“I had a dream,” says Bruce Wayne. “It was the end of the world.” Not quite, but Justice League is probably the beginning of the end for the DCEU as we know it.
Justice League is a languid, soul-sapping, waste of 120 minutes that has no direction, no confidence in itself and plummets straight to the bottom of the DC Extended Universe pile. Yes, even below Suicide Squad. This horrific mash-up of lame gags, hideous design and appalling dialogue isn’t the movie we want, but it’s the movie we damn well deserve; and we only have ourselves to blame for piling pressure on DC to lighten things up. You want jokes? Well, you got ’em. I hope you’re happy with yourself.
Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the stabby spiny hands of Doomsday in the climactic battle of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the world has been thrown into chaos. Crime is rampant, hope is lost and there are generic-looking parademons flying around, feeding off people’s fear, alerting Batman (Ben Affleck) to an impending intergalactic threat. Meanwhile in the tropical paradise that is Themyscira, homeland of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and her Amazonian sistren, an evil world-conqueror and latest in a long line of entirely CGI foes known as Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) suddenly appears out of a sky portal and tries to steal their ancient magic mother-box. Together, a rather unusually chipper and wise-cracking Bruce Wayne joins forces with Wonder Woman to recruit super-powered meta-humans Barry Allen / The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone / Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to stop Steppenwolf from finding the two remaining mother-boxes and thus save the planet from its impending cataclysm.
Comparisons between the DCEU and Disney’s hugely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe have become almost as tedious as some of the films in each franchise. Alleged conspiracies to disparage punters from seeing their rival’s movies by paying journalists to write derisory reviews are almost as ridiculous as the notion of alien beings taking one quick look at a civilisation that allowed a floppy-haired Twitter-abusing dangerously stupid cretin to rule the planet’s largest superpower and deciding it’s a place worth saving.
And yet, it’s hard not to leave the cinema after watching Justice League without wondering whether or not the attacks on DC’s lack of Marvel-like playfulness have begun to bend the will of Warner Bros’ higher-ups towards producing less bleak and destructive features in favour of more closely aligning with the blueprint set out by their comic book counterparts back in 2008. If so, that is a terrible shame to see them sacrifice their identity for a more populist approach; particularly when we’ve already seen that Patty Jenkins’ superhero action film of the year can be unique, different and un-Marvel-like to great success.
A long-held criticism of the DC movies – stretching back to Man of Steel in 2013, which introduced the moody drifter Clark Kent, through to Wonder Woman released back in May – is that they are too dark, joyless and often style-over-substance, with the finger pointed squarely at franchise helmer Zack Synder. The muted tones of each movie’s colour palette complemented the grim version of a tormented world waiting for a shining beacon in blue spandex and red wellies to save it from the dark, falling to an inevitable shroud of corruptibility in the final act, rather than the suave colourfulness many associate with the big blue boy scout. Despite the apparent death of Ares, God of War, during World War I, Earth remained a gloomy place to be; a place that needed rich folks to dress like flying-mammals to skulk around in the shadows, repeatedly sending killer clowns to insane asylums. It was a world lying in wait for a saviour to lift the fog; and so Snyder’s presentation perfectly suited the environment and atmosphere he intended to create.
Justice League was meant to be the film to clear the hazy dourness. After all, surely the way to make the DC Extended Universe more broadly appealing is to make everything a bit more light-hearted; a bit more visually appealing; a bit less… typically Snyder-y?
I’m not convinced. Though Snyder’s vision for the DCEU may not be on the same wavelength as that of a large portion of its audience all of the time (ignore the out of context “poor box office opening for Justice League” hack jobs and read this on Forbes instead for a true explanation), nor does he always seem to be able to finish as strongly as he starts (that opening scene with Bruce Wayne in Batman v Superman, compared to the Doomsday finale, anyone?), he gives his films a consistent direction and purpose; something that is entirely lacking from Justice League. Whilst it is entirely understandable why he and his wife / producer Deborah Snyder dropped out of the project before its completion to be closer to their family after the tragic death of Zack’s eldest daughter, as there are of course things more important than a film about men who can (or can’t?) talk to fish, the resultant movie we are left with is lacking in almost every department. Put quite simply: it’s a mess.
