*** SPOILERS ***
As readers of Film ’89 will know, in the run up to the release of DC, Warner Bros’ and Zack Snyder’s long awaited Justice League, we’ve been reevaluating some of the films that preceded it from the Christopher Reeve Superman films, right up to last year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Those articles in themselves form the requisite preamble I’d usually indulge in so without further ado, I’ll get right into what you either already know or want to know, does Justice League continue down the path that Wonder Woman took with a move towards more assured adaptation of these beloved comic book characters? The answer to that is both a firm ‘Yes’ and a rather deflated ‘No’, but overall Justice League is a definite improvement on last year’s two DCEU outings.
To set in place the behind the scenes causal foundations for some of the issues I’ll later raise, Justice League is a film that was beset by some unfortunate events throughout its production, most notably the departure late on in the shoot of director Zack Snyder following a terrible family tragedy. Fortunately for Warner Bros and us, Joss Whedon took the reigns for the remainder of the project and was responsible for extensive re-shoots and additions to Chris Terrio’s script based on a story devised by Terrio and Snyder. The other issue was some unfortunately heavy handed studio interference, probably a knee-jerk reaction to the critical drubbing that BVS received. The main issues that hamstrung BVS were its script and convoluted plot. Fortunately Justice League’s plot isn’t the overstuffed mess that BVS was and due to Warner Bros’ strict mandate that the film not exceed two hours, it cracks along at a pace that won’t allow time for boredom to set in, certainly not for hardcore fans anyway. Whether the strict two hour limit has harmed the film will depend on whether you enjoyed what we were left with or craved more, either way, there’s very little fat on the meat here and that can only be a good thing right?
The thing that Justice League gets most right over BVS is the script and its avoidance of some of the frankly ridiculous plot contrivances that plagued the earlier film. After a nice prologue, we’re thrown headlong into Bruce Wayne’s quest to unite a band of heroes to take on the forthcoming apocalypse (or should that be Apokolips?) after he encounters one of the Parademons seen in his future nightmare in BVS. It’s Diana Prince (AKA Wonder Woman) who then informs both Bruce and the audience of the forthcoming threat, namely Steppenwolf who seeks out the three Mother Boxes, incredibly powerful and ancient artefacts that can transform planets into facsimiles of Apokolips itself as seen in that same nightmare sequence in BVS. As much as this is all exposition, it’s made all the more digestible by way of a great flashback sequence showing the ancient battle whereby the combined forces of Atlantis, Themyscira, mankind and some other forces of good that I won’t spoil, repelled Steppenwolf and caused his retreat.
Since the death of Superman in BVS, the forces of Steppenwolf have fed off the growing fear across the world as crime soars in the absence of the Man of Steel. We see Wonder Woman foil a terrorist attack in a very satisfying scene that recalls the same kick-ass heroism seen in her standalone film. It’s not long before Bruce Wayne tracks both Aquaman and The Flash and leaves Diana to meet with Cyborg to complete the team.
Another thing that Justice League does well is it’s handling of the team at its core. Ben Affleck’s take on the Batman has already been established and having been freed from the shackles of some frankly absurd motivation that belittled his character in BVS, here he’s far more likeable and much less of a misguided A-hole. Wonder Woman whilst lacking the exact same level of winning charisma that Patty Jenkins was able to eek from Gal Gadot, she still does a fine job in the role of the Amazonian Princess. Jason Momoa is far better than he has any right to be as Aquaman given how much of a departure this iteration of the character is from that of the books. He has presence and charisma by the bucketload and bears many similarities to a certain recent big screen iteration of a Norse God with his heavy drinking, exuberant take on the Atlantean King. Ray Fisher as Cyborg probably gets a bit of short shrift in that whilst his role within the team is important and he shares some nicely written scenes with his team-mates, his character is lost behind a mess of frankly shoddy CGI and the part-man, more than half-machine never convinces except for when he’s seen clothed. If you hoped that the version seen in trailers was a work in progress and that the final effects would be better, you’ll find yourself disappointed.
Sure to be topping many fans lists of favourite characters is Ezra Miller’s Flash. From the get-go he provides much of the film’s humour and is eminently likeable as the super-powered, youngest member of the team who is possibly in over his head. Justice League makes some effort and succeeds in fleshing out this version of The Flash with some very effecting scenes between Barry Allen and his incarcerated father played by Billy Crudup. I’ve heard from others that the on-screen representation of his powers isn’t as good as either of the two representations of the similarly powered Quicksilver from Marvel Studios and Fox and whilst I’d agree that we don’t get anything that matches the incredible kitchen sequence from X-Men: First Class, they still do a fine job in representing his powers and overall I’d say he’s a hugely successful iteration of The Flash, much more so than Marvel Studios’ rather lacklustre version of Quicksilver seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Jeremy Irons is back as Alfred and once more gives a strong performance as the guiding hand behind Batman and ultimately the team he later forms. Amy Adams and Diane Lane return. Lane is fine as Martha Kent but I still can’t shake the feeling that Adams is miscast as Lois Lane as she has none of the spunk and vigour that Margot Kidder’s version had in the Christopher Reeve films. She never once convinces that she’s a ruthlessly driven reporter that will stop at nothing to get a story no matter the risk involved. She has little to do here other than assist in heralding the return of you-know-who and it will probably come as no surprise that the Justice League’s most powerful member makes a return as it was hardly a well kept secret given the final coffin scene in BVS. What came as a pleasant surprise was that Superman doesn’t just spring miraculously back to life. His resurrection is actually handled within the established continuity of the plot in that we are told that as his cells won’t decay, it’s highly likely that the regenerative qualities of the Mother Box they retrieve will bring him back to life so it’s actually the team themselves that make the decision to revive him as opposed to a lazy plot contrivance of him just slowly rejuvenating himself and appearing at just the right moment.
