Directed by: Zack Snyder || Produced by: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg, Geoff Johns
Screenplay by: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon || Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons
Music by: Danny Elfman || Cinematography: Fabian Wagner || Edited by: David Brenner, Richard Pearson, Martin Walsh || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 118 minutes
Joining the ranks of high-profile Hollywood blockbusters plagued by extensive reshoots, increased studio oversight, and last-minute, hyperactive post-production editing, including but not limited to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Fantastic Four (2015), Star Trek Beyond (2016), and the upcoming Han Solo film (2018), is Warner Bros. and DC Films’ latest controversial epic, Justice League. To say this latest DC Extended Universe (DCEU) entry fails to pacify ongoing scrutiny of its parent studio’s production strategy would be putting it mildly. This is the fifth installment of the comic book franchise, which started with 2013’s Man of Steel, and is the third to have been changed substantially following principle photography, along with the well received but critically maligned Suicide Squad (2016) and the universally well received Wonder Woman (2017) from earlier this year.
Most film analysts concede the earlier DCEU films’ morbid tone and self-serious diegesis were questionable creative decisions on which to base a multi-billion dollar tentpole franchise clearly inspired by the generic but effective box office juggernaut that is Walt Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-present). Tasking inconsistent screenwriter David S. Goyer and divisive action director Zack Snyder to lead said burgeoning franchise was further asking for trouble.
While many things have stayed the same four years after Man of Steel’s release, much has changed at Warner Bros. and its DCEU flagship series. The MCU has chugged along like an unstoppable force, the McDonald’s of modern Hollywood blockbuster intellectual properties. The DCEU, on the other hand, has struggled to find solid footing as indecision at the executive level and fan backlash at the general audience level have left writers, directors, and producers running in circles to keep this recognizable yet unwieldy property afloat.
Full disclosure: I am a fan of the incendiary, divisive Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) for most all the reasons professional critics and comic die-hards hated it; its dark, sulking tone and characteristic Synder violence are unabashed guilty pleasures of mine, and while I was lukewarm on the aforementioned Man of Steel and neutral-to-negative with Suicide Squad (at least what was left of David Ayer’s original concept), I respected Warner Bros. for pursuing such an off-kilter, unapologetic style in a blockbuster franchise. That took balls. Moreover, I appreciated the earlier DCEU films’ commitment to memorable villains, distinctive music, and an identifiable visual style, as opposed to the MCU’s overwhelmingly generic, repetitive, and bland house style.
To say that Warner Bros. has becoming nothing but apologetic about its opening DCEU films would be an understatement. Wonder Woman was a veritable success, but Suicide Squad and Justice League are a different story. I lost much respect for Warner Bros. after they overreacted to negative reviews of Dawn of Justice by sabotaging Ayer’s Suicide Squad, and have now lost all patience with this makeshift Justice League (henceforth, JL).
JL plays like a handicapped Zack Snyder film that was wrestled into a Joss Whedon picture after the fact, which is what it is. Snyder’s involvement in JL and the franchise as a whole dwindled after the fallout of Dawn of Justice, and he would later leave the project altogether after the suicide of his daughter in May of 2017. Whedon, hired for script rewrites during principle photography, took over production thereafter, and you can see the difference.
JL is perhaps best described as a controversial but hardcore metal band selling out after declining album sales and cultural relevancy. It remains to be seen whether this change in plans will increase revenue to the point Warner Bros. wants or needs, but as it stands, this JL is both an inferior copy of Marvel’s inherently generic Avengers (2012) formula and an embarrassing slapdash apology for Batman v. Superman. I predict it will please nobody.
First and foremost is the predictable clash between the movie’s Synder-esque base and Whedon’s post-production editing, both in tone and overall visual style. Most of the action scenes retain that characteristic Snyder “look” and feel to them, as do our heroes’ costumes and much of the set-design. However, numerous scenes are lit so awkwardly from either reshoots or post-production alteration that the “dark, edgy” elements distract from the bright, high-key lighting, and vice versa. These stylistic mismatches extend to various characters’ forced one-liners and cringe-worthy jokes, Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley mustache, and the jumbled, start-stop rhythm of the story’s pacing. We’re talking Fantastic Four (2015)-level of reshoot/post-production obviousness, here.
Whether through reshoots, rewrites, or the natural give-and-take process of film editing, most of the titular League members are underdeveloped. Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman has little backstory or motivation, while the actor’s performance comes across like a comic book caricature of a Judd Apatow dude-bro movie. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/The Flash is similarly irritating, with forced jokes and one-liners galore, and a paper-thin motivation for joining the League. Still, these are more memorable, charismatic roles than Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg, whose bland emoting makes Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman from the first two DCEU movies feel over-the-top, and whose CGI FX are laughable.
And yet, even Fisher’s characterization, performance, and FX are more interesting than Ciaran Hinds’ antagonist, Steppenwolf. The lone area where JL not only equals but exceeds Marvel’s franchise benchmark for blockbuster formula is in its bland, forgettable, non-threatening villain. He makes Saturday morning cartoon villains look creative in both characterization and design.
Aside from the film’s lackluster supporting characters, uninspired villainy, forced humor, and haphazard visual style and pacing throughout, the entire first act of JL is arduous. Scenes unfold seemingly at random and without narrative cause or effect, while the first major battle sequence between Steppenwolf and Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) Amazonian peers looks like a cartoon, a Dragon Ball Z (1989-1996) cheese-fest of terrible CGI, motion-capture, and distracting composite backgrounds.
What did I like about JL? A couple action set-pieces are well preserved despite the abundant reshoots. I enjoyed the League fighting Steppenwolf in a sewer sequence midway through the film, as well as the finale where Superman returns to pummel Steppenwolf into submission. The entire sequence where Superman is revived is also interesting, even if it is contaminated by awkward lighting and preceded by the far more awkward scene of Miller and Fisher literally digging up Kent’s corpse. You take what you can get.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of JL is the chemistry between Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman and Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. The latter’s acting has much improved since Dawn of Justice, while Affleck’s professional attitude toward this bland story elevates most every scene with him. Their combined dialogue feels genuine in a way the rest of the film doesn’t.
Despite these fun moments, however, Justice League remains a substandard, wannabe clone of a generic Marvel movie, but without the precise execution and brilliant production values consistent therein. DC Comics President Geoff Johns and Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara compromised whatever identity and style the DCEU had to distill a 118-minute facsimile of The Avengers from Zack Snyder action sequences, and for what — a $96 million opening weekend in North America against a $300 million budget and a 12% boost from RottenTomatoes? I’ve come back around to appreciating Marvel’s consistency and deliberate marketing strategy, however bland or forgettable I find most of their individual installments. I’ll take that commitment any day over DC’s current fickle, indecisive nature.
Say what you will about the controversial Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice — at least they tried for something different, and didn’t settle for cookie-cutter movies. Now, that cookie-cutter formula is the name of the game, and Marvel seems the only studio capable of executing it with precision. Justice League won’t receive any respect from me because its creators have no respect for itself.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Cobbled together from multiple versions of several different movies, Justice League is a crude amalgamation of generic superhero formula and quasi-Zack Snyder imagery. Digital color-grading and post-production edits stick out like a sore thumb, as do lame attempts at comic relief and supporting characterizations. Its overall story structure is so stilted, plodding, and by-the-numbers it makes Thor: Ragnorak (2017) feel innovative by comparison.
— However… Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot remain the bright spots of a dim franchise, while some of Snyder’s charismatic action peeks through the studio-mandated reshoots.
–> NOT RECOMMENDED
? At least 20th Century Fox is still making interesting superhero blockbusters.