“Adults… struggle desperately with fiction, demanding constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it’s not real.”
-Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human
*this review is spoiler free until the Narrative and Themes sections*
Someone once asked me: “Is it hard being a DC Comics fan?”
My answer remains a steadfast “no”, reason being my love for these larger-than-life characters, these icons living in their complex, generations-spanning mythos, came well before the DCEU, DC’s current cinematic universe. These heroes and villains exist outside the films. They will still be around long after the DCEU. They’ve proven they have the resilience to be reinterpreted again and again for over three quarters of a century; I loved them in the comics, in the TV shows, in the DCAU (the best and most complete adaptation I can think of).
Unlike the MCU (and this is where I’ll attempt to shelve my fandboyish bias against Marvel for the duration of this review), the DC characters enjoy and have enjoyed tremendous storytelling success in multiple media forms elsewhere. I’m not a fan of Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman just because of these most recent films. That’d be a pretty depressing outlook. Rather, some of their books and the stories that have been told about them in the past (in and out of cinema) are seminal standards for comic book storytelling.
I prepped for Justice League by re-watching Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (forget the theatrical release, thank you very much), and Wonder Woman. I will never watch Suicide Squad again after two viewings. I re-watched Batman ’66, Batman ’89, several episodes of CW’s The Flash, Bruce Timm’s Batman: the Animated Series and Justice League Animated Series, even Hanna-Barbera’s Challenge of the Super Friends. I read Superman: Doomed, Justice by Jim Krueger and Alex Ross, Kingdom Come, and a slew of New 52 and some Rebirth volumes.
Going into Justice League, my expectations, hopes, and hype levels were all over the place. I was told by family members to calm down as 6pm Thursday night approached. I was told that I was setting myself up for disappointment. Even if the film was a masterpiece, at a certain point nothing can satisfy peak anticipation. Well, untrue.
I went in expecting to see the most comic bookish film ever and in that I was not disappointed. Justice League has been met with varied headlines making valueless statements like “It’s not terrible but it’s not amazing”, “It’s not perfect but…”, and “You will either love it or hate it”. I can see eye to eye with some of that as there are highs and lows in this film. Given the track record of the DCEU, and the work of director Zack Snyder, I didn’t anticipate a masterpiece, anyway. While Wonder Woman earlier this year was a great film and a refreshing take on the superhero movie genre, Batman v Superman before it was a ponderous, plodding, depressing mess with grievous characterization, vision, editing, pacing, and casting issues. Great moments but largely a missed opportunity with three icons meeting for the first time on the silver screen and the death of Superman, which felt so premature.
Justice League seems to attempt to channel the lightness, joy, and optimism of Wonder Woman while continuing the story of the characters we last saw in Batman v Superman. Further, this film feels like a mashup of the New 52, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. I don’t know what other movie has caped superheroes, alien invaders, sword and sorcery fantasy, and Greek myth.
At just shy of a two hour runtime, Justice League moves at a brisk pace, sometimes too quick but nowhere near as tedious as its direct prequel. It has a lot to do: expand the lore of the DC universe with Fourth World characters and introduce three new heroes to audiences. I do use the term “introduce” loosely. It’s not like the Flash, for instance, needs an introduction to general audiences the same way that, say, Captain Marvel would or that Thor did.
Justice League finds Batman increasingly paranoid about the impending invasion he dreamed about and caught a hint of from Luthor in Batman v Superman. The Dark Knight together with Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, struggles to recruit a team of metahumans who can stop whatever it is that’s coming. This takes Bruce Wayne to squatter and secret speedster Barry Allen, who joins willingly, whereas Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, rejects Bruce’s offer. Diana herself has little luck recruiting the cybernetic Victor Stone.
That is until the actual craziness starts going down. Steppenwolf, a galactic conqueror with a vengeful memory of Earth, leads an army of monsters to recapture the three Mother Boxes, cube-shaped artifacts, from Themyscira, Atlantis, and Star Labs. The five heroes are pulled into a war to save the planet but Bruce knows in his heart that the world needs Superman and the team needs Clark.
To address the highs and lows of the film, the worst parts are the CGI and reshoots while the best parts are the characters. More on that below…
The 8-bit Review
It is really quite hard to gauge the overall visual score for this film since we’re talking about scenes clearly laid out by Zack Snyder, not the greatest director of all time but certainly a visionary, weighed against clashing reshoots and shoddy CGI. Snyder, like no one else, has created a stylized sense of reality that captures the exaggeration of comic book action. Justice League still contains a lot of Snyder’s vision, despite Joss Whedon stepping in during post-production after Snyder left the project due to a tragedy in his family (for which this writer offers his deepest condolences; I once jokingly petitioned for Snyder to be removed from the DCEU but I of course never wanted his absence to come about because of the suffering of his family, and the people who are reveling in that are disgusting human beings without empathy).
