Following Superman’s ultimate sacrifice to save humanity and with a rekindled faith in humanity, ‘Bruce Wayne’ and ‘Diana Prince’ join forces to recruit a team of powerful ‘Metahumans’ for the inevitable battle against an even greater gathering threat to the planet, as DC gets into the full swing of its cinematic ‘Extended Universe’.
There’s no doubting that comic-book and superhero films have revolutionised the mainstream cinema industry over the last decade or so (for better or worse), pushing the tentpole movie agenda and encouraging every studio to pursue a ‘cinematic universe’ for their intellectual property—with Disney’s Marvel Studios leading the way both in terms of critical and box-office success.
Now after the less-than-flattering response to last year’s ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ and ‘Suicide Squad’, plus the goodwill restored by this year’s success story ‘Wonder Woman’, and with the future of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) in the balance, Warner Bros. could hardly afford another misstep—but miss several steps they do, in what is a clumsy and ill-conceived superhero blunder of epic proportions.
Ben Affleck returns as Gotham’s caped crusader and primo billionaire Wayne, teaming up with the Wondrous Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) to recruit Atlantean sea lord ‘Arthur Curry’ (Jason Momoa), science experiment-gone-right ‘Victor Stone’ aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and super-speedy young loner ‘Barry Allen’ aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), as they assemble to stand against the intergalactic threat ushered-in by three powerful ancient artefacts—a fight which could really use the services of a certain departed Kryptonian (Henry Cavill).
Rare is the occasion where we take an overwhelmingly negative view of a film, which fits with our ethos of not just bashing something we don’t like but instead trying contextualise what’s wrong with it and find some positives, and we certainly appreciate the difficulties of the filmmaking process in all cases. Lord knows this film has had its production issues, trying to restore faith in a franchise which has begun with a decidedly lukewarm response, while side-stepping the Hollywood scandals flying through the air, and dealing will the loss of its writer/director and architect of the DCEU Zack Snyder due to family tragedy—with Joss Whedon stepping in at the reshoot and editing stage to steer the ship home. But rarer still is the occasion where a film promises so little and sets our expectations so low, and then fails to meet them, and that is undoubtedly the case with ‘Justice League’.
In what smacks as studio filmmaking by committee rather than the vision of a director and his writer, Warner Bros. and Snyder opt for a major change in tone and atmosphere from ‘Batman v Superman’, in an understandable response to all the criticism, taking away the heady existential themes and the ‘gods among men’ musings which actually made that film interesting (in part)—but the result is a flashy run-of-the-mill spectacle which takes no risks and has no edge.
Any attempt to inject pathos or believable drama falls woefully short, amounting to genuinely cringeworthy sentimentality that’s completely out of place and just adds to the lack chemistry between this group of justice-seeking ‘super friends’. None of the actors cover themselves in glory in terms of their performances, with the supporting cast barely getting a scene to shine in, while Ezra Miller as the only effective comic relief of the piece proves to be the only star who brings some real charisma to the show—although they’re not exactly helped by the overall narrative and underwritten dialogue.
Clearly the direction here was to return to a more breezy, crowd-pleasing popcorn blockbuster, so surely the result is at the very least an impressive spectacle which entertains throughout right?—wrong. ‘Dawn of Justice’ throws up as much frenzied action as it can but it’s dull and unimaginative for the most part, delivering loads of flash & bang while flooding the screen with as many unintimidating flying minions as possible, all led by a well-voiced but under-developed and clichéd CGI villain. Yet the CGI and effects in general are surprisingly poor here, sucking the life out of the spectacle with everything from shoddy and unsettling attempts to cover a certain actor’s facial hair, to poor blending of the actors into the more fantastical environments like the big finale—plus unnecessary CGI creations and augmentations which prove distracting and serve no purpose.
The score of the film is suitably epic but far less impactful than previous DCEU efforts, with Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL being replaced with versatile veteran composer Danny Elfman, who is never really afforded the freedom to experiment and even has to layer in some of the themes from his own memorable work in 1989’s ‘Batman’ and the classic John Williams‘Superman’ score—capitalising on nostalgia in the hopes that some of the magic rubs off. Indeed ‘Justice League’ takes plenty of ‘inspiration from elsewhere, even proving a tad derivative when it comes to the familiar ‘powerful galactic artefacts of destruction and creation’ paradigm, as done better by others. There are also plenty of visual and narrative references to other films like ‘Terminator 2’ and in particular the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, anybody who remembers the prologue from ‘Fellowship’ will attest to that.
The result in the end is a major shift that just doesn’t work in any way, depriving the audience of genuine drama or pathos while crafting a major breezy blockbuster spectacle that only entertains in fits and bursts, denying the film’s stars their chance to shine or convincingly develop characters and relationships—all rendered with surprisingly sub-standard cinematic craftsmanship for a huge tentpole movie.
Yet ‘Justice League’ has proven to be another film which divides the generally positive opinions of audiences and generally negative ones of critics, a divide that we can usually bridge or at least understand but in this case remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps the extensive marketing campaign forged a connection between fans, the characters and the actors who play them even before the movie, or perhaps many managed to genuinely enjoy the film in isolation, ignoring standards and forgetting how others have proven that you can have your cake and eat it—a superhero flick that’s both entertaining and energetic but balanced with pathos and drama . . . and some actual food for thought.
Ultimately for us ‘Justice League’ represents a big backward step in the evolution of comic-book film and superhero fare. A film which has more in common in terms of quality with 2005’s ‘Fantastic Four’ or 2011’s ‘Green Lantern’ than it does with the rest of the DCEU, let alone something like the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy or anything Marvel Studios has produced. Warner Bros. and DC currently stand between a rock and a hard place, in limbo in terms of the tone and direction of their cinematic universe and seemingly very open to audience suggestion, but their doesn’t bode well for the DCEU future. Yet just like the much maligned ‘Batman v Superman’ and ‘Suicide Squad’, ‘Justice League’ will undoubtedly prove a box office success—but looking at the film in the cold light of day, we’ll never understand where that massive $300 million budget actually went.
The Bottom Line…
A blockbuster which set achievable low expectations but failed to meet them, ‘Justice League’ proves a major tonal shift for DC’s Extended Universe but a regression in modern superhero and comic-book filmmaking. An occasionally entertaining but decidedly unimpressive spectacle which fails to captivate or move, let alone delight—all-in-all a huge opportunity missed to cover cinema’s newest ‘super team’ in glory, and something you truly witness rather than experience.
A lavish Marvel comic re-boot by 20th Century Fox of yet another recent superhero franchise which sees a new cast of young stars playing four scientists who gain extraordinary powers following an experimental inter-dimensional travel accident, but will these abilities be enough to save the world from an equally powerful and tyrannical super villain?, you betcha!
Directed by Josh Trank and starring Miles Teller, Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan among others.