Meanwhile, in the universe formerly known as the DCEU
by Thom Yee
If you had told me back in 2007 — just one year after the disastrous X-Men: The Last Stand stalled that franchise to the point of needing a soft reboot and just one year before Robert Downey Jr.’s debut as Iron Man would kick off Marvel’s own Cinematic Universe — that the next ten years in movies would be dominated by superheroes, I’d have thought you were joking. And yet, here we are, a full ten years later and a full five years of reviewing them here at GOO Reviews (yesterday in fact marked our fifth anniversary), and superhero movies have gone from rarity to occasional hit to the driving force behind Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. It’s superhero movies that make most of the money in Hollywood these days, it’s superhero (and superhero-like) movies that executives want most to produce and fanboys want most to see, and it’s superhero movies that, as of 2017 with the release of Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and the subject of this review, are now coming out at a rate of at least six per year (and that’s not even counting tangential 2017 superhero releases like LEGO Batman or Power Rangers).
And then there’s Justice League. Poor little Justice League. You have no idea how much I wanted to start this review with a positive take on Justice League, how much I’d hoped for its greatness and wished for it to continue turning things around for the DC Extended Universe after the success of Wonder Woman, but if you’ve been paying any attention at all to the news around this latest entry in Warner Bros.’ beleaguered DCEU, you’d know that starting our review off on a positive note would have been disingenuous. With an opening weekend haul of $94 million, Justice League fell well below industry estimates (which had it pegged closer to a $120 million opening), and as much as $94 million might sound like a lot to you or I, it’s not, not in the blockbuster movie sense, not when Wonder Woman opened to $103 million and rode a wave of feminism on its way to becoming, so far, the second biggest movie of the year, not when Thor: Ragnarok, opened to $122 million only two weeks earlier, not when the friggin’ Guardians of the Galaxy sequel opened to $146 million, and it’s certainly not a lot when you’re a guy like Ben Affleck and you’re counting on this movie for some big back-end points before you make your exit from the franchise.
Like it or not, Justice League is far from a hit and it’s just about the furthest thing from a pure product. That last note is, of course, not really surprising given its place at the head of the DC Extended Universe’s dinner table, but where Marvel’s been able to cannily blend at least a shred of artistic vision with financial success with its Cinematic Universe, nearly everything about DC’s Extended Universe since the release of the polarizing Man of Steel has been the wrong mix of incorrectly calculated, reactionary, and afraid to fail. Whatever you may think of its later Ultimate Edition, Batman v Superman was chopped to pieces by the studio in its theatrical cut, making it harder to follow than it should have been without addressing its biggest issues, and Suicide Squad was even worse, clearly tampered with to the point where it often literally didn’t make sense. They got lucky with Wonder Woman, mostly because it seems like they left director Patty Jenkins alone to make her own movie, but with only one installment of the DCEU releasing in 2018 (Aquaman), their various aborted attempts to launch a Flash movie (a project that’s already lost two directors), and very little in the way of firm plans for the future of the DCEU, it’s clear Warner Bros. either doesn’t know what it’s doing or doesn’t have the conviction to pick and plan and stick with it. Hell, we’re not even supposed to be calling it the DCEU anymore.
And it’s here that I’ll add just one more thing to the dumpster fire that is Justice League. Amongst all of this negativity, all of this underperforming, and everything that’s fallen through with DC’s movies, here, at the edge of our hope and at the end of my intro, that I’ll say… I really loved this movie.
What’s it about?
After a catastrophic battle with Doomsday (after a series of nearly as catastrophic misunderstandings with a certain Dark Knight detective), Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, leaving the Earth vulnerable — No Lanterns. No Kryptonian. Sensing the approach of an otherworldly danger, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Earth’s last remaining defenders, gather together superpowered individuals — Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — in an attempt to build a team capable of resisting the oncoming threat of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). He’s a supervillain. So… not the band.
Unlike almost every other modern superhero team, the Justice League basically has no reason to exist other than beating up bad guys. They’re not a family like the Fantastic Four, they don’t share a common point of origin like the X-Men, and they’re not a network of friends like the Teen Titans. Like the Avengers, they’re an assemblage of the most powerful and capable superheroes in their respective universes, but unlike the Avengers’ combination of heavy hitters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor with lesser heroes like Hawkeye or Black Widow who provide balance to the team, every member of the Justice League is a big deal and usually the lead of their own comicbook series. Where the Avengers, in its various comicbook runs, eventually grew to become a family of sorts, the Justice League has mostly been a team of fiercely individual characters who only get together when a threat is too global, galactic, and sometimes multidimensional to solve on their own. Nearly every member of the League has been popular enough to sustain their own corners of DC Comics’ publishing empire, and, really, the only reason most of these characters were ever brought together was to try to sell more comics.
Realistically, the behind-the-scenes story of the very first Justice League movie is not very far from those comicbook origins, as it largely represents the rushed, behind-the-eightball nature of DC Comics’ parent company, Warner Bros., attempts to build out their own cinematic universe in the wake of Marvel’s success with its MCU. That’s why, instead of a series of movies introducing us to the individual members that would become the Justice League, we jumped straight from a movie introducing the very first superhero in this universe to a movie setting that hero, well before he’s come into his own, against another superhero and then teaming them both up with yet another superhero and then killing that original superhero before trying to make a team out of that whole mess in a movie that also has to introduce three other superheroes. And, unfortunately, the story of the very first Justice League movie had a lot of other things going against it as well. After a family tragedy, original director Zack Snyder stepped down from his Justice League directing duties, handing the movie off to Joss Whedon to take over, reshoot, and reconceive several key elements, and that’s the type of change, at that late of a stage, that few such blockbuster movies can withstand. Nearer to its release, Thor: Ragnarok debuted a mere two weeks earlier to significant critical and financial success, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes created a mini controversy of its own with Justice League by withholding its tomatometer rating of the movie until the day before its release, and once that rating was released, it fell notably below 50%, indicating generally unfavourable reviews. Combine all of that with fans feeling burned by previous DC Universe movies, a lackluster marketing campaign, continuing doubts about actor Ben Affleck’s participation as Batman in future installments, and it’s not really that big a surprise that Justice League hasn’t really turned out the way Warner Bros. had hoped.
Is it any good?
A long time ago, almost five years to the day in fact, we launched GOO Reviews with our review of The Avengers, a review in which I expressed general favour for the movie but also a lot of minor reservations. “Little Whedonisms” I called them as I couldn’t help but feel the influence of its director, Joss Whedon, occasionally leading The Avengers astray with painful bits of dialogue that came across more awkward than clever and cute little moments that felt more distracting than involving. With the fullness of time and with the weird conflagration of elements that would result in Joss Whedon also directing Justice League, it’s strangely easy to compare the two for reasons beyond just their obvious similarities. And, even stranger than Whedon directing both Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s Justice League, it’s all the little things in Whedon’s Justice League that made me love it.
Just a bit of housekeeping before we get too much further: I’m just going to assume that you know Superman is in this movie. I won’t reveal all of the details of his appearances or the nature of his resurrection (which is actually the one thing that really bugged me about Justice League, the nature and intentionality behind it), but if you think that my revealing Superman being in Justice League is a spoiler, you need to know that it’s not. And if you know anything about comicbooks or can at least recall that “The Death of Superman” was a major storyline in the Superman comics of the early ‘90s, you shouldn’t at all be surprised that he’s back. He’s even in the most recent Justice League trailer.
By now you should already know that I liked Justice League, but there is no part of me that doesn’t realize that this is a flawed movie. As you’d expect with a movie by two very different directors working separately from each other, it’s choppy, it’s easy to see which scenes were probably done by which director, and it’s very sudden with its major events. Whatever’s happening at the moment seems mostly like happenstance built only out of the barest of plans. The heroes decide what they’re going to do, then they do it, then it doesn’t go quite right until they win in the end. Obviously that’s the basic cadence of any superhero movie (and any movie or story really), but here the storytelling is simply point A to point B, extremely rudimentary and without a hint of seeds being lain or plots being twisted. There’s a lack of sophistication on display in this telling of this story that’s worrying and maybe even strikingly unfulfilling.
It’s also a movie that’s weirdly up itself in establishing an overarching mythology that’s entirely too Lord of the Rings and largely ignored the pieces it had laid in Man of Steel that suggested a significant portion of Earth’s superpowered beings may be descended from Kryptonians (remember that Kryptonian ship Clark found had already been there for thousands of years). The backstory of Mother Boxes (essentially the MacGuffins Steppenwolf is after to destroy the Earth) being ancient relics left to the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and mankind is an odd fit for a franchise originally built as a more modern take on superheroes, and it feels more unoriginal than reverent. Even once you get past that premise, the story elements in Justice League feel at odds. The movie’s central throughline, that the world is a much darker place without Superman, comes across wrong given how downtrodden Batman v Superman was and it rings false because we’ve never met the version of this Superman that’s inspirational. That’s not at all an indictment of Man of Steel, I’ve said several times that seeing Superman grow from darkness to light is a far more affecting story than having simply be good because that’s the way he is, but we’re missing that middle chapter, that Man of Steel sequel that could have shown him go from the light to a true hero.
