(PLEASE NOTE: This review contains very mild SPOILERS for Justice League.)
A lot was sitting on the shoulders of Justice League before it opened on November 17th 2017, and there still is. Unlike the MCU, the DCEU’s entries have not fared as well with critics and audiences, overall. But before we look at what is hoped to be the definite turning point for these films, let us see how we got to a Justice League film.
As many of you know, the Justice League comic book series was created in 1960 by Gardner Fox. The original members of The Justice League consisted of the mainstay of The Trinity: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Other members of the original Justice League included: The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. The Justice League first appeared as a team in The Brave and The Bold #28 in March 1960.
In November of that year, the team received its own title with Justice League of America. Since its inception, the Justice League would appear in many DC’s most significant storylines. Notable ones of which include Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert’s Flashpoint (2011) and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (1996). Not to mention, one of my personal favorites, Identity Crises (2004) by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair. (Identity Crisis also featured covers by the late, great Michael Turner.) The most recent incarnation of the Justice League in the comics came with last year’s DC Rebirth. In addition to comic books, the team has had much success in animation and video games.
Until the release of the movie in review a couple of weeks ago, DC’s “Super Friends” had only managed to garner success on the small screen. However, there was an attempt to bring The JLA to the big-screen in 2007 before everyone and their mother got into the movie universe business. While 2005’s Batman Begins was successful, it was by no means a box-office juggernaut. The following year, Superman Returns (2006) proved to be a failure both in financial terms and audience reception. (However, I am in the minority of people who enjoy the film.) At that time Warner Bros. made an interesting decision.
They let Christopher Nolan continue his trilogy. However, at the same time, an entirely separate film entitled Justice League: Mortal was put into development. This movie did not feature Christian Bale’s Batman, nor Brandon Routh’s Superman. George Miller, the visionary writer-director of The Mad Max Quadrilogy (1979-2015) was set to helm the film. In fact, he and the production team had gotten so far as successfully casting the members of The Justice League. Among them were Armie Hammer (of this week’s Call Me by Your Name) as Batman and Common (John Wick: Chapter 2) as Green Lantern.
Shortly after that though, Mortal entered into development hell, never to escape. Various issues including a writers’ strike, budget, tax incentives, etc. eventually led to George Miller exiting the project and it being scrapped by the studio in 2010. During this interim, there were two massive occurrences in the world of comic book films in 2008. Firstly, The Dark Knight (2008) took the world by storm. Not only did it make billions, it cemented in the minds of many not just what a Bat-flick should be, but also the dark, gritty tone a DC-based film should possess. Furthermore, Iron Man (2008) kicked-off The Marvel Cinematic Universe which would prove to do the impossible, building a massive universe of interconnected comic-book movies.
Initially, WB/DC stated they had no interest in doing a universe of movies. Instead, they were going to stick to making individual superhero films after Nolan’s Bat-trilogy concluded. That didn’t last long though with the studio making their first ill-fated attempt to start a movie universe in 2011. As opposed to beginning with one of their proven properties, they used Green Lantern (2011) as the starting point for this universe. This intended kick-off film was an absolute disaster. In the end, Green Lantern flopped, and audiences rejected it outright. After such a negative reception, the studio quickly changed their tune. No longer was Green Lantern considered the first building-block of an intended universe; it was a one-off.
To rectify its misstep, the studio made another attempt, in earnest, to begin building what would become known as The DC Extended Universe with 2013’s Man of Steel. The studio’s approach to this universe, at least at the time, was novel enough; to make films that are darker and more serious than anything their competitors at Marvel were churning out. To guide such an approach, Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) was brought in as an executive producer for the DCEU. To direct, the man given the proverbial keys to the kingdom was Zack Snyder.
After having massive success in the comic-book movie genre with 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009) for the studio, the director was chosen not only to helm Man of Steel but to have an overseeing eye in the rest of the DCEU as well. Man of Steel was received in a mixed fashion across the board, with most audience members walking away either thrilled or unsatisfied. I personally, fall into the latter category as I found the film to be nothing more than a dull, depressing portrait of a hero I barely recognized. To me, the Superman presented in Man of Steel was like an emo with a god complex, which is not an interpretation I appreciate. The blueprint for the DCEU at that time was akin to that of the MCU: Make solo hero films which would interconnect and lead up to an event film. However, that plan soon changed when the studio began to fear they were playing a losing game of catch-up with Marvel.
Therefore, instead of sticking with the plan, the studio changed their tactic. Forget taking the time to build a foundation, let’s just put the house up! As such, they skipped making individual films as a leadup to a face-off film between Superman and Batman and went straight into making such an event film. Last year, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice graced the screen. The film brought back Snyder as its director and Henry Cavill as Superman. It also introduced us to Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.
BvS was intended to be an event film with the titular titans facing-off and as the set-up for a Justice League movie. Ultimately, the film proved to have many of the same issues its predecessor in the DCEU did. It lacked any sense of fun or real weight. Beyond that it was over-long, yet seemingly compromised. In the end, the film was decent but fell short of most of its ambitions. However, it should be said that Affleck and Gadot were real highlights.
After BvS, it seemed the DCEU was wavering. The next installment in the universe was Suicide Squad (2016). As a lover of Harley Quinn, I thought Squad was fun and entertaining. Alas, it was also sloppy and uneven. Such inconsistency made sense when reports saying that the film had been taken from its writer-director David Ayer (of the upcoming movie Bright.) In turn, the film we got was edited together by the trailer house that did the trailers for the film. Yes, it was fun but was also flawed and currently seems inconsequential in the scheme of things. Just as I was scratching my head as to what might become of this universe, they proved to take two steps in the right direction. This year’s Wonder Woman proved to be the best DC film of the current era, thus far. It managed to be a superhero movie that embraced the fun and pride of being a superhero. Not to mention, it finally brought a real lead heroine to screens. Eventually, I regained a little hope for this whole endeavor.
