DC had a pretty satisfactory summer this year. No less than twelve months since the abysmal Suicide Squad (2016) hit theatres, director Patty Jenkins gave us the wonderfully realised Wonder Woman (2017). Finally, after several false starts attempting to kick start this extended universe, we received a story packed with engaging character arcs and charming performances. Whereas Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad filled the minds of many with doubt, summer 2017 gave us hope that the DCEU could indeed work.
On Wednesday 15th November, the long awaited ensemble flick hit theatres. Justice League (2017) certainly isn’t a return to the dismal days of March or August 2016. Nor is it a counterpart to Jenkin’s triumphant May 2017 hit. The film’s nowhere near as convoluted or illogical as Batman v Superman/Suicide Squad, which is no doubt a positive sign. Sadly, it’s not exactly something to write home about either. Those declaring it to be steaming pile of puppy excrement are undoubtedly exaggerating, just as those calling it brilliant are. It’s a moderate-yet-flawed movie suffering from varying issues.
The main problem lies with the screenplay’s awkwardly composed structure. Three major plots run throughout; none of which tie up together very well. Instead of each one thematically feeding into each other, the film frequently grinds to a halt so it can shift from one plot to the next. Rarely does it feel as if we’re watching one movie, but three separate features desperately competing for screen time. It’s as if Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon penned a loosely connected trilogy – one chronicling their reunion, the second concerning Superman’s resurrection and the final surrounding Steppenwolf’s rise – then compressed it into a heavy-handed 121 minute standalone.
To make matters worse, none of these plots progress at what one may call a reasonable pace. Each one reluctantly drags for much of the first two acts. Bruce tries to unite Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg & Diana; Steppenwolf skips around the globe fighting Amazonians & Atlanteans; and people talk about how ghastly the world is without that dashing Kryptonian demigod soaring about the place. By the time these stories do make any kind of progress, it’s time to start wrapping everything up.
Allowing these plots time to develop and feed into one another certainly would’ve helped the film out a great deal. Take Superman’s resurrection as an example. This is actually one of the better parts of the film, which is surprising considering how daft it was to kill off this character in the first place. As an isolated sequence, Clark’s resurrection sequence is both effective and interesting. Without his memories, this character becomes one of the most dangerous weapons walking the earth. Although “evil” Superman isn’t a character you want looming around a franchise for too long, this particular plot could have tied into the primary narrative concerning the the Justice League’s formation.
Imagine if the film opened with a guilt-driven Bruce Wayne striving to reverse the death of Clark; a death he felt partially responsible for. After some tinkering with Kryptonian technology, Superman’s corpse returns to the land of the living. Except something’s not right. His memories, morals and all else that makes him Clark are seemingly absent. With the mindless Man of Steal let loose, Wayne must try and unite the other heroes of earth in a bid to protect earth. It’s not exactly the finest of solutions, but at least such a narrative could thematically connect to one another a little more efficiently. This sort of story could have explored how memories and experiences help to shape the morals and identities of our beloved heroes. Those who taught them, loved them and showed them how to live were the ones who influenced their fates. Not only could such a message help to unite an initially indifferent Diana, Arthur, Barry and Victor; it could ultimately be what brings Superman back to “the land of the living”.
Sadly Clark’s moment as a bewildered WMD lasts no more than a few minutes. After what’s probably the film’s strongest action set piece, Louis Lane shows her face and the dilemma is resolved. The idea doesn’t go anywhere even remotely interesting and fails to tie in with anything else within the larger narrative.
This is a sort of problem that persists throughout Justice League. All the big turning points are clumped together as opposed to spaced out. Nothing has time to evolve into something more appealing. Which is a real shame, especially when characters such as Arthur Curry (Aquaman) and Victor Stone (Cyborg) are potentially-loaded individuals in desperate need of development. With the exception of Curry being an Atlantean and Stone the victim of a horrific accident, we know barely anything about these guys. One is grumpy and the other broods about his cursed existence.
According to varying reports, it would seem the original Zack Snyder cut intended to delve into Victor Stone’s backstory somewhat. When Snyder left due to a family tragedy, however, much of that content was re-shot in an attempt to lighten the mood. Whether or not the re-shoots were an improvement upon the previous takes doesn’t take away from the fact that this character is in dire need of improvement for him to function as an effective protagonist.
Even Diana is completely wasted. Her standalone movie released no more than six months prior seems to have had little impact here. All she’s used for is exposition. She’ll happily waffle on about Steppenwolf’s origins, but if you’re looking for anything beyond that, you’re not going to get much else.
The lack of overall characterisation puts a real dent in the film’s ensemble aspect. Seeing as there’s no personalities driving this story, we get no kind of conflict or tension to keep us invested. Rarely are there moments in which our protagonists react off of one another’s personas, actions or traits. Chuckling at one another’s costumes or spontaneously firing crappy insults about Diana’s deceased lover isn’t effective if little consequence comes from such actions. These moments only appear to exist because the writers assumed this is what constitutes as conflict.
Bruce Wayne and Barry Allen are the only two who feel as though they possess anything resembling characterisation. For all the problems with Batman in Justice League, at least his motives are somewhat believable, plus they stray away from the conventional backstory we’re accustomed to. Instead the film chooses to focus on a post-origin Batman arc; one we’re not all too familiar with when it comes to this particular hero. Bruce’s motives stem from his guilt toward Superman’s demise. He feels partially responsible for the uprising of Doomsday by playing into Lex Luthor’s hands. It is this mindset which triggers him into assembling the league, resurrecting Clark and working to put an end to Steppenwolf’s uprising.
Another character who sometimes works is Barry Allen (Flash). He’s the misunderstood youngster who’s probably the most relatable of the bunch. He’s not some larger than life demi-god, but a kid with extraordinary abilities who’s overwhelmed by the circumstances befallen upon him. There’s a dash of Peter Parker from Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) present in Allen. Not only does he serve as the comic relief, he often grounds the film during the more outlandish of moments. When everyone is getting on with being a superhero, it’s Allen’s anxious outbursts and overemotional responses that make him identifiable within the eyes of the audience.
Superman functions a little more efficiently here than he has done in past DCEU films too. A less apologetic, upbeat incarnation of the Man of Steel is something the series has needed since 2013. No one’s asking for them to replicate Christopher Reeves’ portrayal, although someone who doesn’t snap necks and sulk is certainly a surefire way of making this hero a touch more likeable. As great as seeing a confused and monstrous Clark/Superman is, making him “dark” on a full time basis is a recipe for disaster. As admirable as it may be to try and do a “serious” interpretation, returning to a more jovial Man of Steel has far more potential to entertain. Plus Henry Cavill seems more comfortable playing happy Superman. It doesn’t make him a better actor, but it’s much easier on the eyes. Having him actually rescue folk, make wisecracks and race Flash is much preferred.
Switching from bleak to breezy isn’t what makes Justice League more digestible mind you. The fact it’s less convoluted is what really separates it from the weaker DCEU contributions. Despite Justice League feeling as though it’s three-separate movies awkwardly playing competing for screen time, the film feels far less tortuous and bloated than Batman v Superman. It’s lighter on its feet and more streamlined; making all of this more tolerable than it could have been.
To sum up, Justice League is an adequate mess. It’s not a terrible piece of work, it just isn’t all that exciting. There’s some good stuff regarding Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen and run time reduction, but this certainly doesn’t save the overall product from its own dullness. Yes, from an entertainment standpoint it does work to an extent. Sadly it’s also sloppy, unstructured and sluggish for the most part. If ever there was a film in 2017 that could be described as “meh”, this is it.