REVIEW - Justice League
The Movie Ark
The Four Color Ark
Four Color Friends and Movie Maniacs alike, welcome back to another as close to spoiler free look at the latest superhero movie to hit theaters. Let’s get the silly questions out of the way before we dive in: No I didn’t do a hot take review on Thor: Ragnarok; Yes I am sorry I didn’t review Taika Waititi’s brilliantly fun take on Thor; No, I didn’t get paid to say I like Justice League; Yes I am a huge DC fan and am therefore somewhat biased; Yes, I actually did like BvS.
Still with me?
Good, because this one is going to be interesting. With the film having been released a scant few days ago I’d like to continue the trend we started with the Wonder Woman and Spiderman: Homecoming reviews and keep this as spoiler free as possible – with a more in depth conversation coming soon via a Movie Ark/Four Color crossover podcast. The problem with that is that there is a LOT to spoil within this movie – so we’ll have to tread very carefully.
The big question of course is: is Justice League good? It is certainly a more fun movie than was Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice – but it is not necessarily a better constructed film than the often criticized BvS. Wonder Woman still reigns supreme as the best DC film, but Justice League is arguably second or third depending on your thoughts on the at times complex narrative of BvS. The big difference is this: Justice League is top to bottom a fun movie. The core League members are a lot of fun, even stodgy old Batman is allowed to smile from time to time and crack a joke.
The Mighty Marvel Marching Society would have you believe that we must obviously compare Justice League to Thor: Ragnarok and by that it objectively fails to deliver a superior film. To that I suggest that we don’t need to compare the two cinematic universes at all, and if we did we should compare Justice League with The Avengers as each film represents the first full team film. On that basis, I think Justice League is an equal to, and in some cases superior to its analogous Marvel film because the characters are much more fully realized as their comic’s counterparts in this film – and the paper thin plot here is slightly thicker than the paper thin plot of Marvel’s first team outing.
The basic premise of Justice League is that the villain Steppenwolf once tried to conquer the earth and use three “Mother Boxes” to terraform this planet to resemble his home (which while never clearly stated in the film: is known as Apokalips currently under the rule of his nephew Darkseid.) Steppenwolf was not prepared for the alliance of Atlanteans, Amazonians, Men and Green Lanternsl; he was defeated and driven off of Earth and the three Mother Boxes were separated. Atlantis guarded one box beneath the sea, the Amazon’s guarded one on the hidden island of Themyscira, and Men buried the third so that it would remain forever lost. In the wake of Superman’s death, darkness has overtaken the planet and this darkness awakens the Mother Boxes – alerting Steppenwolf that the world is once again ripe for the taking. Steppenwolf returns to earth to hunt his missing Mother Boxes and unite them to redeem himself for his earlier failure. This time, there is nothing standing in his way except Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince who agree to build a team to try to defend the planet from the invaders. The rest, is spoilers.
It's a straightforward plot that spends a lot of time introducing the new characters and building a dynamic, and perhaps the best way to review the movie without spoilers is to look at the individual characters.
Batman is fundamentally changed by his encounter with Superman in the previous film. He feels tremendous guilt and blames himself for Superman’s death, and he has recognized that his methods are very much darker than Superman’s. This is a Batman who has turned the page on who he was and is attempting to be the hopeful leader that Superman would have been had he survived. This is also a Batman who, for the first time in any medium, actively states that he understands that Superman was fundamentally more human than he is. That is a truth about the relationship about Batman and Superman that oozes off the page, but has never been expressly stated. Taking on a mentor role to Barry Allen, and being antagonized by Arthur Curry really makes Affleck’s Bruce Wayne the backbone of this team and his casting REALLY pays off in this film.
Wonder Woman is much more the woman we saw in Patty Jenkins’ film than the secret recluse we last saw in Zack Snyder’s BvS. There are narrative moments that are required to deal with the notion that Diana spent the hundred years after Wonder Woman hiding away because of what was stated in Batman V. Superman, but there is little in this film that doesn’t immediately showcase just how inspiration and badass Diana of Themyscira can be. Thanks to the brilliant portrayal of Gal Gadot, Diana stands head and shoulders above the rest of the team. Her reluctance to lead comes from a place that makes sense, but it enables her to develop a nurturing relationship with Cyborg that elevates his role in the film significantly.
