Justice League: United We Stand (Or Something)

There’s about half of a fantastic movie hidden within the frames of Justice League, DC Films’ first successful attempt at building a Marvel-sized cinematic universe. Falling somewhere in-between the desaturated, self-important nihilism of Batman V Superman and the full-color, romantic heroics of Wonder Woman, it tries to be all things to all people and ends up divided amongst itself. Considering that this is a film about heroes coming together to form something greater than the sum of their parts, that would be ironic if the film had any space for irony in the budget.

The film’s shallow yet rapid-fire plot has Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana “nobody calls her Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot) assembling a team of metahumans to combat Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a galactic warlord whose entire character can be summed up with “Because Evil.” He’s hunting for some mystical MacGuffins — which are definitely not Infinity Stones — that will cause the end of the world or something. Joining Bats and Diana are super-speedster The Flash (Ezra Miller), underwater barbarian Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and a cyborg known as…well, Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

It’s hard to take any of the plot too seriously considering how weightless and simplistic the film is, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s not a good thing, but it isn’t entirely bad, either. On the one hand, Justice League avoids the density and metaphorical posturing that dragged down Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. It’s often genuinely entertaining and suitably super-heroic. On the other, it means that the armageddon-from-space that Steppenwolf represents seems like an empty threat with no real consequences.

In many ways, Justice League is a film doing battle with itself. Director Zack Snyder stepped down during post-production, turning the reins over to Joss Whedon, who gets a co-writing credit alongside Chris Terrio. Whedon was at the helm for some studio-mandated re-shoots, and while he mimics Snyder’s visual style as much as possible, it’s still clear which parts he’s most responsible for.

The film ricochets back and forth between confusing, monochromatic fight sequences and tight, snappy team-building scenes with such speed and force that it threatens to break the sound barrier. Whedon’s influence is apparent during the latter, most clearly mimicking the inter-hero dynamics that helped make his Avengers films successful. Snyder, however, was clearly the driving force behind the film’s action sequences, rife with his usual unimaginative choreography, shoddy effects work, and quick-cut editing. The end result makes the film feel less like a comic book adaptation and more like a video game with some killer cut scenes. (Wonder Woman repeatedly does her “clash bracers get big bada boom” trick like someone’s inputting quarter-circle-forward + punch.)

Like the previous DC films however, its greatest strength is its characters, and despite their mixed record on its overall output, DC has always had its casting game on point. Ben Affleck continues to impress as Batman, and Gal Gadot is as magnetic as ever as Diana. Both play off of each other well, and both are clearly committed to their roles. The new characters integrate well into the vibe Affleck and Godot have established, each one adding a new facet to the cast dynamic that serves to strengthen the overall story. Jason Mamoa is effortlessly charismatic as Aquaman, playing him as a hard-drinking, gold-hearted drifter. Ray Fisher is both strong and sympathetic as Cyborg, transcending the character’s flat and underwritten modern-Frankenstein backstory.

The film’s breakout star, however, is Ezra Miller as The Flash. Genuinely funny and endearingly sincere, Miller’s Flash is a wide-eyed fanboy, giddy at the prospect of sharing space with the world’s greatest heroes. The Flash’s quirky, semi-metatextual humor and love of pop culture references are classic, Buffy-era Whedon, and rarely has that style been more welcome than it is here. Miller has excellent chemistry with literally everybody in the film, especially Affleck and Fisher, and his scenes with Billy Crudup (playing The Flash’s father) have more dramatic weight to them than anything else in the narrative.

Less excellent, however, is the film’s central story and its accompanying villain, both of which are painfully generic. Steppenwolf comes off as a refugee from a forgotten PlayStation 3 title, and while Ciarán Hinds gets the voice right, the script never comes up with anything interesting for him to say beyond standard villain-speak. He may be strong enough to take on the Justice League single-handed, but he’s ultimately a weak and very dull Big Bad. That his CGI is nowhere near up to par for a film of this scope doesn’t help matters in the slightest, even if he’s a huge step forward from BvS’s Doomsday.

The artificial look of Steppenwolf and his army of “parademons” robs the central conflict of any real-world danger. The film tries to remedy this by constantly cutting to a nameless Russian family in peril near Steppenwolf’s lair, but that goes-nowhere micro-plot only highlights the lack of drama. Whereas Whedon’s The Avengers showed an alien invasion in the heart of New York City, with countless lives in the very immediate balance, Justice League prefers to set its climax in the Middle of Nowhere. It’s very hard to care about the possible end of the world when you can’t see how much world there is to save.

There’s a glimmer of hope in Justice League that the DCEU is slowly making its way toward a more colorful, more consistent level of quality. But that’s almost undone by Snyder’s signature visual noise; the film is half composed of shots that look amazing in a trailer but not so much in the context of a broader work. While it makes a clear effort to please the fans and the studio at the same time, it ultimately defaults to siding with the latter, and the film is worse off for it. This isn’t quite the film that does justice to its heroic cast, but it also gives the audience hope that maybe next time, they’ll get it completely right. After all, you can’t keep heroes like these down for long.

FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C

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