Warner Bros. more than just stumbled out of the gate when they started producing their line of films based on DC Comics which they are now claiming was never meant to be a cinematic universe. They gave us a story in mid-telling with only the most minor of clues what had gone on before, they made this story overly dark both literally and figuratively, and worst of all it seemed they didn’t understand their own characters by giving us a Superman who doesn’t care about collateral damage and the lives of civilians, a Batman who mowed people down with guns, and a Joker and Lex Luthor who seemed to have switched bodies. Then they gave us Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman showed us they could make a character who could inspire, that they were capable of starting a story at the beginning without cloning every other origin story out there, that they could give us visuals that were both gorgeous and vibrant, and that they did understand at least one of their characters.
Justice League comes to us from Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and since those are the two films which started the DC movies down the path of “what the hell are they doing?” I admit to a lot of skepticism over whether he could pull off a Justice League film. When Snyder left the project after primary shooting was done, but before post-production was very far underway, and gave the reins of the project over to second unit director Joss Whedon my concerns became even stronger as even though I love most of Whedon’s work, the possible clashing of styles did not seem like a good omen. I can say having now seen the film that while Whedon’s influence in the film’s script is definitely noticeable, the directorial styles did not overly clash. Yes, you can notice Snyder’s heavier, darker style not blending that well with the more light-hearted, self-aware, bantery style of Whedon’s during Justice League‘s introductory scenes, but the film quickly hits its groove making you forget about its imperfect start rather quickly.
Justice League also manages to get its focal characters which were so wrong in earlier DC movies right. Ben Affleck as Batman, who I felt was the best part of Batman v. Superman, brings more of the same except without the inclination for murder and just a tad more humility and humor. Not enough to break the character, but enough to make him more relatable. Gal Gadot, on the other hand, does not quite give us the tour de force performance she gave as Wonder Woman in her solo movie, but she is still very much the same character inspiring those around her while also kicking ass and looking great doing it. The only reason she doesn’t stand out as much is that she has to do so much spotlight sharing this time around. Ezra Miller gives us a very fun, awkward Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg while perhaps the least dynamic member of the team in terms of personality is still well acted as he portrays a young man trying to come to terms with the fact that he has become something of a monster. In the least surprising spoiler ever to be termed a spoiler, Henry Cavill returns as Superman and his performance may be most surprising of all finally showing us the Superman we all know and love who views himself as a humble, “aw shucks” protector of the weak and not as a powerhouse who happens to hate bad guys. The chemistry among this crew is also excellent making the cast a true ensemble rather than a bunch of solo actors who happened to be thrown together.
You’ll notice I did not mention either Jason Momoa as Aquaman nor the villain (who I will not name so as to not spoil it, it’s not who you think it is) voiced by Claran Hinds, because they were the two disappointing characters in the bunch. Aquaman may not be a character most understand past a joke character, but the one thing he has in common among all his various incarnations is a regal quality. Sometimes he seems haughty, other times noble, but always regal. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman struck me as a guy you’d see hanging out at a biker bar picking fights. Sure, he’d be the wittiest guy at the biker bar, but he’s less a ruler and more an alpha dog, and there’s a big difference between the two. Our villain is also disappointing because he is just so generic. I don’t remember him ever rearing his head back and letting out an evil laugh but nearly every other bad stereotype a villain can encompass is there. He even wears a helmet with devil’s horns.
The story is a lot more coherent than the first three DC films. Sure there are a few references here and there to past events, but never in such a way that it seemed like we missed some major plot point, so major it could be an entire film unto its own, like in Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. The story does have one rather large weakness in that it relies on the audience remembering Superman as the character he is in the comics rather than as the character he was in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, and a lot of the character motivation loses most of its oomph due to that. The story also is awfully generic in its villainous plot which we’ve seen many times before in comic book movies, but I can, for the most part, forgive this as what we needed in a Justice League movie was a solid establishment of the universe we’re in and the characters inhabiting it, so in a way a time-worn familiar plot is what we needed so as not to overly complicate the real focus of the story which is the formation of the world’s most famous team of superheroes.
It’s that story that really shines. Seeing the group get together is very satisfying and entertaining. Once we get past the missteps of the past and the film’s opening, we have a team which really is a team. In The Avengers we saw a group who was a team because everyone knew their roles and performed them well, but in Justice League, we have a group who work well together, seem to really enjoy each others’ company, and who have each others’ backs while also having their roles, as well.
Final verdict: Justice League is far from perfect, but most of its imperfections are due to what came before. If you look at the plot as the villain’s attempted takeover of Earth, then what you have is a very generic film, but the true story here is not that, that’s just an excuse. The true story is about the formation of a group of larger than life, powerful individuals finding each other, getting to know each other, and becoming a team who really like each other. On that level, Justice League works wonderfully. 2017 has had a great many superhero films, and while I feel both Logan and Wonder Woman stand head and shoulders above the rest, Justice League acquits itself admirably putting it in the same category I’d put Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok – movies with no real depth, but are so much fun to experience you don’t really miss it while in the moment.
P.S. Stay all the way through the credits. Unsurprisingly there is a teaser for a future Justice League movie. The surprising part is what they imply the plot will be, and if it’s true it could be a lot more fun than anything I was expecting.