One of the visual challenges that Justice League needed to surmount was making us believe that Batman, an above average man, was capable of fighting off aliens alongside metahumans and demigods. They made him look like a tank, a force of destruction, the kind of superhuman-tier Dark Knight that Bale’s take could never be.
Cyborg was another visual challenge and there were only two scenes when I thought he looked a little… floaty. They were able to hide his mechanical physique in several scenes thanks to a humble hoody, Vic Stone reluctant to embrace his new metahuman form, but when he’s lumbering around full Terminator, he frequently looks great, well-lit, nigh tangible.
The best visuals must go to the Flash, though. The Black Humor Mage, my associate and my companion upon viewing this film with the White Out Mage, previously noted that he couldn’t wait to see what a blockbuster budget could do with speed force special effects, considering what was accomplished on the small screen with CW’s Flash. Justice League did not disappoint. The scenes where Barry Allen taps into the speed force are gorgeous. People saying the entire movie sucked because the lightning should’ve been yellow instead of blue may not be able to read this sentence.
Standing in stark contrast to the somewhat self-indulgent nature of Snyder pans, Snyder slow-mo, and Snyder action sequences shimmering in their glory are moments where the CGI looks practically impoverished. Bear in mind that Justice League is a film set at a massive scale but it’s a film which was only in production for, what, a year and a half? Tops? As such, the special effects in several moments look very poor.
Chief violators in this respect come in the form of Steppenwolf and the Cavillstache. The film’s villain looks inconsistently great and terrible, depending on the scene. Sometimes he looks like he was rendered with a PlayStation 3. Other times he looks like a menacing but obnoxiously-tall person. As for the legendary Cavillstache… this is the biggest grievance, in my opinion. Henry Cavill sported a spiffy mustache during reshoots which he could not shave due to obligations with another film project, so in post they edited it out. It’s not always noticeable, and I ruined the movie for the second helpings of others who didn’t notice it the first time, but once someone points it out to you, you can’t unsee the uncanny valley face and floating mouth. That’s not glaring all the time but when it is, it’s abysmal.
Justice League is a mixed bag of bad and good visuals, though in the end I think the good was more frequent than the bad. Maybe. The criticism I cannot abide is that there’s too much CGI. I don’t think that a film of this scale can rise above using CGI any more than Thor: Ragnarok or The Last Jedi can. Practical effects should be used wherever possible, in my opinion, but clearly there’s no way practical effects could account for everything in Justice League. Practical effects for the speed force? How? What needed to be done was improve the effects that were used. I don’t have much to say about what could or should have been rendered by a computer.
I was one of those who was a fan of Hans Zimmer’s work from Batman Begins through to Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman. Not all of it was inspired but it was distinct and I enjoyed the melodic themes he crafted, specifically those for Clark and Diana, as well as the thunderous violence of his style of composition. With Zimmer now out of the superhero music biz, Danny Elfman stepped into the role of composer for Justice League.
Elfman, you may recall, is no stranger to the DC universe. He composed the iconic score for Batman ’89, one of the greatest superhero scores, if not movie scores, out there. He was actually able to mix some of that original Bat-score and the classic Christopher Reeves Superman theme into this film. Beyond that, there’s unfortunately little else that’s notable. I think the DCEU lost some distinctiveness with Zimmer’s departure. Elfman’s score takes Justice League more into the realm of familiar and safe movie music, and there were moments where it felt somewhat jarring, particularly during the action sequences.
Example: early in the film, there’s a terrorist act that Wonder Woman stops (depicted in the trailers) and the score is all over the place with Elfman’s bouncy strings and elfin sounds. It bordered on the comical, to my mind, which is weird considering this is a bomb threat and that seems gruesomely real-world alongside the fantasy music.
This is where all the SPOILERS are, people. If you would like to skip the spoilers in Narrative and Themes, then please Ctrl+f Cast to leap ahead in a single bound.
The story of Justice League has been called “thin” or conversely “lean”. That’s especially true compared to the bloated complexity of Batman v Superman. Essentially Justice League is just about getting the band together to save the world. Steppenwolf is a basic villain they have to overcome by hanging onto the Mother Boxes (which they fail to do) and revive Superman (which goes awry pretty fast). The film ends with the League formed with six members (making early promotional material about “uniting the seven” virtually meaningless) and the vanguard of Apokolips defeated. In Disney villain style, Steppenwolf dies like Scar in The Lion King, leaving the once vicious DCEU protagonists free from having to kill. Bruce talks about renovating Wayne manor with a round table of six chairs, with room for more suggested by Diana. Flash and Supes get to have a race (which my kid brother really wanted to see). Luthor is busted out of prison by Deathstroke and they plot to form “a league of their own”.
