Safe to say that Justice League has had something of a troubled upbringing, so to speak. Previous movies in the series, intended to lead up to the big team-up, have had decidedly mixed receptions, ranging from highly negative (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to the positively rapturous (the genuinely excellent Wonder Woman). Problems have been fairly wide-ranging, but most of the negative aspects have focused on either a relentlessly grim tone or issues arising from what appears to be an excess of executive meddling. It’s fair to say that Justice League hasn’t entirely escaped from such issues, plus has had its own share of behind-the-scenes troubles, most notably director Zack Snyder’s departure from the movie in such tragic circumstances, but it’s equally fair to say that, for the most part, the movie manages to rise above the problems and become something that I found enjoyable enough to watch.
The result of all this is a movie that’s an odd combination of some things that have been done very right and other things that, well, really haven’t.
Something that I don’t think I really pictured myself saying after sitting through the butt-numbingly long Batman v Superman is that Justice League could probably have benefited from being a bit longer. Clocking in at a very trim two hours, reportedly due to a decree issued from on high by the studio executives, the movie does move along quite nicely, but, with three major new characters to introduce, all of whom are expected to headline their own movies in the next couple of years, I came away with a sense that it wouldn’t have hurt the movie to flesh out the newcomers a tad more than we got. They work okay, but a couple of extra minutes here and there to lift the characters above “boisterous frat boy” (Aquaman), “keen but neurotic dork” (Flash) and “gloomy outsider” (Cyborg) could have elevated things considerably.
I don’t imagine that many people would debate the point that a good superhero movie really needs a good villain and it’s on this front that Justice League spectacularly fails to deliver. Honestly, Steppenwolf is about as generic as they come – he’s basically a big guy with a big weapon (an axe, in his case) and a handy army of faceless minions for the good guys to beat up before getting to the man himself. His evil plot is as generic as he is – he’s come to Earth to locate three Mother Boxes, cubic macguffins (why do they always seem to be cubes?) that when put together, will allow him to turn Earth into a facsimile of his own hellish planet in order to conquer it for his unseen master. It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf, an entirely CG character, looks terrible. Seriously, he’s about as well rendered as a character in a cut scene from a five-year old computer game and it requires some serious suspension of disbelief not to be ripped out of the movie every time he’s on screen. And they couldn’t have thrown in a “Born To Be Wild” gag somewhere? Definitely an opportunity missed.
The plot, as noted above, is pretty basic – bad guy needs macguffins to carry out his plan, so it falls to the heroes to try to keep them away from him while they work out how to defeat him. The plot feels somewhat disjointed at times, leading to a sense that a certain amount of connective tissue has been ejected in order to meet the run-time edict, occasionally in favour of some oddities – a series of (admittedly short) scenes involving an entirely unremarkable family, for example, don’t really have a big enough payoff to warrant their inclusion. There’s also at least one occasion where the heroes screw up so stupidly that it absolutely constitutes a plot hole that really needed to have been addressed. On the whole, though, it’s serviceable enough.
So, having insulted the sketchy characterisation, the villain and the plot, what’s actually left to fall into the “done right” category. Well, quite a bit, as it happens.
While, as previously noticed, the movie could have used more time establishing the new characters, they do work pretty well. More importantly, the characters feel right, that they’re how they should be. Batman’s rediscovered his sense of idealism and is much lighter than previously – granted, he’s still quite grim, but this is Batman we’re talking about. Likewise, Superman returns from his brief trip to the land of the dead apparently much more at peace with himself (once he gets readjusted, anyway) and with a positive hopeful attitude that’s very pleasant to see – at one point, my wife commented that he didn’t look like himself, to which I commented that it might well be down to the fact that he was actually smiling. Wonder Woman remains a joy on every level. Jason Momoa’s considerable charisma keeps Aquaman going and Ezra Miller, while largely shouldering the comic relief role, has the sense of comic timing necessary to pull it off. Ray Fisher does a solid job as Cyborg, but remains the least interesting of the team for now. Leaked deleted scenes suggest that a lot of his role was cut out; hopefully this can be restored in a longer cut, or in his own movie. Most importantly, not only do the characters work well, they work well together. While, inevitably, there’s squabbling early on, by the time of the finale, they’ve fitted together well and are laughing and joking with each other.
The action is generally well-handled. Most of the team have their specialties (the Flash is fast, Cyborg does tech and so forth) and the action plays to that in logical fashion. It’s mostly easy to follow and Snyder keeps his trademark slow motion reasonably in check. And it’s great to see the team working together in those sequences. There are some other good action sequences in the movie, too – early scenes involving Steppenwolf going after the Mother Boxes guarded by the Atlanteans and Amazons are good and a flashback to his previous attack on Earth is quite something to behold as an alliance of humans, Atlanteans, Amazons, Greek deities and even some Green Lanterns take to the field against him.
I have to give a nod to the soundtrack as well. Danny Elfman takes on score duties and does a great job with it. He successfully follows up the soundtracks from the previous movies, while sneaking in sequences from his own 1989 Batman soundtrack and John William’s iconic Superman theme. The result is a little eclectic, but totally worked for me.
Overall, I enjoyed Justice League rather more than I expected to. It’s certainly not a great movie and even calling it good could be considered debatable, given the considerable flaws that permeate the film. But I did find it enjoyable and that’s a good start. If subsequent movies can build on the characters as they’ve been set up here, we could finally see DC’s Extended Universe movies start to live up to the potential that’s mostly been squandered up until now. And that could be a very good thing.