The dialogue for the most part is much improved over BVS and the lighter tone actually works as it avoids the dour, po-faced tone of BVS, a film almost completely devoid of joyous, fist pumping moments, save for seeing Batman truly unleash.
The final positive of note is composer Danny Elfman’s welcome decision to reuse his score from his 1989 Tim Burton directed Batman film. Whilst Hans Zimmer can produce some incredible work, he’s almost equally capable of creating a score that dominates and grates much like we had in parts of Man of Steel and BVS. Elfman’s work here is never too on the nose but fans familiar with the themes from both his own previous take on Batman and his nods to John Williams’ legendary Superman score will hopefully get the same warm sense of nostalgia that I got. It’s a bold choice but for me certainly it worked.
So that’s quite a list of positives then but unfortunately there are negatives, some minor, and unfortunately some that are evidence of a rushed production and carelessness on the part of the studio.
Whilst Justice League makes significant improvements over BVS in the important areas of script and dialogue, almost inexplicably, on the technical front the film takes a big step back over the otherwise mostly technically proficient BVS. Going back to the behind the scenes issues that plagued the film’s production, namely the need for extensive reshoots, many will be aware that when actor Henry Cavill returned for those same Joss Whedon directed re-shoots, he was sporting a rather hefty moustache for his role in the forthcoming Mission Impossible 6. It seems that the bulk of the reshoots centered on Superman as the outright shoddy quality of effects work used to digitally remove Cavill’s ‘tache simply doesn’t work.
The resultant and rather unfortunate misconfiguration and distortion of Cavill’s philtrum (the area of the face between the nose and top lip) makes for some of the most distracting effects work I’ve ever seen in a film. It gives the impression that his entire face isn’t his and I simply couldn’t concentrate on anything else every time the effect was employed, and that’s far too often I’m afraid. Surely this doesn’t detract significantly enough to spoil the film you may ask, alas until you’ve seen it it’s hard to convey just how poor the effect is and for 2017 this seems like a huge step back and is clear evidence of a rushed post production phase.
It’s not just Cavill’s botched face job where the effects fall down. I’ve already covered Cyborg’s appearance which has already been seen in the film’s marketing material so I’ll say no more about that but in general, the effects are sub par. The environments, especially in the last act seem wholly artificial. It’s apparent that much green screen was used and it shows. The Parademons are yet another generic, unimaginative, non-human, expendable swarm-like enemy the likes of which has been seen in countless films of this kind, Suicide Squad being just one example. They pose no real threat and their presence seems to be a requisite of PG-13 films as seeing our heroes killing human enemies just isn’t the done thing it would appear. The CGI used to create them also never convinces that they’re real and this is another poor effects related distraction.
The giant tendrils that spout from the combined Mother Boxes in the last act are yet more uninspiring CGI that just doesn’t work. Also Steppenwolf is rather woeful in both his CGI fuelled appearance and the frightfully generic nature of his character. He’s purely a throwaway motivator for the formation of the team and I certainly won’t be hoping to see him return in later films.
For all it’s flaws, looking back at BVS it looked a damned sight more polished than Justice League and also felt more epic in its scope and it’s hard to forgive this really. Also where BVS had some truly grandstanding action scenes, mostly involving Batman, Justice League doesn’t have anything comparable mainly due to the fact that the big action scenes are so shoddily executed. So it goes back to progress in one area and regression in another. Ultimately on balance, Justice League is undoubtedly a better film than BVS and seeing these iconic characters together finally on the big screen is very satisfying yet it’s still a film that’s hampered by some frustratingly avoidable flaws.
For me, Wonder Woman remains the pinnacle of the DCEU in terms of the overall quality of filmmaking on display but this new franchise still hasn’t given us a film that can match such DC heavyweights as Superman and The Dark Knight. The characters in Justice League are now very well defined and certainly well cast and therefore very likeable. The team gels and Superman’s return is let down only by that terrible ‘tashe job – and I really can’t stress how distracting it is. Hopefully Warner Bros will carry out further work on the effects for the home video release but if their track record regarding the careful maintenance of this franchise is any indicator, then I wouldn’t count on it. And be sure to stay for the two post credits scenes – one is just a fun little character exchange but the other a very intriguing piece of set-up for a future film.
So, taking into account the solid team we now have, the foundations for a truly great Justice League film are definitely there so hope remains that this will lead to something truly spectacular. Five films in, it’s been a decidedly mixed bag for the DCEU. Justice League is definitely a step in the right direction but a frustratingly small step and not the giant leap that it could so easily have been.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 6/10