Look! Up on the screen! It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud! It’s Justice League!
And it mostly works. Mostly.
The very first scene of Justice League does some good work walking back the problems—and they are problems, not merely criticisms—of the first few non-Wonder Woman films in this universe. We see Superman as children see him, which is also the way that this franchise keeps trying to retroactively force its audience into reconceptualizing him: as a true-blue (literally, given the lightening of his costume) hero and symbol of hope. He’s kind, sympathetic, and, you know, Superman, as he’s supposed to be. And then, just as his life was, the video is cut short. This leads into a beautiful opening credits montage, a strength of Zack Snyder’s as a director (even those who hate his Watchmen adaptation, which I surprisingly don’t, are all but universally pleased with its Dylan-composed credits sequence).
This sequence is not without contentious issues, of course. First, there’s a headline seen in a newspaper box mourning the loss of David Bowie, Prince, and Superman, but not Leonard Cohen, which is pretty disrespectful given that the whole thing is set to a really, really terrible cover of “Everybody Knows.” There’s also the issue that we’re supposed to be seeing a world in mourning for the space god who showed them some truths about themselves, but if you’re going to enjoy anything about this movie, you’re just going to have to accept this retcon.
Consider the speech from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in the first Richard Donner Superman film (and later repurposed for the trailer for Superman Returns): “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” This same speech was actually echoed by Russell Crowe in his turn as Papa El in Man of Steel: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Unfortunately, this franchise has made zero effort to actually follow through on these lofty ideals of the Superman-is-Messiah beyond paying lip service and a couple of “subtle” images in Man of Steel. The problem is that this was never present in the actual text of the film, which presented us with a broody, angry, super-powered alien whose only affection for the beings of his adopted world were his love for his mother and an office romance. He was more Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale in Teen Wolf than Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent in Supergirl (he’s killing it, by the way), and that absence has been sorely lacking in this film series so far.
But. But. Justice League, for all the baggage that its carrying from three bad movies and one spectacular one, actually works if you ignore all that needless, pointless, and out-of-place GRIMDARK nonsense that preceded it in the earlier installments. And it’s not just with Superman either; the scene that immediately follows the opening montage shows Batman out and about being Batman, and even uses some passages from Danny Elfman’s previous work on Tim Burton’s 1989 film adaptation (but which will always be a keystone for me as the theme music for the Batman animated series).
This first Batman scene is both good and bad. Your standard Gotham City burglar is exiting onto a roof at night, sees Batman, attacks the Bat, gets his ass handed to him, and is dangled over the side of a building to attract a Parademon (the foot soldiers of the film’s villain), which can apparently smell fear. Bats traps the Parademon in a net, tests out a series of sonic disruptions on it, and it dies, leaving behind a clue about the three Mother Boxes. It’s so, so dumb, but the combination of the old Elfman theme and the absurdity of the whole thing makes it feel like the cold open of an episode of the animated Justice League, where Kevin Conroy’s Batman would do something just like this: lure, trap, find weird clue that matches something he’s already investigating, detective it up. It shouldn’t (and for most people won’t) work in a feature film with live actors that is supposedly trying to take itself seriously, but that narrative works for me on a certain level. On the other hand, there are other elements of this scene that are inarguably bad story choices, like Batman just kind of grappling away from the scene to do detective stuff, completely disregarding the theft he just interrupted and leaving the burglar to his own devices.
The overarching plot of the film concerns the arrival of Steppenwolf, one of the members of Jack Kirby’s cosmic DC creations The New Gods, on earth. Millennia ago, he attempted to invade the planet and turn it into a “primordial hellscape,” but he was repelled by an alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of Man, and a couple of others that we’ll explore in a minute. Steppenwolf carrier with him three Mother Boxes, pieces of advanced technology that, when combined, create the terraforming effect that will make the earth his new home (yes, this was the exact same desire of the villains of Man of Steel). Now, after several millennia, he has returned in the wake of Superman’s death because mankind’s mourning of that great symbol of hope has made it ripe pickings for the invader’s crusade, and Batman has to recruit five superheroes with attitude to repel his forces (yes, this is essentially the same plot as the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, and yes, I would love to see the trailer for JL recut with the opening narration of MMPR).
