REVIEW – ‘Justice League’

Seeing DC’s much-beloved Justice League finally represented on the big-screen is the stuff of many a fanboy’s dream. The chance to see Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman et al. coming together as one is the fantasy of anyone who’s ever read a DC comic or loved a DC film. With Zack Snyder at the helm, and a wonderfully assembled cast, Justice League is both a dream come true and a horrible nightmare you’ll want to wake up from.

As we saw in Suicide Squad, the world is mourning the loss of Superman (Henry Cavill). Crime is up. Morale is down. And no one knows quite what to do next. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is particularly traumatised and troubled by the death of his new friend. Even Bruce’s usually positive adviser, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is lost. “I don’t even recognise this world,” he bemoans. Desperately trying to fill the hole left by the beloved superhero, Wayne has transformed into a more-heroic figure than we’ve previously seen.

Likewise with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, as mesmerising as ever), who emerges when needed, but is still hesitant to fully step into the spotlight. Her first appearance foiling a terrorist plot in a London bank is one of the film’s highlights, but Wonder Woman is quick to exit the scene of the crime, desperate to keep her day-to-day life as a demure historian in-tact.

They’re both put on notice by the arrival of a new big bad guy, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds, behind some woeful CGI effects), who’s out to destroy humanity, naturally. With his legion of Parademons (basically angry, winged bug things) in-tow, Steppenwolf is proving a bigger menace than the pair can handle. He’s after the all-powerful tesseract Infinity Stones “mother boxes,” and with two already in his possession, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. It’s time for Batman and Wonder Woman to find some new recruits.

Bruce jets off to Iceland to track down Arthur Curry aka “the Aquaman” (Jason Momoa), a mysterious, buff half-human/half-underwater Atlantian god who has control over the sea, and can possibly “talk to fish.” He’s also tasked with finding Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller, in all his Ezra Miller glory), a nerdy loner who’s been gifted with incredible speed and dry, quick wit aka the film’s comic relief.

Meanwhile, Diana attempts to locate the “urban legend” that is the half-human/half-machine Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who has been crafted back to life, after a fatal car crash, by his devoted father, Silas (Joe Morton). Cyborg, with his cybernetically constructed body, can manipulate technology, and it’s a power he’s still coming to terms with.

But, just like the rest of the world, the newly formed quintet desperately needs Superman. Without him, their mission against Steppenwolf seems doomed. But he’s dead, remember? We all saw him die. He’s not coming back. Yeah, okay. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you he does, through a rather convoluted process and a few convenient plot holes. From here, it’s up to the titular Justice League to defeat the baddie and save the world. Can this merry band of misfits work together and rescue humanity?

So, first the good news – Justice League is a far superior film to the bleak and grim Batman v. Superman and the bungled mess that was Suicide Squad. Clearly the memo came through from someone at Warner Bros. to lighten this one up, and deliver something far more engaging and entertaining. In that regard, director Zack Snyder (with a little help from Joss Whedon) delivers, purely by comparison to his previous DC films. The bad news is calling this film better than those two disasters isn’t saying much. At all.

For a film with a hell of a lot to convey, Justice League suffers one of the biggest problems plaguing its predecessor Batman v. Superman – trying to cram too much in with too short a running time. Like with BvS, this feels like several movies all smooshed together. From what we’re led to believe, the original cut of this film was around 2 hours and 45 minutes. Once Whedon came on-board, he was given the directive to trim that down to 2 hours. Those missing 45 minutes are noticeable. Very noticeable.

Almost every scene transition lacks any semblance of flow, feeling overly choppy and jarringly edited. It’s decidedly sloppy to think an audience won’t notice when scenes feel like a whole bunch of ideas slapped together, rather than an overall visionary movement. The film stops and starts so many times, speeding through practically every plot point with insane ferocity, and it becomes rather forgettable because of it. The narrative is so terribly disjointed, with numerous moments touched on, but never expanded further.

Case in point – there’s a whole swag of scenes showing a completely random Russian family, cowering in their home, as Steppenwolf and his minions lay waste to their town. We repeatedly go back to this family, time and time again, for no apparent reason. Even by the end of the film, there’s no explanation as to their bizarre importance to the film, other than being victims of our villain’s tyranny. If someone can explain to me what on earth this was all about, I’ll give you a cookie. We never really see the stakes of Steppenwolf’s plan, outside of the misery it’s inflicting on this poor family, and it’s hard to care when no one else seems affected.

