‘Justice League’ Review: The whole DC universe cheers the hell up, thank God

Needless to say, there’s quite a bit riding on Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

After a pretty miserable 2016, a year that saw the release of two of the most critically reviled superhero films in recent history (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad), it was pretty safe to assume that the DC Extended Universe was pretty close to getting knocked out cold, and that 2017 would be more of the same for WB. Yet Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman opened to critical acclaim and incredible box office success, and their latest release follows in a similar mode.

It offers a slight reprieve for all of the miserable mistakes that they’ve made in the past five years: A definitive change in tone, towards levity, goes a long way in making disparate elements of the universe finally gel together, and it’s without sacrificing some of the imagery that made it interesting in the first place. Justice League isn’t anywhere near the home run that its most devoted fans hope that it will be, but it is a solid little picture, held together by an excellent and fun cast and some decently exciting action in spite of its many narrative issues. It’s fun!

Warning: There are minor spoilers strewn throughout.

So it’s been a little bit since the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), who perished fighting the Abomination from The Incredible Hulk, and people are starting to lose hope or whatever the hell. You can tell this because there are lots of sad memorials to his legacy around the world, and we are treated to a montage of them set to a breathy and maudlin cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” Which is funny, because everybody knows he’s gonna be coming back at some point.

Anyways, Batfleck (Batfleck) is ashamed of his conduct in the previous film and realizes it’s time to stop being so dang dark, and he and his new friend Diana Prince, better known as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) begin to assemble a team to combat an extraterrestrial threat, the kind that only a Ciaran Hinds-voiced monster named Steppenwolf can provide. He’s looking for three objects of immense power called “Mother Boxes” (lol) that may help him enslave/destroy the world once they’re assembled into one. They find Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a half-merman dude who can talk to fish and control the sea itself who is actually from Atlantis — a kind of Aquaman, if you will — who doesn’t want to join up initially. The two split up, and Bruce meets Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), an awkward whiz-kid with the dopest squat that you’ve probably ever seen outside of Bed-Stuy, and it turns out that he’s the fastest man alive, the Flash. Diana goes after Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a football star-turned-Cyborg after a car accident forced his father to experiment on him in order to save his life. Can these disparate figures unite in time to stop Steppenwolf? Can they form a Just Legion of some sort?

What results is somewhat of a Patchwork movie, stitched together by the studio and nerd on-again-off-again boyfriend Joss Whedon in the wake of an awful tragedy that befell its original director, Zack Snyder. Whedon’s hyperactive humor and character work is kind of an incongruous fit with the sort-of self-imposed seriousness of the DCEU, but it manages, at times, to come as close as it possibly can to delivering the kind of movie that people have wanted from the Snyderverse. It’s both funny and full of wondrous and epic imagery, once you learn to ignore the obvious reshoot details, and there are some delightful twists on what are now common superhero tropes, like the speedster character operating in slow motion, where Snyder twists it with the epic crackle of lightning weaving about the frozen moment, and subverts it at a point that’ll make you laugh quite a bit.

His ability to capture these characters as icons remains unparalleled in modern blockbuster cinema (it was never the visuals’ fault that Dawn of Justice sucked), and I just wish there was more of those moments. It’s hard to tell what’s Whedon’s and what’s Snyder’s, after all, and there have been varying takes on what exactly either director contributed to the process. The thematic elements don’t necessarily survive beyond what you’d assume- you’ll find your tribe, you’ll discover that you’re a hero along the way, it’s better to work with others — and I’d chalk that up to the time constraints and poor writing. It may not be the best of both worlds, but it’s most definitely a solid mixture to build a movie around. The core is stable, and there aren’t any character fuck-ups that derail the whole damn thing, thank God.

The Trinity are, for the most part, pretty good! Cavill’s finally able to just play capital-S Superman without all the brooding and moping and horseshit, though coming back from the dead may just give you a better outlook on life after all, and he’s charming and heroic. His digitally-edited mustache makes his face look pretty weird in a few early scenes, but all in all, he’s just able to be iconic and kind; he doesn’t kill anybody this time around. It’s a nice reset from the Man of Steel take on the character, though Amy Adams still makes her appearance (and writes some of the worst “writer” copy I’ve seen in a movie since Roland Emmerich’s 2012) and Diane Lane shows up and nobody calls her “Martha,” I think.

Batfleck fares less well, mainly because of how awkwardly he’s integrated into the team as it’s de facto leader and how they try to transform him into a quip machine (which goes against how Batman should be used in a team setting for maximum humor — his seriousness and rigidity are his strength). He’s given some nice lines about how Supes is different from him that are surprisingly interesting in an analytical way, but a ton of his dialogue echoes his Bush-like rhetoric in Dawn of Justice, which is just kind of lazy. I found myself missing the playboy aspects of Batfleck’s character that were introduced in the previous film, and most of those elements are missing here, given that they’d fit in awkwardly, and the roided-out Batsuit makes him look odd, especially with his cowl off. I will, however, cop to the fact that I got pumped when Danny Elfman’s score started to overtly echo the classic themes of the World’s Finest, and Snyder’s exaggerated iconography pays off really well when blended with the classics. Gadot’s just as good as she was in her solo film, and she’s given one truly excellent scene at the start of the film where she foils a bank robbery (with her powers having the epic introduction that they deserve). She’s a stabilizing element to the whole ensemble, and her arc is probably the only one that comes close to being interesting and/or fulfilled.