I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. Beyond the fact that Bats uses a street level criminal as bait and then ditching him without even notifying the police, there are other mistakes both big and small. For instance: the janitor working at Star Labs is seen bidding Dr. Stone good night, and it’s obvious (at least on the big screen) that the ID he’s wearing is for a different person, as he has dark hair and is clean-shaven, while the picture on the ID is of a man with a big bushy head of white hair and a glorious Mark Twain mustache. You can imagine sitting in the movie theater and thinking, like me: “Oh, he must be a spy who stole this ID, that’s a neat clue.” But no, it’s just a mistake; later, after said innocent janitor has been kidnapped by the villain, we see his belongings left behind in a pile, including an ID with an accurate photo. That’s this movie in a microcosm: when you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof.
When I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s. Although becoming an adult and becoming more socially aware has meant that I’m less inclined to love Batman uncritically (i.e., he’s kind of a fascist who spends most of his time attacking poor people out of his own sense of morality, rarely actually inspecting the causes of poverty and crime and trying to correct the problem at the root, although some of the best Batman writers have taken note of this and written him accordingly), he’s still the first character I think of when I think of superhero comics. The aforementioned Batman animated series was a defining piece of media for young Boomer, as were reruns of Superfriends, and I loved visiting the one aunt whose cable package included FX, as that meant I would get to see an episode of the Adam West Batman and, if I was very lucky, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. It’s for this reason, and not because I am a “Marvel fanboy,” that I’ve been pained to see this franchise handled so, so poorly in the past few years. Wonder Woman was not just a step in the right direction, but a wholehearted plunge into how to to this whole thing right (Alli may have given it a mere 3.5 stars, but that was a 5 star movie for me personally).
Justice League is having a harder time straddling that fence, seeing as it has to undo the immense damage done to the franchise as a whole by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Sure, Suicide Squad was a terrible movie on the whole, but at its core it was a C-grade movie dressed up as a blockbuster, which is an aesthetic that I’m always a little bit on board for in spite of myself, especially when the actors really commit to the nonsense; additionally, the backstory and arc of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo contain far and away the most effective emotional beats of the first three films. It certainly didn’t fracture the fans in the same way as BvS, which some people are still defending for reasons that are unclear to me. Still, JL is trying hard to course correct, and the job that it’s doing is admirable, even if it stumbles every ten minutes or so. It works as a cartoon about the Justice League that just happens to be live action and have a tonally dissonant visual aesthetic from the text of the actions on screen.
The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general. What I mean by this is that the story it’s trying to tell, about a world without a Superman, does not work as a piece of the DCEU divorced from the context of the DC animated universes, or comic books, or even the earlier Donner and Burton films. But within that larger conversation, in which we do have a Superman who is a beacon of hope, truth, and justice, it does.
- I, too, saw all of the photos of Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face online before I went to the theater, but I never noticed it when actually watching the movie. Maybe it says something about how my brain works that I completely overlooked it, but I’d wager it has more to do with the fact that if this were real life, Superman would have had to keep telling me “My weird face thing is up here.” You know what I’m talking about.
- This has been addressed in other reviews that I’ve read and heard, but it is super weird that no one is at all concerned about maintaining their own or other’s secret identities in this movie. Aquaman calls Bruce Wayne “Batman” in front of a whole bunch of villagers, and Lois calls the newly awakened Superman “Clark” in front of several Metropolis police officers, which is only going to make it more obvious when he shows back up at work after having disappeared and reappeared at the exact same time as Supes did.
- Ezra Miller’s Flash is charming, and I liked him a lot. A lot of his jokes fell flat, but I liked that they were overlooked in universe as well. I think that he’s probably the best addition to this universe since Wonder Woman.
- Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is given almost nothing to do other than to be the machina that the deus exes.
- All the stuff that you heard about Wonder Woman being more sexualized in this film is true, as I noticed the lingering shot of her rear, but she’s still Wonder Woman and still the best thing about this movie. I can’t wait for WW2.
- The design for Steppenwolf is terrible. A stop-motion Starro would have been better, and would have made for a better villain overall anyway. Can you imagine a film where Starro the Conqueror appeared and tried to terraform the world into something more suitable to himself (i.e. covering the whole earth with the ocean)? There would be no need for the cliche sky beams, and instead there could have been the opportunity to discuss the rising oceans that are the result of climate change and Starro’s need to barely push humans into doing his will. The insistence on doing the New Gods stuff right out of the gate, especially after the imagery and ideas of Jack Kirby were so much better utilized in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok earlier this year, was a bad decision.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond