Despite having been disappointed by every entry in the DCEU except Wonder Woman, I went to see Justice League this weekend. It’s easily the second-best entry in the DCEU, but that’s not really saying much. I thought it was fun, but I’m saying that as a superhero fan who has stuck with DC and Marvel both through some of the worst stories in the last twenty years. Details below will be spoiler-y, so I’m going to put in a quick non-spoiler list of thoughts before getting into details.
- The Flash
- Wonder Woman
- Old Man Batman
- The Return of Superman
- Cyborg and Superman’s faces both look like bad claymation at various points throughout the film.
- Some of the choices made as far as camera angles were questionable, especially in the current political climate.
This may very well be the most comic-book-y superhero movie yet, because of one feature that I haven’t really seen listed anywhere else: the liberal use of the retcon. For casual (or non-) comic fans, I’ll explain. A retcon (or retroactive continuity) is when existing continuity is changed to meet the needs of future stories. Sometimes this is acknowledged up front. The DC Comics universe in particular has been completely remade several times with huge universe shattering storylines like Crisis on Infinite Earths (which was actually multi-verse shattering) or Flashpoint, which ushered in the current DC Comics Universe (though many of those changes are now on their way out… comics are confusing sometimes). Other times it’s subtle. Maybe a character has mentioned a single sibling, and suddenly a second one is introduced.
In Justice League, the retcon is more of the second kind, but it’s literally the first thing in the movie. After two movies of Superman being portrayed as a desaturated emo demigod who saves people but stays detached from them, we start this movie with a bit of found footage. In what appears to be a cell phone video shot by kids who encounter Superman after a rescue, we see a much more classic Superman, wearing a bright costume, smiling, and happily engaging children who ask him deep questions like whether he’s ever fought a hippopotamus. The movie then reinforces its retcon. Multiple times, characters (including the villain) talk about how Superman had given the world hope and imply that his death in Batman v Superman somehow sapped that hope from them.
I don’t know whether Geoff Johns or someone from WB enforced this change, or whether this is Zach Snyder’s attempt at a character arc. I honestly wish this was the Superman in the previous films, but it wasn’t. On some level, that’s disappointing, because I feel like we missed out on what could have been some very good stories, but at least the character is now being portrayed a little more true to his traditional character, and maybe we’ll get some of those stories going forward. When Bruce Wayne, Lois Lane, Martha Kent, Steppenwolf, and a dozen or so random other characters talk about how inspiring Superman was, it made me wish I’d seen those movies in the DCEU, but I didn’t feel it was completely unbelievable, since I had seen Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh play that character and I could make the mental leap.
Wonder Woman was even better here than in Batman v Superman (she was already the best part of that movie by far), and having seen her backstory in her solo film made her more of a fully-fledged character. She should have been the inspiring character that the movie tells us that Cavill’s Superman was, but the events of her first foray into “man’s world” made her stay hidden. She’s still been helping, but she’s done it quietly and without fanfare. She wishes she had been more of a symbol for people, but the cost of trying to do that before was too high.
A couple of the new team members were great in this film as well. I don’t care for Ezra Miller or the costume (I’m sorry, but I’m too attached to Grant Gustin and the TV version of the Flash costume), but I did like the way he was written. If I had been in charge of the DCEU and they insisted on the abbreviated “get to the League as quick as possible” timeline, I think I would have made him the central character. He’s funny, likable, and has enough of a sense of wonder at being a part of all this that he’d be a great viewpoint character for the audience.
We don’t get quite as much Aquaman here as I would have liked. I’ve loved the character ever since I started reading comics more regularly in college, and I was excited to see him on film, especially if it could help dispel the “he just talks to fish” characterization that has plagued the character since Superfriends. I’ve liked Jason Momoa since he was on Stargate: Atlantis, and I thought he did an excellent job portraying Aquaman as a strong character who wants to help but isn’t really worried about being an inspiration or a leader. He’s pretty much just doing his duty as the son of Atlantis’s queen and, if he gets to punch things while doing it, all the better.
I wasn’t as happy with Batman. Since Batman v Superman, I’ve not liked the fact that this universe’s Batman is nearer the end of his career than the beginning. I understand skipping the origin or the Joker, but there’s a lot more to tell about the character. He’s obviously had a “team” before (we saw the Robin costume in BvS, after all), and he had apparently been getting more and more violent before Superman’s death magically fixed him. I would have loved to have seen movies detailing that arc. Unlike with Superman, I don’t see how we can tell these stories after the fact, though, since Ben Affleck isn’t going to be magically getting any younger.
I felt like the movie couldn’t quite decide what it wanted Batman’s role to be in this team. He has no superpowers (other than “being rich”), and they never really told us what he added to the team beyond that. His vehicles were used to get them where they needed to go, and… well, that’s about it. The World’s Greatest Detective let the new guy (Cyborg) do the heavy lifting when it came to finding the villain’s secret lair. Where he could have been squad leader and handled tactics, he turned to Wonder Woman. His big heroic moment that would have allowed the team to get to Steppenwolf without his minions interfering was undone when the team chose (for some reason) to fight all the minions and come to his rescue before going after Steppenwolf.
What story was being told with Batman here? Was it the story of a superhero who’d reached the end of his career and needed to train his replacements? Was it a story of a man who had to prove his worth to men and women who were stronger and faster than him? It really felt like Batman’s role here was more of an afterthought, and the movie didn’t seem to know what to do with him. If the idea was that Batman is already established and didn’t need a major arc of his own, why bring up his age as much as they did? Why have Arthur and Barry question his lack of powers without quickly addressing those concerns? One of the DC Animated movies (I don’t recall which one) handled this deftly. When Green Lantern questioned Batman’s lack of powers, Batman simply asked what the Lantern’s ring did… after revealing that he’d just stolen it without being noticed. The question was asked, Batman proved his capability, and the movie moved on. This movie seemed to want to question Batman’s role, without ever providing any answer.
The final member of the team was the one whose role bothered me the most. We never got a real feel for Cyborg’s character, in my opinion. He’s withdrawn and sullen when we first meet him, afraid to leave his apartment… except when he’s stalking Bruce and Diana. He joins the team only to save his dad, and, well, that’s about it. Beyond that, his character is completely about figuring out what his powers truly are, and that’s all done in the background. Concerns are raised about whether or not he’ll lose himself in the Mother Boxes when trying to split them apart, but then nothing ever comes of that. We do see some hints of a personality in his interactions with The Flash, but there’s so much else going on (and so many new characters and plot points to introduce) that all we see are hints.
Speaking of plot points, Justice League gives us previews of how bad Avengers: Infinity War could be. One of my major concerns about Infinity War is that moviegoers don’t really know anything about Thanos at this point. We’ve had hints about him in the Guardians movies and Thor: Ragnarok, but he’s basically just a really strong guy who’s just going to show up out of nowhere, collect some magical McGuffins, and, if he succeeds, things will be very bad. It’s possible to tell a good story from that plot outline, but it would also be very easy to tell a very bad story with that plot. Case in point: Justice League. Replace Thanos with Steppenwolf and Infinity Stones with Mother Boxes, and you’ve got Justice League.
Steppenwolf has no real personality and never really conveys a sense that he’s dangerous at all. We’re told how dangerous he is, that his axe can raise the dead and create parademons to fight for him (something he doesn’t do at all in this movie, nor does he need to, since he brings a ready-made army of parademons with him), but I never felt that he was really all that tough until the final battle. We see him take out a lot of cannon fodder in the form of Amazons and Atlanteans, but we also see Mera handle him pretty well for a bit. The first time the team faces off with him, he fights them off for a while and runs away. When Batman tries to convince the team that they need Superman (more on that later), I was really just confused as to why. It really felt like, if the team had worked together as a unit and Batman had some time to plan, they could have won just as easily. When Superman ultimately returns, Steppenwolf basically pisses himself, Superman bats him around a bit, and then he’s defeated by a few of his own minions (who the rest of the team were handling pretty easily). More are coming, but he’s literally carried off by four of them, making him look pretty unthreatening.