To be honest, there’s a lot of stuff wrong with Justice League, important stuff, foundational stuff, and even getting beyond the flaws that are this movie’s premise, it really doesn’t do a lot to move the needle forward on superhero movies as a whole. But I love everything else about this movie. These, even more than the Avengers, are the heroes I grew up with, the heroes of the DC Universe are more gods than men, and considering what I want to see in a superhero movie, Justice League gets a lot of things right. I mean, Batman vs. a Parademon on the rooftops of Gotham? Wonder Woman protecting an entire crowd from automatic machine gun fire with her bracelets? Flash being a sillybilly goofball who admits he mostly just pushes people over and then runs away? A big fight with Superman against Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg? Come on!
The things that work in Justice League are some of the hardest things to get right, and it’s all character stuff. Every one of the principal Justice League players, even the three newcomers — Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg — are great, they’re all well played by their respective actors, and they all work well together really well. Batman shows vulnerability as the only one without powers and an unexpected sensitivity in his role in bringing Superman back. Wonder Woman is inspiring and is probably the most important part of making this team work. Aquaman is badass in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Flash provides lightness and colour to the team. And Cyborg has a lot to overcome but he does the right thing in the end. Where there’s a lack of sophistication in the telling of Justice League’s story, there are surprisingly whole story circles being told with all six of the Justice Leaguers and enough of a foundation established for each of them to follow in their respective movies (assuming those are still happening).
The choice of Joss Whedon as the director to take over from Zack Snyder was also a good one as I feel the director’s come a long way from all of the things that bothered me in his Avengers. Instead of jokes that have nothing to do with what’s going on (“That man is playing Galaga!”), the humour in Justice League is built on who these characters are and what they’re facing. Flash is a hyperactive weirdo who makes every scene better. Aquaman makes fun of Batman in a way that somehow doesn’t reduce him. There’s a joke involving Wonder Woman’s lasso that works really, really well, helps fill out the tone of the scene, and I didn’t at all see it coming but it makes so much sense. Justice League embraces all of the hope and fun of these heroes without entirely denying the darkness that was this universe’s origins.
So should I see it?
I’m not going to deny that Justice League is a movie with a lot of important things wrong with it. The truth is that many of the things that you’ve probably heard are wrong with Justice League are true, whether it’s the story itself, the lack of pre-existing investment in these characters to care that they’re now all together, or simply how much the movie comes across as the work of two very different directors not working in unison. And the bad guy totally sucks.
It’s probably too late for Justice League to be a successful movie financially, and that lack of financial success is no doubt throwing all of Warner Bros.’ plans for its no-longer-the-DC-Extended-Universe into disarray, but I think there’s more than just a vocal minority who enjoyed this movie a lot for what it was — fun, full of good characters and good character moments — and for myself and people like me who really liked the movie, hearing that the movie isn’t doing well is a tough pill to swallow. For all of its clear and obvious faults, it’s hard for me to look at this movie and call it genuinely bad. It’s just too strong with its characters, it’s just too easy to watch and enjoy for its humour (humour that feels measured and earned), and it’s just too much of the things I’ve always wanted to see brought to life on screen for me not to give it a big recommendation.
Thom’s Justice League final score
On the Edge
- So Batman just lets that robber guy at the beginning go? I guess he had bigger fish to fry (to speak nothing of Aquaman).
- If you’re wondering why Henry Cavill’s face always looks so weird, here’s why.
- That said, I have no idea why his suit looked so much worse than in the other movies. I know they wanted to brighten it, but still, it looks bad.
- On the other hand, oh man do Jason Momoa’s Aquaman tattoos look good. He’s the most literal onscreen interpretation of the idea that a superhero’s suit is basically just a naked figure coloured over so that they don’t look naked.
- It always sat wrong with me that that random bad guy in the bank scene was able to catch Wonder Woman off guard (0:29 in the trailer above), but I’m glad there’s a reason why in the context of the scene: She was focused on more important things and he wasn’t a threat worth noticing.
- That overall scene doesn’t really work for me though. It reeks of reshoot to get more scenes of Wonder Woman. I really don’t understand what the bad guy’s point was.
- Ezra Miller has a really weird running stride. He, the actor and the character, should probably work on that.
- Everyone’s classic score is used! Wonder Woman’s definitely, but also the 1989 Batman, there’s a touch of the John Williams’ Superman, and I’m sure I heard a hint of the CW Flash theme
- Cyborg’s constantly evolving body is addressed early, but I’m glad they hinted, towards the end, that his physical form is always changing too because I really don’t care for his look through most of the movie.
- So what was his favourite thing about Earth?