“Justice League” Review: An Incoherent & Overstuffed Story Holds Back a Potentially Fun Film

justice league

Look! Up in the sky! It’s okay! It’s average! It’s entirely adequate! It’s… Justice League.

That sounds glib, but it’s not. This film has had a particularly difficult birth, and sometimes, despite the best efforts of all involved, that kind of brutal development makes it hard to pull something coherent together. In its best moments, Justice League is genuinely fun, with a comic book attitude that can be elusive to even the most talented filmmakers working from similar source material. At its worst, it’s simply incoherent. The clash between those two extremes is what really defines the movie, and your overall reaction to it will depend how many of the weak spots you can ignore.

Let’s start with the good stuff. While I am a Man Of Steel fan, much of what I like about that is watching Kal-El wrestle with his identity. He’s not Superman yet. He’s learning how to be Superman, and he’s learning what his responsibilities are. He makes mistakes. That’s literally the point of that film, even though I think some audiences wanted him to already be perfect. This time out, we’ve got a Superman that anyone should be able to recognize as Superman. He is not in a lot of the movie, but when he’s onscreen, Henry Cavill is able to tap into that powerful decency that always made Chris Reeves such a perfect choice for the role. Ben Affleck has likewise settled into the role of Batman, and his first scene in the film is a perfect Batman scene. Zack Snyder’s visual sense is terrific, so I don’t really worry about whether or not his films will look good. I’m more interested in seeing how he handles each of these characters. Are they the versions of the icons that we know, or is he trying to reinvent things completely? In this case, it’s a little bit of both.

Wonder Woman was established so strongly in the Patty Jenkins film this summer that she feels like the most fully realized character at the start of this film. When we see her engage in some quick heroics, it’s a reminder of just how powerful she is, but it’s the innate goodness that really distinguishes her. Gal Gadot is excellent at playing the character, and by the time the movie starts to wrap things up and she looks at the rest of team and gives an exasperated, “I work with children,” she’s earned it. The script wants to give her a change to go through, letting go of her memories of Steve Trevor so she can finally step out of the shadows and become the same kind of public beacon that Superman was, and they come close to getting it right. The film covers a lot of ground, though, and it has to juggle all of the characters, including several they’re introducing here for the first time, meaning everyone’s growth is on fast-forward.

wonder woman

That’s probably appropriate for Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), since he is, after all, the Flash. The current TV show has done a terrific job over the last few years of introducing any number of elements from the long history of the character, mixing and matching them in new ways, and if there’s any question about whether they’re seriously going to try to make the Flashpoint story as a film, this movie answers it. They all but throw a title card up at the end announcing it. Every major Barry moment that doesn’t involve the League has to do with Henry Allen (Billy Crudup), his father who was wrongly accused of murdering his mother. Ezra Miller’s a fascinating young actor, and just looking at We Need To Talk About Kevin and Perks Of Being A Wallflower, you get a sense of just how broad this guy’s range can be. He spends most of the movie looking like a surprised greyhound, and they give him the bulk of the film’s snarky sense of humor. I’d say about 2/3 of his stuff lands, but the moments that don’t really don’t. It’s a case of tone working against them, and I suspect people’s overall reactions to the film will depend in part on how they prefer their funny books.

If you just saw red because I called comics “funny books,” then you and I may feel differently about superhero storytelling in general. I grew up on both Marvel and DC books, and I still read a combination of both, largely so I can keep up with the conversations my sons have. I was a comic consumer in the ‘80s, and I was there when The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and Sandman blew things up and guys like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison decided that comics could be anything. And, yes, I loved that moment, and I loved the sudden darkness, and I loved the idea that these characters could be something other than the “simple” heroes they’d traditionally been. But the older I’ve gotten, and the more I’ve seen various treatments of the characters, the less interested I am in something oppressive and grim, and particularly when you have icons like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman involved. Before the screening the other day, I talked to someone who just plain didn’t care for Thor Ragnarok, and it’s precisely because of that film’s relentless sense of humor. It didn’t work for them, and they felt like it undercut anything serious in the film. I’m just wired different. To me, that lightness is what makes the more serious beats land. If the entire film is played at this grimdark level, then the humor seems more jarring to me. I would rather see light that is sculpted by shadow than a tiny light struggling against non-stop darkness.

Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) fare less well here. Momoa is a giant personality, and clearly they’ve refigured him to play Khal Drogo of the Sea, which is fine. There’s something hilarious about seeing the skinny orange and green Aquaman in the DC Films logo that opens the film considering how hard they work to make sure that is not the character in the movie. Once Momoa is in action, he’s certainly having fun, and he’s got a great presence. He can stand toe to toe with any of the other superpowered characters and never flinch, and he seems delighted to be able to kick the crap out of bad guys. The film plays coy with his powers, though, and even as a longtime comic reader, I’m not entirely sure what he can or can’t do, and the film doesn’t really try to answer that question. He seems like Underwater Superman, basically, but when we see other Atlanteans in action, they all seem pretty powerful. He’s just the most powerful of the Atlanteans, but it makes him seem slightly less special. Ray Fisher seems like a charismatic enough guy, and he’s doing exactly what they have asked him to do here, but Cyborg’s a bore. He’s a plot device, not a character, and the reason he’s in the film instead of a more recognizable or interesting DC hero is so they have an easy solution to the film’s central problem.

aquaman

And here’s where things get complicated. The film’s primary bad guy stinks. There’s no other way to put it. Ciaran Hinds gives voice to Steppenwolf, your basic model World Subjugator who came to Earth way back in the time of legends. He’s got three boxes that can, when combined, destroy an entire planet. When he was defeated by a coalition of Amazons, Atlanteans, men, and even heroes from other places (look closely for a few seeds that they plant here for other possible spin-off films), the three boxes were split apart and hidden in three different places. It’s a simple set-up, and it’s about all the film has time for considering how much ground it has to cover just to get the main characters together. Batman is the first one to notice something’s wrong when Parademons start showing up in Gotham, attracted by the smell of fear. The Parademons are CGI badguys who are all basically identical and disposable, which allows the film to kill plenty of them without tipping into brutality. My biggest problem with Steppenwolf is that all of the legwork involving his character feels thrown away, indifferently handled. The boxes are startlingly easy to retrieve, and there’s nothing that really complicates his simple plan. He wants the boxes. He goes. He gets them. He enacts his plan. They have a big fight. That’s about it. And if he was interesting or memorable, I might be okay with that. But I don’t even understand why they hired someone like Ciaran Hinds. He’s completely entombed by the digital character and makes no impression as a performer at all. That seems wasteful.

This is a “glowing doodad” movie, where all that matters is that the characters have things to run around and punch and chase. I think the phrase “mother box” is just kind of dopey, so the more serious everyone is about them, including Steppenwolf speaking about “mother” in pretty much every scene, the sillier it sounds. Don’t get me wrong. You can give something a ridiculous name, but you have to acknowledge it or lean into it. When Ash calls his gun a “boomstick” in Army Of Darkness, it’s funny because of how blunt a name that is. It doesn’t undercut the tone of the film because that’s Ash all the way through. He’s ridiculous. Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China is a buffoon, and the film is so weird around him that it feels like the right fit. Here, they’re reaching for serious in the big strokes, but they’ve made a huge pivot in terms of humor. When you have people who are already tap-dancing on the edge of silly trying to be serious about “mother boxes,” it eventually collapses, and the humor often feels like a band-aid here, not something that’s organic.

There are plenty of good actors here, and they’re all working hard to give all of this a sort of mythic weight and heft. Diane Lane, Amy Adams, Joe Morton, JK Simmons, Amber Heard, and Jeremy Irons all try to make the most of very little screen time, and they’re all fine. I don’t understand the weird hairpiece on Simmons, and I feel like Irons has very little do, but these are terrific actors who know that they’ve just got a few quick seconds on-screen to do whatever it is they’re supposed to do. They know how to work fast when etching the details of characters, but there’s only so much they can manage. Because they have to introduce three main characters, they lean heavily on earlier films to have already done the heavy lifting for this film, and here’s where things really crumble, because it feels like when they talk about the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, they’re describing a movie that didn’t actually get made. I’ve seen both of the cuts of that movie, and I feel like this film tells you what they wish that film had been.

