Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have received responses in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zack Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles: grimdark Zack scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.
The manner in which Justice League has been cut to the bone, excising anything that might be considered a subplot, with occasional scenes left here or there that might have amounted to genuine ones once – Martha Kent selling the ranch – put me in mind of other ruthlessly slaughtered turkeys studios gutted and dumped, in the forlorn hope of maximising hiding-to-nothing box office through additional screenings per day.
The Avengers, for example. That is, the 1998 big-screen version of the British TV series. Justice League is duly replete with the necessary, expected elements – introducing the various team members, having them meet, squabble and finally unite as a very powerful CGI menace assembles an awesome object with which it plans to subdue, subjugate and overcome the planet – but they move by at such a clip there’s never a sense that anyone’s particularly keen on the story being told; they just want to get it over and done with and hope the takings are sufficient to call it evens.
Which is curiously appropriate to DC’s game plan, if you can discern a grand design to their hasty, catch-up cinematic universe; Justice League is a two-hour equivalent of what Marvel, in their long-game wisdom, has taken half a decade to arrive at with their Infinity Stones. Both sport an oversized, all-CGI humanoid who looks pretty shit, let’s be honest (although Marvelheads will vehemently deny Thanos looks anything less than amazeballs), hunting down the items – Mother Boxes or Infinity Stones – that will confer ultimate power over all.
Ciaran Hinds plays Steppenwolf but deserves zero blame for how entirely forgettable the character is (I mean, really, the band would have been more threatening). His gibbering Parademons make more of an impact, although they reminded me unflatteringly of Katana’s imbecilic henchman in Highlander II: The Quickening. Steppenwolf isn’t as ridiculous as David Thewlis’ head plastered onto a buff god of war in Wonder Woman, and he’s probably no worse when it comes down to it than a number of less-than-scintillating Marvel heroes (if we’re going to get into brand wars), but that doesn’t make him any more acceptable. No doubt, if the mentioned Darkseid ever makes an appearance, evidently planned as the focus of the now aborted Justice League 2, he’ll also be all-CGI, all-underwhelming.
The idea, I’m guessing, is that bad guys shouldn’t matter too much, as this is all about the team up. And to some extent, that isn’t wrong – I can’t say I remember the Chitauri, particularly – although the effectiveness of this quintet/sextet (depending on what point in the movie you’re at) is variable.
Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/ The Flash is easily the highlight of the picture. Barry has the most interesting arc – fearful and erratic in his skill set, learning to conquer one and hone the other – and he’s where Whedon’s po-mo dialogue and verbal diarrhoea actually fit the character. Much of that is down to Miller’s amiable, wired performance, hugely stoked to be with genuine superheroes and entirely humble about his own abilities. It’s inevitable that Whedon will reference Pet Sematary when talking about bringing Supes back from the grave, and have Barry worry that Cyborg will consider it “racially charged” when he offers a fist bump, but Miller’s giddy-geek-jacked-on-junk-food makes the material seem almost fresh.
If Ray Fisher can’t do much with Victor Stone/Cyborg, it’s because he’s encumbered on every level. The character occupies the realm of heightened body horror to an extent even Robocop was reluctant to explore, and it’s nigh impossible to move past that effectively, into a breezier, more carefree superhero narrative. Early scenes do offer something of a sop, as he rebukes his father (Joe Morton) for turning him into a monster, but without that essential pain, all you have is a guy in a crap CGI outfit. And the CGI really is crap.
Jason Momoa’s boozehound-bro meathead Arthur Curry/Aquaman has plenty of personality, but unfortunately, none of it is terribly appealing. I’m mildly interested to see how they’re intending to revolve a whole movie around him, as aside from a very Whedon scene in which he shares his feelings – thanks to accidentally sitting on Diana’s Lasso of Truth – his whiff of alpha-dominance is faintly obnoxious (as for flying through the air killing Parademons: well, only Snyder could make something as ridiculous as that almost work). We briefly see his soggy undersea abode, and I’m none the wiser about any of it, particularly who Amber Heard is playing and why.
So it’s one hit against two misses for the newbies, which is the same ratio for those with whom we’re more familiar. Gal Gadot comes through the proceedings with dignity entirely intact, despite numerous arse-shots and an uptick in lowest-common-denominator impulses – Alfred, who clearly spends too much time on his own, talking up her potential to bachelor Bruce, Diana witheringly but indulgently noting she’s surrounded by boys rather than men – after the restraint of Wonder Woman.
