Warner Bros.' Justice League is a movie 79 years in the making, going back to Superman's initial appearance on Earth.
Assembling DC Comics' pantheon of heroes for the first time in live action, the film by directors Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon is an attempt to course-correct the DC Extended Universe and rival Marvel's Cinematic Universe, following criticisms that the prior installations were too dark (Wonder Woman notwithstanding in a big, profitable, and critically acclaimed way).
So the question is: Does Justice League accomplish this?
Most certainly so. It pulls the threads of previous DCEU installments to serve up an in-universe story, yet makes our heroes likable, and shows off what makes them super.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Batman v Superman, despite some cool moments. Nor am I particularly enamored of Suicide Squad. There is a lot I like about Man of Steel, but it is a deeply flawed film. And yes, I enjoyed the hell out of Wonder Woman. Basically, I like my superheroes to be heroic and complex without needing to become "dark and gritty."
And this isn't a perfect film, either; there is still work to be done in the DCEU, but Justice League serves as a palate cleanser from previous missteps.
So here are five takeaways, one for each member of the team, on where this film works — and where it doesn't.
*Spoiler alert: This story has some very light spoilers for the movie.*
DCEU lightens up
This is a fun, and funny, flick. Full stop. Moreover, the tone is not only one of hope, but a call to action to become involved in a divided world. And as much as I lauded the return of heart to DC Comics with Rebirth, I am thrilled to see this development in the DCEU.
But it isn't a treacle-coated capes-and-tights movie. There is quite a bit of contextual humor, and it fits the characters without becoming a comedy.
Ezra Miller's Barry Allen/The Flash is the film's standout as the League's overenthusiastic Peter Parker: He's digging his powers, happy to be included, incessantly talking, and terrified of dying. But he doesn't run away with the movie, and everyone gets their moments of levity.
Batman (Ben Affleck) is frequently exasperated with his gang of young heroes; Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is awesome as always, and looks at these boys in a way she may have at her old World War I crew; Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is a king-in-training Aqua-bro; and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) delights in taking the piss out of Bruce. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) even has his droll moments, but he's the least funny, and most tortured, of the bunch.
Whedon, who stepped in as pinch hitter when Snyder had to depart the film, adds a lot of his signature Whedonisms in the film, and they are easy to spot. One scene in particular, involving a painfully honest Aquaman, is sure to be a fan favorite. Aquaman in general fares really well in the movie and is far more likable than I anticipated.
The interaction between these iconic characters is excellent. They squabble, fight, and eventually offer support in a way that reminded me of their comic book origins. And there are a couple well-placed digs at Batman's lack of superpowers.
This still looks like a Snyder film, but there is legitimate character development typically lacking in his work. Albeit limited due to runtime constraints, and the need to fit in a lot of punching, our heroes each go on a journey of sorts that sets them up for future adventures. However, Cyborg is definitely the weakest link; he needs more to do on his journey from Frankenstein monster to member of the League.
The overall tone and character treatment benefits from the Whedon partnership – and no doubt the influence of DC's creative majordomo Geoff Johns adds to the lighter, brighter DCEU as well. But the seams certainly need ironing to make this a smoother movie.
Zack Snyder is a gifted visual artist, and he knows how to deliver entertaining action, and that's on full display here without devolving into ultraviolence.
While there are more character moments than action sequences, this is the most fun and no-holds-barred display of powers I've seen in the DCEU. The best action scene in the movie — which will be compared to the airport battle in Captain America: Civil War — features the Leaguers fully unleashing their abilities in a recruitment session gone awry. Along with showing what makes these heroes super, it also highlights their vulnerabilities when faced with a strong enough threat – a revelation that elicited an audible reaction of joy from yours truly.
Online chatter about Amazonian wardrobe aside, the warriors of Themyscira are also gifted with a standout action sequence that once again makes me want a story set entirely in their world.
Batman v. Superman
With regard to BvS, Justice League connects to the previous movie while simultaneously evolving away from it. This is most evident in the character arcs of Batman and Superman themselves.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Henry Cavill teased that audiences will see a "true Superman" in Justice League, and he isn't lying. For the first time in the cape, Cavill's charisma and charm are put to good use, and his Superman is eventually more in line with the Christopher Reeve-era character of hope. It is a welcome departure from the darker, pissed-off Superman from BvS – which is not to say there are not some super-hiccups along the way. Speaking of hope, I now have a dose of it for Man of Steel 2.
As for Batman/Bruce Wayne, there's been a fair amount of confusion about how long Affleck will be wearing the cowl, or if he even particularly enjoys it. I hope he does stick around, because he has settled into the role nicely in Justice League.
Following the events of BvS, Bruce is wracked with guilt over the whole "trying to kill Superman until he discovered his mom's name" sitch. But he is also inspired by Superman to save the world. There is a grim hope to Batman here that allows him to be leader of the League, along with Wonder Woman. He isn't a rainbows-and-sunshine Caped Crusader, but he's likable, less growly, and even cracks a smile — or smirk, at least.
The villain problem
Yes, Justice League has a "villain problem," and it is literally a big one.
Steppenwolf is played by the immensely talented Ciaran Hinds, and his motion-capture performance translates into a hulking computer-generated effects creation.
It isn't that Step's appearance is bad (nor is it particularly good, especially compared to the mo-cap work in War for the Planet of the Apes), but that it feels unnecessary, derivative, and bland. Nearly a decade into the modern wave of superhero films, audiences have seen quite a bit of baddies – many of which have been CG, oversized, and forgettable.
The ones that work the best are played by human-sized, flesh-and-blood actors. Even with fantastic costumes, or prosthetics, there is nothing quite like a tangible antagonist for a hero play off of, and a physical Hinds performance would have been far better than the Steppenwolf we get. (Seriously, this is Mance Rayder we're talking about.)
After all, there is a reason Loki, Zod, Vulture, and even Amanda Waller are memorable characters. They force an audience to accept, or reject, them as opposed to simply dismissing them as a generic evil force out to do something equally generic and malevolent.
Which leads to another point …
Story is its kryptonite
Superman is dead, the world is divided, and humankind appears eager to tear itself apart (yeah, there is some topicality at the top of the film). Meanwhile, Batman and Wonder Woman, perceiving an otherworldly threat, determine to assemble a team to face an alien invasion. That much is known.
But aside from uniting the League, and finding a way to involve Superman, the story is incredibly thin, and more character-driven.
Steppenwolf has a hate-on for Earth because the previous age of heroes – Amazonians, Atlanteans, and the tribes of Man – thwarted his previous takeover (in a flashback with some tasty Easter eggs). Now he is back from outer space, or Apokolips rather, with his horde of Parademons for another go.
He aims to merge the Mother Boxes, form the Unity, and … well, it's not entirely clear.
Step wants to do bad stuff and say standard villainous things along the way about others bowing to him and seeing the truth about power. There isn't a lot else to his motivations.
Anyhow, it is the job of the new supergroup to stop this formation. (Quick aside, but Jack Kirby's Mother Boxes deserve better treatment, and explanation, than to be relegated to world-threatening MacGuffins.)
Also, Superman's return is handled far too quickly. He goes from dead to not-dead, and then onto "true Superman" in a Kryptonian second (or "thrib," if you prefer). It is a bit of a rush job, but it doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the movie.
The film's two-hour runtime makes the adventure lean and fast. Too fast. That said, while I could have used more story development, I didn't leave the theater craving for a three-hour epic.
And by the way, don't race out of the theater when the movie ends; wait until all of the end credits have rolled.