The Mob’s Reel: Despite Some Bright Spots, ‘Justice League’ Stumbles
The Mob’s Reel is a film column that features reviews and essays covering everything from the latest blockbusters to standout indies.
Side-stepping the dourness of last year’s Batman v Superman, Justice League is a lighter, peppier entry in Warner Bros.’s DC film franchise that winds up feeling disappointingly threadbare. The film was helmed by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), who left the project late in the game due to a family tragedy, leaving a fair amount of reshoots and post-production duties to director Joss Whedon.
In the wake of Superman’s death, Batman and Wonder Woman enlist the help of Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash to protect the planet from the villainous Steppenwolf.
Justice League clocks in at under two hours, making it the shortest of any of the modern DC films, but it isn’t quite as snappy as its runtime might suggest. It’s a clumsily edited mess with an utterly forgettable CG villain in Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), but it can be really charming in its best moments and has the heart that Batman v Superman lacked.
If nothing else, I had expected to at least enjoy the film’s action and visual verve, but there are precious few sequences that I can say were truly stirring, with the bulk of the third act too visually muddy to appreciate. Some of the more rewarding parts of the film are the character-building moments between the heroes, and the performers work together quite nicely.
Ezra Miller is a standout; his Barry Allen is the youngest member of the group, and he’s as panicky and wide-eyed as they come, often endearingly so. He’s at the center of some of the film’s funnier moments, and while not all of the humor lands, he’s charming enough to keep things moving. Jason Momoa has a strong presence, his Aquaman conceived as a tattooed, whiskey-swilling loner who reluctantly joins Batman’s super-powered crew. Ray Fisher does solid work as Cyborg, but the character doesn’t feel as fleshed out as the rest of the team despite a couple of intriguing early scenes, and I can’t say I’m a fan of the whole “walking diamond” thing he’s got going on; the character’s robotic design is a bit too garish for my tastes; it’s always painfully clear that I’m watching a special effect, and not an especially seamless one.
Gadot really shone in this summer’s far superior DC entry Wonder Woman, and here she exudes that same sense of steadfast hope. I was unsure of what to expect from Gadot when her casting was first announced, but she’s turned out to be a pleasant surprise as one of the bright spots in this uneven cinematic universe. Affleck approaches Batman with a lighter touch this time around, and he’s more fun to watch now that he’s stepped away from BvS’s unrelenting grimness. Batman’s mea culpa attitude regarding his actions during his last appearance is welcome, and there’s a refreshing self-awareness that I really appreciated. Sure, it might feel forced and inorganic at times, but I’ll take it at this point.
Some much-needed course correction was accomplished with Clark/Superman (shocker– he’s back), who is warmer and kinder than in either of Henry Cavill’s previous appearances, finally conveying the good-heartedness and fun that are so intrinsic to the character. He’s no longer some cold, quasi-messianic figure; this is a Superman that takes the time to chat with the people he saves. He’s down to earth, so to speak, and Cavill is playful and all-around great in his third film as the big blue boyscout. There are some some new and familiar faces that pop in here and there, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Jeremy Irons as Alfred, but most of the supporting characters aren’t given anything impactful to do.
While the performances are largely enjoyable, I can’t help but feel that the first time seeing these heroes together on the big screen ought to have been more rousing. Justice League isn’t the trainwreck many feared it would be, but it’s certainly not the triumph Warner Bros. were hoping for. The special effects are often disappointingly subpar for a film of this scope and scale, but the blame shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of the many digital artists who contributed to the production. VFX departments are often asked to do too much way too quickly and must adhere to the misguided, flighty demands of producers and studio heads. Regardless of what exactly led to the shoddy final product, it’s hard to escape the fact that Steppenwolf’s facial animation is a far cry from state of the art, and the effects used to erase Cavill’s mustache* were often bafflingly unsubtle. There’s no excuse for a mega-budget film to look this cheap.
*While reshoots were being filmed, scheduling issues prevented Cavill from shaving the facial hair he had grown for another film, leaving the Justice League production to digitally remove the mustache, and the result is so goddamn distracting. It’s very disappointing, because this horrendous digital makeup ends up undermining Cavill’s charisma.
I wish Justice League hand more pep in its step, but there seem to be too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s a movie struggling to figure out what it wants to be; it’s not fully a Zack Snyder film, because Whedon’s contributions to the humor and character dynamics are hard to miss, but regardless of the complicated directorial situation, it seems as though the studio just wasn’t comfortable giving the creative team enough time and space to make the damn thing properly. It’s enjoyable enough as a two-hour diversion, but it feels like a placeholder while we wait for the studio to sort their shit out and give us a team-up worthy of these rich, enduring characters.