There are movies we dream of watching when we’re kids. These movies we wished we could see if only adults knew how awesome they were and made them. Justice League was one such movie for me. I grew up with the animated DC Universe TV series and especially loved DC comics. I wanted to see a Justice League movie on the big screen with all my heart.
Flash forward several years (and four other DC Cinematic Universe entries) Justice League has finally been released. Watching this movie, I got flashes and moments of the movie that my inner child dreamed of. Seeing iconic characters like Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the Flash come together was at times a sight to behold. Justice League as a film though is surprisingly mediocre. A thin story coupled with a bad villain and rushed pacing bring down what should have been a moment to be cherished in comic book movie history.
The little story that there is, is about Batman trying to live up to the now fallen Superman by bringing together Earth’s mightiest warriors. The villainess Steppenwolf is coming to invade Earth once again and attempts to reclaim three devices called mother boxes in order to rule over the Earth.
Much like Suicide Squad the biggest weakness of the Justice League is the villain, Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf is brought to life by unforgivably subpar CGI, that looks like it came out of a World of Warcraft cutscene. There is very little characterization given to him nor is there any substantial backstory to him. Comic book fans know who he is but anyone coming in cold to the movie will find his character lacking. Why is he doing what he is doing? What exactly do Mother Boxes do? He is lazily written.
Steppenwolf isn’t really there to be a character (which makes the buildup of his arrival in Batman V Superman feel wasted) he is there to be a McGuffin to bring the DC heroes together. The DC characters are introduced with ease and audiences will find each hero immediately likable and some even memorable. This is where Justice League shines the greatest. It feels redundant to go on about how good Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot are as Batman and Wonder Woman. But more importantly, the two shine together greatly with terrific chemistry and a wonderful rapport.
Of the newcomers, the biggest stand out is Jason Momoa as Aquaman. While the character doesn’t succeed off the back of the writing (which is muddled and lacks clear direction), Aquaman succeeds as a mythic hero from Momoa’s charm and strength as an actor. He can be funny but also quite intimidating. Momoa helps continue to shed the stereotype that Aquaman is too be laughed at. Cyborg played by Ray Fisher was also really good. He had a lot of pathos and knew how to draw a lot of emotion from speaking very little
The Justice League feels very mythic; the heroes feel larger than life. This is an interesting approach to characterization which helps differentiate it from Marvel’s more human approach. With the Justice League written in a more mythic way the DC Universe increasingly feels like a grounded fantasy rather than The Dark Knight real-world influence that Man of Steel was clearly emulating. There are moments that director Zack Snyder invokes storytelling cues that are reminiscent of The Fellowship of the Ring (even if the quality isn’t there).
If Batman V Superman can be accused of being overindulgent then Justice League has the exact opposite problem, it is too restrained and lacking in content. Somewhere in between Batman V Superman and Justice League is a great film trying to be made. The film is rushed in many spots. The characters are likable and are given brief moments of characterization. These moments though are however brief and move along quickly. The characters don’t work because the writing is good at developing them, the character’s work because the actors are so damn good at playing them.
This movie almost never seems to know when to pause for a moment to give the audience the sense of awe, wonder, and excitement. Justice League seems to be always running at one speed throughout the running time. This isn’t just referring to the cadence of the overall film but also within individual scenes. Justice League feels like a very monotonous movie.
Speaking of rushed, Justice League should not have come out now. When watching this movie it is clear that the special effects team ran out of time. There are many scenes of surprisingly bad CG and very noticeable green screen. For a film that cost almost 300 million dollars, this shouldn’t be the case. Hindsight is then again also 20/20.
One of the biggest criticisms of the DC Universe thus far is the darker brooding tone that most of the films have had. Personally, I found that criticism to be over exaggerated and mostly misdirected. No amount of change in Batman V Superman’s tone would have fixed the storytelling issues. Justice League though attempts to overcompensate for the lack of levity in previous films with many attempts at humor. Here though the humor feels forced, awkward, and very rarely landed. There were a few moments here and there where the movie’s humor really worked. The moments where the humor worked was typically in the smaller reversed moments, not the big jokey setpieces. Ezra Miller is going to make a great Flash but he, unfortunately, got stuck with the burden of forcing comedy down the audience’s throats.
Much of this movie feels just fine. Nothing terrible and nothing special. Justice League is a film that if released in the early 2000s I would have been much more forgiving of its lack of story. In the early 2000s, this movie would be a godsend. But, we live in a world, post X-2; post-Dark Knight, post-Avengers, and now even post-Logan, simply having comic book characters come together isn’t enough anymore.
Justice League is at times really fun. It is fun to see characters that I’ve loved since I was a kid come together. The action is solid and the performances are really good. But, that simply isn’t enough. The story is thin and lacks a strong villain. The pacing of Justice League is rushed and the writing is all over the place. Bad effects wouldn’t matter so much if the story and characters were there. The characters were there but the story sure wasn’t. While this does enough right to get excited about DC’s future solo films it isn’t enough to salvage a surprisingly mediocre endeavor.