Man of Steel was a mistake.
Not in the qualitative sense, but rather in the precedent it set for the films that followed. What was borne out of a desire to take the World’s Finest more seriously somehow mutated into a gauntlet of absurd punishments and a dark carnival cut to ribbons by an ad agency. Wonder Woman turned out alright, but for the most part, the House that Man of Steel built is a billion-dollar house of cards ready to tumble. Justice League, the culmination of DC’s attempts to catch up with Marvel, is a baffling tapestry of splash pages and narrative misfires.
It’s not very good, is what I’m getting at.
A camel is a horse designed by committee, as they say, and I can think of no better metaphor to describe Justice League. This film had a publicly tumultuous production, not only due to Zack and Deborah Snyder stepping away after a family tragedy, but also thanks to reshoots overseen by Joss Whedon, who among other things had to contend with CG’ing out Henry Cavill’s mustache (a move necessitated by a rival studio, no less) across roughly 20% of the film. Combine that with studio mandates to give the film a lighter tone and to keep it under two hours, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
All of this strain shows in the final product. The distinction between Snyder’s scenes and Whedon’s is murky, though some are more obvious than others. Thanks to a concerted effort to make this film more fun and breezy, Justice League finds its jokier tone completely at odds with its Earth-shattering plot. Sometimes, this leads to scenes where characters literally stand around in costume unsure of how to proceed. This introduction has gone on long enough, so hey, how about that plot?
Superman is dead, to begin with.
In his absence, the world has lost its damn fool mind. Not only have the people lost all hope, but weird alien critters have started invading Gotham City. As the film opens, Batman (Ben Affleck) encounters one of these creatures and realizes that an invasion is coming. Alongside Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Bruce Wayne assembles a team to save the world from this imminent threat. He recruits Barry Allen, aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), with the quickness. Diana spends entirely too long convincing the self-loathing monster Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to step out of the shadows and lend a hand. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) proves to be a little trickier, but once he realizes the gravity of the situation, the Aquaman joins the team.
And the threat? An alien general named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds, CGI’d all to hell) has arrived in search of three Mother Boxes, with which he plans to terraform the Earth into his own homeworld. Wonder Woman explains in an extended flashback sequence how thousands of years ago, the Amazons, Atlanteans and Humans all joined forces to stop Steppenwolf from using the Mother Boxes to destroy the Earth, and since his absence have kept the three boxes locked away in well-guarded vaults. (Except for the idiot humans, who buried their box in a shallow grave in someone’s backyard.)
Yeah, this is one of those movies. The heroes have to stop the bad guy from getting a thing that he plans to use to destroy the world, only they totally fail at getting the thing and instead have to regroup and destroy the thing because he activated it already and it’s about to destroy the world. It’s Man of Steel all over again, minus the actual Man of Steel. Until they decide they actually do need him to help save the world, so the plot derails itself for about thirty minutes while the Justice League play Frankenstein with Superman’s corpse. There is literally a scene where Batman makes Flash and Cyborg defile Superman’s grave. Barry points out how creepy and wrong this is, as though that somehow excuses it.
This movie is filled with more MacGuffins than the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone’s after these Mother Boxes because they’re these magic cubes that can do anything but mostly just destroy shit. Everyone’s after Superman’s dead body, because he’s the key to saving the Earth from the Mother Boxes. Then there’s Cyborg, who is also sought after by pretty much everyone because he was brought back from the dead thanks to a Mother Box, and is basically the Swiss army knife that the movie uses to solve every problem. Everybody is after all of these things for plot reasons. They’re all means to an end, and the end is pretty fucking dour no matter which way you slice it.
Justice League is such a fundamentally broken movie that it hardly even acknowledges the comic book universe it exists in. This is a DC universe where our heroes’ secret identities are the worst kept secrets on the planet. In one early scene, Bruce questions an entire village about the whereabouts of Aquaman. When he finally reveals himself, he says, in front of everybody, “So you’re Bruce Wayne, the Batman.” Not a single person even flinches. This happens more than once and it’s like everyone already knows.
So much of the overarching plot and construction feels wrong that it can be difficult to appreciate what actually works about the movie. For one, Ezra Miller absolutely kills it as The Flash. His Barry Allen is a fast-talking millennial eager to prove himself among the grown up heroes, and gets most of the film’s big laughs. In one particularly effective scene, Barry freaks out as he realizes the team is about to leap into battle for the first time. Batman calms him down by giving him one simple task: “Just save one.” Once Barry realizes his value by rescuing a single innocent person, he’s literally off to the races. It’s some genuinely affecting character work. More of this would have at least given us that fun the studio wanted so badly. We want to see our heroes get a thrill out of helping people. When it works, it’s an infectious kind of feeling. It’s part of what made Wonder Woman work as well as it does.
There are a handful of small character moments like this that really sing, but too many are couched among tiresome action beats to fully connect. Part of this is due to Snyder’s action sequences, this time around less the bombastic tableaus of Watchmen and more frenetic hacking and slashing. Once Superman returns to the scene, it’s too little too late. Snyder made perfectly clear how much he hates Superman in BvS, so his appearance in this film feels like an afterthought. Henry Cavill still does his best with the role, but it’s obvious there’s not much role for him to begin with.
I just don’t know anymore. There was a time when I actually held out hope that these films would start making sense again. At this point, though, it’s pretty clear that both Man of Steel and Wonder Woman were flukes, and their respective heroes show up in this crap out of obligation. There isn’t an awful lot worth recommending about Justice League, outside of a couple fun character beats. It feels too much like a placeholder product designed to move units until the actual Justice League film arrives. But that replacement isn’t coming, so you might as well pick up your bargain basement hero squad merch now.
There is one shot early on that feels like a complete encapsulation of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon’s efforts on this unholy Frankenstein monster of a film. It comes in the middle of a montage of how bad things have gotten since the death of Superman. People are looting grocery stores, anger and violence boil over, people have lost all hope. And then we see a homeless man and his dog sitting on a street corner. Next to the dog is a cardboard sign that reads “I TRIED.” I can’t imagine this is anything other than one director (or both) throwing up their hands and saying, “Fuck it. I give up.”
So do I, Zack and Joss. So do I.Liked This? Share It!