Justice League opens with one of the most interesting scenes in the entire DC Universe franchise. Shot from the perspective of a mobile phone being held by a group of children recording their podcast, it shows Superman, played by Henry Cavill, in a different light to the one shone on him in Man of Steel and BvS. It’s a disarming portrayal of small-town American civility; of warm, friendly manners, generosity and patience. In 30 seconds, Henry Cavill seems more human – more relatable – than in the previous 294 minutes of cinematic entertainment he bore upon his shoulders.
It’s a statement made by Joss Whedon – whose fingerprints cover so much of the segment, they almost obscure the shot – that this is the direction he is steering the franchise in. Snyder wanted us to gaze in awe at the unbelievable athletic and emotional prowess of these mythic heroes and weep at their unattainability. Whedon would rather have you believe in them as people. There’s just one problem. That scene could have been an outtake from Avengers Assemble and Superman’s personality is now indistinguishable from Captain America’s character. The biggest problem that DC face marching forward, however, is that this derivative new route plotted out by the latest captain is far preferable to the old course drawn by its last helmsman.
The plot involves the coming together of disparate heroes – three of whom have had their own films already, three of whom have barely been introduced to the audience – to quash an invasion headed up by the destructive giant known as Steppenwolf, a powerful galactic being after three sources of energy. When he has them all assembled something happens. I genuinely forget what. I’m assuming it’s bad. MacGuffins are over-used and unoriginal point plots as they stand, but in Justice League, they feel like unintentional self-parody. Each one looks like a triplet offspring of the Tesseract.
Never in a film have the stakes been so high, yet the urgency been so low. Everything takes so much time to explain there isn’t time for any of it to matter. The exposition is filmed with no desperation or foreboding. It feels distant and numb, like it’s keeping us at arm’s length. The overuse of CGI doesn’t help either as the actors do not look like they share the same reality as the civilians they are supposed to be rescuing, and for all the villain’s size, his design makes him look like something From Software threw away after deciding he was too uninteresting to be a stock enemy type in one of their Souls games. The only advantage he has over Malekith the Accursed in the running to not be called the decade’s worst supervillain is the fact that he gets to speak English instead of gobbledygook.
The rest of the characters fare little better. Wonder Woman is still the standout, but she gets so little time to shine you ache to see her in her own film again. Her arc is that she abandoned the world, hiding from conflict, and now must regain her confidence and step up to lead it into battle. On paper, it sounds like solid superhero fare but it’s an arc that gets resolved in under half a dozen lines. Also, I don’t remember her costume being so skimpy in her last outing, but then again Patty Jenkins’ camera was probably less willing to take advantage of it.
Ben Affleck has given the franchise and the fans all he wishes to give them. He is done with the pair of them and his performance shows it. His Bruce Wayne feels like he has so little presence or gravitas that he may as well be an astral projection. As said before, Superman is now Captain America, but this version is made out of plywood.
The newcomers inspire no confidence for their upcoming starring roles either. Cyborg is little more than a stroppy teen, who instead of being into heavy metal is made from it. His character takes so much inspiration from the most melodramatic interpretations of Frankenstein’s monster, you’d swear he was being directed by Kenneth Branagh. The Flash is not the only source of comedy in the film, but he is the only character entirely dedicated too it. It is a try-hard millennial stereotype whose lines have been determined by an algorithm, and the only input deciding the outcome are pages and pages of down-voted Reddit memes. His personality grates on the rest of the tone so much you could sprinkle it on bolognese. He is given less respect by his teammates than Justin Long’s character got from John McClane in Diehard 4. Aquaman’s character has been thrown under the bus. He has less impact on the plot than Thor did in Age of Ultron.
But, having said all this. It’s not utterly terrible. It has good character moments and some nice exchanges that leave you feeling better about the heroes than you did previously. There was nothing that made me angry in Justice League, just apathetic. The plot, unlike BvS, is understandable and followable, even if it is forgettable. Is that better than achieving immortality as one of the most bafflingly awful movies ever made? Before Justice League, I might have told you no, but I know which approach I prefer now. There were times I enjoyed being in the company of the film, even if those reasons became fewer and further in between as it progressed, and it did leave me with the hope that if there are more movies to come, then at least the franchise is salvageable.
Justice League is a like a victim in the Saw series. It’s got its eye on the exit while it desperately tries to saw its own leg out of the shackles chaining it to the machine. It’s not quite through the bone yet, and even when it does finally escape it will need time to heal before the scars stop making a mess of it. But while it feels like a step backwards from Wonder Woman, here, the franchise feels lightyears ahead of where BvS dumped it.
Dir: Zack Snyder
Scr: Joss Whedon, Chris Terrio
Prd: Jon Berg, Geoff Johns, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder
Cast: Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons
Runtime: 120 minutes