Movie Review: ‘Justice League’

CHARLOTTE, N.C — It’s been some rough couple years for the DC expanded universe. Warner Brothers’ plan to copy the Marvel formula and create a vast contacted universe of comic-book characters has largely been seen as a disaster in the eyes of moviegoers.

Last year’s “Batman v. Superman”, along with the Superman reboot that proceeded it, seemed to take all the wrong cues from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. With beat you over the head seriousness, an exhausting running time, and a story that crammed way too many sub-plots, “Batman v. Superman” cast a dark shadow over a franchise that was just getting started. However, things did not seem truly dire until the subsequent release of “Suicide Squad” months later; a movie that’s probably one of the more jaw-dropping train-wrecks in recent years.  Aside from “Wonder Woman” this past summer, the studio hasn’t really managed to generate a crowd pleasing blockbuster, making the perception of their large ‘team-up’ film crucial to the franchises future. All of this has created an aura of unease around the release of “Justice League”.

Those who’ve worked on the film are asking audiences to keep the behind the scenes turmoil out of their minds when watching. Yet, the changes this movie went through during production and the forces that led to its finished form seem crucial in trying to unpack it. While “Batman v. Superman” filmmaker Zack Snyder remains credited as “Justice League’s” director, his final impact on the finished product remains debatable. Snyder stepped away from the film shortly after principle photography due to the tragic death of his daughter. The decision prompted Warner Brothers to bring on Joss Whedon, who directed both “Avengers” films for Marvel, to take over for post-production and editing.

However, Whedon’s role wound up being much larger than originally reported. Similar to Tony Gilroy’s involvement with “Rogue One” last year, Whedon was tasked with re-writing several sections of the script and directing extensive re-shoots this past summer. All of this is to suggest that Warner Brothers desperately wanted a market correction, choosing to push ahead with a lighter, jokey feel similar to what Marvel’s pictures have offered.

While “Justice League” does feel like a complete 180 from the deathly serious “Batman v. Superman”, it’s in a way that feels artificial. The movie is certainly trying to be a more crowd pleasing blockbuster but it is hard to escape the feeling that you are watching something that was generated in a board room; retooled and re-worked by executives to create as safe a movie as possible.

A large part of the movie’s problem is how incredibly rushed it feels. Scenes are given very little time to breath as characters dive directly into exposition within seconds of meeting each other. Superhero team-up movies are often harder to pull off simply because there is so much to juggle. However, their best moments come in letting the characters play off each other. “Justice League” sadly is too concerned with moving on to the next scene to let these potentially great character moments emerge.

So, what about the characters themselves? The cast here is largely the only reason to see the movie, with just two of our six stars, Ben Affleck (Batman) and Ray Fisher (Cyborg) managing to fall short. Affleck’s definitely going through the motions this time around, which is sad considering his performance was about the only good thing in “Batman v. Superman”; however, this time the actor looks tired, possibly wishing he could go back to directing Boston crime pictures instead of having to continuously pop-up in these movies. As for Fisher, his problem is not so much his performance but how poorly the character of Cyborg is written. Of all the characters, he gets the least interesting back story and is forced to deliver his lines in an almost emotionless tone of voice.

Thankfully, the rest of the cast fairs much better. Gal Gadot once again commands the screen as Wonder Woman, despite being largely stuck with eye-rolling exposition for most of her lines. Ezra Miller gets to show off his comedic chops as the Flash, and Jason Momoa steal makes a strong case for being a future movie star, despite not getting nearly enough screen time. For sake of spoilers, I won’t reveal how Superman factors into the story, though it’s really no secret he makes a return after being allegedly killed off at the end of “Batman v. Superman”. Thankfully, someone at Warner Brothers must have seen Henry Cavill in “The Man from Uncle” because he actually gets to smile this time as the man of steel and have some fun with the roll.

Viewers can also expect a slew of supporting characters from Jeremy Irons as Alfred to J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon; however, these moments create an odd disconnect for the viewer, as the lack of solo films previous to “Justice League” make these continuous walk-ons have real impact. One can also give up on getting any kind of interesting villain. Steppenwolf appears as little more than a poorly rendered CGI character with vague plans of destroying the world for no apparent reason than he simply can.

While we’re on the subject of special effects, it’s important to note that those in “Justice League” look especially terrible. Steppenwolf and his army of dragonfly like parademons look like something pulled from a cheap video game and whenever any of our live-action characters are interacting in an effects heavy scene, it’s painfully obvious they are just standing in front of a green screen. All this only further adds to the lazy feeling this movie gives off. Even the action sequences are so darkly lit and incoherently shot, it can be hard to tell what is going on.

“Justice League” tries but largely fails to capture the same light-on-its-feet fell of Marvels best movies. Much like “Batman v. Superman” took all the wrong lessons from Nolan’s batman trilogy, “Justice League” takes all the wrong lessons from “The Avengers”. The success of these lighter team-up movies isn’t in being less serious or overly jokey, it’s creating an environment for characters to play off each other and a willingness to be creatively loose with set pieces.

Rating: ★ ★