Review: Snyder's 'Justice League' Has Few Bright Spots, Mostly Dim
Director Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, Man of Steel, received mostly positive reviews when it released in 2013, but ultimately underperformed at the box office. The second entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Snyder's sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, encountered an overwhelmingly negative response from critics and lukewarm audience sentiment, despite making $873 million. Similarly, the third film in the franchise, David Ayer's Suicide Squad, wound up with terrible reviews but still surpassed expectations. Everything changed this year, when Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman received widespread critical acclaim and overwhelming audience support, becoming one of the best-reviewed superhero movies of all time and the highest-grossing superhero origin movie in history. Now, Justice League hopes to ride Wonder Woman's coattails and deliver a fun, hopeful film that lives up to the legacy of the iconic superhero team that first assembled in DC Comics' 1960's The Brave and the Bold #28.
Directed by Snyder with a screenplay by Chris Terrio (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Argo) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron), Justice League picks up a few months after the events of Batman v Superman. After the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the hands of Doomsday, Earth is left vulnerable to attack. Inspired by the Son of Krypton's selfless act of sacrifice, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), to save the planet from annihilation at the hands of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an eight-foot-tall warrior from the nightmare world of Apokolips. With his army of insectoid shock troopers, the parademons, Steppenwolf has come to Earth in search of three Mother Boxes — sentient supercomputers that possess unlimited power; the DCEU's answer to Marvel's Infinity Stones. To stop this extraterrestrial invasion, Batman and Wonder Woman must work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans, including Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller).
OK, so let's go ahead and get this out of the way: Justice League is not a good movie. While it's marginally better than Suicide Squad, Snyder's latest is just as uneven and incoherent as Batman v Superman — a huge step backward for the DCEU after finally getting on track with Wonder Woman. Terrio and Whedon's script depicts the members of the League as loners and misfits who need work together to save the world. And while the story is all about teamwork, the movie is yet another example of too many cooks in the kitchen. During post-production, Snyder and his wife, producer Deborah Snyder, stepped away from the project to deal with the sudden death of their daughter. Whedon, who Snyder brought on to rewrite some additional scenes, took over post-production duties, including two months of reshoots to lighten the film's tone. Both filmmakers have made good superhero movies on their own, but together their unique voices cancel each other out. Whedon's self-referential humor doesn't mesh with Synder's penchant for grim theatricality, and the result is a film where the fun is just as forced as the manufactured melodrama, creating a slight and silly patchwork that simply doesn't work.
Despite some genuinely atrocious Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones-level dialogue, the characters in Justice League more or less work. Ezra Miller's Barry Allen is an excessively energetic kid attending Central City College, working toward a criminal justice degree with the hope of one day freeing his incarcerated father (Billy Crudup). Flash is a fun, neurotic addition to the DCEU and you get the sense that a standalone movie with Miller could be really great if handled properly. Same goes for Momoa's tattooed surfer-bro, Aquaman. The offspring of a human father and a royal mother from the underwater realm of Atlantis, Arthur Curry doesn't feel at home on land or at sea. He’s the heir to the throne of Atlantis, but he’s not ready to be king. Momoa has more charisma than the entire cast combined, and I look forward to seeing what director James Wan (Insidious, The Conjuring) brings to his standalone adventure, currently slated for a December 2018 release.
Surprisingly, Ray Fisher isn't shortchanged as Victor Stone, a college quarterback at Gotham City University who is resurrected by his father, scientist Silas Stone (Joe Morton), after a fatal car accident. Now half-man, half-machine, Cyborg acts as the team's RoboCop, using his cybernetic enhancements to protect the innocent. As for Wonder Woman, Gadot is saddled with some clunky, expository dialogue that hurts her performance. It's frustrating to see her soar in her own standalone, only to be misused in a movie that could benefit from Jenkins' approach. Still, the Amazonian demigoddess is easily the most heroic figure in the film, and the one or two coherent action set pieces in the film work because of her. Affleck's Bruce Wayne is serviceable, but the punched-up script forces him to crack dad jokes that aren't funny, nor are they believable coming from such a morose interpretation of the character. This is a guy who was branding criminals and murdering thugs with machine guns a few months ago, and now suddenly he's cracking wise? It's a tough pill to swallow.
And then there's Henry Cavill's Superman. Cavill looks the part and given better material that actually grasps the character, could be a great Superman, but he's lost in the shuffle here. Like Batman, the Son of Krypton has been retconned as a kinder, gentler hero who doesn't snap necks and level entire cities to ash. Now he's just another person making jokes in a movie where everyone makes jokes. It's as if Warner Brothers' direction to lighten the tone was interpreted as "make light of everything." As a result, it's impossible to give Superman's return the emotional weight it demands. Nothing means anything in this movie; it's just one goofy thing after another, loosely held together by ugly, unaffecting special effects.
Speaking of effects, the computer-generated imagery in Justice League is some of the worst I've seen in a movie of this size. Apparently, the studio mandate to lighten things up also applied to the color balance, replacing the darker, muted tones of previous DCEU films with vibrant hues that are colorful in the way vomit is when it's laced with Skittles and Mountain Dew Code Red. Mostly, the effects just look unfinished, lacking the detail and texture necessary to suspend disbelief. The parademons are visually interesting, but big bad Steppenwolf is another generic CGI villain who offers little to the proceedings other than serving as a reminder of how far we've come with digital characters. While films like Ex Machina, The Jungle Book, and War for the Planet of the Apes are breaking new ground with their photo-realistic digital creations, here's a movie that harkens back to the days of Jar Jar Binks and The Scorpion King, when digital characters were shiny, smooth, and awkwardly animated.
Another weird thing about the film is its pacing. Considering it's the shortest DCEU film by far at 119 minutes, Justice League should move at hyper-speed, but it's just as plodding and protracted as Batman v Superman. The extensive rewrites and reshoots, along with the mandate to turn in a movie under two hours, have resulted in a disjointed film that feels less like one coherent story and more like a hastily assembled montage of scenes from five different movies.
Between the thin narrative, cringe-worthy dialogue, and lackluster effects, there isn't a whole lot to appreciate here. There are, however, enough good pieces in place that there's hope for future films like Aquaman, Flashpoint, and Matt Reeves' The Batman. Still, it's a shame that this is all Warner Bros could muster for what should have been the crown jewel of their superhero shared universe. The Justice League (and the DC Comics fandom) deserves better than this.
Adam's Rating: 2 out of 5
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