*This review contains mild spoilers*
DC comics and their characters have dominated non-comic book adaptations of their characters for most of comic book and media history. If you really look back, the Christopher Reeve Superman films from the mid 70’s to early 80’s were considered to be the birth of modern superhero films. Before that, you had the very popular Lynda Carter Wonder Woman TV show in the early 70’s, and the Adam West Batman in the 1960’s, and popular movie serial adaptations of DC characters both in cartoon and live action that were shown in theatres as far back as the 1930’s, when these characters were new creations. Marvel Comics has always tried it’s hand at live action adaptations here and there, there was a serial of Captain America movies in the 1930’s as well as live action attempts at him, Spider-Man, and even Dr.Strange in the early 70’s to mid-80’s, with the most successful live action Marvel adaptation of any of their characters being The Incredible Hulk in the 1980’s with Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby. After that, Marvel really was suppressed until the late 90’s/early 00’s with the first Spider-Man and X-Men films. DC has had many more popular representations and chances to adapt their characters…until Iron Man came out in 2008 and started the end of their reign in live action. The DC “Extended Universe” and its attempt to bring the Justice League to live action, very similar to Marvel’s plan with The Avengers (except with a lot less effort and planning) goes about as well as you might think.
I’ll come right out and say that while respecting Superman and Wonder Woman, and loving Batman, and also appreciating many of the other DC characters, and especially their animated content, I’m always going to be biased towards Marvel, so keep that in mind during my review, I’m not denying it. That being said, I tried to watch Justice League, directed by Zack Snyder, with as much of a neutral mindset as possible.
I firmly think that even if I didn’t have a strong devotion to one or another, I would still think that the Marvel films are better. Comparing this to Thor: Ragnarok which came out earlier this month, or a more proper comparison: The Avengers, some 5 or so years ago, it’s easy to see which franchise movie critics and audiences are more excited about, comic fans or not. It even seems like Warner Brothers themselves aren’t as confident in their idea, with Justice League being released not quite on or after a major holiday or in the summer, when big blockbusters are at their most anticipated.
In terms of the story, the movie is a direct follow up to the messy Batman vs Superman, an indirect sequel to the decently satisfying Wonder Woman of the past summer, and overall only the 5th DCEU film to date. It features 3 returning characters, and introduces 3 brand new characters and a villain, along with setting the stage for what seems like will be large events in the future of the franchise. So you could say it’s busy.
One of, if not the biggest problem with Justice League, is pacing. The movie can’t seem to find its rhythm in the story, and it feels rushed and underdeveloped when you’re watching it. I tried to imagine how confused I would be if I were a viewer who had zero idea who Cyborg, Aquaman, and The Flash were, and what their backstory was, and I have to say, I think I’d be quite lost and underwhelmed if that were the case. The movie seems to have a dozen opening scenes in a row, never quite actually letting a story start, but opening scene after opening scene of underwhelming, underdeveloped characters and action that feels forced.
Going from BvS, where Batman conveniently finds footage that somehow has video of all of the key League members which he shares with Wonder Woman, we get rapid introductions to each of the 3 new heroes, and in the case of Aquaman, we barely get any character development at all.
Only Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman feel even close to real characters in the movie, and surprise-surprise, they each had solo movies or other appearances outside of this. What completely baffles me is DC’s decision to make each and every one of their properties separate, not using any of what they’ve established in the CW and other television shows that actually have a good amount of viewers. Ezra Miller’s Flash has his moments, and has some legitimately funny scenes and lines, but it seems like it all should’ve gone to Grant Gustin, who has been working hard at developing The Flash and getting fans of that show for years now. Had he been played by Gustin The Flash would’ve felt more natural and organic, and there would’ve been more of an overall connection with DC’s other material, but they missed that chance by casting someone new.
I spoke about Aquaman earlier, and while I’ve always liked Game of Thrones alumni Jason Momoa, the movie strains a disc in an attempt to make Aquaman “edgy” and “hardcore”, probably in response to the very common jokes about Aquaman talking to fish and only being useful in water. He does well in his action scenes, and has one of the best scenes in the movie where he’s unknowingly sitting on Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth and ends up saying more about his feelings than he intended to, but overall, you can feel how the movie is trying too hard with him to amp up the cool factor, and in doing this, they waste time developing his character. He spends a total of maybe 2 minutes in a small part of his Atlantean homeworld, and Mera (in other versions his love-interest and partner in deep sea crimefighting) treats him like a stranger, so we’re left wondering whether or not this is first time ever going to the place he’s supposed to king of. Before any of that gets resolved, the movie speeds along, with no answers in sight about what might’ve been an interesting story thread, until his solo movie, years from now.
