers (most notably Vanity Fair) have deemed the film ugly. The cinematography by Fabian Wagner looks uniformly gorgeous with some clear influence from Larry Fong’s work on BvS but a generally brighter palette. There’s more sparkle and pop than can be found in Fong’s dark yet rich work on the previous film, but it feels like a clear successor to BvS.
The score by Danny Elfman made some controversial choices in integrating elements of his 1989 score for Tim Burton’s Batman and John Williams’ iconic Superman score. While these additions call attention to themselves they’re reworked sufficiently to feel fresh and new, and the score as a whole still feels like it fits into the established DC Films universe.
Some reviewers have thrown shade at the film’s visual effects. While they haven’t had as much time and money thrown at them as the house that worked on Batman V Superman, the effects houses that worked on this film did a pretty sterling job.
Every time The Flash uses the speed force the effects are stunning looking for all the world like lightning made liquid. Likewise, the scenes that depict Aquaman under water are visually rich and inventive. Every moment that Cyborg is on screen is a VFX triumph and the flashback sequence that introduces the film’s villain is absolutely phenomenal.
There are some times where the visual effects are a little less even. There are some sequences on Themyscira that fall a little short of what we saw on Wonder Woman and some of the (presumably re-shot) Superman scenes are a little more conspicuous than they should be but by no means did any of this take me out of the film.
While we’re on the subject of visual effects, that’s a good place to segue into the film’s villains. The chief protagonist is the digitally realised Steppenwolf (with some performance capture by Game of Thrones‘ Ciaran Hinds) and his army of parademons.
Steppenwolf has been heavily criticised as lacking dimension or being another “dodgy CGI villain”. For my money, the character is given all the development that he requires to be a credible threat that unites the league. He isn’t given that much back story nor motivation but to be fair he requires neither for the purposes of this film. As in The Avengers, the villain is merely a catalyst to bring the heroes together (people would be saying that Loki was poorly developed if the original Thor hadn’t done such a great job of setting him up).
Both he and the parademons are visually interesting, scary and credibly powerful… And that’s pretty much all the film needs of them.
I Wish We Had More Time
A lot of DC fans reacted with outright panic when the film’s two hour run time (with credits) got announced. Although it would be unfair to say that the film feels rushed, it could definitely benefit from taking a moment to stop and breathe every now and then.
Despite the forced narrative economy, the film does very well in telling a lot of story and allowing for a lot of great character interactions in a relatively short space of time.
There’s already talk of an extended cut when the film comes to home video among fans. While this is likely (there is a precedent, both Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman had superior extended cuts on home video), I think fans should manage their expectations.
It’s highly unlikely that there will ever be a “Snyder cut” that will solve every problem that people had from the film, given that the director never got to actually finish it.
It’s in the editing and pacing that my only real griped lie. This film was clearly heavily cut to squeeze it down to two hours. As a result, fans were robbed of a lot of cool shots present in the trailer. Moreover, a little more connective tissue between “hero” scenes would have fleshed out the characters a little better and made the film ultimately more satisfying.
Dare To Hope
Like the newly resurrected Superman, Justice League’s message is one of hope. It presents the iconic heroes of DC’s most famous super team with aplomb, conveying not only their majesty and cultural weight but their personality and humanity.
The ending hints at hopeful and exciting places that the DC Films Universe could go to in the future and I really hope that the film does well enough to guarantee more of the same.
With that in mind, I recommend Justice League wholeheartedly.