Amongst the newcomers, Miller is easily the best addition to the cast, and his neurotic and unsure Barry Allen feels significantly different from the one that fans of the television show would recognize. He’s got many of the film’s best lines (aside from a killer gag involving Momoa near the start of the climactic battle) and adds a bit of ironic sensibility to the whole ordeal — his exaggerated reactions to some of the nutty things he sees around him, like a person who might be faster than he is, are in and of themselves excellent. His arc doesn’t wholly work, as his development is a little rushed and his conflicts about being a hero ring sort of false when we’ve seen him save people’s lives in the past, and it seems like the movie knows it. It also doesn’t help that his costume is ugly as all hell, which features a weirdly conical head that makes him look like he was born with the zika virus.

A last minute post-credits Hail Mary charms but doesn’t redeem its lack of focus, but he’s just so damn likable and gels so well with the rest of the ensemble that it doesn’t exactly matter. Likewise, Momoa’s charm elevates a thinly-written Aquaman (whose solo movie is filming and thusly heavily featured during one big effects sequence), who would seem a combination of jerky and whiny if it weren’t him in the role. He plays Arthur Curry like a devil-may-care shithead, and for the most part, it works; his grunts and shouts of “YEA-UH” and “MY MAN” during the final battle are way more endearing in context than as they’re glimpsed in the trailer, but it feels like bits and pieces of his arc’s connective tissue is missing, which prevents him from totally connecting. Still, dude’s a true believer in the concept for this iteration of the character and it shows with how totally he commits to the part, silly contacts and all.

The only character that doesn’t work in the slightest is Cyborg, known to most as a member of the Teen Titans, who now plays in the big leagues thanks to a lack of prominent diversity on the Justice League (he was added to the roster during DC’s line-wide relaunch known as The New 52 and it has mostly worked, though that transition was somewhat eased with the Flashpoint event, where the character happens to be the Superman equivalent of that dark and altered timeline). He’s painfully bland, and his inner conflicts — that he’s estranged from humanity now that he’s merged with alien technology foisted upon him by his dumb ol’ scientist dad who was trying to save his life and that he “doesn’t play well with others” as a result — are underdeveloped and weirdly trite. There’s plenty of story potential there that goes unexamined in the rush to get the movie’s runtime under two hours, and it’s all to the detriment of Ray Fisher’s performance, who deserves significantly better. It also doesn’t help that his design is shoddy — he looks like a Transformer straight out of the Bay movies with half a human’s face grafted on top of it — and the effects work is even worse, especially in any scene that requires him to interact with other physical characters. Again, it seems the movie knows this, and they give him a second design, one that more rightfully resembles his easy-to-look at design from recent comics, but it comes in the last minutes of the film as nothing more than fan service.

Speaking of terrible CGI, let’s talk about Steppenwolf, the film’s big baddie. You might know him from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics, where he’s a New God with a dope-ass beard and a sweet fucking hoverbike. He’s the uncle of a dude you might have heard of named Darkseid, whom the film half-heartedly sets up to be confronted in a sequel further down the line (more on that in a minute). He’s freed from some sort of extra-dimensional hellscape by Jesse Eisenberg or something- it might have actually been easier to cite that he’s from a planet called Apokolips like in the comics- and spends the first half of the movie teleporting about with his army of Parademons looking for the Mother Boxes (lol).

Basically, he’s as bland and as empty as people imagine Marvel villains to be, and he’s neither intimidating nor particularly threatening to our heroes. We never get a chance to see his world-ending threat destroy a planet and enslave its people, but we do get to see him get his ass handed to him in a Tolkien-style flashback (to be fair, that brief sequence is actually a ton of fun). His motivations are casually mentioned (something something anti-life something something service) but I imagine most of that stuff was chopped out once they decided to cut the movie for pace, which is a shame, given how utterly batshit delightful the New Gods mythology is.

Even worse is his appearance. He’s designed to look something like a White Walker from Game of Thrones, but true to the WB’s cartoon roots, the grey-skinned, stone-bearded monster is given Elmer Fudd’s helmet from “What’s Opera, Doc?” and he looks about as silly as you can imagine. Hinds is almost totally absent from the performance, and I was stunned to find out that he’d actually done the motion-capture work required for the role as well as the voice work, because it’s hard to imagine him being as wooden as he is here. It’s hard to believe VFX this shoddy was released in a major studio tentpole, but it is what it is, I guess.

Thinking back on it, Justice League reminds me most of the first JJ Abrams-directed Star Trek movie (one that I like quite a bit!), which is a joy to watch unfold on the big screen but totally falls apart with regards to plot and theme and character after you exit the theater. It’s a muddled mess of competing ideologies and tones, but somehow the mixture occasionally approaches what the masses wanted out of something like Dawn of Justice: A visually striking yet fun take on a set of characters with a dramatically different set of circumstances and styles than could be accommodated in the MCU. It’s a reaffirmation of the essential heroism of the DC characters after all that deconstruction and the first direct result of the gigantic tonal reset button that was pressed with Wonder Woman, and it’s bound to please audiences with lowered expectations and the DCEU fanboys with equal aplomb.

I’d still like to see Snyder’s original cut at some point, just to see how he would have handled the Fourth World foreshadowing and the film’s overall tone, but what we got isn’t terrible, and in a way, that’s a huge success for everybody involved.

Follow Nick Johnston @onlysaysficus.