Considering the circumstances under which it was produced, Justice League–the long-awaited crossover of the DC film universe’s cornerstone characters–is arguably better than it has any right to be. The film was started and saw its principal photography completed under the direction of Zack Snyder, who launched into it right after finishing the polarizing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But a terrible family tragedy forced Snyder to step aside before Justice League was locked down, and Warner Bros. Pictures turned to Joss Whedon to oversee additional writing and shooting, as well as the bulk of post-production down the stretch.
How much of the movie is “new”–meaning written and shot by Whedon–and how much remains of the original Snyder footage might stay a mystery for some time (we’ve heard rumors that Whedon wrote as many as 70 new pages and that some 45 minutes of footage hit the cutting room floor). But whether the movie’s overhaul was that extensive or not, the situation allowed the studio to take stock of what it had in the can already, and what it means for the future of the DC universe on film.
It is clear that Justice League in its final form is influenced by the DC film that preceded it, Wonder Woman, and how that latter movie’s generally optimistic tone was received by audiences. While League doesn’t have the casual jokiness of the Marvel films, it is the funniest and most light-footed film in the DC canon so far, and it benefits enough from that to help the movie get past its still significant flaws. In the process, it also becomes a far more entertaining experience than Batman v Superman, laying the groundwork for a DC film universe in which the superheroes are not all sourpusses working reluctantly to save a failing and nihilistic world.
The best aspect of Justice League is the team itself. For the most part, they are all engaging and charismatic, with the story giving each one of them a surprising amount of character moments and even little mini-arcs that they must resolve to serve the greater narrative. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) are each confronted with their rationale for hiding themselves away from the world while the Flash (Ezra Miller) must deal with his own insecurities as a relatively naïve young man, and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) grapples with how much of his own humanity still exists inside a shell composed largely of alien technology. As for Batman (Ben Affleck), he continues to deal with his own instinctual reluctance to become a team player as well as his guilt over the death of Superman.
The individual moments given to each hero/heroine and their dynamics together are what make Justice League, at its best, fun and even crackling with spirit and heart. Each cast member steps up accordingly: Gadot now owns the role of Diana as much as Robert Downey Jr. embodies Tony Stark or Chris Evans personifies Steve Rogers. As for Affleck, his own performance–engaged, committed, and slyly humorous–builds on the decent work he did in Batman v Superman and does not indicate any sense of exhaustion with the role. Of the other three, Momoa and Miller are solid, but I was most taken with Fisher’s haunted Cyborg, even if his CG body was a bit wobbly at times (bonus point also go to Jeremy Irons for adding a sarcastic spark whenever he’s onscreen as Alfred).
The banter and character development between the five team members feels distinctly Whedonesque, and one has to think that this is the material he was brought on board to deliver. DC fans might not like hearing this, but Justice League works most effectively when it feels most like Whedon’s The Avengers, which may simply mean that Whedon set a team-up template with that film that is impossible to ignore. As for Superman–no, I didn’t forget him and no, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that he is in the film–he starts off in a very dark place and ends up somewhere different on the emotional and psychological spectrum. And whether it’s the way this is handled or Cavill’s performance, it nevertheless remains the least convincing element of the team’s overall evolution.
The plot of the movie is simplicity itself, to the point of thinness, and it’s here that Justice League runs into problems. An ancient New God named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), alerted by the activation of Mother Boxes (those all-powerful sentient supercomputers created by Jack Kirby) on Earth, is coming back to our planet after being banished millennia earlier in an epic battle with Amazons, Atlanteans, and other now vanished races. Steppenwolf, who is himself a herald of Darkseid, wants to reclaim the Mother Boxes so he can lay waste to Earth and have his revenge. It’s up to the League to stop him, and after getting a collective initial ass-kicking, they must decide on a risky plan that could tear them all apart.
Everything about this storyline is generic, from the superficial way that the narrative skims over the biggest plot points to the development and motivation of Steppenwolf, who ranks down there with Malekith (Thor: The Dark World) and Parallax (Green Lantern) as being among the weakest villains ever conceived for a superhero movie. A wholly CG visual creation, he’s as stock an antagonist as can be, which lessens the overall stakes of the story. His low point comes when he inexplicably calls out for “Mother,” which led us to wonder if DC was going to shock us all by recasting Darkseid as a female.
The major showdown with Steppenwolf is the usual third-act miasma of CG, explosions, and rapid-fire cutting as the League battles the main bad guy and his army of parademons in a strangely empty Eastern European setting where the League is obsessed with saving what appears to be just one family and a single apartment block. The way this is barely fleshed out indicates that this may be the portion of the film that was least able to be reworked, and it almost makes one yearn for the days when Superman and Zod were inadvertently slaughtering thousands in a populated Metropolis.
These are the stretches of the movie that feel rushed and sewn together, and there are other similar spots throughout where the seams show through. But while the League never has that great, rousing moment together that feels completely earned and cathartic — i.e. the now-classic “circle the heroes” shot in The Avengers — the film at least goes a long way toward making us care about and invest in a fistful of characters that we have either barely gotten to know (Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman) or didn’t like much the first time we met them (Batman and Superman).
This gives us something to look ahead to, if DC can maintain a cohesive vision and not just throw titles against the wall in the hope of creating evanescent excitement among the fan base. Justice League may not leave us feeling like all is now well within the DC film universe (which it decidedly is not, given the murky status of so many projects, including the next Batman and Superman outings), but combined with Wonder Woman, it shores up that universe’s underpinnings and provides a place from which the team and its members can move forward. That, for now, may be an achievement in itself.
Justice League is out in theaters Friday, Nov. 17. Make sure you stay all the way to the end.