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‘Justice League’ Review: Hot Mess or Hot Stuff?

Production issues in big budget movies are to be expected, but nobody wears their problems on their sleeves like DC. I couldn’t help but recall the Frankenstein’s monster of Suicide Squad at times during Justice League, the DCEU’s fifth film.

The story should be very obvious and fairly intuitive to anyone who’s been keeping track. There’s a grave threat to the earth and so the newly inspired Batman must unite all of the mightiest heroes under one banner, and also Superman is obviously going to come back to life at some point. The movie follows a fairly conventional structure to achieve this and yet it’s strange how often I found myself wondering when the movie was going to start. This is particularly off putting in the second act which takes a massive diversion into a secondary mission that really destroys the pacing and sense of threat.

Comparisons to Marvel are inevitable and I couldn’t help but think about how naturally the Avengers actually assembled in their 2012 equivalent. It helped that the big four names had all been established in prior movies and the other two had cameos. Even the villain and the mcguffin had back stories from a previous films. There was no ground work to be done to establish the world; the first act could be dedicated purely to bringing these heroes together, the second to them resolving the tensions between them and the entire third to them fighting together. Every stage of this is entertaining and none of it feels aimless.

Justice League has to not only bring Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince back together but also completely introduce Cyborg, The Flash and Aquaman, as well as the threat, the macguffin and some new side characters. With ruthless efficiency and a great eye for subtle characterisation, these characters and lore could all be established with minimal friction. However Justice League lacks ruthless efficiency and a great eye for any kind of characterisation.

DC has long been the reactionary force in the Marvel-DC feud, with course corrections becoming a natural part of their production cycle. The hugely unexpected success of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman must have thrown a whole toolbox into the works as it is obvious the original tone was intended to closely follow Batman v Superman’s frowny sense of gloom. The tragic circumstances surrounding Zack Snyder’s departure from production and the sudden involvement of Joss Whedon may have also contributed to the half-hearted tone shift. I imagine though that pressure also came from above to make a more optimistic and funny film in the spirit of Wonder Woman.

The effect is a tonally inconsistent film that frequently spoils some of its more meaningful moments with inappropriate quips. Some characters are definitely more suited to this than others, specifically Ezra Miller’s Flash who walks a fine line between annoying and likeable. Sometimes this humour suggests genuine warmth between characters, but for the most part if feels like a contrived attempt to lighten the mood.

I’ve never objected to the idea of DC taking a darker route. In 2012 The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were released. These are two of my favourite superhero films and they perfectly demonstrate the different approaches one can take to making an engaging comic book movie. However DC is no longer making the Dark Knight to rival Marvel’s Iron Man (both released in 2008). Justice League isn’t bad because it’s dark; it’s bad because it has no clear sense of identity or direction.

However, one key advantage that Justice League has over previous DC efforts is that the heroes do seem to actually enjoy being heroes. Heroism isn’t a depressing burden placed on them, it’s an important but also empowering ability that they have. My favourite part of the movie involves the Flash nervously anticipating his first fight. Batman advises him to just save one person, knowing that once he does he’ll see the virtue of being a hero. The simple joy of saving another person is beautiful and has literally never been the focus of these movies before. This is also the first time that Superman has played like Superman. He’s benevolent and kind without being brooding or mean-spirited.

Performances are fairly solid across the board. Ben Affleck puts on his best Alec Baldwin impression as playboy Bruce Wayne and is still imposing as the ageing Batman. Gal Gadot is, of course, still utterly charming as Wonder Woman and her performance is easily the strongest aspect of the entire film. Jason Mamoa does his best, even if the film can’t decide if he’s Thor or The Hulk. Ciaran Hinds is somewhat lost as the main villain, but is definitely having more fun than Christopher Eccleston in Thor 2 (in spite of what Joss Whedon may think). JK Simmons and Amy Adams drop by but without making any kind of lasting impression.

There’s just not enough time spent allowing these characters to interact. Because so much plot work must be done we are constantly being moved on to the next set piece. However when the film does slow down to show us scenes like The Flash and Cyborg bonding over a grave digging or Batman and Wonder Woman discussing the difficulties of leadership, the performances and writing are actually allowed to shine!

Another disappointing aspect of every DC movie since Snyder’s deafeningly bombastic Man of Steel has been terrible action sequences. Zack Snyder directed wonderfully graceful fight sequences in 300 and Watchmen, yet his output for the DCEU has been atrocious physics defying, CGI fuelled ice cream headaches filmed in obnoxious slow motion. Justice League is not exempt from this and none of the action is actually exciting or even engaging.

Danny Elfman’s score is another peculiar presence in the film. For the most part it is unobtrusive and somewhat bland and yet he quotes from his own Batman (1989) score, John Williams’ Superman and Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel and Wonder Woman. The result is, appropriately enough, a cacophony but a very surreal one that unfortunately recalls far better films.

I also must say that the male gaze controversy is justified. Wonder Woman’s skirt was always too short but the sheer number of times Snyder grinds to slow motion as the skirt flies up above her waist makes me deeply uncomfortable. The film is often framed around Gal Gadot’s rear or cleavage, really emphasising the difference in cinematography and costume design from Patty Jenkins’ film.

I enjoyed Justice League more than the terminally misjudged Suicide Squad and the largely dour Batman v Superman, and I actually do look forward to the extended cut arriving on home release. However there’s no way that this will solve the issues with pacing, direction, action and most importantly characterisation. There’s nothing substantial here, but at least it’s not as dull as previous DC efforts.

2 / 5