Review: Despite its issues, ‘Justice League’ is worth celebrating as a step in the right direction
‘Justice League’ is a lot of fun and deserving of much more admiration than it’s being given.
This review will contain spoilers for the recently released Justice League movie. Please considers yourself warned.
Admittedly, the opening of the movie was “questionable”, to say the least. The words “off to a bad start” ring pretty true here. A cell phone video filmed by children asking Superman about himself, all while we’re being distracted by Henry Cavill’s weirdly cartoony upper lip thanks to the CG clean-up of his real-life mustache, followed by Batman catching and releasing an armed cat burglar because his bigger fish to fry, aka a scout Parademon, ran off and exploded. It's not great. Most, if not all, of that sequence, could have been removed entirely and fed to us later through dialogue considering the only info we need is “Batman knows aliens are here”.
Nevertheless, the movie manages to pick up the pace, although some could argue pacing is an issue. Many have been quick to say the first act is rushed, but it might be more accurate to call it “punchy”. The information is given in the quick scenes that introduce the heroes we don’t quite know yet that are just long and dense enough to tell us everything we need to know, without dragging things out or over-explaining. Anything else is gradually divulged over the course of the movie. The way it was executed is a drastically more efficient storytelling tool than the likes of ‘Suicide Squad’, which took an hour to set up all the characters before finally getting them all on a plane. Tonally, there are some noticeable variances throughout the movie mostly due to the fact that there were essentially two directors at the helm. If you were unaware, Joss Whedon took over directorial duties after Zack Snyder was forced to step away for the remainder of production due to a family tragedy. Despite this fact, Whedon’s involvement gave way to the movie’s more light-hearted and enjoyable aspects. His signature creativity really shines through and helps the movie find a personality it can flaunt. If you consider where these movies began with ‘Man of Steel’, Justice League seems to have a stronger rudder and is learning to lean more into a comic book surrealism, rather than the usual grayscale dread. A lot of that can be seen in most of the visual gags and budding relationships throughout.
As for our main baddie, Steppenwolf is…fine. Just fine. He doesn’t actually stand out as a villain, but for the purpose he serves, there’s really nothing wrong with him inherently. It’s hard to avoid thinking this was a real missed opportunity, however. As far as the first ever Justice League movie’s villain, sure, he could’ve had more to do than just trying to destroy the planet. It has been done to death and his motivation was nothing more than bitter revenge, but the way in which he was presented made it seem more like his character was solely there to bring the League together. The fact of the matter is, THIS very early, ragtag, version of the Justice League simply isn’t ready for Darkseid. Even though most viewers were disappointed to discover he wasn’t the main antagonist, that’s a fight that still needs to be earned and we’re only four movies in as of now.
In a movie like this it was more important to build a relationship between these heroes and give them a stronger bond with which to rally. At first, it was nothing more than tactics and coincidence. Batman gathering firepower, Cyborg stumbling onto the alien secrets of his technological enhancements, Wonder Woman and Aquaman both having lineage that ties into Steppenwolf’s previous encounter on Earth. These details do nothing more than put them all in a room together. Eventually, they realize all any of them were doing up until this point was hiding; putting on a brave face and pretending that they didn’t need anyone, when in reality, they needed each other more than ever. This bodes especially true for Batman and The Flash…even though their relationship started with him hurling a Batarang at the unsuspecting Barry Allen without being clear on what his powers actually were. Batman is a natural born leader, but more importantly, teacher. Flash has power but doesn’t quite know how to be a hero, which is an important distinction. His lesson from Batman becomes akin to “if you can’t save them all, save who you can”, which resonates with him and becomes the seed for his growth. This, in turn, made The Flash one of the strongest characters once coupled with his show-stealing likability. While Wonder Woman and Aquaman don’t really have too far to go with their development, mostly just learning how to play well with others, Cyborg’s arc is by far the most tragic. Although it wasn’t dived into that much, what we get is a classic, almost Phantom of the Opera-esque character who needs to throw his self-deprecation aside and accept his fate, realizing he shouldn’t feel cursed, but rather grateful that he’s alive and able to do some real good.
This brings us to the epic final battle. Ultimately, the climax ends up succumbing to the paranoia brought on by the tremendous backlash from ‘Man of Steel’. Ever since audiences were dumbfounded by how much careless destruction was caused by Superman fighting Zod throughout Metropolis, no DCEU film has wanted to make the same mistake again. Thus, we have the recurring trend of the “arena battle”. As of ‘Batman v Superman’, it’s become obvious that the studio is desperate to avoid the same backlash and constantly feels like the final battle needs to take place in an isolated, population-free zone. However, once all the explosions and usual headache inducing brawling with a faceless army subsides, the “final assembly” of the League was one of the most satisfying moments of the entire series. Even though initially, Batman basically helped make Superman into the overpowered monster he had been paranoid about in BvS, Superman’s “rebirth” felt like a fresh start in almost every sense. His suit actually had color to it, he stopped the bad guy and took the time to actually get people out of harm’s way, and even mentioned (in so many words) his penchant for truth and justice. It was a thrilling resolution that even leads to hinting at a bigger JLA operating out of the Hall of Justice. Bearing in mind how poorly things began with these movies, it was a good sign that things would be brighter, not just for the world they occupied, but for the movies themselves.
The circumstances surrounding the creation of ‘Justice League’ may not be the best. The entire DCEU has and always will feel like it’s just trying to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which in fairness, it really is. However, the only way that becomes justified and less jarring is if it manages to find its own personality, even if it takes a while to get there. ‘Justice League’ does exactly that.
The plot wasn’t overly convoluted, the villain’s motivation was pretty clear, albeit a bit hackneyed, and every hero had a reason to be on the team, instead of just being rounded up for the sole reason that they had powers. The only one that idea doesn’t apply to is The Flash, but his role was more internal and focused on how he could be a hero in his own right within the context of learning from those a bit more seasoned. Yes, this movie has shortcomings. Most of these do, and likely always will. The trade-off is finding what works and leaning into it in order to make a fun and genuinely entertaining movie. ‘Justice League’ pulls that off with flying colors.
It’s the first DCEU movie that truly felt the most like a comic book world and less like the dreary, depressing world its predecessors had set up, although that framework is evident. It made it feel like all the good that might be found in these movies could be excavated from the gaping grey maw of sullenness and combined into something hopeful, much like the League itself. In no way is it perfect, nor does it stand above most other superhero movies, but JL had a lot of strong elements that worked, despite those that didn’t. The mere fact that we got to this place and have the first ever Justice League movie is worth celebrating, but as a film, it still makes sure that it has more than just it’s pedigree in pop culture to stand on. Regardless of the critics who seem to be on autopilot with the DCEU hatred, this movie is great and especially after following ‘Wonder Woman’ is an optimistic sign of things to come.