The Flash is the comedic high point of this film. I have been joking since Ezra Miller was cast that he was #NotMyFlash and now that I’ve seen his performance I now say he is #STILLNotMyFlash. If you’re a Four Color Ark reader I’ve spend many column inches talking about The Flash so I’ll try to be succinct here. The classic version of Barry Allen in the comics was a boring, rules oriented, stick in the mud – so each live action adaptation has drawn more on the characterization of the “fun” Flash: Wally West. John Wesley Shipp’s Flash and Grant Gustin’s Flash are both effectively different mixtures of Wally West and Barry Allen. Ezra Miller’s Flash is more a mixture of Wally West and Barry’s future grandson the constantly energetic Bart Allen – better known to comic fans as Impulse. Making Ezra Miller’s Barry fundamentally different than Grant Gustn’s Barry works well for this film, and allows him to fill a much different role in this film than Gustin fills in the CW universe of shows. Miller’s Barry is unsure of himself, awkward, and finds it difficult to relate to people who move so much slower than he does. His youthful excitement at all things throughout the film is infectious – and his constant need to find validation from Batman and friendship from Cyborg is a wonderful dynamic #NotMyFlash is #TotallyMyImpulse and is a hell of a lot of fun.
Aquaman is fundamentally different than his comic counterpart at first blush, but the seeds of the strident master of the Trident are definitely there. Jason Momoa plays Arthur Curry as a man who doesn’t have a home and desperately wants to fit in somewhere, either below the sea or here on Earth. His lack of belief in being accepted of course makes him reluctant to immediately join Batman’s team, and he becomes both the action star of the film, and Batman’s foil.
Cyborg is sadly the weakest component of the team, and it feels like most of that is due to the Warner Bros. mandate that this film not exceed 2 hours. We know from the trailers that footage was shot of Ray Fisher as Victor Stone prior to the accident that nearly killed him and caused his father to use the Mother Box to turn his son into a cyborg. Victor’s life has always been one filled with pathos, because he views himself as a cybernetic Frankenstein, and begrudges his father for his condition. With the cut of this film delivered in theatres, we see very little of that pathos – and frankly very little to make us really connect to Victor’s arc of accepting his situation and even coming to enjoy his powers. Ray Fisher squeezes all the marrow out of what little screen time he does have, but there just sadly is so little of him here.
Superman is the best and worst kept secret in this film. EVERYONE knows he is coming back, not everyone knows how – and I’ll say nothing about the nature of his return to life except this: the Superman delivered to us in this film is every bit the Superman you want to see on the big screen. He’s hopeful, he smiles, he reassures everyone, he focuses on saving civilians at the expense of stopping the villain. If one took Man of Steel, Batman V. Superman, and Justice League and just looked at them through the lens of Superman you can see a unique arc develop for the character where we follow him from a man unsure of his power in Man of Steel, to a hero frightened by his influence in Batman V. Superman, to a Superman finally accepting his role in the world fully in Justice League. It plays very well and it redeems many of the complaints about the character from the previous two films. Superman is the character a lot of people were most worried about going into this film, but he ends up being a highlight.
Steppenwolf is a placeholder villain, and doesn’t really rise above the heroes he is attempting to best. There is no sense of menace, just gravelly voiced threats – so in that regard he is much like Alexis Denisof’s “The Other” in the MCU. Wasted opportunity to showcase an amazing actor in Ciaran Hinds.
The Guest Cast Jeremy Irons is still fantastic as Alfred; Amy Adams is a perfectly fine Lois Lane; Diane Lane’s Martha is kind of wasted in this; Billy Crudup gives an interesting take on Henry Allen imprisoned in Iron Heights that definitely differentiates his Henry from John Wesley Ship’s version on the CW; Connie Nielsen’s Queen Hippolyta is awesome and I want more Themyscira; Amber Heard is briefly enjoyable as Mera; Joe Morton as Silas Stone is perfectly fine but much like Ray Fisher I feel he was short shrifted in this. The REAL character you’re in this section to read about is: J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon and the answer to the question in your mind is: YES, he is more like the comic Jim Gordon than Gary Oldman was, and you will walk away wanting to see more rooftop conversations between him and Ben Affleck.
Overall the film is a lot of fun, but it is by no means a perfect film: if you want perfect, watch Wonder Woman. What this film is, is a wonderful introduction to the Justice League that leaves room for these characters to grow and their world to become richer. When you reach the end of this film, you’ll see the central metaphor of this franchise has always been about pulling the world of the DCEU out of darkness and into the light of hope. This film does that, and leaves it off with the age of heroes fully realized… dawn is here and we’re finally in for the DC Universe as it SHOULD exist on screen.