Ray Fisher as Cyborg is…well…there. He’s not a thing like the popular Teen Titans/DC animated version of the character voiced by Khary Payton. The movie has one of Cyborg’s biggest character-relevant moments delivered in a bland, dimly lit apartment. That should give you an idea of what kind of movie Justice League is. You have a man who’s part machine, whose father merged him with alien technology to save his life after a horrible accident that killed his wife and his son’s mother, and him telling the audience/his father how he feels about this, and it’s done in a place that looks like Kramer is about to barge in at any moment looking for a bowl of corn flakes. You have the entire wonderful world of DC comics and its amazing settings at your disposal, as well as a mult-million dollar budget, and that’s how we find out about who Cyborg is? With a brief speech in a dark apartment (while he’s wearing a hoodie no less) and through a few files that Bruce Wayne goes through about his past?
It’s funny how many beats and elements Justice League borrows from The Avengers, and in real life, due to a horribly tragic family accident that befell Zack Snyder, they even borrowed the director of The Avengers, Joss Whedon to finish the film. Trust me, I’m not berating Synder for not finishing filming the movie at all, that’s perfectly understandable given what he went through. I just think it’s interesting that Warner Brother’s first choice to come in and finish the movie was someone who directed and helped write the Marvel Comics counterpart to this movie. They must’ve recognized what he did with it and wanted some of that action for themselves.
Not only do you have a borrowed director, but you also have a scene in a hangar where the team bickers, an object/objects of extreme power that the villain must be prevented from using, a main villain who is really just a lackey of a much more powerful string-puller, an alien army of mindless, hideously ugly flying creatures for the heroes to beat up on, and an end where the villain is transported away through a beam of light into the sky (and a battle that levels a city). Now while some of the particulars here and there are changed, many of the main elements and ideas are noticeably similar, except without as much build-up, color, as high of stakes, as developed of action, and as much meaning or charisma amongst the team.
If you compare the end battles of The Avengers versus Justice League, you can see it all. In The Avengers, each member of the team uses their powers and skills in an area that makes total and complete sense. Cap, Black Widow, and Hawkeye, having less super-powers and being more tactical and leadership based, coordinate strategy and then take on ground-level troops while protecting civilians and dividing the numbers of the enemy. Things are tense, because New York City is massive, and not everyone in the final battle has been evacuated, so The Avengers have to worry about them too.
Meanwhile, Thor and Iron Man are taking on aerial threats and fighting ranged enemies and bottle-necking them into areas where they can be contained. And just when it still doesn’t seem like it’s enough, a dangling thread returns from earlier in the movie, and Bruce Banner debuts his “magic trick” and transforms into a the Incredible Hulk at will, with the beast now under his control, a thrilling surprise that helps the team push them over to the advantage they need to save the day. The climax to The Avengers has some great, quick character moments, with each member feeling useful, and a nice flow, rhythm, and pace to the action that pays off.
In Justice League? Well, the idea behind it and what they’re doing is similar, but there’s not as developed of a battle strategy, and despite having more members of the team who are objectively more powerful, they actually feel less useful as a unit, and just sort of…fight. The Avengers films are famous for large team battle sequences of everyone coordinating their attacks as a perfect fighting engine, and here, the League just kind of hacks away at the enemies without rhyme or reason until the bad guys just seem to lose.
I didn’t hate everything in Justice League, and overall, like I said about Cyborg pouring his heart out in a bland setting, that’s what Justice League is. It’s just bland, it’s okay. Versus The Avengers it’s like a homecooked meal made by a friend or family member who knows and loves you, and knows just what tastes you crave, versus a reheated frozen school lunch. They’re both food and can fill you up, but one is not only better for you and made with fresher ingredients, but is more of an enjoyable experience to feel, instead of just something you have to do to not feel hungry.
There’s some beats of humor that work, and the movie almost gets to a few points where Wonder Woman and Batman’s different views of things feel developed, almost. Henry Cavill does maybe his best job as Superman yet, really doing a great job with the character, but then again the bizarre CGI made to erase his mustache as well as him really only showing up in a rushed part of the last third act that makes him feel wasted. The long scenes of him and Lois in the cornfield outside of his house in Kansas feel pointless, dull, and completely unnecessary.
Ultimately, it all just has a vibe about it that makes it feel like it had to be done, instead of being made with fun, passion, energy, and a drive to bring great characters and a great storyline to life. I really did my best to like it, trying to set aside my bias towards Marvel, and I know I would feel this way even if I didn’t play favorites, it’s simply a messy end product without as satisfying of a rhythm and flow to it. I truly hope that diehard DC fans get the representation of their characters they’ve been waiting for in the next few years.
For being a completely average superhero movie:
Justice League Gets:
Out of 5