Movie Review: 'Justice League'
'Justice League' is just good enough.
The problem with Justice League and the problem with the entirety of the DC cinematic universe is the vision of Zach Snyder. I realize that laying the blame for what many perceive as a significant failure on one person is a little unfair, but hear me out. I like the movies that Zach Snyder has made in this universe. I like Justice League but the fact of the matter, for me, is that these movies fail to transcend into being truly great movies because Zach Snyder isn’t a great director, just a pretty good one.
Justice League picks up the story of the DC cinematic universe in the wake of the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). The world is darker and a little more chaotic following the loss of Superman, and no one feels that loss quite as much as Bruce Wayne-Batman (Ben Affleck). Bruce feels that he is responsible for Superman’s death and the danger that the world faces without its savior. Worse yet, there are new beings that have arrived on Earth that feed on the fear that has risen in the world minus Superman.
These new beings are commanded by a being called Steppenwolf (the voice of Ciaran Hinds) who intends to take over the world by uniting three cubes known as the Mother Boxes which when combined will remake the Earth as a hellscape under Steppenwolf’s command. The first Mother Box is located in Themiscyra, the homeland of Diana Prince-Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Alerted by her mother Hypolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana seeks out Bruce Wayne and the two set about putting a team together.
Up first is eager motormouth Barry Allan AKA The Flash (Ezra Miller). Barry is easily won over by a visit from Bruce Wayne though he warns that he’s never done battle before. Much more difficult to convince is Arthur Curry AKA Aquaman (Jason Mamoa). Until his home of Atlantis comes under attack by Steppenwolf, Aquaman appears content to stay in the ocean. Afterward however, Arthur Curry is spoiling for a fight.
The final member of the team is Victor Stone AKA Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Seventeen-year-old Victor Stone died in an explosion, but using one of the three Mother Boxes and its alien technology Victor’s father, Silas (Joe Morton), was able to bring his son back to life. Victor is now more robot than man and is deeply concerned that the alien technology used to save his life is slowly subsuming him into a secondary being in his own mind. I’m bringing more to the Cyborg character than the movie does but Ray Fisher does well to bring Victor’s conflicted emotions into the movie even if this aspect of the story is rushed.
Much of Justice League was quite intentionally rushed. Warner Brothers mandated that the film be kept to a two-hour theatrical run time. This is good in that the previous DC movies proved bloated and a tad messy (remember, I like those movies). But it also means that characters like Cyborg, The Flash, and Aquaman aren’t given much time for their back stories and conflicts. The screenplay seems to rely heavily on us filling in that part for ourselves and hoping that the actors can make the characters charming enough not to need the elaboration.
For the most part, Miller, Fisher, and Mamoa are that charming. It helps to have at least a base knowledge of the DC comics versions of these characters, but this is a talented and likable trio of actors, good enough for us to pass them on to perhaps starring in the stand alone films that might expand upon the back stories that are not here in Justice League.
The best part of Justice League, however, is the brightest star in the DC Movie Universe, Gal Gadot’s glorious Wonder Woman. Gadot is the steward of the Wonder Woman character without her director Patti Jenkins on hand, and she does well to overcome the testosterone infused, fanboy nature of Justice League and keep to the Wonder Woman we all fell for in her stunning solo effort. Gadot is uncompromising in her care for this character and not even the manboy posturing of a Zach Snyder feature was going to keep her from shining.
Too bad the same can’t be said of Ben Affleck’s Batman. As many other critics, have already pointed out, Affleck seems barely able to tolerate the making of Justice League. I get that Batman is a loner whose arc is about embracing teamwork but Affleck’s elegiac performance and grunting delivery gives one the impression that his heart isn’t in this. It’s probably unfair to speculate on such things, but I do wonder if Affleck would be more invested if his solo Batman project hadn’t been torpedoed.
Affleck just doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself, a quality is evident in everyone else in the movie. Gadot, Mamoa, Miller, and Fisher seem energized and spirited. Again, it’s a mark of Batman’s character, he’s older and wiser and more beaten down, he’s supposed to be less energetic but his performance is thudding at times when it should, at the very least, be energetic. And this is coming from someone who as a young man uttered the phrase “Affleck was da bomb in Phantoms, yo” with only a hint of the intended irony.
I don’t think Affleck is the problem though, the problem is director Zach Snyder. The bottom line is that his brand of testosterone infused, CGI heavy action, and lacking character development has stunted the DC brand as compared to the Marvel Universe. Where Marvel led with character development by launching their universe on the back of Robert Downey Jr’s roguishly charming Iron Man, DC started the DC Movie Universe on the charmless Man of Steel portrayed by Henry Cavill with barely an ounce of charm and zero wit.
Cavill is an actor of limited range and when directed by Zach Snyder his weaknesses as an actor came to the fore. Snyder relies on his actors charisma to invest his weak stories with something beyond the necessities of exposition and Cavill wasn’t capable of delivering in Man of Steel. Cavill improved in Batman Vs. Superman Dawn of Justice but not by much. That film had to be rescued by the ray of charismatic light that is Gal Gadot in the end just as she seems prepared to save the entire DCU.
Gadot stands out by standing above the shoddy CGI and the manboy-fanboy posturing of Snyder’s signature style. She is a breath of fresh air here as she was in Batman Vs. Superman and as her standalone movie was for the entire DCU. Gadot is the best case for Patti Jenkins to be given the reigns of this universe. Jenkins recognized in Gadot exactly where the strength of this movie universe lies, in its strongest, most realized character, Wonder Woman.
Zach Snyder is just not the visionary director that the DC movie universe needs. He’s a solid technician, though his CGI work remains sketchy. He’s just good enough at delivering a passable superhero adventure. But, his limitations in developing characters and fleshing out a larger, universe-wide story is very much lacking. He’s not a visionary, he’s a steward of adequacy. He will give the DC movie universe one just good enough adventure after another but he will never lift the universe to the level that the Russo Brothers and Joss Whedon have lifted the Marvel Universe, and yes, I am aware Joss worked on this movie as well but he was on hand to finish off Snyder's vision, not his own.
If just good enough is what you’re looking for in a Justice League franchise, then Zach Snyder is your man. Justice League is just good enough for me to recommend but not nearly the movie that fans of this DC franchise are hoping for.