I went into Justice League (2017) with questions and concerns, and these continued throughout the movie. I grew up with DC Comics and like their best incarnations, but they've made some dubious choices in this century, and they've been stumbling through a game of catch-up with Marvel's wildly successful movies. Man of Steel had potential, but I never took to Zack Snyder's mopey, murdering interpretation of Superman. Batman v Superman w Wonder Woman had potential, but the narrative roamed all over the place. Wonder Woman proved the best thing about that film, and her solo movie finally showed that DC and Warner Brothers could do a decent superhero movie not about Batman. It also accomplished something Marvel has yet to do: base an entire super-film around a woman.
Could DC reverse-engineer a Shared Cinematic Universe, introducing the Justice League in one movie and then spinning them off into their own films? If they did, would audiences turn up? Had they been turned off by DC's earlier attempts, or even grown tired of the genre, after years of Marvel films? Was the audience hitting Peak Superhero?
Would the involvement of Joss Whedon, who took the project after Zack Snyder stepped down due to personal tragedy, save us from Snyder's inappropriately dark tone, or just produce an incoherent blend of the two styles? And should I be caring so much about this movie, each scene from which could have financed a really good Indie film?
The chaotic opening actually recalls DC's big event crossover comics, where some stuff happens here, and some other stuff happens there, and eventually, they have some connection to a bigger plot which may or may not be told in the story you're reading. Fantastic characters appear without introduction. You're reading a superhero comic; surely you expect that. This approach somehow works in comics or, t least, it can. It doesn't work so well in a movie aimed at a general audience. Bear with it, however. Justice League works as a sort of a very big-budget Saturday morning cartoon. It doesn't match most Marvel films, or DC's Wonder Woman, and its tone wanders as widely as its locations, but it gets a pass.1
We have a group of heroes, gathered together by Batman(Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), because the earth faces a threat. It defeated that threat in ages past with the combined forces of humans, Atlanteans, Amazons, a few classical gods, at least one member of the Green Lantern Corps, and (possibly) the power of Shazam.3 The flashback footage, reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings (but what epic, anciente flashback isn't?), looks like it came from a different movie that DC wanted to make, but it certainly sets up the villain. Alas, when Steppenwolf appears in the present, he's certainly powerful and definitely born to be wild, but as a character he's not very memorable. His demonic shock troops, meanwhile, play like evil Red Shirts. DC might as well have gone straight to Darkseid rather than a warm-up round with this fringe contender. Both the New Gods (whom Steppenwolf wants to rejoin) and Darkseid get name-referenced, but without explanation, which might confuse the non-comic-reading audience.2
Whereas Marvel introduced its heroes and then made The Avengers, DC had previously given us big budget versions of Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman, and Wonder Woman. The others turn up here. We meet Aquaman(Jason Momoa) and see Atlantis, but we don't learn much about his past. The Flash Ezra Miller's origins receive only fleeting mention. Cyborg(Ray Fisher) gets a more developed backstory; wisely, they've made the least-familiar member of the Justice League a key part of the plot.4 The others just sort of turn up.
I didn't expect to like a different version of Barry Allen, but they did a good job making him the New Kid. Ezra Miller gives the fledgling hero laughs and heart. He's quite different from his television counterpart, but not entirely disconnected from him. At the film's end, he gets his first job in the police forensics lab.
Aquaman has often been treated as a joke in popular culture, so the film wisely casts Jason Momoa, exploiting his past as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones. More specifically, it exploits his physicality as shamelessly and blatantly as that of any actress asked to unsuit up as a superhero or supervillain. In the long run, however, it helps that Momoa can act, and he's developing a version of the character who is driven, frequently angry, but morally-grounded. He could actually sell an Aquaman movie, and that's not something I expected to be writing, ever.
The film also makes interesting use of Batman, the only non-metahuman in the bunch. He's aware of his vulnerability, especially as this is an aging Batman who has been fighting crime for two decades.5 At the same time, he's tasked with the role as team leader, despite the fact that (in what must be a Whedon quip) his super-power is that he's "rich."
Wonder Woman, as the only really successful recent DC hero, had to receive a substantial role in this film.6 She's the best-realized and best-played of the heroic characters. Despite behind-the-scenes concerns with DC's mishandling of an ongoing sexual harassment issue and recent problematic handling of female characters, the women give some of the film's best performances. Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Diane Lane as Martha Kent do very well in key cameo appearances.
Of course, the big moment involves the return of Superman, presumed dead since the last movie.
Justice League deals fairly well with Superman's overpowered nature. He's absent for the first half. He's initially not himself when he reappears. When he finally finds himself, he's at long last Superman, the Boy Scout who stands for Truth and Justice. He also comes very close to single-handedly ending the threat. The others were holding their own against an enemy it once took armies to defeat.7 When they have Superman, the other side doesn't stand much of a chance. Doomsday aside, it's pointless to give Superman a straight punching match. He will win. Fortunately, the film adds a bit of a twist to Steppenwolf's defeat. Hopefully, the next film will explore what has long been Superman's most interesting challenge: acting without violating the rigid moral code he has set for himself.
Superman's return, however, exacerbates a problem left unaddressed.
At least twice, characters dump secret identities in the presence of civilians. Lex Luthor, who makes a cameo appearance during the credits, already knows Superman's identity. Now that a supposedly dead Clark Kent has returned at the same time as the Last Son of Krypton, it's a little difficult to see how he can continue to hide in plain sight and behind a pair of glasses.