I just about exploded with delight, there. I want this:
I have to wonder, though. At this point, how do they tell stories going forward with Superman back in action, true to form? I mean, once he appeared to confront Steppenwolf, it was game over for the bad guy. Easily.
What I think is interesting is how literal critics have been taking things in this movie, attempting to claim that they’re examples of goofs or retcons or flat out errors. One example comes when Bruce and Diana argue and Bruce asks her why she wasn’t an inspiration to people, why she wasn’t a leader. A reviewer explained that this is how Justice League gets Diana’s character wrong, because in that scene it forgets about her movie. Look, she was both of those things in Wonder Woman, but how would Bruce know that? He wasn’t there and presumably she hasn’t told him all of her story yet. He’s a character with a limited point of view, not the director or producer of the film claiming something about Wonder Woman that’s contradicted by her movie.
With worries about mis-characterizations, especially from the first film, I thought that this movie brought Superman up to the kind of joyous hero we know. Batman was more jokey than seemed normal but his arrogance and cutting wit was on display when arguing with Diana. Wonder Woman suffered from male gaze in this film and she was less innocent and naive than in her solo film. Cyborg clearly had some of his backstory cut for the sake of levity and that’s a shame. Flash was hilarious and a delight, though he maybe dissipated the tension too often. Aquaman was definitely different than the gold haired, orange shirt, green pants Super Friends hero and they went overboard with the hardcore gruff persona, though I thought he was a great character in the film. Definitely one of Justice League’s strengths is seeing the different personalities in the League interact with each other.
On the note of the resurrection of Superman, I think this movie does it in a rather stupid way. Bruce Wayne suddenly leaping to “We can use the Mother Box to raise Clark from the dead” smacks of laziness and it completely eradicates any meaning in the premonition of the final scene in Batman v Superman, when dirt clods begin to levitate over Clark’s coffin. Rather than adapt the comic book explanation for Superman coming back to life via Kryptonian physiology and technology, this seemed a lot more half-baked and lazy, and even out of character for Batman to propose it in the first place. Barry Allen was right to cite Pet Cemetery! This is likely the worst offense of the movie not adapting everything in the comics at face value.
You likely heard that this film was mandated to be under a two hour runtime. That shows. While its prequel felt fat, Justice League at times feels gaunt. It runs at a hurried pace, sometimes too hurried, but it has few boring scenes for it. What’s most evident though is how much was cut from the final film.
I re-watched all four main trailers and counted as many as 29 scenes, shots, and lines (counted together) that were not in the theatrical release. I guess it’s going to be a thing now that DCEU movies need an extended cut to fix them, unless they just make the next movie without tearing it to pieces. Clark suffered most from this in Batman v Superman and here it seems like Cyborg and Steppenwolf endured the same hacking. Cyborg could’ve been a much darker character and Steppenwolf certainly could’ve used more fleshing out. The film seemed to change hands and change visions too much during production and that is ultimately its downfall.
Justice League is very much a story about Superman and he is defined by his absence. Previously characters had talked about how Superman was a beacon, how he inspired others, how his family crest meant “hope” on Krypton, but I didn’t ultimately believe it until this movie. This film made me feel like that description came at last to fruition. It demonstrated how the planet and the League needed Superman. Maybe the next film will have to demonstrate why Superman needs the League.
I could wish that the theme of coming together and uniting was a little stronger and the vague hints at environmentalism in the movie were either absent or made much more meaningful, but on the whole I think that Justice League is about what Superman means.
Whatever happened to this being an adaptation of Seven Samurai?
I really felt this film benefited from a cast that got along together and had some real life chemistry. Ezra Miller was a great choice for a Flash that’s distinct from CW’s, a different interpretation on the character but one that is very much deconstructed in the vein of these Snyder films. I appreciated that Ray Fisher could convey a lot through half of his facial expressions when his human side felt pain or anger. The man had an uphill battle to work against with half his countenance covered the entire time.
Gal Gadot is still a great cast as Wonder Woman and I’m glad she was the one to bring the Amazonian Princess to the big screen. Those eyebrows could cut steel. Speaking of steel, (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Henry Cavill still comes off as a little wooden in this film but less so than in Man of Steel. He’s finally the smiling Reeve-era Superman everyone wants. Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman channels a lot of the actor’s fierce energy but I felt like he was the most fringe character in the League without much detailing. Then there’s Ben Affleck who looks perpetually inebriated and exhausted through this entire movie. I like Affleck’s Batman, the older, calloused Dark Knight who has his faith in humanity restored after trying to kill Superman, but I really dislike Affleck’s chunky cheeks and open mouth when he’s in the suit. He should frown more.
