Justice League is finally here. The production has gone through many ups and downs over the last year and some change, but that's not necessarily an indicator of poor quality. The Wizard of Oz changed directors mid-stream (no less than four directors had a hand in bringing that classic to life believe it or not), Lord of the Rings lost their first Aragorn, Stuart Townsend, after four days of shooting and Robert Zemeckis reshot half of Back to the Future after Eric Stoltz didn't work out in the role of Marty McFly.
Filmmaking is a huge undertaking with thousands of moving parts and constantly shifting situations that have be dealt with every other minute. Every film is a troubled production in one way or another. There's always some drama and hurt feelings and conflicting ideas and interests. That's just how the creative process for this art form works.
The only time that becomes a real problem for a film is when all that behind the scenes conflict shows up in the finished product. And it certainly does with Justice League.
Now, Justice League isn't an awful movie. In fact in tone and character realization it's a giant step in the right direction for the DC Extended Universe. The problem is it's choppy, sloppy and all over the map in its plotting and structure. The worst thing I can say about the movie is it feels premature. The groundwork hasn't been done enough to really set up the threat and as such Steppenwolf and his horde of CG bug men don't feel like a big enough threat to demand that Earth's remaining heroes team up to stop them.
I never felt that this was a task that Wonder Woman couldn't handle on her own, for instance. Batman might have an issue facing Steppenwolf alone and Cyborg and Flash were too new at the game to stare him down, but I think Diana Prince could have had him handled. It would have been a challenge, but when she's flanked by the most powerful dudes on the planet it's like setting the game on easy mode, which isn't all that fun for a thrill-seeking audience.
What you want in a movie like this is the feeling of real stakes. You want to see a challenge for your protagonists to overcome and in the case of these big group movies like Justice League or The Avengers that means the challenge has to be supersized, even if only on a personal level.
I feel Captain America: Civil War was a great recent example of seeing those smaller scale challenges played out. Zemo's not the flashiest villain. He's not a giant CG monster with an army of aliens behind him. He's just a guy out for revenge and in tackling the personal issues between the MCU characters he does something no other villain succeeded at: he split them apart. There's permanent damage done between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers by the end of that movie. They will probably play well together again when it comes time for Infinity War, but nothing will ever be the same.
Steppenwolf cuts a fine silhouette and is shown laying waste to some powerful adversaries pretty early on (being vague to avoid real deal spoilers!), but at the end of the day he's relegated to being a final boss battle instead of a character. He's so one-dimensional. Steppenwolf is a bad guy that wants to destroy Earth because... that's what he does. He's tried it before, but he's really going to do it this time! Why does he want to? Because, that's why.
They got a great actor to play him in Ciaran Hinds (you'll remember him as Mance Rayder on Game of Thrones), but there's just no depth to the character. He's not mysteriously threatening, either. He's just a big CG guy with a fire ax that wants them sweet, sweet motherboxes so he can turn the world red.
The problem is his invasion isn't handled with any flair. In the very first scene we see Batman hunting down the Parademons (Steppenwolf's winged minions). They're already here. There's no sense of “what the hell is going on?!?” from Batman, there's no impending sense of doom or dread. Winged humanoid demons just exists around Gotham now.
The big scene we get to set up just how powerful Steppenwolf is a narrated flashback that is essentially the prologue to Lord of the Rings except with Amazonians, Atlanteans, Gods, men and a few other geeky surprises thrown in. It's so close to LOTR you'll laugh. You have motherboxes that act like the Rings of Power. Seriously, they split them up between races to keep them from being together.
Steppenwolf only gets one really great sequence and that involves a showdown on Themyscira. You see his ability as a warrior there that hinted at him being strong enough to require a super friends team to take him out, but then he spends the rest of the movie hiding. It's seriously his whole game plan.
So, knowing that the villain is kind of Generic Bad Guy, how does the heroic side of the equation measure up? Surprisingly well. There are some problems, especially centered around Ben Affleck's Batman, but on the whole the reason this movie is worth seeing is because of this cast and how they interact with each other.
Since I brought him up, let's talk a little about...