For any of this to really work and really matter, we need to believe that Bruce Wayne is driven to do this, and that the reason he’s driven is something that would really motivate that big change in his personality. Just one movie ago, he was a near-murderous psychotic who was branding street criminals so they’d get killed in prison, no different than Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) in terms of his feelings towards Superman. When he tried to kill Superman, it felt so fake and forced that there’s no backing up from that. And even if Bruce Wayne is driven by guilt here, the Superman he keeps talking about, this beacon of hope that the world mourned when he vanished, is not the Superman that actually appeared in either of the films. His absence shouldn’t really matter as much as it seems to and when the film finally reaches Cavill’s return to life (don’t yell at me about spoilers… of course he’s coming back), it gives the film an opportunity for the single weirdest thing about it: Henry Cavill’s Disturbing CGI Upper Lip. A round of poorly-timed reshoots left Cahill with a bushy mustache he couldn’t shave, and the answer was to go digital. The problem is that Henry Cavill has a very particular upper lip in real life, and all you need to do is look at his mouth in the long sequence set outside his childhood home to see how his lip should look. They are so far off the mark that it looks like the lens itself is smudged. The very first scene in the movie is clearly a reshoot, an interview on the street between Superman and a little boy with a camera, and it’s such a train crash of a special effect that I didn’t hear about 45 seconds of the dialogue. It’s distractingly strange, and it looks like pretty much every scene he’s in had to have some reshoots. I like Cavill, and like I said… I’m a fan of Man Of Steel. I wanted to love Superman this time out, and when he is in full swing, Cavill continues to prove he’s the right guy, but in the wrong movies. They’re working too hard to push him through this entire journey in a handful of scenes, and they’ve robbed him of his genuine value as an icon in the process.

the flash

Danny Elfman has some fun with his own Batman theme from the Tim Burton era, and he plays a dark variation on the John Williams “Superman Theme” at one point that made me cackle. Overall, I’m not a fan of the cinematography, especially as the film wears on. As if desperate to find a location where they can stage massive mayhem without the same kind of implied possible body count as Man Of Steel’s finale, they stage everything in and around the site of a nuclear power plant accident. Everything’s shot through this hellish red filter, and while it’s a very intentional visual choice, it does not feel like a successful one. It’s a garish palette, an eyesore. If anything about the film shocked me, that’s probably it, because I have always admired Snyder’s visual signature. Even a movie as confused as Sucker Punch has a command of the way color and design works on an audience. This is a headache after a while, and considering how uninvested I was in the “glowing doodad” business, the action felt numbing, not thrilling.

My favorite moments in any superhero movie are going to come from moments where the characters do something that really showcases the characters. There are two scenes after the end of the film, one during the credits and one after, and the first of them is probably my favorite moment in the film. It is just two characters who we know well behaving, and it makes them seem not only better connected but more human. Most of this film is shoe leather, frantic mechanical story beats rather than human (or superhuman) behavior. If this film is supposed to inspire me to want more movies with every member of the League, it does not succeed. I honestly don’t care about a Cyborg movie. I have seen so many versions of the basic idea (hi, Robocop!) that it would take something special to make me want to see him carry his own movie. Sadly, this is not it. I’m undecided on Aquaman based on what we see here. Atlantis is a murky set we glimpse briefly, filled with extras and Amber Heard, and while that doesn’t compel me to want to see next year’s Aquaman, the presence of James Wan as director makes the difference. I’m willing to give that one a try. Momoa’s built for movie-stardom, but I’m always going to wonder what would have happened if they’d turned him loose on Lobo instead, especially in a world where Deadpool already exists and paved the way for R-rated self-aware anarchy. The one I’ll absolutely be there for is the Flash movie. Miller’s ready to go, and he’s so original, so eccentric and delightful in his approach that it feels like what would have happened if they made a Nightwing movie in 1993 starring Crispin Glover as Dick Grayson.

Now… forget everything else I’ve said. For me, if this film is going to work, then I need to be fully invested in seeing these characters standing side-by-side to face a threat, really united, and they never quite define the connection between Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Cavill’s Superman. The last twenty minutes or so finally feels like it’s a team movie, and that’s when the characters work the best. Whatever happens is because of the combination of all of them, and that’s exactly what you hope for in a film like this. There is chemistry here, and there is plenty of room to grow. They’ve got to make honest decisions about what’s working and what’s not, though. For the hardest of hardcore fans, this may well be exactly what they want. I’m sure the film will have its fans and defenders, and I’m glad for them getting more out of it than I did. In general, it feels like just enough of it works that they can count it as a win, but the failure to really get the World’s Finest at the heart of the film right is crippling. I thought the film’s final post-credit scene was silly, but I’m sure some fans will go crazy from excitement about what it means. More power to ‘em.

I’m sure there will be more course corrections ahead for DC, but I feel like Zack Snyder took his shot at making a Big Superhero Event, with Joss Whedon batting clean-up, and the end result has been so manhandled that it’s impossible to blame any one person for the failure. They made their Frankenstein monster, and while it looks like it’s alive, it is, at best, a pale impression of the real thing.

TB-TV-Grade-C

Rated:  PG-13
Running time: 119 minutes

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One Response to “Justice League” Review: An Incoherent & Overstuffed Story Holds Back a Potentially Fun Film

  1. Good to have you back Drew. Digesting your take is part of my process for these big popcorn event movies.

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