The decision to keep it brief is baffling, particularly for a film of this grand nature. This is ultimately the culmination of multiple heroes and multiple character arcs. We need to take our time here. Marvel seemed to understand this. The Avengers and Avengers – Age of Ultron were both around 2 hours and 20 minutes long. With such a huge cinematic blockbuster, you really do need some extra length. Perhaps there are financial reasons at play to keep a blockbuster short, but Justice League ultimately suffers because of it.

The trim running time is all the more disappointing when you realise Warner Bros. has jumped far too many steps to get to this point. When we finally reached The Avengers in 2012, we’d been treated to each major team member’s stand-alone film (or films, in the case of Iron Man), over the course of four years. DC has sped that process considerably, with only two of its characters being given this essential treatment before we’re expected to be excited by their formation into one epic supergroup.

Instead, three of the key members are given hastily-constructed introductions, jumping frantically from one to the next. The film spends so much time continually establishing who these people are, but in the most incohesive and messy way possible. Even so, there’s still too much reliance on the audience already knowing who these characters are, as if we all should be knowledgeable DC fans. For non-fanboys, this is extremely lazy filmmaking and will make for frustrating viewing.

It shamefully assumes too much of its audience, as if we all should know the reasons Barry’s father, Henry (Billy Crudup) is currently sitting in prison or that Mera (Amber Heard) is Queen of Atlantis, and Aquaman’s wife. Little details about these characters that form the backbone of their backstories are nowhere to be seen, or they’re hinted at but never fully formed. The character development with our trio of newbies is sadly slim, to say the least.

Much like every DCEU film so far, the villain is perhaps the film’s biggest failure, and the final act where our heroes face off against him is a bloated and visually-exhausting mess. Steppenwolf is ultimately very dull and uninteresting, not to mention poorly crafted, in a visual sense. He’s given absolutely zero backstory or true motivation to his evil deeds, and never feels remotely threatening in any way. He also disappears for large segments of the film, and you genuinely won’t even notice. Or care. There were so many decidedly better choices from the DC villain canon, and the decision to stick Steppenwolf here makes absolutely no sense.

In saying all of this, the film is still overall completely watchable and ultimately entertaining, particularly when the group joins as one. There are some wonderful action set pieces, each serving to highlight the attributes and strengths of each superhero, and how they combine to create a mighty team. When the group are together, the scenes are often filled with zippy one-liners and playful banter, and you have to assume this has been injected by Whedon, a master of this form of levity.

And the film’s crowning glory may ultimately be simply delivering us a piece of superhero cinema with six huge characters who are all extremely likable and genuinely endearing. The group has wonderful chemistry together, and you will want to continue to follow them after this film is over. The new actors are all welcome additions to the universe. Miller injects lashings of enthusiasm and charm. Momoa is playful and lively, and his solo film is now a tantalising venture on the horizon. As for Fisher, well, he’s probably the least engaging, but it’s hard to captivate when you’re playing a cold and confused robot. Unless you’re Alicia Vikander, that is.

The real star here is Gadot, unsurprising after her triumphant solo adventure, earlier this year. It’s still impossible to take your eyes off her, and her charisma is utterly infectious. She lives and breathes Wonder Woman now, and her performance is effortless and effective. Gadot delivers the gravitas here, and she elevates this film, much like her brief appearance in BvS. She’s still somewhat wasted, and you get the feeling she inherently knows she deserves better than this now. What is clear is that perhaps Patty Jenkins should be the only director tasked with Wonder Woman as a character in the future.

The same can’t be said of Affleck, who already appears to be a little bored with this role and wanting to be anywhere but in this film. It’s not entirely his fault. Batman isn’t given a whole lot to do, besides bring everyone together. Affleck struggles to elevate the character to much more than a sidekick, which is decidedly bizarre for such a stalemate of this franchise. Perhaps he’s desperate for his own solo outing, and tired of sharing the screen with his fellow DC cohorts. We’ll see how that plays out in the near-future.

With some interesting but expected cinematography from Fabian Wagner, and a competent but forgettable score from Danny Elfman, featuring some welcome musical nods to the original film themes of Batman and Superman, the production itself is far from groundbreaking. You can almost tell there’s a truly wonderful film hiding here somewhere. And perhaps the obligatory “extended Blu-ray cut” will fix a lot of the problems.

But what we have now is a film that becomes rather exhausting at times, and the payoff is hardly worth the effort. It achieves its task at establishing the major players of this cinematic universe, and that’s a major victory in itself. Perhaps now we can get on with falling in love with each of them individually. As a film, Justice League represents everything great and everything awful about this DC franchise. We get lots to love but also plenty to despise.

★★★☆☆

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