Justice League picks off where Batman v Superman concluded, with Batman now completely convinced an invasion is imminent and the entire planet and human race is in danger, just as he had feared with Superman wiping out the species, unfortunately Superman, his only ally powerful enough and equipped with technology from a technologically advanced civilization is no longer around to save us or blunt the incoming onslaught.
Instead the Justice League careens into a story device that is extremely familiar in situations where you have superhero team ups and one superhero's powers could eclipse those of the entire team. Story device often employed in such scenarios? The big gun is either down, far away on a mission or for some fabricated reason unavailable to take up the slack and the little ones with secondary super powers must marshall all of their will and strength and wit to defeat a superior enemy.
I did not sign any reviewer screening agreements with Warner Brothers as did many for outlets such as The Rolling Stone, The New York Post, the Washington Post and TIME magazine which stipulated they cannot divulge Superman/Henry Cavill’s role in The Justice League.
If you have read any of the reviewers listed with Rotten Tomatoes your impression will be, along with the trailers for the press, that Superman is not part of this Justice League adventure. The total ban on mentioning his role is quite effective in making a large piece of this film’s storyline a genuine surprise for the viewer and helps in warding off some major spoilers. From this viewer’s perspective WB succeeded big time in making the film deliver a little extra emotional punch when the key scene for forming the Justice League makes it to the screen.
Sad to say however this movie suffers somewhat from problems not related to Superman’s performance. The film is a little choppy in its first half hour, it lacks a certain smoothness in narrative and editing, and the same can be said for the closing act, the big finale with our heroes duking it out with their nemesis.
Justice League feels slightly raw or perhaps it lacks finesse and smoothness in juggling multiple superheroes and multiple storylines with a much shorter running time than Man of Steel or Batman vs Superman. Directors Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon should have trusted their instincts and ignored the reviewers who suggested the first movie was plodding with “endless exposition”. Instead they pare down the one movie in the series that could have used the extra running time to create space and interaction for multiple superhero characters, especially the new ones – Cyborg, The Flash and Aquaman. Even though most of us feel we pretty much know Superman and Batman (two previous Snyder movies and an entire trilogy from Chris Nolan) the new chapter doesn’t feel like it and even these two characters could have used a little more screen time for character expression. The movie feels rushed with very brief “plug-on” scenes designed to fill dramatic holes in the film.
The movie critics have really been unkind to Snyder’s efforts with DC Comics most powerful superheroes. Critics have lambasted the entire series as being too dark and have cheered Wonder Woman for being the opposite of Snyder’s approach.
To really understand the entire vibe of the movie “being too dark” I screened Snyder’s The Watchmen, which is probably his work of reference that he used to re-create the same winning qualities that made the movie brilliant and original. Watchmen received much attention from viewers and critics for its gritty, authentic and moody portrayal of superheroes using an unprecedented dramatic angle and storyteller lens. Think of Sin City but without the cartoonish setups, without the comic book style cutout scenes that are signature Rodriguez, more authentic lensing and more dynamic visuals in a real busy, swanky and sloth-filled metropolis.
Storywise The Watchmen is all about superheroes but if you scrutinize for a moment, the film and narrative approach is all about character, not character development, character as in integrity, perseverance, loyalty and friendship. Watchmen is so intensely noir and crammed with action visuals that soar in an almost Vietnam-era Blade Runner ambience, the movie elegantly mixes retro and vintage 1950s Art Deco-style man and machine scenes and setpieces that you don’t feel it preachy or obvious in its core theme or message.
Arguably the main protagonist of Watchmen is Rorschach who in an early scene is purposely unmasked and the viewer is allowed to observe him in an interrogation room where both his demeanor and facial expressions are almost inescapably one of the icons of the early 70s to portray the antihero who is both anarchy and integrity in the face of institutional corruption – Snyder gives us a doppelganger, a lookalike of an older, albeit smaller in frame, Clint Eastwood in the person of Jackie Earle Hayley. Without makeup Jackie Hayley does not really look anywhere close to Clint Eastwood but he eerily does in the movie.
Zack Snyder was hired by Warner Brothers to bring the same originality to its Superman and friends movie franchise only the themes in Watchmen do not easily translate to action superhero films. Watchmen is an artistic project, a movie about superheroes but it is not really a superhero action movie. The Watchmen is brooding, singular in focus and has a great deal of latitude and deviance from a mainstream pop culture superhero movie. I seriously doubt Warner Brothers would give Snyder the latitude to adapt a Justice League storyline along the same lines as Watchmen, he has to stick to the framework established for decades by DC Comics.
He can adapt the mood and look of Watchmen and that’s where you get the “damn it’s so dark” movie. But that was his mandate, the very reason for the studio bringing him onboard.
Man of Steel is an origin story and it runs for almost two and half hours with sufficient time to build a character in the film – even though there also were massive battles in the heart of Metropolis (yeah looks like New York) and it had many critics screaming “collateral damage, hey what about all those innocent civilians” a distraction by committee, because movies that pack emotion and punch are ill made by committee. Just because a couple of cutsie Marvel superhero movies make a point of caring about innocent bystanders does not make a universal template for all superhero movies to follow and douche down their dramatic impact. I am all about portraying caring superheroes but an authentic movie is also one where an immediate and extreme global extinction danger may not allow a superhero the luxury of concern about the cat stuck in the tree while attempting to save the entire planet with one hand tied behind his or her back.