Not only was it detrimental to the overall quality to lose the man with the most singular creative vision for the fifth outing in this now established cinematic universe, but his vision jars tremendously with that of replacement Joss Whedon. Coincidentally, it was also the Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator who spectacularly brought the Marvel superheroes together on the big screen for the first time with 2012’s Avengers Assemble (and again later less-spectacularly with Age of Ultron). Some 15-20% of the movie was finished off by Whedon, including reshoots, yet so disjointed is the final result that it might as well have been a 50/50 split. Whedon’s typical humour and breezier tone goes with Snyder’s stern and serious outlook about as well as a dollop of ice cream on a Creed band t-shirt.
The final showdown with Steppenwolf features a humorous exchange of dialogue between Cyborg and Superman that is more likely to roll eyes than split sides, followed by a truly nauseating ‘boys will be boys’ style quip by Diana. For fans invested in a property that at least attempts to portray a darker version of a planet inhabited by beings who wield great power, the avalanche of one-liners and jokes are a sign that DC’s confidence in its project has vanished so completely as to render the whole venture a pointless exercise in ‘not being as good as your neighbours’.
No hero in the DCEU so far has been as irritating as Erza Miller’s The Flash, whose turn as a cross between Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted is as out-of-place and annoying as it sounds. Even his costume design is irksome. Did anybody really look at Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers earlier this year and think “the costumes look good, but they could do with being more… Superhuman Samurai Syber-squad“? Similarly, Cyborg was mostly a cartoonish animation with a floaty human head attached, which jolted you out of the picture every time he was on-screen; and the less said about Henry Cavill’s philtrum crossing into the uncanny valley, the better.
Perhaps no character was as offensive to look at as Steppenwolf, the big-bad of this ensemble team-up, who was entirely computer-generated, entirely ugly, and entirely forgettable. His pure motivation for being evil and wanting to take over the world was… because he previously wanted to take over the world and failed. The most entertaining part of Justice League was the montage sequence illustrating his battle with the Atlanteans, the Amazons and the Humans. The hunt for the first mother-box as the Amazons are chased across the expansive landscape by the axe-wielding God-like being contains 90% of the film’s inventiveness, but it is all downhill from there.
Gal Gadot is once again the standout star, although her character is heavily diluted from the charismatic hero we came to love not six months ago. Her reintroduction to the modern-day DCEU, as she foils a heist by a group of apocalyptic “non-believers”, is somewhat at odds with her waiting for a (Bat)man to tell her to become the leader of the Justice League; especially when it goes completely against type for the character we witnessed in May’s release. Whilst the majority of jokes in the awful dialogue fall completely flat, her lasso of truth does provide a moment of brevity as Jason Mamoa’s whisky-swilling macho Aquaman accidentally begins to spill his beans in front of the on looking party of heroes.
Surprisingly, the Batman who was fuelled by bitter rage and blindly obsessed with destroying an extraterrestrial threat – until he realised that Kal-El was not a destructive God, but a man with a family trying to do the right thing (desperately trying not to give credence to the “because their mum’s share the same name” trolls here) – seems quite content this time around to joke and laugh with his new chums in the face of immediate destruction, and even introduces some of them to his snarky and unpleasant butler, still played by Jeremy Irons.
Ultimately, Justice League did not exceed its expectation levels. In fact, it barely even mustered the energy to reach those lowly heights. A strong opening wave of exciting potential (mobile footage of a pre-credits Superman aside) gradually peters out to a tedious crest of boring, vacuous and disjointed nonsense. It may contain all of the requirements for conventional storytelling, but it is lacklustre and missing the heart that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman had. Like them or loathe them, they were clearly made by a man who loved his job. Justice League feels as though it was made by one man losing confidence in his vision, and another who could not compromise his, resulting in this hodgepodge superhero adventure that is neither cohesive nor entertaining.
If Geoff Johns remains in charge of things, expect a Flashpoint event to happen sooner rather than later, wiping out all that’s come before it with an imminent reboot. Five movies in and we’re already talking about a Crisis. Oh dear.