by Joe Hammerschmidt
No epic effort will likely change my personal preference: Marvel over DC. Yet in the necessity of fairness, one must not shy away when the rival’s product shows effort and, for the second time this year, non-degradation. The incoming Justice League, #5 in the DC Expanded Universe, and the third to be directed by Zack Snyder, finally brings the six core characters in the company’s premier franchise together for a simple team-up adventure that stays rather consistent, not counting a rather rushed climax. In an inherent change of tone, the inevitable multi-hero collision embraces a welcome change in tone in line with the ironic humor style of co-writer Joss Whedon, who now appears more than primed to assume helmsman status for this universe, after Snyder’s sudden departure from the project ahead of reshoots intended to inject some positivity. Aside from this, and the studio’s likely necessity to keep the runtime at a brisk two hours, which works to the film’s advantage for nearly the duration, the film is aware of its own challenges, its own flaws, but the mood is quite light for its own good that it’s better to just enjoy the ride, knowing it’s not as long, or depressingly brooding as Dawn of Justice.
Immediate to pick up where its relative predecessor left off, the world is in perpetual flux following Superman’s (Henry Cavill) untimely death. The seeds for what would plant the ragtag Justice League had previously been sown by the philanthropically engaged Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck). It’s just now as his neighborhood watch in Gotham slowly crumbles that he’s keen on finally reaping the crop, upon hearing word of the arrival of ages-old villain Steppenwolf (an unrecognizable Ciarán Hinds, in excellent use of mo-cap), targeting the power of DC’s equivalent of the Tesseract. Assisted by the now well-established Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), they invite three newcomers to try their hand at suppressing the warlord’s evil grip, while coming to terms with Clark’s “sudden” departure. And yes, combine the three and exceptional buddy-buddy chemistry is guaranteed.
Barry aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), the amateur criminologist speed-demon is one-part ironic trickster, one-part bundle of disorganized nerves who rolls with all the punches of effective comic relief, thanks to Whedon’s own humorous sensitivities, leading to a handful of awkward sitcom-y moments that benefit from Miller’s intent to keep it straight. Victor/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), an ex-collegiate athlete with a computer for a brain, maintains that firm middle-ground where he’s nothing, if not loyal to prove his strength, even as he’s just relegated to background duty. Fisher also had to undergo some obvious mo-cap to pull off the part, but I couldn’t tell, nor did I care; it was that committed. And Arthur/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) exudes flair and restrained showoff-yness with just a single twitch of his famous trident. He’s not quite given much to do here, they’re saving Momoa’s true emotion for his forthcoming standalone in December 2018; but allow him a moment to steal a scene, with the right music and he simply refuses to give it back.
Such a diverse range of character expressions may only have been possible with Whedon’s rearrangement of order, by contrast to Snyder and Chris Terrio’s (Argo) initial treatment. It’s a rather tall order, attempting to completely re-invigorate the roots of a studio franchise on short notice based on fandom separation over BvS’s love it or hate it. Stepping in after Zack left in the wake of family drama is also as much a serious undertaking, but Warner’s brass needed the team-up to be more love with the promise of greater things to come firmly in the background, which much is certain. With the timing oddly on point, the results, by merit of character growth, are spectacular. It may be impossible to determine how much of his re-writes and re-shoots affected the overall tone of the film, yet one may be so wrapped up in the aspect of fun (a word that comes with much surprise in the DCEU), the desire to imagine a Justice League built just with Snyder’s hands will go out the window.
Regardless of these necessary changes, a little pushback is to be expected. Every superhero movie comes with a few chinks in the armor; the rewrites and studio interjection, appears to emphasize that, and the film as a whole willingly embraces character flaws to build their positioning. The slight blips which occur still help move the film along, making it more enjoyable. Not every superhero crew must be perfect in what they do; teamwork with the League isn’t their strong suit just yet. And this film embraces its imperfections to secure the viewer in allowing the action to just happen.
Yes, there are some things that could’ve been done differently. JK Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon could’ve been given a more prominent role in aiding the heroes; ditto for Amy Adams’ Lois or Diane Lane’s Martha. But I suppose they’ll hold back for the next installment. Hinds’ heavily CGI supervillain may be sadly forgettable if he’s not better emphasized for successor films; a friend of mine in attendance at our screening mistook the actor for Liam Neeson, memories of his own mo-cap performance in A Monster Calls still fresh. And as for how Superman as a character, there was a certain lack of immediacy to which I won’t elaborate on, for spoiler’s sake. As you watch, it’ll be obvious enough. Henry Cavill as Superman is seen at some point during the film, and he’s just as commanding and earth-shattering as in past efforts, but I will not say where.
What the film gets right is what keeps its momentum. An unexpectedly emotional Danny Elfman score (not as sweeping as the 1989 Batman film, however) is among the central highlights that remind you this is a DC film, with multiple callbacks to past films, unafraid to be in-your-face about its references. Affleck’s Batman grows the most from a moody middle-aged kid with maternal issues and expensive toys, to a confident hero aware of his responsibilities, with the actor himself finally building positivity around the character. Above mentioned acting performances are easily complemented by each other, with Miller simply stealing the whole show and running literal circles around everyone else.
Justice League proves to itself there is no shame in attempting to replicate your rival to make your film work, so long as you stay true to your legacy. Snyder and Whedon, in their respective methods, accomplish this task, making for the most fun to be had so far in DC’s current slate of films. It holds such great promise for the future, that I may actually be excited about what comes next. The studio intervention shouldn’t have been necessary, but it was still the right move. Now that the basement floor’s more stable, the only way to go is building upward and keeping the experience watchable, perhaps more than once, which says so much. Do be prepared to have a great time, to hang through the credits for those next seeds to be planted, and to potentially gauge your own opinion. I’m saying it’s totally fun and worth a look, but still, don’t fully take my word for it and judge for yourself. Whatever you take away from the experience will be the best reward possible. (B+)
Justice League opens Thursday night at most area theaters; rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action; 119 minutes.