“I don’t recognize this world.”
If you had told me fifteen, ten or, hell, even two or three years ago that the arrival of a Justice League blockbuster extravaganza would meet me with almost complete indifference, I wouldn’t believe you. Why would I? The Justice League brings together some of the best and most iconic superheroes of all time — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman and The Flash — under one roof, aligning to unite in the face of peril and save the world. Yet, in the sorry state of affairs that is 2017, the year when Warner Bros. finally decided to bring Justice League to the big screen, all I feel compelled to do is shrug.
The disinterest doesn’t come unjustly. This overworked, underwhelming, mismanaged superhero team-up cinematic extravagance does the seemingly impossible: it makes the unionizing of the Justice League boring. Even in our current age of excessive comic book adaptations, writing that sentence is very surreal. But the truth of the matter is, Justice League isn’t merely bad; it’s a lifeless, overcooked, dispassionate bore. Ironically, a film about legendary superheroes banding together to save the day is completely in shambles, resulting in a frantic, frustrating and deeply flawed disaster that even the heroic team can’t save.
With the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) still looming heavily over the city of Metropolis and beyond, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), i.e. Batman, travels around the world to build a team of superheroes to stand in the place of the fallen Kryptonian. In addition to Batman, those superheroes include Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), all of whom come from various lands (and seas). Wonder Woman, as we saw earlier this summer, now lives a more modest life, dawning the suit and lasso only when the moment calls for it. The Flash, meanwhile, is a reckless 20-something with the ability of superspeed, living a life of petty crime while also hoping to help his convicted father (Billy Crudup) get out of prison, while Aquaman is an arrogant, wise-cracking, heavy-drinking merman who feels no compelling need to help anyone other than himself. And then there’s Cyborg, an exceptionally brilliant teenage athlete who, when met with a terrible and tragic fate, is brought back to life as more machine than man, via alien technology, through his scientist father (Joe Morton).
Though they’re all reluctant to work with others, the newfound Justice League find themselves without a choice when Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) —horrifically brought to life by woefully unconvincing CG —promises the destruction of the known world through his reign of terror and, yeah, I think you get the gist.
During its early inception, the DC Cinematic Universe (DCEU) prided itself in diversifying itself from its Marvel counterparts. The results varied, to say the least, but they were at least visually and tonally distinct. With Justice League, the entire would-be mega-franchise is clearly and uncomfortably forced by heavy studio demands to be exactly like its more quippy, goofy, lighthearted counterparts. This shift in style and vision is worn as awkwardly and uneasily as an itchy, ill-fitting wool sweater from your distant relatives.
The gloomy intensiveness of director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is present throughout this new film, but it is also given a dashed paint job by co-writer Joss Whedon (The Avengers), who tries to recreate the same success he captured for Marvel’s cinematic world. These two counteracting tones go together about as well as chocolate milk and paint thinner. The jokes, while varying from abysmal to chuckle-worthy in terms of writing and execution, are hardly ever woven seamlessly into the film, resulting in a misshapen, uneven endeavor that’s entirely surface-level and hard to be charmed by. Anything even remotely weighty in the predecessor films is stripped away or shaved off.
Credited to Snyder, who left the project during post-production due to a family emergency, but never caring the identity and boldness of his previous films, while never wholly or completely enjoying the pulpy, snappy pop culture savviness of Whedon’s other, better projects, Justice League is a clunky, scattershot fiasco that seemingly belongs to no filmmaker, no coherent visionary, no bright-minded creator. Indeed, Justice League is an expensive, dizzying headache of a movie owned and made by Warner Bros., promptly doing damage control for a blooming cinematic franchise they don’t fully trust. For all the faults of Batman v Superman, Man of Steel and Wonder Woman, at least those were movies were carried by filmmakers. They weren’t perfect, most certainly, but they were inspired or rousing or mindful or, at least, compelling. Justice League, however, is a bloated, bombastic and unconfident mess, and a richly disappointing one.
It’s tediously transparent that WB is unceremoniously copying and pasting the formula of The Avengers, to the point where established characters hold new or confused identities. While Wonder Woman remains the headstrong, powerful defender of all that is good and fair she was in her own solo movie, essentially filling in for Captain America here, Batman is forced to become an entirely different character to fulfill the Iron Man persona of the group. Moody contemplation is replaced by dry jokes with little ringing resonance, performed by an actor who clearly regrets getting professionally and emotionally involved in this role. Aquaman is half-man/half-God, so naturally, he’s going to be our Thor fill-in. Cyborg is a man torn between being a man or a monster. Sure, he’s our Hulk, I guess. And with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) watching over our trusted heroes, he’s our strange mix of Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. There’s a clear attempt to make Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) this person, but considering he only has two brief scenes in the film, it’s hard to give him such a weight title. (Side note: why the hell did you make Simmons get all jacked for such a nothing role? Explain yourselves, WB. That’s definitely not cool. Respect the man’s time.)
Only The Flash stands out, not only because he’s the only one unlike any other Avenger but because he’s the only one with a real sense of personality. As the geek who is shocked, honored and utterly delighted to be in the supergroup (and to have some friends), he’s our emotional heart here, if there is one, and the only person we can really relate to. With that, it’s not all doom and gloom. Not unlike Suicide Squad, which was similarly muddled, overtaken and tampered with, but occasionally rewarding with lively performances from Margot Robbie, Will Smith, and Jai Courtney, Justice League is not without its key strengths.
Miller is our biggest, brightest and best one, personifying The Flash with real passion, wit, and inspiration, resulting in Justice League‘s only consistently fun and funny character. Anyone worried that it’ll be distracting having two Flashes — one on the television, the other on the big screen — should be relieved. Miller makes the role completely his own, and if there’s anything that should be salvaged in this wreckage, beyond Cavill’s well-chiseled Superman and Gadot’s lively Wonder Woman, it’s him. Hopefully, Phil Lord and Chris Miller jump on-board to make the long-promised spinoff film because it’s absolutely perfect for their quirky sensibilities. But that’s not to discredit Fisher or Mamoa, both of whom bring more intelligence, individuality, and personality to their individual parts than they probably should, especially given how little the film cares about being focused, consistent or anything other than finished.
There’s rich promise in the tortured anguish of Cyborg’s character, one that should’ve been explored in a prior film, while Mamoa is clearly having a blast playing a cooler, edgier bad boy version of Aquaman than we would ever expect to see from such a dorky character. And without delving into spoilers, those hoping for a more traditional take on Superman might be pleased with some scenes here. It’s not in line with what was established for the character necessarily, but it’s nice to see Cavill live up (if only a tad) to the greater potential of the role. The man’s truly a born star. Even if it’s annoying to see how much time and money went into CG-ing his beautiful mustache out of the picture, it’s nice to see his rich star power ever rising.
To delve into everything that works and doesn’t in Justice League is a losing battle. We all know there’s great potential for this property, and to see it squandered so carelessly and haphazardly is truly despairing. While Justice League isn’t as shockingly misguided as the tabloids suggested, mainly since the film is A) finished and B) not a spinning wheel of fire at the present moment, it’s nevertheless a disparaging failure. Not merely because it wasted the best superhero team of all-time, and not merely because it doesn’t live up to the potential laid in the films before it, but because it represents a lazy, cynical new age of Hollywood, one where busy subplots, poorly developed characters, and overcompensating agendas get bugled together without the care needed to make something as gargantuan and grand as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t get a six pack simply for saying you’re going to get one. That’s something these actors know to be true. But you don’t build a cinematic franchise just by saying you want to have one, either. It takes effort, talent, time and consideration, and while the Justice League is assembled here, Justice League falls apart.