Batman. I may not be a big fan of Batman v Superman, but I thought Affleck's Batman was pretty on point. His big fight scene in that movie (the one that felt like one of the Arkham games come to life) was a highlight and I think he looks great in the suit. I don't know if it's a choice or Affleck is already tired of playing the character, but Bruce Wayne/Batman just feels beat all the time here. The dude looks tired. He's low energy and a little bit of a woe-is-me Eeyore.
I mean, I now Batman is supposed to be moody, but he's also supposed to radiate confidence. The character in this movie is shook by the death of Superman and the role he had to play in that coming to pass. Great! That's what we call depth and we like depth. The problem is there's no journey for him here other than getting a group together. I don't feel like Batman ends this movie in a radically different place from where he began. If you're going to put him through hell there's got to be some kind of catharsis moment for him and we never get that. We see him act a little more selflessly (to the point of almost being suicidal), but he's not the confident Dark Knight that you kind of want him to be.
Superman. This is a tough one to talk about without delving into spoilers, but I will say that I'm very happy that they've seemed to learn their lesson from previous films. I won't say in what form or circumstance he's in this movie, but it's nice to see the character represented as the Big Blue Boy Scout again, not the sad God with the world on his shoulders. Cavill has really relaxed in the role and I'm excited to see what direction we go in with further on-screen Superman appearances.
Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is the DCEU's single best decision so far and she doesn't let us down in this one. Diana doesn't have has much time to shine as she did in her own movie (naturally), but she radiates goodness and it's a much needed counterbalance to the muscled up testosterone around her. She gets a little moment where she has to grapple with the fact that she has been helping, but only from the shadows and not from a position to inspire others, that is some ripe stuff to play with, but because everything feels so quick and condensed it doesn't really have any time to grow into an interesting character moment. Instead we just get her being badass and kind in equal measures. Not a bad thing to settle for.
Aquaman. I wasn't sold on Jason Mamoa in this role, to be honest, but him playing the character as a lovable, swaggering asshole is pretty great. All the stuff we get to see involving his underwater kingdom is cool, his position within the team is pretty neat and there's a fantastic moment with him being a big dickhead to the group that I'm 99% sure is all Joss Whedon. Aquaman is having fun and so is Mamoa. That goes a long way in a film like this. His character suffers a little bit from WB fast-forwarding the MCU playbook and jumping right into the big team movie, but it's not a big jump for audiences to buy him as part of the team.
Cyborg. Victor Stone is testing his new powers when we first meet him. He's fighting between the robot part of him and the still remaining human side, but it's one of those things that looks great on paper, but in the actual movie it's not explored enough. He's great in that every day he's discovering something new about his abilities, but they don't really have fun with that. There's a great moment where his body reads a friendly character as a threat and auto-defenses kick in against his will, but it's a one-and-done moment. How much more interesting would it have been if he spent the whole movie an indispensable member of the team that could turn on them at any moment? Much more, I think. Ray Fisher does a good job with the character, but I hope they give him a little more to work with in future outings.
Flash. Ezra Miller is great in this part. He's got the right attitude, enthusiasm, nervousness and quirks for the part and immediately fills the role of the team's little brother. His backstory is again breezed by (yuk-yuk-yuk) and makes you wish his standalone movie happened BEFORE the big team up one, but I think you'll be happy with him in the red suit. He has by far my favorite moment in the film, which again I won't spoil, but look out for his “oh shit” face and you'll know you're in the best scene of the movie. You'll know it when you see it.
On the whole, the movie is fractured. You definitely get a too many cooks vibe from it, but the one constant is the chemistry the cast shares. Even in some of the less well-written scenes you dig this cast and roll with some of the clunkers they have to speak. The sense of fun that we've been wanting for a while is back, which is a good thing. Now we just need a singular voice to come in and give this super powered group a real challenge. That's what I want more than anything in future DCEU movies. I want to legitimately wonder how our lead will prevail.
It'll be interesting to see where the DCEU goes from here. It feels like they finally have the right combination of ingredients and the compass needle is finally pointing to true north, but they haven't gotten everything together yet.
DC fans will gobble this up just because they get so much of the character stuff right, superhero fans in general will probably dig it as pure escapist entertainment, but if you're at all worn out by the deluge of comic book movies then Justice League will likely test your patience with its plot conveniences and pockets of character-summary exposition.