Earlier this year, director Patty Jenkins knocked it out the park with Wonder Woman – mixing humour, thrills and genuine emotion to create a note perfect superhero that smashed box office records. With Justice League, Zack Snyder shows his biggest flaw as a director: he’s not much fun.
The film’s set up is simple: following the death of Superman, the world is in utter depression, an opportunity taken by alien Steppenwolf to take the mystical Mother Boxes for himself, so Batman and Wonder Woman team up and get new recruits to help take him down.
Following the uneven but fun Man of Steel, and the flat out awful Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder brings all of his Snyder-isms to this latest addition to the DC extended universe. Unlike Suicide Squad which had the marks of studio heads getting involved, and Wonder Woman, which was entirely the beast Patty Jenkins wanted it to be, Justice League appears to be a mix of many elements.
Now, it would be easy to just blame the film’s flaws on Snyder stepping down from directing due to an unforeseen tragedy in his family – for which he has our deepest condolences – but this is clearly a movie made in the wake of an incredible backlash. This comes only a year and half after Dawn of Justice failed to make any kind of lasting impact at the world of shared movie universes.
Chris Terrio on writing duty clearly continues the bad job he did with Dawn of Justice, while the Joss Whedon re-shoots make the film look a patch work. The shortcomings are made clear as someone attempts to make a moody film into a fun film. There are moments that work, but it’s not nearly enough to take it up to The Avengers level. For all the good, there are also bad.
The actors inhabit their roles well, with Ben Affleck a great Batman, trying not to be the depressed mess he once was and to be more of a realist, Gal Gadot continues to be the DC Comics extended universe MVP as Wonder Woman. Henry Cavill slays the role of a more upbeat Superman in Hollywood’s worst kept secret. Ray Fisher is the wild card of the film; in his debut as Cyborg, dhe oes great work and the character has his own room to breath. Meanwhile, Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller make characters that are going to be brilliant in their own films.
Outside of the team there’s a problem: the film’s short run time means that most characters that aren’t the main team get little to do. Jeremy Irons gets a few good gags but little else. Amy Adams, Diane Lane and Connie Nielsen are criminally underused in their roles as the women who look lovingly at the heroes. New characters introduced make little to no impact; Joe Morton’s Silas Stone is clearly set up for follow up films as is Amber Heard’s Mera and J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon, while Billy Crudup’s Henry Allen is clearly meant to mean more than he does.
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In fact, one of the film’s biggest disappointments lies with those who were left out of the film altogether. Willem Dafoe, Kersey Clemmons and Robin Wright have been erased from the film – Wright’s character in particular could have made for a strong standalone film. Perhaps worst of all, the brilliant Ciaran Hinds can’t make Steppenwolf anything more than a shouty CGI villain that looks like a guy with a bad skin condition.
The CGI is never brilliant, always falling into strange ‘uncanny valley’ territory with overly plastic people in action sequences. The fights are great, and some of the action beats land well but Danny Elfman fails to create a score on par with his better soundtracks.
On the plus side, there is a sense that the cast are enjoying themselves – except maybe Ben Affleck – while the more overtly comical moments land best of all. This is not a better film than Wonder Woman, and not one the action sequences is on a par with Wonder Woman’s ‘No Man’s Land’ scene, but it’s a step in a direction that Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman failed to make. Whatever the next installments of the DC Comics Extended Universe turn out to be, if they can learn from their mistakes and have more moments of great levity and character work the film might just be the one we want.
There’s moments that will give comics fans moments to cheer, like the sly jokes – Superman calling someone a slow poke – and the asides that Joss Whedon does so well. It might just take someone other than Zack Snyder to do it. Less CGI and more heart, that’s what the franchise needs. But this is not a disaster, it’s noisy for sure, but it’s also quite fun, and it could herald better films in the future.