Overview: The death of Superman has left the world open to attack from an alien god looking to reshape the world in his image. To stop the invasion, Batman and Wonder Woman assemble a team of reluctant heroes who must rediscover hope within themselves and each other in order to save the world. 2017; Warner Bros; Rated PG-13; 120 minutes.
One Year Later: The world doesn’t look like it did before. In terms of the space in which these fictional characters live and our real world, things have changed. There’s a psychological need for a bit more optimism, a bit more levity to get through the day and enable our minds to deal with the state of things. Justice League certainly departs from some of the bleakness and fear that drove the narrative of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as was always the plan for Snyder’s latest and perhaps last DC installment. But that departure is not as much as one would expect given all the noise that has circled around the film for the past year.
Justice League is still very much a film where optimism is something that has to be earned, and while hope has alleviated some fears, it makes room for new ones because hope also means having to live up to and reach for something that’s beyond reach. There is a very traceable tonal shift over the course of Snyder’s three films, and that shift is felt the most in Justice League. Despite that, Justice League is still a movie that opens with a montage of a world in mourning, set to a beautiful, moody cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ by Sigrid. This is still a movie that carries the weight of action and consequence and those factors still come before the need for jokes and winking nods. Despite some noticeable input by Joss Whedon, and a bit of cosmetic reconstruction, sometimes literally so, Justice League still has Zack Snyder’s consideration of these characters in its bones, and very much plays into his efforts to create a universe that feels both contemporary and comic booky.
Identity Crisis: Guilt is a powerful weapon. We find Bruce and Diana struggling to deal with their own in the film’s first act, an emotional partnership that provides an interesting tether between the two characters that wasn’t immediately apparent before. “The world needs Superman… the team needs Clark. He’s more human than I am. He lived in this world, fell in love, had a job…” Bruce says, and his change in perspective and demeanor feels entirely earned. He’s a lighter Batman than we’ve seen in some time, and one could almost go as far as to say that Affleck makes him affable, while still retaining the qualities that make him recognizable. Diana exposes some of the cracks in her veneer of perfection, admitting that she’s still learning, still struggling to find her identity as Wonder Woman in this world. Gal Gadot remains the DCEU’s most valuable asset and Justice League fully takes advantage of Wonder Woman’s newfound cinematic appeal. There’s a layering to these iconic characters, that regardless of the film’s breezy pacing, allows for an emotional sincerity that while not as risky as some of the proceeding entries does allow the viewer to pause and appreciate the subtle character qualities that are brought to light.
While team assembly can always be a bit tedious, it works in Justice League largely because of the dynamic the film’s new blood brings in the form of The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). While their interactions with each other, along with Batman and Wonder Woman, contain the fan service moments that are hard to not get excited about, the greatest asset each new character brings is his offering of unique perspectives on superheroes within this world. These perspectives, their skepticism in a world that still doesn’t quite know how to react to superheroes, their respective fear of responsibility, fear of moving forward, and fear of self, all speak to the modern anxieties of Snyder’s previous two films, while remaining largely in step with the best versions of these characters. All of these characters are struggling with their identities, and while there is a fair bit of humor in this regard, particularly in the case of Miller’s scene-stealing Flash, there’s also a significant amount of pathos. Momoa plays Aquaman with a swaggering internal rage that easily makes him the coolest guy in the room. And Fisher, who in terms of pure dramatic ability may be the film’s standout player, finds the heart of Cyborg, providing a range and emotional depth to a character who is too often considered ancillary. When the team action gets going, starting with a tunnel sequence that is arguably is one of the best action beats in the DCEU, there’s such a sense of joy and chemistry bringing all these distinct personalities together that it’s clear Warner Bros. struck a gold mine in the casting department.
While most of the film works, there are some rough patches that hold the film back from reaching its full potential. The presence of the military, political, and talking head perspective that gave additional insight into how the world viewed these characters is missed. The film’s scope feels more personal, which is a benefit, but there’s very little sense of the world outside of the purview of our central characters. This is what holds the film’s antagonist Steppenwolf back from being as menacing as he could be. Ciaran Hinds gives a strong vocal performance with some great lines, and the character’s CGI depiction is entirely fine for a CGI rendered being, but there’s no real sense of his presence within this world, no reaction to him as the second harbinger of an alien invasion in three years’ time. But Justice League’s most damning issue involves the highly publicized digital mustache removal of one of the film’s most popular characters, which doesn’t look great and prevents the reshoots from fitting in as seamlessly as they could have, despite the strong performance behind it.
Rebirth: By the film’s final act, in which the assembled team faces off against Steppenwolf at a nuclear plant, all of the film’s characters feel innately like they should in terms of honoring their classic counterparts, and better yet, it feels earned. While Justice League still plays a bit of inside baseball that may not always work in favor of the casual viewer, the film feels largely accessible in its appeal and a comparison to the Bruce Timm led DC animated shows of the 90s is not unwarranted. Some of the thematic depth and reflective meditation of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman is missed, but there’s enough there to create a satisfying conclusion to those previously established arcs while moving forward with a DC Universe that’s a bit more recognizable and easily digestible for fans and audiences looking more for blockbuster spectacle than philosophizing deconstruction. The time for deconstructing these characters is over for now, and while that may strip Justice League of some of its prestige and socio-political relevance, what’s left in its wake is pure comic book goodness that still has something to say and motivations to analyze.
Overall: Justice League successfully caps off what feels like the first segment of the DCEU and leaves us excited for more. The film is a bit rough around the edges in parts, and Danny Elfman is a poor substitute for Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, but for the most part the film comes together in a mostly cohesive fashion. It remains a sad fact that tragic circumstances unfortunately and understandably prevented Zack Snyder from completing the film himself, but he’s undoubtedly left a lasting legacy on these characters. Justice League comes in short of being great and lacks the ambition of Snyder’s prior efforts, but it’s an exuberant celebration of DC Comics with a true love of these concepts and characters, and that’s something that can’t be taken away.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.