There are so many outside factors exerting their force on Justice League, it’s kind of amazing it turned out as good as it did. Justice League is better than the negative side of the press surrounding it, but still nowhere near as good as the first big-screen Justice League outing should’ve been.
To give a little background, Zack Snyder – director of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman – was well into the production of Justice League when he made the admirable decision to step down in the midst of a family tragedy. I can’t personally imagine how hard it must be to leave behind a project you’ve poured so much energy and creativity into, but he absolutely made the right call. Family is more important than anything.
The studio execs at Warner Bros. tapped Joss Whedon – mastermind behind Buffy, Firefly, and most importantly Marvel’s Avengers – to take the reins. On one hand, Whedon makes sense – no one else in the business has done a superhero team movie before (because there’s pretty much only been two, both Avengers, both helmed by Whedon). But on the other, perhaps more important hand, Whedon’s style does not match Snyder’s.
Which brings me to the most important issue. The entire tone of everything Justice League – marketing, trailers, and film – is a direct knee-jerk reaction to the negative press surrounding Batman V Superman. I’ve written about this extensively before, most recently in my Thor: Ragnarok review. Current audiences prefer, for better or worse, more light-hearted, fun, comedic efforts. That’s Whedon’s wheelhouse, not Snyder’s.
My personal tastes lean very much the other way. Give me gravitas, give me weight, give me hope amidst overwhelming darkness. Nolan’s somber and grave Dark Knight trilogy is perhaps my favorite movie trilogy of all time. And I think Snyder wanted to carry that tone over into a new, wider DC cinematic universe. For several reasons, audiences have not reacted well to that tonal direction. I could spend endless pages picking that apart, but that’s a post for another time.
Warner Bros. clearly picked up on the audience appeal of what Marvel is currently doing with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and the recent Thor film. And they wanted to emulate that success by forcing their DC heroes to occupy a more light-hearted and fun space.
That push and pull of tone and direction is very apparent in Justice League, due to the fact that the film has two directors, both with their own distinct styles and sensibilities. It is not as noticeable as some reviews have made it out to be, but that dichotomy is there, and the film suffers for it.
We still don’t know for sure how much of Zack Snyder’s material Whedon decided to reshoot, but there are certain parts that are unmistakably Snyder’s, and others that are unmistakably Whedon’s.
The first half of the movie is spent getting the band together, with Bruce Wayne globe-trotting to gather the various members together to fight an emerging threat – the villainous Steppenwolf. There are some good interactions here, Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/Flash and Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman being the highlights. Ray Fisher gives a surprisingly understated and even-tempered performance as Victor Stone/Cyborg, which grounds his character in a way I appreciated. Wonder Woman continues to be the optimistic heart of the DC universe, and Ben Affleck continues to be a force both in the cowl and out of it.
The second half of the film is far better than the first. Once the team is assembled and the narrative becomes more focused, the pace picks up considerably and carries that momentum through to the end. The interactions between the members of the Justice League make for some great moments, and some that are not so great. Specifically, there is a fantastic moment of mentorship between the older, more experienced Batman and the young, nervous Flash. There is a push and pull between Diana Prince and Bruce Wayne as to which direction the team should pursue, and this pays off, both in the relationship between the two, and the themes of not only this movie, but this universe.
The late-film action is good, with some good “team-move” moments, where each character has a role to play, and sometimes those roles overlap with one another. These are likely almost completely Whedon-directed, if the rumors are to be believed.
However, there are two areas where Justice League falls absolutely flat. Unfortunately, those two areas are probably the most important. Mild spoilers follow.
First, Steppenwolf. Yet again, this continues the DC movie trend of a large, greyish villain surrounded by red skies and smoke. Almost every DC villain has been portrayed in a similar fashion. But the decision to make Steppenwolf completely CGI was not a good one. His plastic CGI face is not menacing, it’s distracting. And there are some good old rubbery CGI physics courtesy of the early 2000’s. Why hire an actor with the kind of presence possessed by Ciaran Hinds – who audiences may recognize as Mance Rayder, the leader of the Freefolk in Game of Thrones – then hide him behind a plastic CGI visage? Just put him on the screen.
And second, and vastly more important, the film fails to do any kind of justice to Superman himself. This is the biggest failing of the film by far, and something that I cannot forgive it for. Again, if rumors are to be believed, Whedon is to blame for this. And I believe it, because I know that Snyder has more respect and reverence for the character than what we got in Justice League.
The return of Superman is not just a big deal. It’s the biggest deal. This should’ve been the epic return of the one the world needs, the beacon of hope in the darkness, the resurrection of the savior. It was setup at the end of Batman V Superman, and Justice League made significant efforts to tell us how much the world misses and needs Superman. But his resurrection is not only too-easily accomplished, it is also somewhat glossed over, and absolutely mishandled. There is nothing good about the way Superman returns. And that is utterly unforgiveable to me.
Not only is his return so subpar it makes me sad just to think about it, but once he’s back he’s given very little to do. And if you pay attention during the final battle with Steppenwolf, Superman’s action takes place almost entirely apart for the rest of the team (except for a brief moment with the Flash). It’s all just very disappointing.
Add onto that what is probably the most ridiculous problem a movie can have. Somewhere in the midst of the production of Justice League, Henry Cavill was also shooting the next Mission Impossible movie, for which he had a mustache. When Whedon was called into finish the film and Cavill had to return to the production for reshoots, the Hollywood bigwigs got together and decided that it would be a better decision to digitally REMOVE his mustache for Justice League than to digitally ADD a mustache for Mission Impossible, and refused to let Henry Cavill shave for the Justice League reshoots. Which has given birth to what is being called the “uncanny upper-lip”, where Superman has a weird plastic mouth for some shots of Justice League. Nowhere is this more noticeable than literally the opening shot of the movie, which sets a very weird tone for the film. Huge mistake.
Like I said at the beginning, Justice League is better than you might think. And the fact that it is able to hold itself together and be better than the press indicates amidst all the crazy problems surrounding the production is kind of amazing. That being said, the first big-budget silver-screen depiction of the Justice League, specifically one that includes the resurrection of Superman, should have been far better than it was. The movie isn’t as much of a mess as it’s being made out to be, but there are definite cracks, and the whole thing feels vaguely disappointing and unsatisfying.
There’s already an online petition, which I have signed, calling for the Zack Snyder director’s cut to eventually be released. Who knows if that will happen (because these online petitions rarely go anywhere, and who knows if Snyder has all the footage he would need to do that), but I absolutely want to see Zack Snyder’s full, original vision. While others may not like the way Snyder has handled this universe, I think he’s done a good job, and I can’t help but long for the Justice League that could-have-been.
Thanks for reading.