Comics are a cyclical medium. Each year, our heroes’ monthly titles evolve. Tastes change along with cultural standards. Talented new creative teams of writers and artists take over the reins, producing new stories—ones suited for contemporary tastes.
Justice League is a perfect example of this dynamic. It presents a tonal reset for the DC cinematic universe, one that embraces the wit, absurdity, and complexity of modern heroic filmmaking alongside a sweet, earnest reverence for all that these mythic figures mean to us. Casting aside the grim, dark anti-heroism of its immediate predecessor, it embraces the light, illuminating a hopeful future for this beleaguered franchise.
Frankly, there’s no logical reason for the film to succeed as well as it does, but somehow this clunky, tonally dissonant mini-miracle melds Snyder’s “Twilight of the Gods” aesthetic with Whedon’s “We’re all just insecure dipshits” populism in ways that thrill, even as its structural seams continually reveal themselves.
The reported issues with editing, green screen, and added quips are real and often glaring, but the good-hearted earnestness of the film’s intent shines through as brightly as the pure heart of young, gawky Barry Allen. While the CGI villain, Steppenwolf, is barely worth mentioning, the League itself manages to win our hearts by simply being fun versions of the intriguing characters they’ve been for decades on paper, writ large on-screen. Sure, the inherent bipolarity of being directed by two different people at entirely different times shows, but the frisson of League’s unlikely directing team-up works more than might be expected. Somehow their clashing styles manage an unlikely amiability, combining Snyder’s overheated, rhapsodic visuals with Whedon’s witty verbal deflations to create a clever, self-aware atmosphere in which these New Gods can convincingly coexist. Recovering from the multiple disastrous missteps of Batman vs Superman seemed like a task too Herculean for any one film, and the last-minute inclusion of Whedon seemed like desperation personified, but somehow or other Justice League comes alive in fun, unexpected ways.
While the perfunctory, half-developed origins of the majority of our heroes don’t resonate as much as the film would like, the individual characterizations and general camaraderie mostly work far beyond understandably low expectations. There is real affection here in the mentorship Bruce gives Barry and in the human recognition Diana provides for Victor. We do, indeed, care that Lois is in despair, and that Martha Kent is hurting and bereft. Their grief is palpable, providing some catharsis in returning Clark to us, even if the previous film should never have taken him so foolishly soon in the series. As for Aquaman, he’s a kick-ass fighting companion, but his stand-alone movie still has miles to go in developing him as Arthur Curry—or as any fully-drawn character.
The same could be said for the franchise as a whole. Justice League is a lot of fun, but it’s far from perfect. For starters, Cavill is too limited an actor to be a great Superman. His performance is much the same as MOS and BVS: he’s only okay in the role, and is even more constrained by brandishing an animated mouth for most of the film. While he certainly satisfies the manly beauty requirements, his ability to convey complex emotions is…limited. Too bad they ditched the wonderful, funny, touching Brandon Routh after Superman Returns. His work on Legends of Tomorrow shows us all what might have been. Affleck, too, provides only one shade of what a complex man Bruce Wayne can be. While the gifted actor and director fares much better here than in BVS, the franchise would benefit from his graceful exit.
As for the film’s primary misstep, Steppenwolf himself, what is there to say? They rushed the CGI and botched any motion-capture they might have done. He never appears real for a moment. DC simply has to get it together on these substandard CGI creations. They are noticeably lagging behind the technology. Andy Serkis by himself has lapped them creatively multiple times in the past few years.
Still, there’s plenty to root for here. While matching the jaunty tone of the wonderful Thor: Ragnarok is too much to ask of a production as star-crossed as that of Justice League, somehow the film manages to find its footing in the luminescent star power of Gal Gadot, the buzzy quirk of Ezra Miller, and the stalwart cool of Ray Fisher. It comes alive in fits and starts, flailing again and again, but somehow manages to hearten and thrill, giving us a scrappy, unsteady foundation upon which to build future adventures. Against all odds, Justice League earns a heaping helping of love and respect, providing real hope for all comic fans. With any luck, the Watchtower is under construction right now.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Pop Snowglobe is known by day as Mark Dupre, a geek since age seven, when he purchased an issue of Fantastic Four with his very own allowance money and never looked back. He lives in Austin with his incredibly patient wife and daughter. He loves to share his geeky insights here and at popsnowglobe.com.