Minor spoilers for ‘Justice League’ follow.
I wanted to like Justice League. I really did.
I often find myself disagreeing with the critical consensus for this type of movie. I enjoyed Batman Vs. Superman more than most. I’m much more forgiving than some of my colleagues when it comes to genre films.
But Justice League, outside of some much-needed comic relief and some good action sequences, is largely boring, predictable, and dreary. It pales in comparison not only to its Marvel rivals, but to other DC films like Wonder Woman. It may be making oodles of money at the box office thanks to a lack of competition in theaters at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good film by any stretch of the imagination.
Here are the top five problems I had with Justice League:
1. The villain was super lame.
I’m not sure how to phrase that any better. Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) was a terrible villain. He resembled Ragnarok from Thor: Ragnarok—destroyer of worlds, horned helmet, etc—but instead of serving as an interesting twist, he was just a bad guy out to destroy worlds for some reason. Unlike Ares in Wonder Woman, there was no sleight of hand involved in Steppenwolf’s reveal either. He was just a bad guy who, for some reason, has an army of robot creatures with laser guns and sharp, pointy fangs.
My question to the creators of this movie: Why enlist such a B-villain for your big ensemble hero film? The bad guys in Batman Vs. Superman, Man Of Steel and Wonder Woman were all much better. Even the villain in Suicide Squad was better than this. Ultimately, having a bad villain doesn’t necessarily ruin a film, but it sure can. Steppenwolf was even worse than Ultron, and Ultron was a seriously terrible villain.
2. The humor was too little, too late.
One of the only things I liked about Justice League was the comic relief, and most of that was thanks to The Flash (Ezra Miller.) The funny moments were genuinely funny. It’s just a shame that they were so few and far between. While not quite as grim as Batman Vs. Superman, the same malaise permeates Justice League. This is something we’ve come to expect from Zack Snyder films.
But it’s not just Snyder’s fascination with dark and brooding—Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy proved that this approach works fine in the DC universe—it’s his inability to draw personable, relatable characters. Snyder’s approach lacks even the semblance of charisma. It reminds me somewhat of Ridley Scott, a man who has certainly directed many wonderful films, but who still seems to care more about the setting than he does the characters (at least in the vast majority of them.)
So it is with Justice League, a movie with almost none of the charm of say, Wonder Woman or Thor: Ragnarok. That’s a huge failing, since comic book movies are supposed to make larger-than-life characters even more vibrant on the big screen. Snyder manages to do just the opposite.
3. It was basically a ripoff of The Avengers.
I compared Steppenwolf to Ragnarok, but he’s also strikingly similar to another Marvel villain: Loki. Unlike Loki, however, Steppenwolf has no depth, no charm, no internal struggle or potential for redemption. He’s just a bad guy that says ominous things while looking ridiculous. In some ways, he reminded me even more of Ultron in that regard—perhaps the worst Marvel villain so far.
In any case, Steppenwolf is hellbent on conquering Earth, much like Loki (if for different reasons.) He opens a portal and lets flying robot alien things in to help him achieve this goal, just like Loki. A group of heroes bands together to stop him and succeeds—though we never get that great moment where Iron Man flies through the portal with the nuclear missile. They just…win because Superman shows up.
Justice League is just a cheap knock-off of The Avengers with none of its heart.
The Avengers is a film I’ve watched many times and will likely watch many more times in the future. Not so, Justice League. One viewing is plenty. (And that applies to Batman Vs Superman and Man of Steel, too, though I’ve already seen Wonder Woman twice now.)
4. You never care about the characters.
This isn’t entirely true. I have a fondness for Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) thanks to her own solo film. But she’s hardly fleshed out more in Justice League, except when Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) calls her out as having been in hiding since the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) a man with two first names. The question is, would I have cared about her as much in this film if Wonder Woman hadn’t already been released? My guess is no. Also, while I appreciate the attempt to bring Batman and Wonder Woman toward something resembling attraction, the film largely didn’t succeed. If sexual tension existed between the two, I failed to notice until Alfred pointed it out.
I also liked Barry Allen/The Flash, but this was mostly because he was the bulk of comic relief in the film and because I think Ezra Miller is incredibly suited to the part. (Also because I was reminded of how terrific the first season of the CW’s The Flash was.) Other than that, Justice League only hints at Allen’s tragic backstory. It’s a little weird that this was his introduction instead of getting a Flash standalone film before Justice League.
Aquaman’s backstory was also hinted at, if only a little. Other than a funny scene involving Diana’s magical truth whip and some eye candy for the ladies (and guys, if that’s your thing) we get very little of Arthur Curry—certainly not enough to make us care one way or another about him. It was nice to see Jason Momoa again, but that’s largely the Game of Thrones fan in me talking. His ribbing of Batman—another attempt at comic relief—missed the mark, given the fact that Aquaman is perhaps the silliest superhero name ever. (South Park’s ‘Seaman’ is the perfect jab.)
