Warner Brothers has done something no one would have predicted a year ago – released to good-to-great superheroes inside a calendar year. (No, they’re nowhere near Marvel consistently, but they’re moving in the right direction.)
Justice League maintains the portentous/brutalist look that director Zack Snyder set for the DCEU, but following the few faint glimmerings of wit in Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman – and the wit, charm and adventure of Wonder Woman – the film maintains the levels of danger and conflict from earlier DCEU films while making a point of balancing its darkness with genuine fun.
From the moment Batman (Ben Affleck) encounters his first parademon (while in the middle of taking down a more mundane crook – playing with him to generate fear, to be precise), he realizes that the alien invasion he originally thought might be Superman (Henry Cavill) has arrived. And Superman is dead. Oops!
Snyder and Joss Whedon (who is credited as co-writing the script with Chris Terrio – and shot the film’s extensive reshoots) set up a kind of spiral construction – circling the introductions of the villainous Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) and Batman rounding up the soon-to-be members of the Justice League: Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher, The Astronaut Wives’ Club).
We get to see each of them in a unique situation (as Diana stops a band of terrorists; Cyborg shows how he is evolving as a part human/part machine being) while watching Steppenwolf appear on Themyscira.
Steppenwolf was created by Jack Kirby for the Fourth World titles he created for DC (including The New Gods and Mister Miracle) – a character who conquers planets with his parademons for the glory of DC’s ultimate evil, Darkseid.
He’s after three Mother Boxes – one in Atlantis, one at Star Labs and one on Themyscira – to establish something called The Unity. He begins on Themyscira…
One of the problems with previous DCEU films (Man of Steel and Wonder Woman aside) is that, though we got a certain amount of character development, it never really felt like those beats completely landed. More attention was paid to battle and (less than stellar) banter.
For Justice League, the dialogue feels more in tune with the characters in the comics; their situations feel more organic.
Even though it takes a while for the League to get together, there’s no lack of action – Batman and Wonder Woman, especially, get some very effective set pieces. And Steppenwolf proves to be an antagonist worthy of the formation of a Justice League to combat him – setting up an inevitable clash with Darkseid at some point, no doubt.
One interesting aspect of the film is the new characters – Barry Allen is eager to join Batman’s alliance as much because he’s a bit of a fanboy as he needs friends; Victor Stone eventually joins because he needs to learn how to control his increasing powers and since his cybernetic side was created with energy from a Mother Box, he needs to know more; Arthur Curry comes on as surly and taciturn but when he witnesses Steppenwolf’s theft of the Atlantean Mother Box and joins the group, he displays an almost childlike enthusiasm for getting into action (plus an unexpected sense of humor that’s only hinted at in the trailers).
Of course, it’s no secret that Superman returns – he did after Doomsday killed him in the comics, so yeah. In the comics, though, it was a natural (well Superman-natural) process; here it’s a plan created by Cyborg and the Flash – and although it works, it doesn’t quite work out the way they want.
One source of Justice League’s lighter side comes from The Flash. His enthusiasm sometimes has the effect of taking him out of his focus and when that happens, he’s not completely coordinated (like a guy/gal watching a good-looking girl/guy and walking into a lamppost, or tripping over a curb).
When he has to be there, though, he does get the job done.
We already know what to expect, character and action-wise, from Batman and Wonder Woman and they do not disappoint – though Wonder Woman’s arc (forced by Batman to step out of the shadows and take charge) makes her the key character in the film.
Another thing that helps elevate Justice League is the return of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who infuse their scenes with incredible warmth. Oscar®-winner J.K. Simmons gives Commissioner Gordon’s brief scenes both wit and gravitas, and Joe Morton makes for a very good concerned father as Cyborg’s father (in more ways than one), Dr. Silas Stone.
Jeremy Irons is also splendid as Bruce Wayne’s butler/tech support, Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred’s dry humor also adds to the film’s unexpected warmth.
A critic (non-superhero fan) I know came out of Justice League looking forward to seeing the Aquaman and Flash movies that are coming. I did not expect that.
Justice League successfully gets the band together and gives us reason to like the characters and want to see more of them. It’s not the revelatory experience that Wonder Woman was (few movies of any genre are), but it is a solid, satisfying movie that remembers that comics and comic book movies are supposed to be fun.
Final Grade: B+