After Patty Jenkins’ perfectly timed Wonder Woman, many thought that the DC Cinematic Universe was back on the track to success. So, naturally, there had been optimistic expectation for a fantastic follow-up in the form of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, DC’s equivalent to The Avengers. But unfortunately, as seems to be a tendency with DC’s cluster of superhero movies, that expectation is met with a hefty dose of disappointment.
The biggest source of this dissatisfaction comes in the rushed development of its narrative, namely, the assembling of DC’s finest heroes into the eponymous league. Who are these heroes? Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Batman (Ben Affleck), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). An eclectic and interesting selection of characters for sure. And yet, aside from Batman and Wonder Woman, we have yet to meet and connect with this cast of gifted individuals.
And this is where the narrative, writing and directing starts to show its wrinkles and blemishes. Rather than build up and polish our relationships to The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman with preceding storylines, or extended openings that establish their backstories, director Zack Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon effectively blast through this anticipated aspect – save for a few convenient plot devices of encouragement for the heroes – and just assume that we’ll care for their integration into Batman’s team.
The cause for which we are meant to care? The defeat of uber-baddie Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a walking, talking CGI blur with about as much personality as a lobotomized Ebenezer Scrooge. His goal? Well, it’s a superhero movie, of course it’s to destroy the world through the use of an obscurely defined object that’s obscenely powerful.
This is not a compelling reason for this unrelated band of warriors to unite, and thus, causes Whedon and Terrio’s template to collapse. Rather than explore Aquaman’s reasoning to abandon his homeworld of Atlantis to fight with the Justice League, or interrogate Cyborg’s self-torment and his willingness to overcome this for the greater good, Whedon and Terrio rush past these hurdles like kids on roller skates, eager to pass to the next scene of exposition or explosions. Because they believe that we’ll care for Batman and co.’s instantaneous collaboration, on the basis of the ultimate threat: Steppenwolf.
All this gives rise to is a number of uninspired and forced character dynamics that seem intent on exciting us for the final confrontation. But Justice League hasn’t earnt it. The motivations are slim, the heroes’ appearing as mere frameworks for deeper characterizations no doubt saved for their solo outings. And so, it just comes across as a hefty lump sum of flashes, bangs and wallops that are supposed to get us fist pumping, but instead leave us sinking into our seat.
And it’s a shame that these flashes and bangs and wallops are all depicted in such an inferior graphical format. Despite the huge production budget of about $300 million, the film looks murky and unconvincing. The computer-generated backdrops look and feel fake, not ominous as they should. Steppenwolf and his army look like pre-rendered test models rather than a final, refined visual effect, ready for this tent-pole superhero film to make an impression. And Fabian Wagner’s cinematography did little to sell me on the action, in order to look past these glaring facial issues. An over-reliance upon slow-mo sequences (as is usually the case with a Snyder movie) and an apparent necessity to drown most of the action in either a looming darkness, or an oppressive red hue, left the film looking unexpectedly dull and repetitive: there’s no flair, only visual despair.
Some of the performances do resuscitate the film from what could have been an unmitigated disaster, the two highlights being Gadot and Momoa. Gal Gadot emanates star power in her third appearance as Wonder Woman, all but stealing the show to the point where one wonders whether Snyder, Terrio and Whedon added additional content with her as the focus, in order to capitalise on her newfound popularity. Jason Momoa is also at his charming best, in a role that doesn’t demand much in terms of character depth at this stage, but certainly makes up for it in sheer confidence and Point Break levels of machismo: the image of Aquaman surfing a minion of Steppenwolf through a building, only to land securely on his feet, is surely the action beat of the superhero year.
But even then, I was let down by Ben Affleck’s distant performance as Batman. He was the heart and soul of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the saving grace of a colossal misfire. And yet here, he seems muted, stiff. Moreover, his character, the definitive hero for the ages, is always left playing second fiddle to the more powerful members of the team. This is logical of course: how is a rich business mogul with a rubber suit going to put a dent in the suit of a godlike being, let alone put up an effective fight. However, it reduces the significance of Batman’s place in the superhero pantheon: he’s the most intellectually engaging, emotionally charged and humanised hero of the group. Yet here, he’s a recruiter and a lifeless sentinel of sorts: he’s there to get his overpowered squad from one point to the next. It’s just not as compelling as the layered, morally conflicted depictions found in the likes of The Dark Knight and Batman Returns.
So I guess you see what I’m getting at. Justice League had the world in the palm of its hands: everyone was going to see it, DC film fans or not, because it was the first on-screen appearance of Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg, fighting side-by-side. So it’s to the film’s discredit that this is all it aims to amount to. Rather than establishing sufficient character motivation, or concocting a convincing and coherent end goal for the heroes to head towards, Snyder and his team opt for the safe option: to rely upon fans’ respect and adoration for these characters to pull them through, only for the pay-off to simply be what we already knew and hyped ourselves up for with the promotional material. We already knew the team was coming together and that’s what had us enthusiastic: the film was meant to deliver more than that. Instead, all we got was a shallow superhero action extravaganza, absent of the subtle character dynamics of The Avengers and a far cry from the spirited joy of Wonder Woman. It ultimately left a dry taste in my mouth: a somewhat pointless excursion that has left me concerned as to whether a new DC film would truly be welcome. A crying shame for such an acclaimed and illustrious cast of characters.