The finale (and the epilogues) finally feel like a DCU movie. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne show grudging respect and something like affection for each other; if they're not careful, they're going to become friends. The Flash and Superman have a race, just for laughs. Wonder Woman steps out of the shadows and meets her admiring public-- the girls, in particular-- whom she wants to inspire. It's all as corny as the mid-western fields at the Kent Farm: in other words, exactly what the end of a DC superhero movies should feel like. The film also sets up the Legion of Doom (by whatever name), with Lex Luthor meeting Deathstroke and proposing such a team. A battle of superteams, each led by a wealthy non-metahuman, could be exciting. It would also seem less derivative of The Avengers than a war with Darkseid; Marvel lacks an equivalent roster of widely-recognizable villains. All of this could bode well for the next movie. Justice League's mixed reviews and less-than-stellar box office, however, puts the making of that film into question.
Director: Zack Snyder
(Additional scenes directed by Joss Whedon)
Written by Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, and Chris Terrio
Ben Affleck as Batman / Bruce Wayne
Henry Cavill as Superman / Clark Kent
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman / Diana Prince
Ezra Miller as The Flash / Barry Allen
Jason Momoa as Aquaman / Arthur Curry
Ray Fisher as Cyborg / Victor Stone
Amy Adams as Lois Lane
Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennysworth
Diane Lane as Martha Kent
Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta
J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon
Ciarán Hinds as Voice of Steppenwolf
Amber Heard as Mera
Joe Morton as Silas Stone
Billy Crudup as Henry Allen
Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as Mayor
David Thewlis as Ares
Sergi Constance as Zeus
Aurore Lauzera as Artemis
Julian Lewis Jones as Ancient Atlantean King
Francis Magee as Ancient King of Men
Lisa Loven Kongsli as Menalippe
Doutzen Kroes as Venelia
Brooke Ence as Penthesilea
Ann Ogbomo as Philippus
Samantha Jo as Euboea
Robin Wright as Antiope
Salome R. Gunnarsdottir as Singing Icelandic Woman
Michael McElhatton as Black Clad Alpha
John Dagleish a Black Clad Beta
Chris Courtenay as Old Bailey Judge
Carla Turner as School Teacher
Lara Decaro as School Girl
Richard Clifford as German Archaeologist
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Detective Crispus Allen
Rebecca Perfect as News Reporter
Jérôme Pradon as Louvre Conservationist
Orion Lee as Star Labs Scientist
Oliver Gatz as Star Labs Scientist
Rachel Blenkiron as Star Labs Scientist
Lynne Anne Rodgers as Star Labs Cleaning Staff
Oler Powell as Star Labs Cleaning Staff
Peter Henderson as Red Herring
Yoni Roodner as Russian Son
Molly Shenker as Russian Daughter
Tomi May as Russian Father
Kasha Bajor as Russian Mother
Anthony Wise as Howard the Janitor
Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor
1. Despite the possible undercutting of backstories, Whedon's trimming of a much longer original movie can only be a good thing. We wander around enough already, and Batman v. Superman suffered from a tendency to set up too many things in a way that had little to do with the film's narrative. Even ostensibly relevant elements felt out of place. The most egregious example from that earlier film may be the opening. Snyder had an excellent way to start a Batman/Superman movie, one that tied into Man of Steel. Instead of starting with that, he first gives us a slo-mo, Frank Miller-inspired retelling of Batman's origins. The Waynes have to die again for the benefit of the five people left on earth (or at least in the audience for this film) who don't know Batman's origin story, and so Snyder can set up his "Martha" twist. It comes at a tremendous cost to pacing and story. If Batman's origin story had to be retold, it could have been recalled later.
Another introductory bit, a football game between teams from Metropolis and Gotham City, was cut entirely from Batman v. Superman.
2. Why not? DC is courting problematic accusations of being derivative by setting up Darkseid as a future Big Bad, and using the Mother Boxes much as Marvel has been using the
Soul Gems Infinity Stones in their films. Yes, the DC versions came first in the comics, but a large chunk of the audience won't know that. By leading with Darkseid, they would have gotten the drop on Marvel, who have been hiding Thanos in shadows (he steps out in 2018). For those who don't know comix, Thanos is basically Marvel's rip-off of Darkseid. I don't mean to pick on Marvel; both companies steal from each other shamelessly, and always have.
Justice League, for example, features mid- and post-credit sequences.
3. In addition to a possible call-out for Shazam!-- and that movie is in the works-- did anyone else get a (and I'm probably off my Mark) Strong Sivana vibe from the guy in the prison cell?
4. Whereas the other members date back to the 1930s and 1940s (The Barry Allen Flash to the late 1950s, but he's the second incarnation of a character who first appeared in 1941), Cyborg first turns up in 1980, an attempt to cash-in on the interest in bionics and thing prefaced with "cyber," and to bring some racial diversity to DC's heroes. He has since become a major figure in DC Comics and cartoons, but he has never achieved the widespread, mainstream recognition of the other characters who appear in this film.
5. I can only see two ways to go ahead with Batman in the DCCU. either have the Flash, whose connection to the Speed Force gives him the ability (not yet recognized by this Barry Allen) to travel in time and across dimensions, do just that and screw up the timeline, as the Flash is wont to do and as this naive, inexperienced version seems likely to do. The new timeline would feature a younger Bruce Wayne. I don't know how that would fly with a mainstream audience, but it's plot device #7 in comics.
Alternatively, they could have Dick Grayson take over the cowl, as he has sometimes done in DC comics. I suspect this move would sit easier with contemporary theater-goers.
6. And outside the film. Both Hollywood and DC have run into problems with women in recent years. Gadot has refused to continue playing the Amazing Amazon unless DC/Warner stops using Brett Ratner in pictures in which her character appears. Ratner faces numerous allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Gadot acts this way in part because she can. Without her Wonder Woman, the struggling DC Cinematic Universe would likely collapse.
7. Joss Whedon here revisits a concept from the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A character who could only be defeated by armies millennia ago might have a bigger problem when faced with contemporary weapons.