If Justice League had come out in the late ’90s, we’d still be hailing it as one of the best superhero films ever made. As it stands, in this post-Marvel Studios world where it seems like every second tentpole feature is packed with posturing power-people, it’s merely pretty good. Given DC’s track record since Man of Steel, however, “pretty good” is pretty good.
It feels like such a ’90s flick, though. Some of that is down to Danny Elfman, Tim Burton’s former composer of choice, taking on scoring duties, and weaving both the ’89 Batman motif and John Williams’ ’78 Superman riff into the fabric. Part of it is the breathless, disjointed pacing, with the film barreling from setpiece to setpiece, barely taking any time to explain why anything is happening, or how all this wonderful weirdness fits together. Part of it are the slightly ropey effects, which would have really blown our hair back at the dawn of the CGI age (there was a big budget Lost in Space movie – it was a weird time).
In reality it’s an effect of DC/Warners’ efforts to roll back the self-serious tone that Man of Steel and Batman V Superman were mired in, and the end result is that original director Zack Snyder’s Wagnerian vibe sits rather awkwardly next to substitute (and uncredited) helmer Joss Whedon’s poppier, self-effacing material (you will pick Whedon’s stuff a mile away – there’s a gag with Wonder Woman’s magic lasso that is one for the ages). The whole thing feels like it’s been studio-noted to within an inch of its life, and trimmed down to just the right side of narrative coherence.
And you know what? It’s still a good time.
Justice League is a film that works moment by moment and tends to crumble when you step back and look at the wider picture – probably not a useful trait in a movie designed to set up an ongoing franchise, but no cardinal sin in one meant to fill two hours with spectacle and bombast, which this one does quite satisfactorily. Following on from the events of Batman V Superman and the death of the latter, the threat of invasion from alien conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, rather wasted in a role more or less indistinguishable from whatever that thing was in Suicide Squad) sees Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit a team to meet the menace: speedster The Flash/Barry Allen (MVP Ezra Miller), Atlantean Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa in bro-mode) and cyborg, er, Cyborg/Vic Stone (Ray Fisher), whose technological powers stem from the “Mother Boxes” – three ancient MacGuffins that Steppenwolf plans to use to Do The Thing. Of course, a peril of this scale really needs someone who looks spiffy in a red cape (Henry Cavill, and you already knew he was coming back, so shush) but he is, unfortunately, dead. Or is he…?
In terms of plot that’s your lot, and it’s a good thing, too; Justice League needs to get a lot of pieces on the board fairly quickly, and to its credit it takes the same tack as the comics do, sketching powers and backstory only as much as is necessary to get things moving. Luckily these characters are all fairly iconic (bar Cyborg), and so the audience is pretty au fait with the broad parameters of who they are and what they can do. And so we’re left with forward momentum and superheroes doing awesome-looking stuff – which is, at the end of the day, our mission statement here.
It does all feel a bit generic, though. Steppenwolf is a non-event of a villain, and his army of winged, insectile drones just exist to give our good guys a horde to slaughter without feeling guilty. The whole enterprise is still standing in the shadow of 2012’s The Avengers, and while Justice League is a fun movie and has plenty of iconic ripped-from-the-pages moments, there’s nothing here that gets within a parsec of that shot from the Marvel movie’s climax. Consistency of characterisation is also sacrificed in favour of lightening the tone; Superman’s death aside, it’s hard to imagine what else happened to transform the grim, criminal-torturing vigilante Batman of BvS into JL‘s assured and quippy team leader, but it surely must have involved a shedload of therapy.
Ultimately, Justice League is an enjoyable throwback that is more concerned with showing you cool characters doing cool things than getting too bent out of shape over the underlying narrative and world-building mechanics that go into getting those scenes into our eyeballs. Fans of the Snyder-inflected preceding films may well balk at how far away this latest offering has swung from their adolescent dourness, while dyed-in-the-wool Marvel Zombies may scoff at this somewhat awkward but desperate-to-please dog and pony show. If you’re on the spectrum between those two, though, Justice League is an 80 Page Giant worth dropping some coin on.
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