Energetically Incoherent Justice League Charmingly Heroic
After the death of Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) at the hands of Doomsday, both Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) are well aware the Earth is in jeopardy in a way it never has been before. With signs of an invasion everywhere, the two heroes attempt to find other individuals with special abilities to help protect humanity now that the Man of Steel is gone. The three they’re focused on are Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), each possessing the sort of skills that should be able to help Bruce and Diana hold back the forces of evil.
But an invasion isn’t forthcoming, it’s already begun. The planet destroyer Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) has descended from the interstellar unknown and laid waste to both the hidden island of Themyscira and the lost underwater city of Atlantis in search of powerful artifacts known as “Mother Boxes,” a third one buried in the bowels of the earth by mankind 5,000 years ago the last remaining key that will help this demon cover the world in fire and darkness. With Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) able to send her daughter a message signaling the fight for the planet’s survival has commenced, it becomes clear to Diana that as strong as Bruce, Barry, Arthur, Victor and herself are, they might not be enough to stop Steppenwolf.
Justice League is a mess; there’s no denying that. With director Zack Snyder having to step away from the production after a horrible family tragedy and Joss Whedon brought in to tidy up the script, handle reshoots of some key scenes and oversee the editing process, there is a notable tonal disconnect throughout that’s rather obvious. It’s hard to know where the filmmaker responsible for Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sees his influence on things begin and the guy known for creating “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and crafting The Avengers has his end, and while Snyder gets sole directorial credit it’s hard not to imagine this version of the story is far removed from the one he likely originally imagined.
All of which makes it surprising things work out near as well as they do. While disjointed and more than a little structurally incoherent, gosh darn it all if Justice League doesn’t end up proving to be a heck of a lot more fun than it has any right to be. Moving at a breakneck pace, Whedon and fellow screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo), working from a story initially conceived by Terrio and Snyder, assemble their team of heroes quickly, eschewing much in the way of narrative excess in order to get to the action sooner rather than later. They gloss over the backstory of the Mother Boxes as well as the chaos and carnage caused by Steppenwolf’s first visit to Earth 5,000 years in the past, hoping audiences don’t really notice they aren’t spending a lot of times explaining anything that is happening. The pair also introduce their new heroes in speedy shorthand, thinking that the talents of Miller, Momoa and Fisher will be enough to make them memorable and worth caring about all by themselves.
For the most part this plan succeeds. Victor Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg, gets the shortest straw, which is something of a shame as his role in seeing Steppenwolf’s plans fail is an important one. Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman, fairs a lot better, and considering his solo adventure is set to hit theatres in December of 2018 it’s hardly surprising his underwater world of Atlantis is the most fully realized new location in the movie outside of Themyscira, already introduced this past summer in the box office smash Wonder Woman. As for Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, he’s given the most to do, a subplot involving his wrongfully incarcerated father Henry (Billy Crudup) and the youngster’s general inability to fit in with others giving him an idiosyncratic edge that’s consistently engaging.
Even so, Miller, Momoa and Fisher all make suitably solid impressions, and say what you will about Snyder’s directorial style but his eye for casting these important roles is second to known. Each manages to craft distinct characterizations that are separate from any of their cast mates yet still fits in beautifully with the idea that each of them must put their differences aside in order to become a crime-fighting team unlike any other the world has ever seen before. Miller, in particular, steals scenes right out from underneath his costars with charismatic ease, adding a layer of humor and warmth to the proceedings that is frankly wonderful.
But this whole adventure feels vigorous and welcoming in a way that neither Man of Steel nor Batman v Superman ever did. It’s clear that things have shifted, the production even going so far as to tug at the emotional nostalgia cord, composer Danny Elfman crafting a wonderfully boisterous score that uses John Williams’s Superman theme as well as Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg’s “Is She With You?” Wonder Woman track to magnificent effect. Heck, he even gets to throw his own Batman theme into the mix as well, in some ways suggesting this incarnation of The Dark Knight is the same one Tim Burton introduced in 1989, thus making Justice League in some ways more of an unintentional sequel to it than it is to Snyder’s Batman v Superman.
These are all conscious decisions made by both the studio and the filmmakers, I’m certain, and they frequently work. By keeping things energetic and fun, by allowing the cast to look and appear as if they’re having a terrific time making the film, all of this ends up having quite the effect upon an audience. It’s hard to care that little of the plot makes any real sense, or that Steppenwolf, all of the talented Hinds’s belligerent bellicose bluster notwithstanding, is another in a long line of underwhelming bad guys these comic book adventures, whether they be DC or Marvel, always seem to be putting front and center. Most of this shockingly doesn’t matter, the pure unadulterated esprit de corps that’s on display somehow helping to gloss over this production’s more than obvious (and ample) shortcomings.
Who knows where things go next, or if the combination of Wonder Woman and to a lesser degree Justice League signals that DC and Warner Bros have finally figured out what it is they are doing and that future adventures featuring these heroes will meet with success. But even with a number of reservations, and even though I haven’t the first clue who, Snyder or Whedon, should get the majority of the credit, dang it all if I didn’t find watching Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg joining forces to be a rollicking, freewheeling blast, and you don’t even need to tie me up with the Lasso of Hestia for me to admit it.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)