Justice League Review: Is There Any Hope For This Franchise?

Over the last few years, DC’s film division has had a lot of hits and misses.

Over the last few years, DC’s film division has had a lot of hits and misses. After the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros. has had a rough time. All this started back in 2012, with the ending of the Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel successfully introducing the Avengers in mainstream media. That one event changed the Hollywood landscape, turning each studio’s heads towards the concept of a ‘shared universe’, where characters from different films could come and interact with each other. The one medium from which this concept could be organically worked upon was comic books. For years we have seen Batman and Superman interact on the pages of comics and wondered how it would look like on the big screen.

Starting with Man of Steel, WB/DC started their own cinematic universe, with the intention of building one up just like Marvel had done. While the Superman flick was a moderate success, it’s sequel wasn’t. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was, and arguably should have been, the biggest and the best superhero movie to ever grace the big screen. However, due to a number of reasons including a muddled plot, bad editing and overall mediocrity, the film didn’t really click with audiences and begged the question : Is this what long time fans like us deserved ?  Subsequent films in the slate tried to ‘course-correct’ their way in order to be more accessible and for some part, it worked as in the case with Wonder Woman, while in others it clearly didn’t (looking at you, Suicide Squad).

Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher and Henry Cavill make up the first incarnation of the Justice League ever on the big screen, directed by Zack Snyder. But while the film credits Snyder as the sole director, we all know that is a bit far from reality. After some tragic events, Snyder stepped down from the role of director during post-production and Joss Whedon was brought in to fill in his shoes. Whedon did a minor rewrite of the screenplay, enough to warrant a credit to his name, and handled the reshoots. And that is where you can see the conflicting tone of the film getting its birth, which we’ll get in to in a short while.

Justice League, picking up a few months after the death of Superman, follows Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) as he investigates the appearance of several other-worldly tourists and their shenanigans. Realizing that he is not enough to stop them, he starts assembling a group of meta-humans, the likes of which he believes can help him fight off this new threat. Aiding his quest is Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), helping him find the three other members of the soon-to-be-formed league.Ben Affleck once again gives a terrific performance as an older Wayne, with his character having evolved since the last time we saw him. He doesn’t heartlessly kill anymore ! And his respect for Superman has gone through the roof, constantly reminding him of the burden that the Kryptonian’s absence left on his shoulders. Batman is after-all a human. Giving him support is Diana, once again played wonderfully by Gal Gadot. Seeing as the positive reaction her solo film got, it’s no surprise that Wonder Woman has a prominent role in the forming of the trinity. She is the glue that holds the Justice League together. But I might add, there are moments where she can be belittled when standing next to the huge honchos of the team. And it is this sort of treatment that she gets which can be seen as a step down for the character, especially after the arc she went through in her film. Ezra Miller shines in the role of a young Barry Allen, one who hasn’t done a lot of superhero stuff and is always in awe of the world around him. Seeing Barry geek out around the rest of the league is fun, but there is a certain element to his quirkiness that negates him truly being Barry Allen, making him more of a Wally West esque character. I’m a fan of the CW Flash TV show, so seeing a bizarrely different version of the same character is, well, bizarre. But with the Flash, it’s about the speed, right? Yes, The Flash (who is interestingly enough never even called by the name) can achieve incredible feats with his super speed, many of which make up for memorable moments throughout the film, a couple of which pay a nice homage to the character’s banter with Superman in the comics.Ray Fisher gives a fine performance as Victor Stone, aka Cyborg. I say fine because while the actor brings the role to life, there’s very little underneath the character. His backstory is brushed over and his character monotonous, even though he plays a pretty important part in the plot. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman starts out as a fine new character, one whose world we have yet to explore fully. He’s pretty good until the last act of the movie, where the script suddenly turns him into a silly doppleganger of the tough character we see him to be throughout the film. Granted, these moments are fun, but it doesn’t quite make sense when you think about it.

