Film Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE Author: Joey Perotti
Date: November 20, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following review has things some might consider spoilers.
FYI. - "Jett"
SYNOPSIS: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman's selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes--Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash--it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.
It’s hard to walk into a movie like JUSTICE LEAGUE with a sense of optimism when the film itself was borne only out of corporate cynicism. It’s also hard to judge the film objectively, with so many outside sources working against it - the script changes, the tonal shift, the "course correction," the hiring and firing and stepping down of directors and writers and editors and composers, the shortened run-time - the movie basically acts as an apology for its own existence. But did I enjoy it? Well, I didn’t hate it, and that’s saying something.
Let’s start with what this movie does well. Um...hmm…well, let’s start with what it does OK.
JUSTICE LEAGUE smartly gives Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, the main leadership position. Sure, Bruce Wayne recruits the team, but Diana leads them. Leaning into her character and building upon what we learned about her in Wonder Woman is one of the few strengths of the film. It’s a shame that her outfit seems skimpier this time around, a regression to Snyder’s male gaze, no doubt. Sexualizing the Amazonians after the feminist triumph of Wonder Woman is incredibly tone deaf, but that’s kind of what you expect from Snyder. Still, Gal Gadot’s presence is warm and welcome, and I was relieved whenever she appeared on screen.
The same can surprisingly - and thankfully - be said about Henry Cavill as Superman. Sure, he gets to say even less than he did in BATMAN v SUPERMAN, but at least he gets to smile more (or grin, or smirk, whatever the hell he’s doing, it’s mostly working). Cavill still seems a little stiff in the role, but he’s given material this time around that hews much closer to the Big Blue Boy Scout we all know and loathe love. (Although real talk for a second, folks, how is it that in 2017 we can bring Grand Moff Tarkin back to life, throw up a 19-year old Princess Leia onscreen, de-age Robert Downey, Jr. and Kurt Russell by 30 years, but we can’t CGI-out a porn-stache without turning Superman into Shrek?) Though the post-credits scene with Superman racing the Flash was aped entirely from the Berlanti / CW-verse, it’s still a welcome sight to see this Superman be a little more playful.
Batman is no longer a killer (of humans, at least), but he still acts surprisingly out of character for most of the film. Batman is known to be somewhat of a grump, but I’ve never seen him hit a team member below the belt the way he does to Diana after she acts as the voice of reason to his admittedly insane Frankenstein plan to bring Superman back from the dead. Not only is his outburst uncharacteristic, his very plan to resurrect Superman flies in the face of decades of continuity of Bruce Wayne refusing to use a Lazarus Pit for the very reasons Diana argues. His casual, off-screen identity reveal to Arthur Curry also felt out of character, especially as they strolled along and talked about all their super-secret-superhero stuff in front of a bunch of civilians. Does this Batman just not care anymore?
Affleck definitely doesn’t. I don’t think playing grumpy is very hard for him on the JL set. He’s passable this time around, but he knows he’s on a sinking ship. His performance is that of a child having to finish his vegetables before he’s allowed to leave the table. I will say, though, that Affleck does get one true Batman moment in the film: when he calls in the “big gun” to stop a confused, violent Superman and those “big gun” turn out to be Lois Lane. I got the same feeling I did hearing Bale shout “no guns, no killing!” in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Unfortunately the moment is immediately followed and undercut by a comic-relief shot that uses Batman as the butt of the joke; something I hope we never see again.
As for the rest of the players, Ezra Miller rode the line between comic relief and obnoxiousness but ultimately I think he pulled it off. What failed him was Snyder’s / Whedon’s inability to show us the speed force in any interesting sort of way. Speedsters have been done - and much better - in too many other movies and TV shows. Jason Mamoa gets very little to do as Aquaman - a surfer bro riff on his Khal Drogo character from GAME OF THRONES. Watching him in this - and then realizing I haven’t seen him in anything since THRONES - makes me question his range (Although he does get a particularly great moment thanks to Diana’s lasso of truth). Similarly, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is frustratingly one-note when his arc could have really been the emotional core the film needed. It doesn’t help that he exists in poorly-rendered CGI.
Speaking of the CGI, it’s bad. Like, really bad. And since just about every shot of this movie uses CGI in some way, shape, or form, it’s not only bad but distracting. Steppenwolf - a 2017 movie villain with ‘90s-era motivations - reminded me of The Rock’s Scorpian King from THE MUMMY RETURNS (Google it). Steppenwolf’s design is unacceptable in this day and age, but then again, the villain of this movie is clearly an afterthought – as is the rest of the look of this movie. Not speaking hyperbolically, this is definitely one of the ugliest movies I have ever seen, and just about as garish as the Schumacher Batman films.
The worst part though is how damn generic everything looks. It’s one thing to be ugly, but it’s another to not even be interesting. JUSTICE LEAGUE deserves iconic set pieces - settings that are characters unto themselves. Think about the finale to BATMAN ‘89: You can easily picture the top of the Cathedral. Sure, that particular set piece might be a little too intimate for a Justice League movie, but it needs something along those lines - iconic, instantly recognizable - for the action to be memorable. JL has a dark abandoned sewer system. It’s not offensive, but it is forgettable.
The same goes for Danny Elfman’s score. The first couple notes reminded me of his work on BATMAN. And then a couple notes later I started thinking about Spider-Man. I’m sure bringing Danny Elfman in probably sounded like a great idea, but his score proves terribly distracting. Maybe it’s because his music evokes all of the behind-the-scenes drama of Junkie XL’s firing, or maybe it’s because his call-backs are just cynicism by way of nostalgia. I did, however, prefer his work on Wonder Woman’s theme, thankfully doing away with the electric guitars but keeping the same tune. While everyone gets their own little musical motifs, there’s never an iconic, soaring swell for the team moments.
What about the story? There’s not much of one. Not that it matters. This movie is concerned with exposition dumps and action beats. It does a workmanlike job in those departments, but since we never really get to know our characters - and since the action primarily exists within a vacuum - the stakes are never felt. Everything seems easy. Too easy. I kept expecting Steppenwolf to come back for one more fight because… How could that be it? We do get a couple brief shots of a family fleeing from where the finale takes place (a red-clouded Sokovia?), but there’s nothing to latch onto or make us care about them. Why the filmmakers chose this family as the story’s civilian surrogate is beyond me. Even the cops are non-entities in this movie. They’re present when Superman returns, but all they do is hide behind a car. They barely even react. I kept waiting for them to engage but they never did. This all works towards making the world of JUSTICE LEAGUE feel very, very small.
Despite all the current DCEU talk about “optimism,” JUSTICE LEAGUE is nothing if not cynical: A cynical attempt to play catch-up to Marvel; a cynical attempt to win over fans; and, most glaringly, a cynical attempt to cash in. It’s going to be hard for fanboys to argue DC is any different from Marvel now, although where Marvel movies celebrate their characters, DC mourns them. I do wonder what the Sny-hards will say. They will have an argument to fall back on - the movie is entertaining, to a point. If you like CGI orgies, that is. But while THE DARK KNIGHT was compared to THE GODFATHER, the DCEU will be compared unfavorably to the TRANSFORMERS franchise. Believe me, I wish I could join those genuinely excited for the future of the DCEU in its current state, but it’s hard to be optimistic when JUSTICE LEAGUE is so damn cynical - Joey Perotti
Joey Perotti: Teacher. Screenwriter. Husband. Lifelong Batman fan.
Follow him on Instagram @JOEYPEROTTI.