Justice League successfully ushers in a new era for DC Films and delivers lots of superhero fun – at the expense of a richer and more layered movie.
Justice League is the third DC comic book movie directed by Zack Snyder, as well as the fifth installment in DC’s shared cinematic universe (unofficially known as the DC Extended Universe). In many ways, however, the film is less a conclusion to Snyder’s DC superhero trilogy – though it does payoff certain plot/character threads from Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice – and more a launch point for the next generation of live-action DC movies. Similar to how DC Rebirth drew from The New 52 DC Comics initiative, Justice League incorporates core elements of Snyder’s previous DC films into a larger world of superheroes, with its own tone and style. Justice League successfully ushers in a new era for DC Films and delivers lots of superhero fun – at the expense of a richer and more layered movie.
Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in Batman V Superman, the world remains in mourning for its lost savior – even as superheroes like Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) step up their own crime-fighting efforts, in Kal-El’s absence. However, with the Man of Steel gone, humanity now faces a greater threat than anything on Earth – that of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), an ancient extraterrestrial being who has returned to our planet to recover three items of immense power known as the Mother Boxes, thousands of years after he was defeated by the three major races of Earth (the Amazonians, Atlanteans, and Man).
Realizing that they alone cannot stop Steppenwolf and his army of monstrous Parademons, Batman and Wonder Woman set out to put together a team that includes the three other metahumans that they know of – the speedster Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), the half-human/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry, aka. the Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a cyborg who was created and gifted with extraordinary powers by one of the Mother Boxes. As powerful as these superheroes are as a team fighting together, it eventually becomes clear to Batman that their combined might may not be enough to prevent Steppenwolf from carrying out his terrible plan. No, if they are going to save the world, they are going to need some help…
While Snyder was at the helm on Justice League during production, drawing from a screen story that he cowrote with his Batman V Superman collaborator Chris Terrio, it was Avengers filmmaker Joss Whedon who oversaw the movie’s reshoots (earning himself a co-screenwriting credit for his efforts), after Snyder stepped down in the wake of a personal tragedy. As a result, Justice League doesn’t have the same auteur sensibility as Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. However, the film’s more idiosyncratic touches and stylistic flourishes very much feel like Snyder’s handiwork (in a good way), from the Watchmen-style opening credits set to Sigrid’s rendition of “Everybody Knows”, to the movie’s snapshot-esque slow motion during its many colorful and splashy action scenes. Aided by bright and crisp cinematography from Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones) and a lively soundtrack by Danny Elfman that nods to DC’s history on the big screen, Snyder moves away from the darkly operatic political allegories of his previous DC movies to deliver a proper crowd-pleaser full of playful banter and visually-pleasing spectacle, with Justice League.
However, what Justice League offers in terms of whiz-bang entertainment, it lacks with respect to thematic substance. Whereas Man of Steel and Batman V Superman were social parables told through the lens of comic book tentpoles, Justice League is more of a conventional narrative about superheroes from different backgrounds coming together to battle a common enemy and serve as a beacon of hope (and symbol of unity) for humankind, complete with the world-building and franchise setup that audiences have come to expect from modern shared universe blockbusters. That also means there’s too much going on for Justice League to service all of its dramatic moments and plot points equally, resulting in certain story/character elements that are noticeably better developed than others. Still, all things considered, Justice League‘s final cut does a solid job of streamlining what was clearly a bigger film at one point (see the various Justice League trailer moments that aren’t in the movie, for the proof) into a two-hour filmgoing experience that never drags and provides simple, but complete, arcs for most every one of its main players.
The screen chemistry between and performances from the members of the Justice League itself, serve as the glue that holds the film together. Gadot and Affleck are both noticeably more comfortable in their respective superhero roles here, which build on their previous DC film appearances, allowing their versions of Wonder Woman and Batman to naturally evolve into being the mom and dad in the Justice League family unit. Of the three less established superheroes here, Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash is easily the scene-stealer and brings loads of charisma, humor, and heart to his performance as the League’s most enthusiastic, but least experienced, member – one whose Speed Force powers are among the film’s most dazzling visual effects. Fisher also makes a nice impression here as the more broody Cyborg, who is very much the brains of the operation and whose story (much like his abilities, born from alien tech) is ripe for further exploration in the future. While Momoa is equally entertaining as Aquaman (the rock star/loner of the group), he is shortchanged in terms of development here – possibly, to save room for his solo film in 2018. Still, Momoa’s Justice League scenes are enough to leave you wanting to learn more about the character and his aquatic super-abilities, down the line.
As part of the streamlining of Justice League‘s narrative during its development, a number of supporting characters that were once slated to appear in the film (like Iris West and Nuidis Vulko) wound up on the cutting room floor instead. Similarly, the side players who did make it into the movie’s final cut – including, returning players such as Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), as well as newcomers like Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) and Mera (Amber Heard) – are mostly relegated to moving the plot along here. Nevertheless, Justice League‘s ensemble makes the most of the screen time they are afforded, providing audiences with all the more reason to want to see them (especially the new additions) get more fulfilling roles in future DC films. As for Hinds as Steppenwolf: he’s very much a two-dimensional, cartoony CGI supervillain driven by little more than a thirst for power and revenge, but he’s no worse than the average one-and-done superhero movie baddie.
In the end, Justice League succeeds at doing what it set out to accomplish and clears the stage for the next wave of DC films while moving the franchise in a fresh direction, without simply jettisoning the mythology introduced in the previous DC movies or flat-out rebooting the franchise. It’s a worthy compromise, all things considered; one that provides fans of Snyder’s previous DC comic book adaptations with a sense of closure, at the same time that it sets the table for a new and exciting future in the DC shared universe. While that prevents Justice League from breaking new ground for the superhero genre from a narrative perspective, it means that like the League itself, the film should have better luck at uniting and not dividing people. Thus, Justice League can be recommended (possibly in IMAX, which the movie’s big action sequences certainly benefit from) to both die-hard DC fans and those who haven’t fully hopped aboard the DC bandwagon yet.
And last, but not least, those who see Justice League are very much advised to not leave the theater until the end credits are completely done rolling.
Justice League starts playing in U.S. theaters on Thursday evening, November 16. It is 121 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
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