After a decade in development and four films preceding it, Justice League has finally come to fruition. Following the events of BvS, the world has fallen into chaos. Humanity is feeling the lack of Superman, questioning its standing as a whole. All the while, a new threat looms in that of “The new god,” Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who seeks to destroy the world as it’s in a state of total imbalance. Knowing of such an imminent threat, Batman, along with Wonder Woman embarks on assembling a team to save the world. To do such a thing they recruit Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Stevens). Together, they all form the Justice League!
Let me start with a compliment right out the gate. This film’s Justice League lineup is based off that of The New 52, a series which I quite enjoyed. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when I found that this movie quite accurately adapted and at least, made an attempt to match the tone of the book. As a result, we get a much lighter film than Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice. Alas, I’m sure much of this tonal shift had to do with the backlash in response to the depressing tones of those mentioned above. In addition, I have no doubt that Joss Whedon’s work on the screenplay and film lightened things up considerably.
Beyond that, the cast has quite a bit of chemistry and work well off one another. I found all the newer Justice League members to be welcom additions, notably Ezra Miller (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Ray Stevens (The Astronaut Wives Club). I also thought Jason Momoa (of the upcoming The Crow Reborn) was okay as Aquaman. However, I must admit to finding his “bro-like” approach to the character to be a bit grating. Meanwhile, Gadot stole every scene she was in per usual.
Alas, all this chemistry is knocked down a notch by Batfleck. I’ve always liked Ben Affleck and loved his performance in BvS, feeling he was the best thing about that film. In fact, based on that alone, I would rank him as one of the best actors to have donned the cowl. At least, I would’ve until I saw Justice League. After the negative reception of his previous turn as The Bat, it seems Affleck has gone from being excited to be in such a position to becoming apathetic about it at best. Perhaps it all has something to do with the fact that the actor has been not so subtle in recent interviews about his desire to “Make a graceful and cool exit.” Such a statement notwithstanding, when watching this movie, despite him doing a decent enough job; the sense that Affleck, doesn’t want to be playing The Caped Crusader anymore is palpable. Sadly, this ends the more positive portion of my review. (PLEASE NOTE: A minor spoiler is contained in the following paragraph.)
Justice League has a decent first act. As you might expect, it revolves around letting us know where all the main characters now stand and building the team. Sadly, the next two-thirds of the film devolves into a series of big and seemingly constant action sequences. There’s little to no connective tissue as the movie goes from one set-piece to another. All in an effort to defeat Steppenwolf, who ultimately feels like a lame and unworthy adversary. Thus, the majority of the movie plays like an excited five-year-old breathlessly recounting a story, “Well first Batman did this and then…Wonder Woman…and then,” and so on and so forth.
Matters aren’t helped when Superman enters the picture near the end of the second act as it presents two major issues. Firstly, after the events of BvS, one would think that Kal-El would return with a new outlook on life. To the contrary, however, things are pretty much the same with DCEU’s interpretation of comic-book Jesus, this time around. The Superman of this universe still can’t be bothered to lift a finger without being motivated to do so by Lois Lane (Amy Adams) or his mommy, Martha Kent (Diane Lane).
Furthermore, while Cavill’s Superman shows shades of being more faithful to the character, he’s ultimately still portrayed as someone who has the potential to be a hero but is usually just a whiny, demigod, asshole. The real problem with having Supes show so late in the game is simple and is an issue in the comics as well. Superman is so powerful that he renders his fellow Justice Leaguers unnecessary.
This film’s other problems come from its troubled production. Initially, it was announced that Justice League would be split into two parts. Presumably, Steppenwolf would be the nemesis in the first half with our heroes reaching the real big, bad in Apocalypse in the second half. However, those plans were quickly scrapped. Because of this, Justice League manages to end up playing a lot like a feature-length tease of something bigger and better. This may have something do with the fact that Zack Snyder had to step away from his directing duties after his daughter’s tragic death. In Snyder’s stead, JL co-writer Joss Whedon stepped in as director to finish the film. Due to this unexpected turn of events, we get an incredibly uneven movie. One that fluctuates between Snyder’s dark and heavy tone to Whedon’s more light-hearted approach that’s filled with team banter. Needless to say, these disparate styles don’t exactly mesh well.
In the end, Justice League is just mediocre. It essentially works about as well as I figured Avengers (2011) would, in a best-case scenario. I appreciate that an effort was made with this film to right the course set by BvS. However, a lightening of tone and a quickening of pace doesn’t fix all the issues. It was nice to see a brisk, two-hour tentpole, as mandated by the studio. However, that creates a problem in itself; leaving us with a narrative that feels it’s been chopped to bits. I think the biggest issue here is that WB/DC have no idea what they want nor how to achieve it.
Wonder Woman was two steps in the right direction. Alas, Justice League was a step back. It seems to me that the folks who run the DCEU are just sitting in a room, tossing poo and seeing what sticks. In this humble reviewer’s opinion, the studio should just let Patty Jenkins continue to make Wonder Woman films and possibly give her a more prominent role in creative control in the universe. Otherwise, perhaps it’s time that this whole DCEU just needs to be tossed as it seems we’re getting quantity over quality. I suppose we’ll see what the now very uncertain future of these films holds though.
JUSTICE LEAGUE IS NOW PLAYING IN THEATERS!