The fantastic JUSTICE LEAGUE wins the day with both its wit and humanity.
By Matt Cummings
When the history of the DC Cinematic Universe is recounted years from now, will the story of MAN OF STEEL, SUICIDE SQUAD, and BvS: DAWN OF JUSTICE be treated as bumps in the road to higher successes? Or will they serve as plot points on a mostly downward slope with a few great films like WONDER WOMAN serving as happy accidents? The release this week of the fantastic JUSTICE LEAGUE – yet another in this series plagued with reshoots and off-camera tragedies – reminds us that this franchise still has some fight in it, even if news of Warner Bros’ ultimate plans might not make sense.
Faced with the decisions he made against Superman – and which ultimately cost The Last Son of Krypton his life – Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of heroes including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the precocious Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the antisocial Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), and the cybernetic-enhanced Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to battle Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) as he seeks to destroy the planet. Batman’s plans to suit up a Justice League to stop the alien won’t go as planned, as a new challenger with unclear motives will test the team as time ticks away on the destruction of Earth.
JUSTICE LEAGUE is best possible outcome for a franchise hit with multiple reports about a troubled shoot, extensive reshoots, and a cancelled sequel. It succeeds for so many reasons, mostly based on a trim plot by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, who give every new hero enough time to present themselves while adding further to the mythos of Batman and Wonder Woman. Their back and forth represents some of the film’s best moments, as they’ve become reluctant soldiers in a war that demands their attention. For all of her moments of glory in JL, Wonder Woman is great to watch because Gadot infuses her with just enough doubt about her personal choices to make the outcome of those decisions resonate as the story comes to its bloody conclusion. Cyborg and Aquaman enjoy key moments of dialogue that not only explain their background but illuminate their choices going forward.
But perhaps the scene stealer here is Miller: his lack of comfort as The Flash results in the film’s funniest moments, although a couple of utterances in key scenes became one too many. For Allen, the decision to become a hero is Batman’s to push, as a moment of clarity between them presses Barry into service. He’s a product of Batman’s tutelage, and even his fight against the “new challenger” I mentioned is one of the film’s best action scenes. Amy Adams returns as the grieving Lois Lane, and we get the albeit short introduction of Gotham Police Commissioner Gordon (JK Simmons), who instantly fits into this world. To he and Batman, the arrival of superheroes means they are no longer the top of the Good Guy Food Chain. More so for Bats, as he realizes smoke bombs and Kung-Fu aren’t enough to tackle gods.
It’s these issues of humanity and mortality that make JUSTICE LEAGUE more than a superhero mashup of destruction. People don’t get along here, their motives are unclear, and their reluctance to join up with Bruce and Diana are both understandable and thick-headed. There are also neat tips-of-the-hat and Easter Eggs – along with two very good end credit scenes – that both honor DC’s past and suggest interesting new chapters. Composer Danny Elfman drops his old BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES on us a few times while balancing the recurring themes for Wonder Woman and Superman. For a film with a runtime just over 2 hours, a lot gets accomplished here.
At a reported $300m, JUSTICE LEAGUE is one of the most expensive movies made in the modern era (see the full list here). It’s entirely possible that some (or perhaps a lot) of that bill is due to the extensive reshoots by Director Joss Whedon (who’s only credited here as a writer) after Director Zack Snyder departed due to the death of his child. Snyder’s rise and very sad fall with DC probably helped JUSTICE LEAGUE, as it’s clear from the trailers that several key scenes were jettisoned in favor of the final product. But give credit to all parties for making the Whedon and Snyder scenes blend effortlessly – it was a main concern I shared as the lights dimmed that is a concern no more.
Critics have nailed JUSTICE LEAGUE to the wall critically, but as I emerged from the theater, it was clear that little of those concerns resonated with the elated DC-friendly crowd. But even with that palpable elation, it was clear that issues remain with the franchise’s long-term health. Surely JL could make AVENGERS type of money, but will it be enough to force DC’s hand to make big ensemble films instead of their current course of smaller, director-centered fare? These first three weeks for JL will probably be very telling.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For all the debates and bad press, JUSTICE LEAGUE more than satisfies in dispelling rumors of a troubled shoot. It effortlessly balances new characters while giving the veterans their moments in the sun which many times go beyond punching something. Still, it’s hard to quell our concern about an eventual reset that feels more likely given recent news about the franchise going to unconnected and separated stories. With two winning films in a row, DC/WB seems to have finally gotten into a groove; it would be a shame to see it end by denying fans what they really want: a Marvel-style connectivity. In that way, the shadow of Marvel will continue to hang over DC no matter what course they take. The question will be whether audiences get on board or force this sometimes problematic ship aground.
JUSTICE LEAGUE is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and has runtime of 121 minutes.