Batfleck… Hang up the cape, Ben. The actor looks puffy and ill-at-ease when he isn’t in the suit, and when he (or his stunt double) is, there’s a consistent air of how ridiculous it is that his character is even attempting to impose himself on a situation where he’s entirely physically out of his depth (regardless of the number of wonderful toys he has).
Indeed, it simply isn’t enough for Bruce to mention he’s already too old for this sort of thing, as we’re continually wondering why the hell he’s squatting on the edge of a girder from which he might trip and plummet to his death at any moment, or how shot his knees must be from repeatedly leaping great distances onto concrete. More damagingly, Affleck’s just plain uninteresting and uninterested. He brings nothing to the part aside from tepid competence.
In contrast, while I’d rather Henry Cavill didn’t stop being Supes, between his uncannily CGI-d out soup strainer, the incessant over-compensations for past sins against the character, and his rapid recovery from resurrection, he’d be forgiven for having had enough. The return from the grave is handled with almost amusing alacrity – at some point a subplot with a bad Supes in black was evidently dumped, on the reasonable basis that his character had already spent quite enough time glowering without yet suggesting him as discernibly Super-like – and not inconsiderable cluelessness.
Why didn’t the fledgling League simply bring Lois (or his mom) to see him straightaway? It would have saved multiple brutal beat downs. And then, it takes him a mere five minutes of standing around in a corn field and he’s good to go. Offhand doesn’t begin to cover it. Most wretchedly, Superman has a big old chuckle with Cyborg after defeating Steppenwolf, because, you see, Superman laughs now (see also his race with Barry; the guy’s really lightened up!) In the same vein, he refuses to stand idly by when there’s a bout city-wide destruction porn, breaking off defeating Steppenwolf to fly away and save a building full of people! Priorities, there. Ones that come across as pathetically pandering.
Justice League is every bit as garish and aesthetically distracting as the trailers suggested, but that’s Snyder’s palette of choice for you (albeit, as some comparable caps have shown, Whedon initiated significant regrading of the CGI action fest climax to make it look a little less two-tone). It’s also less frenetic than typical Snyder, probably partly because Danny Elfman’s not entirely sympathetic cues are married to the images instead of Hans Zimmer’s.
I’m probably in the minority who considers the DC movies much of a muchness in that none of them are terrible good or straight up terrible – even Batman v Superman – and Justice League comfortably joins their ranks. While Justice League has abundant issues – and I’m not exactly itching to see whatever Lex Luther and a ridiculously bleach-blonde Deathstroke have planned next – there’s just enough Whedon pep and zip to make it a fun ride.
Look, I’m fully cognisant of the guy’s creative shortcomings (putting his personal life to one side), and his undeniable talents with structure don’t really have a chance to come into play when attempting to “fix” a movie at such a late stage. Meaning it’s his variable hit ratio with everyone-gives-good-gags approach to dialogue that’s to the fore (that or a moment where two characters tell each other what they’re feeling, laced with sexual innuendo, then giving a good gag). Nevertheless, he ensures this picture isn’t a slog. It’s probably been pruned more than was necessary, but there’s enough brio here to make the future of DC less foreboding.
Warner Bros isn’t happy, though. Very occasionally, perhaps not a silk purse but a fit-for-purpose wallet can be made out of a sow’s ear – World War Z was much better than it had any right to be, given the problems that plagued it, not least its director – so expecting miracles from course correcting Justice League by bringing in Whedon were unrealistic. And expecting audiences who’d been burned by Batman v Superman to rinse and repeat for something that appeared to nurse all the same complaints was likewise foolhardy. So they’re looking to restructure, but as long as they maintain the approach of wanting Marvel-level results “now” they’re probably continually set to stumble.
There’s a standalone Batman movie, unlikely to feature Batfleck, but the latest suggestion is that he will appear in the Barry Allen timeline reboot Flashpoint, which would make sense as an exit strategy, one where WB/DC can pick and choose which characters they want to keep and who to recast (not that it really matters with a universe already as woollily built as this). Robert Zemeckis was being talked about for that one – he needs a hit – and Warners rightly perceives that Flash went down well in Justice League. On the other hand, they also seem to think Aquaman did. Well, they have to, really; his solo movie’s already in the can.