It’s impossible to review Justice League, the long awaited cinematic outing for DC’s flagship superhero team, without inviting comparisons to Marvel’s own movie teams. The previous films in the DC Extended Universe (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman) have all been part of a poorly executed plan to catch up with the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU has seventeen films under its stretched and straining belt; the hope is that Justice League will put the House That Superman and Batman Built on more or less equal footing.
And has it? Not really. Justice League is fine. It’s better than the pathologically portentous Dawn of Justice, and definitely better than the bafflingly bad Suicide Squad. It’s fine. But fine isn’t good enough. With Marvel getting ready for a decade’s worth of pay off with Infinity War, and having fun subverting itself with the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, DC needed to do more than just fine. Justice League is a step in the right direction; but it’s a small step, not the giant leap that was required.
Justice League picks up some time after Dawn of Justice. Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, and the world is in chaos (exactly why the world is in chaos is never really explained). Batman (Ben Affleck) is investigating the imminent threat abstrusely hinted at by Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. He finds nasty winged monsters, and references to mysterious cubes that are lying around somewhere. To combat whatever it is that’s coming, Batman wants to put a team together. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is accounted for – she’s thwarting terrorists in Paris – but Batman wants the other so-called “metahumans” we saw in Dawn of Justice‘s glorified teaser trailers.
Those metahumans are the Flash (Fastest Man Alive), Aquaman (King of Atlantis), and Cyborg (a cyborg). Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his time visiting his incarcerated father, who was falsely imprisoned for the murder of his mother. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is knocking around the Icelandic coast, saving fishermen and drinking whiskey. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) was recently reconstructed, Robocop style, after an accident, using one of those terribly mysterious cubes.
In the film’s first act we see these three in snippets, little fleeting snapshots that never give us a sense of who these people are. It’s mostly likely a result of the famously troubled production. Credited director Zack Snyder left the film during post production, due to a family tragedy, and Joss Whedon (late of Marvel) was brought in to complete the film and oversee reshoots. Whatever Justice League originally resembled (probably something closer in tone and length to Snyder’s Dawn of Justice) has been whittled down and lightened up.
As a result, the plot is barely comprehensible nonsense. Our designated villain is Steppenwolf (not to be confused with the Canadian rockers), an obnoxiously tall armoured man rendered in CGI that looks at least a decade out of date. Steppenwolf (who comic fans will know as one of the New Gods, powerful beings led by uber-villain Darkseid) wants those cubes, known as Mother Boxes, so that he can use them to turn Earth into a blasted wasteland. Exactly why he wants to do this is something else that’s never explained.
The garbled narrative does little to trip up Justice League. The point here was never to advance the state of the DCEU, such as it is, but to see if these heroes will work together on screen. To that extent, the experiment is largely a success. There is a pleasing chemistry between the members of the burgeoning League. They form a sort of dysfunctional family: Batman and Wonder Woman play off each other like an old married couple; Flash is like a wide-eyed, hyperactive child; and Aquaman resembles a surly teenager, who’ll only stick around as long as things are interesting. The weak link is Cyborg. It’s unfortunate that the team’s sole black member is more tool than character, whose link to the Mother Boxes is mercilessly exploited by his peers. Please insert your own subtext.
So the team works, but the world they inhabit is very strange to look at. Part of the post production’s shift in focus was recolouring, to move away from the perpetually dim Dawn of Justice. Thing is, sets and costumes are designed to be shot in specific lighting and with specific lenses and filters. Hasty recolouring results in a cheap, stagy look that is at odds with the obscene amount of money supposedly poured into this. The costumes especially look like what they are: obvious fabrications. Adding to the cheap feel is Justice League’s apparent disposability. Despite Dawn of Justice’s unrelenting grim darkness, it was at least trying to be about things: heroism, terrorism, sacrifice, and compromise. Justice League isn’t really about anything, beyond a group of people in Halloween costumes beating up CGI monsters.
Disposable, but actually quite fun. Once the team’s together and using their powers in tandem, Justice League can be a rollicking good time (though it’s a shame we never get to see Aquaman talk to the fishes). It would be easy to be cynical, to say that I forced myself to have fun simply because I’ve waited so long to see these beloved characters on the big screen. But that isn’t true. It’s genuinely great to see Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash fighting evil together in a bona fide feature film. And I suppose it’s nice to see Aquaman and Cyborg, too.
At its worst, Justice League feels like what it is: another torturous mile in DC’s long road to catch up with Marvel. At its best, it feels like a fairly decent JLA storyline. Faint praise, perhaps, but it’s more than I ever expected. Justice League is a tiny baby step in the right direction. Give DC and Warner Bros a couple more years, and Marvel might have something to worry about. But there are still leagues to go.