One could pretty easily make the case that DC Comics' attempt to construct a connected movie universe, akin to Marvel's similar MCU, has been on a downward trend ever since it began. If we broadly consider the birth of this huge undertaking to be 2015's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it's been a leaking ship from the off-set, with meddling producers, a ballooned production budget, a huge amount of new characters fighting for screen time, and an overall ambition to do with one film what Marvel had to spend four setting up. It was a downright mess, and a tragic one too, starting the entire universe off on the wrong foot. A few short months after, things didn't improve much with the release of Suicide Squad, which managed to make the very same mistakes. Many disqualified the DCU (as it's commonly called) as nothing more than cheap knock-offs of its rivals.
That's one pretty shoddy warm-up for a team-up movie...
And so, we've reached the release of Justice League, something that, in any other world, would be considered to be the ultimate culmination of any DC Comics fan's wettest dream, seeing these iconic heroes do battle side by side in a showdown of the ages. However, both in front of the camera, where trailers have done little to ease concerns of the drastic change from the serious melodrama of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to the slightly more comedic and loose vibe of Justice League, to tragedy behind the camera as director Zack Snyder left the project after a personal loss only for Josh Whedon to pick up the reins (and that, by the way, made the production budget grow by an additional $100 million), it's hard to think of a large budget movie having undergone more criticism and degradation from fans and critics alike before its release. It's a production under heavy scrutiny, then, and it has gone through many changes during its development. Now, though, it's finally here, and the ultimate question remains; can Justice League create a platform from which the franchise can grow? Sadly though, it's impossible to answer yes to that question - at least without a caveat or two.
Right off the bat, it's worth pointing out, that Justice League behaves quite differently to its predecessor in a number of critical ways. Most importantly, it's immediately apparent that DC Comics and Warner Bros. have vigorously studied fan-criticisms of Batman v Superman, and of the fact that its melodramatic overtones made for poor character interactions and unbelievable exchanges. They paid so much attention, in fact, that they chose to throw out this narrative setup altogether, and opted to go down a more comedic and satirical road, drastically altering the characters they'd spent energy and money setting up beforehand. Ben Affleck's Batman is no longer haunted, stoic and dark, and instead, he's now a pun machine who looks for the silver lining in any negative scenario. The powerful Aquaman, portrayed by Jason Momoa, is a jock, rather than a wise guardian of the oceans. The Flash is reduced to nothing more than comic relief, both in dialogue and in action sequences, where it's easy to draw parallels to a weird superfast combination of Mr. Bean and Jim from American Pie. Even worse is that it's pretty easy to identify that these comedic sensibilities were added later, as an afterthought - it seems designed by committee, not by designers.
And it's a thorough shame because it ruins some of the interplay between characters, who actually function pretty decently together. Batman sets out, after the death of Superman, to gather earth's mightiest heroes in an attempt to stop the grave extraterrestrial threat that looms on the horizon. Cyborg, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman are all recruited at a brisk pace, and there's definite chemistry to savour here. There's no key stand one, because all in all the characters work together, and that's the ultimate saving grace of Justice League. In particular, it's jarring that Batman's gruff personality is effectively erased, as previously mentioned, but ultimately every hero delivers. That, however, cannot be said about the supporting cast, which always seems to be the crux of DC Comics films. Amy Adams returns as Lois Lane, and once more delivers an over-the-top melodramatic and entirely unconvincing performance, as she grieves the loss of Superman. Not even J.K. Simmons gets a respectable amount of exposition as Head of Police Jim Gordon. It's a shame because one constantly feels as if a strong supporting cast could help contextualise the supernatural events depicted on screen. In Avengers, for instance, Phil Coulson, Agent Maria Hill, and Stellan Skarsgård's Selvig are all important pieces of the puzzle, providing the proceedings with a much needed "down-to-earth" perspective.
And that's the perfect segue to the truly weakest part of the film, the villain. Steppenwolf arrives swiftly and with little to no introduction, in a sea of poorly designed Parademons and bad CGI. Despite a lengthy flashback sequence explaining his origins, he never thoroughly explains his motivations for wanting to transform Earth to a burning hellscape, and weirdly almost never mentions a larger plan at work. We know that the events of Justice League will tie into a larger conflict with the storied DC villain, Darkseid, but there's hardly ever a mention of the bigger forces at play, and Steppenwolf almost ends up being separated from the larger continuity - almost as if the creative staff very much knew how the character would end up being perceived.
Steppenwolf also ties into a larger issue with the overall vibe of the movie. Choosing a science fiction-esque threat simply makes the entire thing feel slightly jarring: it never quite fits. Somehow it works in The Avengers, maybe because we had more time to settle in with the characters and the universe before aliens poured through the sky in New York, but here it's hard to describe how off-putting it is to see Batman fighting a lowly crook on a rooftop in Gotham, only to have him jumped by an orange extraterrestrial fairy with infrared goggles on.
It's not all bad, though, and as we previously pointed out the movie wastes no time with pointless exposition as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did, and everything happening on screen matters to the larger arcs of the story. That builds to bigger payoffs, and having the movie come in just around the two-hour mark is pretty satisfying. While it's impossible to speculate exactly how much of this is Josh Whedon's doing, after he rushed in to finish the film after Zack Snyder's departure, it's hard to say, but the briskness of the pacing and the less melodramatic narrative design does echo of his creative involvement in the late stages of the production. It is, however, a shame that Snyder wasn't given the chance to take a second stab at creating an ethically challenging, serious superhero drama. Whedon's influence is everywhere within the genre, and is part of the reason why fatigue is slowly but surely seeping in for even the most hardened comic book movie fan. Superhero movies can tell us something profound about ourselves, and be about serious ethical and moral dilemmas - Christopher Nolan proved that. To see it dialed back and make way for Whedon-esque comedy is almost sad in a way.
It does make sense from the pacing perspective, and it works with Snyder's fantastic flair for moving the camera around, finding the perfect angle amidst all the grey gloss that usually makes up the recognisable visual design in his films. It's a beautifully realized world, and the camerawork is sublime. It does crack towards the end, though, in the showdown between our heroes and the antagonist, where the science fiction colour schemes get out of hand, but up until that point, Justice League is very pretty to look at and sensibly shot (then again, so was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
When all is said and done you do get the sense that, despite quite a few stumbles along the way, there's just the right amount of potential within each of these characters (even Cyborg works surprisingly well) to warrant further investigation with their own movies. We just wish that we'd seen them on their own beforehand so that this team-up could get its tone and balancing right.
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