Such parrot criticism is unreasonable and mindless. Tentpole movies have built up gargantuan budgets and extremely sophisticated SFX to create authenticity in the depiction of such adventures. When such critics are serviced the dramatic effect can suffer as portrayals are sugarcoated for the Bambi and Cinderella crowds. Doesn’t mean the criticism is not valid, however it is not always to be followed if the studio needs a real crowd pleaser.
The real problems with Justice League?
I already mentioned some but there are a few more I can point out. To be sure I am a big superhero action movies sucker, I like all kinds from Marvel to DC to independent gems such as The Zero Effect with Bill Putnam and Hancock with Will Smith.
One big action scene finale in a remote area – has Fantastic Four written all over it – as panned by the critics. The movie should have opened its very first scene in the middle of battle with Steppenwolf so as to give audiences a real flavor of the scale of the threat – with multiple battles in different parts/cities of the world rather than some isolated remote spot with a handful of civilians, satisfying the critics’ hollering over “collateral damage” but making the movie seem sterile and fake. In other words, the entire movie should have been filled with super heroic action and battles from the very first frame, such an approach would have satisfied the most jaded of spectators and squelched the Fantastic Four complaint. It would have also made more drama, more spectacular and audiences are not in the theater to watch Wonder Woman or Batman (solo movies), they pack the theater to watch a mega team, mega superhero super action flick.
Our bad guy is not that horrible – per the critics’ complaints. The CGI looked fine to me, but Steppenwolf was not that formidable a foe, however had the movie opened with war in full swing and had the movie offered two and half hours of adventure Snyder/Whedon may have squeezed three major battles in which our heroes are initially targeted solo for extermination and get beat up badly, then they band together and make our bad guy retreat in defeat in the final climax, a la Silverado.
Another angle, the movie opens with the League already prepped and they split up each to save a major city around the world and their results prove mixed, they win some they lose some. Then they band together in a major offensive with a strategy on taking out the big bad leader and we have the climactic finale.
Justice League could have offered viewers the recruiting pitch of Batman to his new recruits in flashbacks while the battles are in full swing. JL should not have run shy of two hours, this is the movie to launch a sequel and several solo films, there should have been enough to whet the appetite of audiences and leave them panting for more, instead we get a nice wrap up and a cool closing shot with our heroes almost posing for a team photo in a manner closer to the animated cartoons of the League and nothing like a live action movie should.
Another detail is that Snyder has filmed JL’s big battle scenes in dark ambient rather than the impressive, nail biting and completely realistic fights in Smallville and over Metropolis in Man of Steel in broad daylight. Except for one massively entertaining fight scene amongst their own ranks in downtown Metropolis, all of the battle scenes are either at night, in very dark subterranean locations and over dark and dirt covered skies that hew closer to the Dante’s Inferno than to Earth. It’s murky and muddy from the same finale scene in Batman vs Superman facing off against Doomsday. Perhaps they were filmed at the same time for economy/budgeting purposes and later slotted into two different movies.
In terms of acting by the principals Ben Affleck leads the team even though at times it seems as if the director wants Gal Gadot to be the leading lady of this installment, there are many scenes in which the camera throws at the audience her smiling or winking reaction to the action and she is constantly needling the budding members into a team – even though the filmmakers had handed the baton to Ben Affleck, who at times beautifully portrays both Bruce Wayne and the Batman personas and yet in some brief scenes he falters and offers a smirk or smile when the scene may have called for a somber or sobering reaction from the actor. Ray Fisher does a really good turn as Cyborg and his scenes are neither overcooked nor undercut. The directors really setup a good opening for Cyborg’s solo movie. The Flash portrayed by Ezra Miller has some very good quips translating into good laughs and plays the newbie, cocky, self-effacing youngest and least experienced yet wielding some of the most potent and powerful abilities of the team – matched only by Superman’s super speed.
The epilogue of the movie sports a set of vignettes of our heroes with a somewhat annoying “emotional” voice-over which was neither haunting nor particularly dramatic but may have been meant to give the audience a parting emotional framing of the big adventure they just enjoyed. The voice over is female and it did not seem to be that of Gadot. Perhaps it was someone from the Amazon Kingdom putting the finishing touch on a good sequel but one that does not rise to the level of the Dark Knight nor the Man of Steel. Let me put it for you in perspective. Overall Justice League is very enjoyable and offers some new and entertaining portrayals of your favorite superheroes especially for Superman and the Batman/Wonder Woman sexual tension and flirting – it’s there not in overt romantic terms like Lois and Clarke. I suspect there will be more of that in the sequel, the closing scene offers us a Diana Prince visiting Bruce Wayne at his new digs as he inspects a “room with a table” a la Camelot.
But the movie feels very rough around the edges and in between some parts.
It just means Warner Brothers has some work ahead cut out for them as they start editing the already filmed sequel of Justice League slated for a 2019 release date.