J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon is straight out of BTAS. I would love to see more of this Gordon. Ciaran Hinds doesn’t have much to work with with Steppenwolf beyond wielding a menacing accent and murmuring video game dialogue. Nobody seemed happy to see (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Jesse Eisenberg again.
Family Friendliness: 7/10
Justice League is much more family friendly when compared to Batman v Superman. It is nowhere near as dark and brutal. It has a lot more jokes. It’s certainly funnier. The change in Batman’s character is a prime measurement of this. The dude was a monster in BvS, drowning in nightmares, liquor, and sleeping pills. In JL he actually makes with the funnies. Weighed against this are an increase in crass humor and foul language, though there’s little else beyond that and stylized comic book violence, punching monsters, to scare away the kids. Certainly Steppenwolf won’t scare anyone.
Gone are the days when DC movie fans can hide behind “DC makes thoughtful, dark films for adults and Marvel makes movies for kids”. As the years pass, the further the DCEU moves away from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which is an unmatched work in the superhero film landscape but there’s no way that Christopher Nolan could make a Justice League movie. His direct influence and indirect inspiration on Man of Steel resulted in a Superman too grounded, too mopey, too much like all of us to be the character he’s known and loved as, the hero that has been described as one who can have adventures unlike anyone else.
Justice League, meanwhile, is a straight up comic book film, an enjoyable, bombastic, shameless, bizarre romp. So then what is the difference between this and an MCU film, especially considering the generous helping of humor in this movie? Well, here’s something to consider, beyond the usual conversation of DC heroes representing more old-fashioned, traditional virtue over street-level, broken heroes: the DCEU and Justice League do not appear to be ashamed of the more ludicrous and silly ideas found in comic books.
In the comics, Superman was once tasked with lifting a book with infinite pages for some metaphysical reason… In Justice League it seems like everything in the DC multiverse exists. There’s no attempt to rationalize magic as “advanced technology”. Yes, a flying, bullet-proof alien has died and a multi-billionaire playboy vigilante teams up with an immortal Amazonian demigod, a hard-edged Atlantean hybrid, an athlete fused with alien tech, and a fast-talking kid who can tap into a sub-dimension of quantum physics because he got struck by lightning once. Oh and these five individuals are tasked with hunting down sentient computers called Mother Boxes in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of an ancient, extra-terrestrial conqueror and his army of transmogrified parademons who once fought off Zeus and King Arthur (spoiler: highlight to reveal) and Green Lanterns.
Though Justice League follows an all-too-familiar formula by now, the highlight of the film is bringing together the League for the first time, which has never been realized on the big screen before.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
As a comic book fan, this latest DCEU outing was mostly what I could’ve wanted, minus better effects and improved writing. It expanded this universe of loose and varied adaptations to include tons of new things and I’m much more on board and excited for the future of the DCEU than I was with Batman v Superman or even Wonder Woman (due to its standalone nature). One of the very last sequences blows the doors wide open and paves the way for this universe to really blossom with new characters and storylines. The showing I attended applauded and cheered throughout the film but the audience exploded with excitement when the final scene brought forth its secrets: (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Justice League not only sets up the New Gods and the Lantern Corps but it also sets up the beginnings of the Injustice League with Deathstroke breaking Luthor out of prison. Good job to the cast and crew for keeping a tight lip about this treasure trove.
Justice League went through a lot with two directors, numerous reshoots, corporate mandates, and other tumults. I’m surprised it came out as coherent as it is, though I wanted it to be much better than it was in numerous scenes.
Currently, there’s a huge disparity between critical impressions and audience impressions, proving Justice League to be nearly as divisive as Man of Steel. Back to square one. Walking out of this movie, I believed that this would be the case. “Fun” and “funny” can’t save the DCEU for critics, apparently, but many others seem to love it. In the end, though, don’t let other people decide your lives for you. Don’t be that guy who didn’t see Wonder Woman because “Gal Gadot is too skinny!”
In the age of the internet, click bait, shock value, and sensationalism, you must weed through the hyperbole (not conspiracy theories of critics being paid off) that’s destroying careful critique with phrases like “10/10 best movie evahh!!!!!” and “JL makes Batman & Robin look like a masterclass”. Use a little common sense. A bad film doesn’t make a worse film good, somehow. A film can be poor without being a dumpster fire and it can be okay without being a magnum opus. Not everything is the worst thing or the best thing ever.
If you want to see this movie, see it. Simple as that. A percentage or a number reflects other peoples’ opinions. That’s all. Be a freethinker and come to your own conclusion. Here’s my number. I’ll be seeing this one again, if at least to attempt to make more sense of its meandering.
Aggregated Score: 6.5
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Hoo boy this outta be a good poll:
Categories: Movie Review