With Aquaman, comes a little sneak peek into the world of Atlantis. The under water scenes really look visually impressive, and I can’t wait to see more of that when his solo movie comes next year. We also get a short scene with Amber Herd’s Mera, which jump from an interesting action sequence to one involving an exposition dump for Aquaman’s backstory. While it can get irritating to see this, and other scenes like these, it is necessary to understand and get behind the new characters seeing as they haven’t had their solo projects to do that for them.The first half of the film is spent trying to introduce a number of characters and this is where the film is choppy. It seems like several scenes were cut from the final edit as many times the film feels rushed. While it doesn’t hurt the film that much from the viewpoint of the plot, the pacing can be seen as jarring. It’s true that this helps the film keep a forward momentum but the studio executives at Warner Bros. clearly do not see the artistic integrity that a film as big as this can lose if it’s rushed. A last minute mandate by the higher-ups forced the makers to keep the film under 2 hours, and it is evident here. The second half is much better, acting out with parts that we have wanted to see for years : The League learning to work with each other and working as a team. While the structure of the film is nothing new, it is refreshing to see these characters finally being their true selves on screen. 

When Whedon was brought on board, it felt like a positive sign seeing as the man was responsible for the much more successful Avengers franchise. What I did not realise was the adverse effects of the general traits that his works have on this film. There are quite a number of scenes and dialogue sequences which can be easily recognized as the works of Whedon. His style of humor, while great on its own, really feels inconsistent with the tone that this franchise has established. So seeing Batman through witty one liners certainly feels out of place. It’s not so bad on the first viewing though. It’s actually pretty funny. With this, I feel like the studio tried too hard to play it safe by the audience. When you try something, commit to it fully. The diverse range of characters certainly invite some light-heartedness, but seeing it get used over and over does feel tiresome. 

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t a perfect film. Nor was it coherent. What it was though, is consistent is tone. While not many people liked the dour and grim style that narrative that Snyder brought to the table, at least it has some viciousness that made the stakes feel more real. Here that sense of urgency is somewhat lost, leaving us with an enjoyable film with big stakes (on paper) and then some to eradicate it.Visually speaking the film looks great, for some part. Up until the third act, the film shows us gorgeous imagery, the likes of which only a visionary genius like Zack Snyder can imagine. The third act however, looks incomplete in the special effects department. It’s really easy to tell the green screen background and it is embarrasing to see such poor work go into a production as big as this. But while all that is tolerable, one (not so) minute thing which stand out is Henry Cavill’s face. If you don’t know, Cavill had a moustache during the reshoots which he couldn’t shave off due to his commitment to another film (the next Mission Impossible, to be exact). And so the filmmakers had to go with digital trickery to remove it in post. It does stand out when you’re looking for it and can be quite distracting from the whole experience. I can already see the numerous memes that will come poking fun at it.

 I know I’ve been sounding very negative towards this film, and trust me I really wanted it to be the very best. It’s just ironic that the film suffers just because of the fear of failure that the studio had. Had they not muddled with the filmmakers’ original vision, perhaps the film would’ve been much better. Really 99% of the problems that the film has boils down to the amount of stuff left in the cutting room. The film just doesn’t flow smoothly until the second half.

At the end of all this, I come to Superman. The one person who lifts the film from it’s failing narrative to new heights. They finally got Superman right ! Superman in the film is the version we’ve been waiting for for years. This is the Superman we grew up reading about. The one who embodies truth, justice and the American way. Henry Cavill turns in a great performance as the resurrected Kal El. I won’t get into the specifics, but I’ll tell you this : When Superman enters the film, it suddenly lights up. There’s this sudden energy in the atmosphere, one which keeps giving positive vibes. They went with an interesting, while predictable (by the comic book fans anyway) way to deal with him and he has quite the screen time, more so than any of us would have expected. We get to see his power set expand quite so refreshingly, such as seeing him use his super speed to an awesomely comedic effect against the Flash.

As for why I didn’t mention anything about the antagonist, it’s because he is that forgettable. Steppenwolf is the love child of horrible CGI and bland writing, making him the weakest part of the film. Some may say the studio took ’the Marvel approach’, by focusing on the heroes more than the villain. I do see that happening here and while it’s justified, even Marvel’s villains are somehow stronger and entertaining to watch. More so than this guy. Steppenwolf is your average comic-book movie villain, who makes a loud thump on the floor but evokes no sense of threat. Perhaps next time they’ll be able to get a better villain (of which there are many in the comics), and from the looks of the one of the (yes, there are two) post credits teases, it sounds like they will.So, to answer the question in the title of this review : Yes. If I was asked what the theme of the movie is, it’s hope. While starting out in the wrong direction, and now having done away with all the universe building, we can now hope to see some amazing stories brought to life on the big screen having our favorite super-heroes star in them. And from the looks of it, it sounds like we are going to get exactly that. Here’s to hoping that the DC Film Universe continues (or rather starts) to flourish.

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