2017 has been a banner year for superhero movies and one of the evolutionary points on the timeline. It saw the release of the first proper revisionist film (Logan), Psychoanalytic Daddy Issues: The Space Opera (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), a film that hints at a feminist possibility for the blockbuster (Wonder Woman), an anti-colonialist apocalyptic farce (Thor: Ragnarok), and an adequate Spider-Man film.
After 2016, which saw Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad critically pilloried, draw massive gates, and be weighed down by their prohibitive price tags, it’s understandable the higher ups at Warner Bros., directors Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, everyone involved, would want something successful with this next film, Justice League. Is Justice League bad? No, but that doesn’t mean it is good either. It never gets the chance to become more than what it is: a big, standard, hollow F/X film actively trying not to be bad and stay under 120 minutes. It features several audibly crowd-pleasing moments but has nothing to say. Somewhere in the process Justice League became a $300 million live action equivalent of those direct-to-video DC animated features.
For the record, this review contains minor spoilers.
While the plot structure of Justice League isn’t all that different from Avengers or any other film of this type, it never manages to land the moments this sort of structure is used for. What these moments are not is a dramatic arc, and that lack of a character arc is why, despite the lively attitude, everything comes across so dramatically hollow. The Justice League is supposed to be formed out of Bruce Wayne’s guilt for being corrupted to madness in Batman v Superman by his misplaced hatred, but that never comes off other than a fleeting mention. The decision to keep this film at two hours never gives the film a moment to breathe beyond the opening montage. There’s also a fleeting mention of how Bruce Wayne is really getting to old for this. If Ben Affleck is actively exploring a way to gracefully remove the cape and cowl, Justice League could’ve been that moment.
To put a finer point on the dramatically hollow heart of Justice League, the resurrection of Superman (oh you know that was coming) comes off as just a thing that happens. For a series that has unabashedly draped Christian iconography over the Man of Steel, you’d think the resurrection would play as something bigger and affecting. Without the consistent, haunting guilt of Bruce attempt’s to atone, bringing back the ‘Last Son of Krypton’ just becomes a plot beat because the team needs to stop Steppenwolf. Frustratingly, if unsurprising, they then short change Clark’s own re-calibration to having happened off screen, in-between scenes before going off to save the day. Sure, Cavill now acts like the Superman he appears to be off screen, but there isn’t a thread textually tying it together.
The good news is that in all those hero moments, the Justice League come across like their comic counterparts. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen is maybe a bit manic, but his mixture of youthful exuberance and terror at being a hero balances some of the wearier aspects of other characters. His suit is very busy but comes off much better in motion. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman continues to be great, and touches on the emotional continuity from her prior appearances, allowing her to come off as fully formed with minimal effort. Jason Momoa as Aquaman is pretty great. Underneath all that Khal Drogo of the Sea, hard-bodied repression, is a Brave and the Bold soul waiting to be bared. Just don’t expect him to say “Outrageous!” anytime soon. Ray Fisher as Cyborg feels the most short changed: he doesn’t get to do many interesting things because he’s functionally as much a plot engine as Steppenwolf, but there are hints of a more fulfilling arc for the character that never materializes.
While the main cast get their moments, a byproduct of Justice League’s lean structure is the Ciarán Hinds voiced Steppenwolf is utterly forgettable. I’m normally forgiving to antagonists that aren’t super interesting, as they are functionally there to push the hero, not steal the spotlight. But Steppenwolf is just a great big alien invader there to push the plot. He looks like he stepped out of a Final Fantasy game. There’s a weariness to Hinds’s performance, but his lack of definition makes his soliloquizing about the trio of Mother Boxes (constantly calling them “Mother”) not track at all. Don’t expect much Kirby Fourth World stuff.Continued below
One of the reasons I’m hesitant to think Warner Bros would keep with tradition and release some sort of extended cut is the VFX heavy nature of the film (although those moments aren’t what is missing). There are some shots that are plainly rough to look at, which is odd for a movie of this size and scale. Henry Cavill’s phantom lip is an understandable if awkward byproduct of scheduling, but it does more to reveal the uncanny valley than Hinds’s vague gray-silver digital mass known as Stepponwolf. I’m normally forgiving when it comes to complaints of “bad” CGI, the clamor for “realism” in representing these otherworldly spectacles seems at odds with the diverse, vibrant, quality of superhero art. This wouldn’t have been a sticking point if audiences were enraptured by a proper story being told.
What I’m not forgiving of is the terrible framing around Gal Gadot that seemed to do everything in its power to ogle her backside. There’s a deeper discussion to be had about the Male Gaze and how gaze is handled in media, but on a fundamental level it comes down to setting up shots that don’t have audiences peaking up Wonder Woman’s skirt at every chance. Shoddy VFX work be damned, that’s the most egregious element of this film.
Justice League, for all the tortured production stories and extra elements, is an unremarkable film. It isn’t a dayglow garbage fire like Suicide Squad, or a frustratingly incomplete thought like Batman v Superman. It just is, and there’s nothing to really talk about on a thematic or meta level. It nominally points towards a more publicly heroic future for its heroes and aesthetic, but none of that is earned or dramatically payed off. In a year that showed how much this genre has grown, Justice League is competently boring with how far it colors in the lines.