Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
Five years ago, while making the rounds of press events during the release of the first Avengers film, writer-director Joss Whedon was asked what advice he would give DC and Warner Bros., who had long been trying to make a Justice League movie. His advice? “Call me.” No one could’ve guessed that years later they’d do just that. Warner got Whedon to do some rewrites for Justice League’s script, and due to unfortunate circumstances that saw director Zack Snyder bow out of the director’s chair to deal with a delicate family matter, Whedon was tasked to complete the directing duties, oversee some reshoots, and guide the film through post production.
Which is why Justice League unfortunately feels like a patchwork movie. It’s estimated that about 15-20% of the film is Whedon’s work (Snyder keeps sole credit as director), and it shows in how the mood, tone, and pacing can change at the drop of a hat. It’s not like one concentrated chunk is Snyder’s and another chunk is Whedon’s; it’s bits and pieces of Whedon humor and camaraderie sprinkled like a garnish throughout the movie’s two hours.
The patchwork feel isn’t helped by the fact that DC/WB have rushed to this team movie without fully establishing a full half of the team that comprise the Justice League: the characters of Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), especially, have some convoluted histories that don’t get their due. Flash (Ezra Miller) fares better because all he really has is an innocent dad (Billy Crudup) in jail, and those scenes play better emotionally.
Justice League can also feel like a welcome (though self-conscious) case of course correction. Gone is the overly complicated and infeasible plot of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Here it’s just a bad guy with parts of a weapon to assemble; stop him from doing so. They unfortunately oversimplify too much, as baddie Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) doesn’t make much of an impression. He hardly ever poses a threat. We are told to fear him because of flashbacks that fill in some backstory involving the Amazons and the Atlanteans because, y’know, worldbuilding. Hinds makes a noble effort to give him some menace with his voice work but there’s not enough there to work with, and his CG entirety feels like it doesn’t have enough mass. Another sequence with Superman (Henry Cavill) abandoning a Very Important Fight to save a building of civilians seems to answer one of the strongest criticisms levied against Man of Steel, where it felt like Superman didn’t care at all about civilian casualties and collateral damage in his and Zod’s rampage through Metropolis.
It’s still very much Snyder’s film; you can tell with the color palette and the dour grimness of a number of scenes. His fondness for classic songs covered by new and young artists rears its head twice. Though his exit was due to unfortunate circumstances, what the DC superhero movies need are fresh eyes. The parts that are most enjoyable are not the plot-centric scenes but those where the characters just interact and get to know one another (presumably Whedon’s work, as they follow the template he set with the first Avengers).
A lot of the special effects work feels rushed and looks cheap, as if they had the same budget an average PS4 game had. It doesn’t help that Henry Cavill’s upper lip shimmers endlessly due to having to digitally dematerialize a mustache he was contractually obligated to keep for Mission: Impossible 6. Add a red sky over a nondescript Russian town and Snyder’s typically murky color grading, and half the time you can’t really see or understand what’s happening.
While Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa are welcome presences, and seem to get the lion’s share of the humor, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is really only given one attitude: stoic, and it doesn’t help sell a new character to the audience. It makes sense that they would add more Wonder Woman to the film during reshoots: Gal Gadot’s magnetism should always be exploited and weaponized when the opportunity presents itself. But even her charisma can’t take this scrapbook movie to the finish line. Cavill gets some scenes that make him feel like Superman again. And Affleck can’t yet seem to commit fully to playing Old Man Batman.
It seems crazy that Wonder Woman came out just earlier this year. It remains the best film of the DC Extended Universe so far, even with a problematic last act. Some of those lessons have been adopted for Justice League, but not enough, and not in time to present a cohesive work. While definitely better than Batman V Superman and the dead-on-arrival Suicide Squad, Justice League shows that DC/WB still have a long way to go. But it’s good to know that it seems they’re finally headed in the right direction.
Photos from Warner Bro. Pictures