Unite the Super Friends!
Before I review Justice League, I want to pay my respects to director Zack Snyder and his daughter Autumn who committed suicide in March earlier this year, coercing Snyder to step away from production so he and his wife could grieve in privacy. No parent should ever have to endure that, especially when they’re trying to make a film that is supposed to compete with Marvel’s The Avengers. So as I plunge ahead, please realize that my job as a film critic is to review movies, not people. I am judging Justice League based on its own merits as a film, not Zack Snyder as a filmmaker and especially not as a person.
After the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) during the events of Batman V. Superman, Justice League follows Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) picking up the broken pieces of their world as they try to assemble a team of meta-humans to protect the Earth in Superman’s absence. These meta-humans include Arthur Curry the Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Barry Allen a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a cyborg trapped inside a metallic body. Together these superhero misfits form the Justice League, protecting the world from criminals, aliens, and Gods of death alike.
Right out of the gate, reviewing Justice League is a challenge because it feels like we’re watching two different movies at once here. In a way, we are. When Snyder had to exit the production in May, The Avengers director Joss Whedon was brought in to help with re-shoots and post-production, reportedly re-writing some scenes to add his signature humor to the film. Since this is the case, it is impossible to view the film and fairly critique the right director, because we have no way of knowing for sure which scenes in the final cut belong to Snyder or Whedon.
Regardless, Justice League is a mess, from the writing all the way to the visual effects, only offering brief relief in the form of spot-on humor, fun characterizations, and dizzying action spectacles. When I spoke to one of my closest friends about the film earlier this week, he described it to me as “a beautiful disaster.” Yeah, that sounds about right.
The good news is that Justice League is a substantial improvement over it’s predecessor Batman V. Superman, a gaudy and unbearably stupid film that not even the most passionate comic book fan could defend. This is in large part because of the film’s casting, which is impeccable from the film’s most central roles to those less in the spotlight. Affleck continues to inhabit the double persona of Bruce Wayne and Batman well enough, while Gadot once again shines as the super-powered Wonder Woman that fans have come to know and love.
Yet, the newcomers are just as good as the veterans are, with many of them keeping up with Affleck and Gadot in both acting ability and presence. Mamoa brings a rugged bad boy persona to Aquaman, effectively breaking him away from his silly comic book origins. Fisher inhabits the tortured soul of Victor Stone brilliantly, with his portrayal coming off like the robotic Frankenstein’s monster of the group. And yet, the best of these new leaguers is definitely Ezra Miller’s Flash, who comes off as so excitable and happy that he doesn’t feel as much like a superhero as he does a superfan meeting all of his favorite comic book heroes at once. Be honest: if you were in a room with Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg, wouldn’t your smile be as wide as Miller’s is?
These actors are great in their roles individually, and they really come together to make the Justice League work and feel believable as one entity. Unfortunately, the film’s greater failures have nothing to do with the actors, but with the screenplay they’ve been provided. Case in point: the film’s villain Steppenwolf, played here by “Game of Thrones” actor Ciaran Hinds. I’ve never been so bored by a villain in my entire life at the movies. He’s so stock and unappealing. He has no personality, no compelling motivation against our movie’s heroes, and nothing interesting to set him apart from previous movie villains. Say what you will about Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor or Cara Delevigne’s Enchantress: at least they were interested in their parts and played them up as best they could. But at no point does Steppenwolf rise the stakes the way he needs to nor does he even feel like a legitimate threat to our heroes. He feels more like a video game boss you have to beat at the end of the level to win the game. He looks like one too with how much gray-scaled CGI he has plastered all over his body.
Speaking of CGI, the effects are God-awful and among the worst visuals I’ve seen in any DC movie to date. Yes, I’m saying this is worse than the Kryptonian zombie in Batman V. Superman and the Mummy monsters in Suicide Squad. Everything is so underdeveloped in the picture, from the flying parademons that attack our heroes, to the Atlanteans that Steppenwolf fights in Atlantis, to even Superman himself. When Henry Cavill was asked to come back to the set for re-shoots, Cavill reportedly had a mustache that he couldn’t shave due to his role in Mission Impossible 6, so the visual effects team resorted to digitally removing his mustache in post-production. They would have been better off if they left it in. Cavill’s distorted, bloated face looks so strange and artificial, looking more like one of the Kardashians than he does the man of steel. And yes, I know this was the best solution the studio could come up with despite its production issues and re-shoots. That doesn’t change how ridiculous it looks on screen, or the fact that he looks better in an Edvard Munch painting than he does in a Justice League movie.
All in all, Justice League is your simple, by-the-books superhero team-up movie that has some great acting and action, however technically incompetent it may be. It has everything necessary to satisfy the hardcore DC fan. Everyone else? Not so much.
Yet I don’t blame Joss Whedon for what we see on the screen here. I don’t blame writer Chris Terrio either, as he wrote the film as best he could despite the limited criteria he had to work with. I don’t even blame Zack Snyder for this film, who very understandably was going through a lot during production. No, if anything I blame DC Films and Warner Bros. Pictures for their gross mishandling on the production side of these movies. It took Marvel five well-focused movies before they released The Avengers in 2012. Didn’t DC realize long ago that they couldn’t release Justice League with two good movies, one passable one, and one catastrophic one? Justice League gets two stars out of four. Autumn Snyder gets four.