Contrast this with Loki. Steppenwolf’s role in this movie was a lot like Loki’s in The Avengers. He’s working for an even bigger bad guy, and he’s leading an army to try to conquer earth. Loki, though, had a personality and a relationship with at least one of the characters that made him much more engaging than Steppenwolf. When he’s captured, the team’s lack of an existing relationship almost lets him escape (in the first fight between Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America), and then he manipulates that even further to trash the Helicarrier and escape for real after getting what he wants. Loki isn’t physically threatening, really (he’s taken down by a subset of the team multiple times), but he’s able to pose a threat by being smart and carries the movie by being entertaining. Steppenwolf doesn’t do any of that. He’s not smart, he’s not engaging, he’s just a bigger, stronger version of the other enemies, like the midboss in a video game level. He’s honestly better suited to be a real villain’s enforcer, not a central antagonist himself.
That said, the film sets up an idea that could have made Steppenwolf a better villain. According to Wonder Woman, Steppenwolf can raise the dead and force them to serve his army. Earth has a dead champion who is extremely powerful and whose death seems to have thrown the entire world for a loop. The DCEU needs to bring Superman back… this seems like it should set up either a solid plot that made Steppenwolf more threatening. Have the first encounter go more or less like it did before. Steppenwolf is tough and can hold his own, but the League could handle them if they get their act together. Batman puts together a plan, the team goes for the final confrontation, and they arrive to confront Steppenwolf only to face parademon Superman. The plan’s now shattered, and the team has to work together on the fly to restore Superman and stop Steppenwolf at the same time.
Hell, if you’re not going to do that, at least use it in the advertising: Wonder Woman discusses Steppenwolf’s zombie-raising powers, and we see snippets of the League/Superman fight.
Instead, we get Cyborg explaining that his dad used the Mother Box to build him some robot parts, and Batman immediately comes to the “logical” (?!?!) conclusion that it could bring Superman back to life, because he’s stronger than a planet, and, as we all know, building a prosthetic body is exactly like bringing the dead back to life. Wonder Woman expresses worry that Superman won’t be himself (or, even if he is, that he won’t be particularly happy to see Batman), but somehow Batman manages to convince everyone that repeating the experiment that created Doomsday in BvS will be fine this time, since they’re going to toss in a completely unknown piece of technology that may or may not be slowly turning Cyborg into an alien weapon. This may be the worst idea Batman has ever had in film, and we’ve seen him installing ice skates in his boots and carrying around Bat-shark-repellent.
Then, when things go sideways (because Cyborg suddenly can’t control his powers, something that wasn’t really shown before or after this moment and felt like something more from the Jaime Reyes version of Blue Beetle than Cyborg, honestly), Batman, who told everyone he’d have a contingency in place for this, lets everyone get beat up a bit (including himself) before pulling out “the big guns”. It’s another example of this Batman not really being as Batman-y as he should be, even though he’s supposed to be an older, more experienced version of the character.
On top of all the plot-related weirdness, Cyborg and Superman both looked weird throughout the film. Henry Cavill’s other film commitments have him wearing a mustache, and that led to some CGI editing of his face to turn him back into the clean-shaven Superman during some reshoots. On top of that, Cyborg himself was mostly CGI (which appeared to be mostly made up of leftover Transformers movie parts), with only half of his face being revealed. Somehow, during that process, they made his face look even less real than the rest of him. Look, I know that other movies do this. Thor: Ragnarok had the Hulk and Korg, both of whom were completely CGI. They’re also non-humans, so they don’t fall into the uncanny valley of weirdness that Superman and Cyborg did.
One last point that I’d like to make is the weird way that the camera treated Diana throughout the film. Multiple times, I noticed that the camera seemed to be sitting on the floor, looking up and highlighting Gal Gadot’s behind. At one point, it does this while she’s wearing the Wonder Woman costume, and it feels almost like a perverted up-skirt shot. I’m not entirely complaining about this – I’m a heterosexual guy, and Ms. Gadot is a very attractive woman – but given the current heat that Hollywood is taking for sexual harassment (and the fact that noted feminist Joss Whedon was brought in to work on the film when Zach Snyder had to bow out for personal reasons), it’s weird that these scenes were left in the movie when its runtime was cut down to two hours (allegedly from almost three – surely there were shots that added more to the plot!).