By Travis Trombley
The next major DC installment following Wonder Woman’s massive success, helmed by Zack Snyder and - after a 4th quarter swap - Joss Whedon, Justice League makes for a passable blockbuster, though not particularly memorable or compelling one in regards to either narrative or cinematography.
But you probably guessed that already, so we’ll get to the point of the question in the back of everyone's minds: no, it’s not better than the Avengers. And honestly, the reason for its loss to a film five years its elder is, sadly, a common complaint against DC: Superman.
Justice League can be split into three acts: establishment of Steppenwolf as a threat and assembly of the team, initial confrontation with Steppenwolf and realization of the team’s insufficiency (which results in the resurrection of Superman), and the obligatory final act of assaulting Steppenwolf's hideout to save the world. Unfortunately, a disconnect between acts one and three causes an issue.
The film kicks off with some images of a post-Superman world. A world in mourning and in turmoil. You know, kind of like the real world...and the world before Superman… Immediately there’s a sense that the film overestimates the weight of Superman in this cinematic universe - one and a half films were not enough to really establish his effect. But, okay, the world is worse off without Superman providing a symbol of hope. It needs a superhero. Or maybe a team of them…
The conclusion, you’d think, would deal with these issues, yeah? Maybe the team itself earns the trust of the public, pitting inspired hope against fear (tacky, sure, but not outlandish given the cartoonish premise). Or maybe the team, originally assembled to combat Steppenwolf but now unsure of their abilities, focuses just on resurrecting Superman to save the day for them, but when Steppenwolf beats even the Kryptonian, the league steps up to rescue Clark, and the people of Earth (or Metropolis or whatever) are encouraged to see their savior saved, reducing Steppenwolf’s influence, thus making him vulnerable.
Nope. Does inspiring people matter in the end? There’s nobody to inspire - Superman’s return isn’t even recognized by the masses, and the final fight takes place in a barely populated Chernobyl ripoff (Warner Bros. has been all too careful to avoid a backlash following the wanton destruction in Man of Steel) Does Superman unite a broken team? Not really - I’m not even sure he talks to Aquaman.
Rather, Superman becomes a narrative panacea. Can’t beat Steppenwolf? Superman can take care of it. Need to rescue civilians? Why send the Flash to save a single family when Superman can carry an apartment complex full of helpless bystanders to safety. Need a massive amount of strength to pull apart the obligatory McGuffin? Sounds like a job for...well, you get it.
Superman shows up and removes all sense of tension from the film. It’s odd that “team” film would all but eliminate the usefulness of said team.
Compare this with the final act of the Avengers. Captain America takes the role of tactical leader, directing the team to maximize their strengths in order to keep the Chitauri invasion contained while protecting civilians. Iron Man strafes the sky, Hawkeye thins the herd from above, Thor blocks the portal above, and the rest do what they can on the street. Even when Hulk shows up and rampages through Chitauri foot soldiers and the big bad alike, this doesn’t end the threat. There’s still a portal that needs closing, and it’s up to another team member to do so. The narrative tension gets divided - perhaps not evenly, but divided nonetheless.
This also undercuts some of the growth other characters made throughout the film, too. Newcomers Cyborg and Flash get their own mini character arcs. Cyborg, saved from death by a procedure that relied on alien technology, starts out in a sort-of Frankenstein’s monster situation - not knowing or liking what he’s become or what he can do. Flash, aside from providing some much-appreciated light heartedness, trips over his feet more often than not. Both embrace their powers by the end. Meanwhile, the Aquaman character arc felt less like a character arc and more like a place for Jason Momoa to be Jason Momoa, but with a cool fork. And that’s totally okay, by the way.
As for returning stars Wonder Woman and Batman, the former steals the show. Her setup is the most interesting, as she has to deal with the fact that she protected humanity but failed to inspire or lead it, though the payoff ends up rather flat (again, because the film eliminates the presence of anyone to inspire). She also gets the best action scenes and dialog moments that retain that odd mix of charm and badassery from her solo venture.
Batman, on the other hand, feels wasted. Newly idealistic after his descent into mad obsession in the last film until he has to be coldly pragmatic, he’s an all-too human leader of a superhuman team, but given too little to do. The conflict is there, as are the building blocks - his mortal limitations, his desire for redemption - but it all gets boiled down to a willingness to die to give the other Leaguers an opening. Even as a tactician, his plays seem obvious, which dilutes both his prowess and that of the other members like Diana and Cyborg. As a side-note, I don’t buy for a second that after the big “save Martha!” deal from the preceding film that Bruce would have allowed Ma’ Kent’s home to get foreclosed on by the bank; that’s a grave inconsistency.
Ultimately, Batfleck’s narrative presence is reflected by his position in the film’s action sequences: off to the side taking out a handful of foot soldiers.
Speaking of action, if you’ve seen the trailers, you know what to expect: cool slow-motion sequences with Flash, epic sky-surfing with Aquaman, Wonder Woman retaining her exaggeratedly and deft movements, and Batman...jumping. Most of it feels big and loud, like the best moments from the cartoons, but perhaps too big. Reliance on camera tricks and CGI for spectacle over practical effects and choreography makes the film feel bereft of both creativity and tension. Only one scene stands out to me: an all-too brief keep-away sequence between Amazons and Steppenwolf when he invades Themyscira to steal a Mother McGuffin, and none of the sequences match the warehouse sequence from Batman vs Superman. It’s a shame that Jason Momoa's Aquaman mostly throws a trident and gets hit really hard, all in front of a green screen, when even from his Stargate Atlantis days he proved himself capable of spectacular fight choreography.
It all comes together in the end. The plot develops quickly, and the characters quip as much as they mope. It just feels too safe and shallow. And safe is boring in a time when superhero flicks drive fans to theaters in droves every two months now. The cast is fun, and their “let’s discuss stuff” scenes definitely bear Whedon’s charm. The action is big and loud. Ultimately, it’s a fairly decent big-screen translation of the Justice League cartoon, take that as you will.
We get a phrase like “a last alliance of Amazons and Atlanteans,” and an image of a large man in a gaudy helmet thwacking dudes with a big hammer. Later she describes how the three Mother McGuffins were divided: one to the Atlanteans, one to the Amazon, and one hidden in the world of men.
Even before that, Hippolyta lights an old “beacon” to warn the rest of the world of Steppenwolf’s return - my friends and I all turned to each other to say, “The beacon is lit! Themyscira calls for aid!”
And that brings us back to the aforementioned discussion of a LotR inspired prequel installment or series. If you'd like to see this film get made, click the SUBSCRIBE button below. (Okay, full disclosure, it's just a subscription box, but if you're with me on the potential awesomeness of this prequel, I feel like you should subscribe anyway for more articles, updates, and goodie giveaways....)