What does a great version of Justice League look like?
The best thing that can be said about “Justice League” is also the worst: It’s unremarkable in almost every way. It spurs no emotion, bringing little of the furor of “Batman vs. Superman” and none of the joy of “Wonder Woman.” It’s, by all standards, an okay movie in a world where almost all movies are judged on a binary scale.
I’m not here to defend “Justice League,” because it’s not worth the cost of a lawyer. It’s also not worthy most of the boring derision heaped on top of its shallow grave. If you spent the time to rank the five D.C. films produced in the current era (“Batman vs. Superman,” “Man of Steel,” “Suicide Squad” and “Wonder Woman” being the predecessors), it likely outpaces all but Patty Jenkins’ effort. A low bar? Sure, but that’s something of an achievement nonetheless.
It’s also one of the messiest of all the films in the franchise, which is remarkable given the splashy shit show that is “Suicide Squad.” I’d love to watch this film without knowing two directors, scores of producers and a handful of writers got their hands on “Justice League” before I sat down to watch it in an empty theater not three weeks into its release. Unfortunately, I didn’t go into my viewing any cleaner than, well, anyone else with an Internet connection.
So, perhaps that informs (or taints) my opinion a little. I will say there are plenty of great moments in the film, despite both Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon doing extensive shooting work. I’ll also say the disparity from scene to scene is not as great (or apparent, to me, anyway) as others have noted. Still, there’s nothing cohesive about anything “Justice League” presents. A film all about unity could have used some both in front of, and behind, the camera.
Some of these problems were baked right into the script, thanks to poor story decisions in “Batman vs. Superman.” With Superman dead, the team had to bring him back in this movie. I emphasize that because there could not, in any capacity, be a Justice League film without Superman. They knew this when they decided to temporarily kill Superman to wrap up a mediocre mashup film. That meant, in addition to fully introducing three characters, significant runtime needed to be spent bringing Superman back from the dead.
It also meant a lot of time spent without Superman on screen. I’m not saying “Justice League” needed to be a Superman-Batman buddy comedy, but you have to wonder about the storytelling intelligence of making your big team-up movie with one of the key players six-feet underground for half the film. I get it. The audience doesn’t get to write the script, but writers and directors can paint themselves into corners with poor storytelling decisions.
All this awkward team bonding felt like it belonged in a different film – yes, “Batman vs. Superman.” You know, where Bruce Wayne fantasizes about killing Superman because he’s too powerful for his own good. Instead, it happens here (and after the two made up! Come on! Their moms have the same name! Aren’t they cool now?), and a violent encounter between the superheroes in public (with no repercussions!) is randomly interjected into the story.
That combines with a weak villain to make for a not-so-super story. Here’s why the villain matters in this film while Marvel continues to get away with substandard baddies in their ever-growing franchise: because Snyder and company decided he mattered. Wayne gathers up heroes because he knows Steppenwolf is coming, and the only reason Aquaman joins is because of the legend of this nefarious ne’er-do-well. We’re talking about a guy so monstrous, and so terrifying, that he battered down the door of Themyscira and spooked Wonder Woman.
So… too bad he’s a generic looking alien dude who just wants to rule the world, huh? Let’s be honest, D.C. would have been better off bringing back Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, or Jared Leto as The Joker for Christ’s sakes, rather than yet another alien monster who can teleport. As the lynchpin of your film, in addition to bringing Superman back from the dead in the exact same way you brought a bad guy to life in the previous film (cough), you gotta give the audience something!
A better version of this movie brings the heroes together more organically, and for more personal causes. It might sound silly to read, but “saving the world” doesn’t really cut it the same way it used to. It certainly doesn’t when introducing new characters, especially when audiences don’t have a reason to root for them quite yet. Ezra Miller is fun as the Flash, Jason Momoa is everything you want as Aquaman and Ray Fisher brings raw energy to Cyborg. None of that feels like enough because it all seems taken for granted; like we should already get these characters from something else.
I’m not saying “Justice League” couldn’t happen without an eight-movie leadup, but a two-hour movie sacrificed 30 minutes of screentime to bring back Superman back from the dead. Forget the fact we already spent two movies on Superman, nobody needs more time establishing who Batman and Superman are to one another either in this universe or, frankly, in any other. We get it. It’s possible there’s no way to save “Justice League” without first saving its predecessors. Once that milk was spilled, Warner Bros. was in trouble.
Still, a better version of this movie exists. One where more time is spent developing the individual characters and what makes them tick before bringing them all together to fight for something truly meaningful. Instead, the story is an absolute afterthought while at the very least the characters are given a little more attention than the previous D.C. fare. That gives a brief glimmer of hope if there are to be more of these films in the future (there are). The first big team-up movie wasn’t want the studio wanted, and it might be a long time before we see another. But it also wasn’t the disaster many predicted; and in some way, that’s a success.