Oh, and then there’s Cyborg (Ray Fisher.) I almost forgot about Cyborg which, I think, is all that needs to be said about that.
Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman, meanwhile, hardly feel like superheroes at all. Outside of one scary fight scene between the two, and some comic relief thanks to the Flash, it’s almost as though neither man has any personality at all. Cavill’s Superman is like a cipher; he’d be a non-speaking protagonist in a video game. He’s all but lifeless outside of the Flash’s funny moments and a little—dare I say “forced?”—tenderness with Lois Lane (Amy Adams.)
I will admit that he makes for a very scary Evil Superman. But as the good guy he just falls flat. (It’s still my greatest hope that we get the full-blown Evil Superman story alluded to in Batman Vs. Superman, when a future Flash comes back to warn Batman.)
Affleck’s Batman, meanwhile, just seems…tired. I get that he’s an older version of the character, but there’s something else missing that I’m having a hard time putting my finger on. It’s not just that he suffers in comparison to Christian Bale’s more vivacious take on the character, either. I love Batman possibly more than any other superhero out there, and I just can’t get excited by this version of the caped crusader. He’s fine. Nothing more, nothing less.
Much of this, I suspect, comes back to #2 and my observations on Zack Snyder’s filmmaking style. Personality is not a priority.
5. In Justice League, the stakes never feel real.
The use of CGI in superhero movies can be a truly wonderful thing, but it can also make everything feel even more fake than it already does. Steppenwolf looked goofy more than intimidating, largely thanks to the goofy CGI.
This was what worried me about the trailers prior to the film’s release, and I was right to be worried. The CGI, especially during the final sequence, was just one reason that Justice League never really felt real. The fight against the Big Bad and his goons was flashy and epic and…well, boring. We never thought to ourselves “Oh no they’re not going to diffuse the bomb!”
CGI issues abound (I won’t even go into them further) but they’re just one part of what makes the film feel unreal. The story itself is an even bigger problem.
One thing that I look for in a superhero film is whether or not it treats its conflicts as grounded in reality. So in Thor: Ragnarok, however preposterous the villains, the conflict is still largely one of sibling rivalry, similar to The Avengers. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, the conflict is between old friends who don’t even realize they’re old friends until the end (which then leads to new conflicts in Civil War.) In Batman Begins, the conflict is between student and teacher (as well as between student and self.) The struggle in all of these films is real, however larger-than-life the characters may be.
But in Justice League it’s not real at all. The story is as fake as the CGI. The alien invasion is impersonal and remote. The proposed stakes are huge but we never really worry that the threat will play out, that the heroes will fail or come up short. The opening segment with Wonder Woman just barely stopping the fanatical terrorists is far more frightening and intense than anything that follows it. That’s partly because fanatical terrorists blowing up a building full of children and innocents is much more terrifying than an alien B-villain we know nothing about destroying the world, precisely because we can relate (sadly) to the former but not the latter.
Even Batman Vs. Superman, however flimsy the premise, dealt in a personal conflict between Batman and Superman that was resolved by the revelation of what they shared in common. And in Wonder Woman, although the villain really is a god, he’s Diana’s uncle, too. And he’s not the obvious villain, in any case. There’s a twist. Meanwhile, Trevor’s sacrifice in that film is more poignant than anything in the predictably casualty-free Justice League.
To make a superhero film work, you don’t need the best villain or even the best hero, but you do need a conflict that makes sense and keeps the audience invested in the outcome. Ensemble films like this one need that even more, which is why Ultron failed compared to the original Avengers, and why Captain America: Civil War worked even though it had as many plot holes as The Dark Knight.
Even though it’s a big, blockbuster movie that makes the most sense to see on the big screen, I give this one a Hold on my Buy/Hold/Sell scale. Save your money and rent it when it comes out. Better yet, save your money and wait for it to land on Netflix or Amazon Prime or wherever you watch your TV and movies these days.
The snippets of humor were great—especially the Flash and Superman’s dynamic—but the rest falls horribly and inexcusably flat. The interesting bits, like the ethical dilemma of waking Superman, occupy far too little screen-time. And the dark cloud that hangs above the film is suffocating and far too dreary for what ought to be a much more exciting outing.
If nothing else, I hope these big DC movies stop making money just because they’re big DC movies. A film like Wonder Woman deserves all the success and praise it’s been showered with, but Justice League shouldn’t send Warner Bros. the message that sub-par filmmaking is okay just because it makes money at the box office.
DC fans deserve better. And the DCEU needs fresh blood like Patty Jenkins (who directed Wonder Woman) to help unstick it from this gloomy rut.
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