“How many of you are there?” quizzes an intrigued Commissioner Gordon. “Not enough”, says a grave Batman in his signature gravelly tones before he, alongside comrades Wonder Woman and Cyborg, simply disappear. “Oh, Wow. They just…they really just vanished, huh? Oh, that’s rude.” before making his own lightning-fast exit, which is seemingly struck with a bolt of irony, leaving a slightly perplexed Gordon standing alone and stunned.
In this pithy exchange lies one of the saving graces of Justice League, a film which endured a rather complicated production process. After a personal tragedy, director Zack Synder left the project to be finished by Joss Whedon, which resulted in re-shoots and re-writes. With superhero films being so well established in contemporary cinema, audiences can now laugh at the genre’s absurdities and not take itself too seriously, a trait which previous DC films have lacked until the release of Justice League. The Flash / Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) proves to be a vessel for witty sarcastic quips that seem typical of your average-millennial novice-superhero, and, though the comic relief he provides is initially welcome, it does cause some eye rolls as it becomes repetitive.
Despite deeming myself a follower of DC’s TV series, The Flash, alongside Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, albeit one that’s more of a ‘casual fan’ than all-out-devotee, I naturally wanted Grant Gustin to assume his titular role in DC’s film universe. Ezra Miller, however, doesn’t do too bad in the role and his character definitely benefits from being granted hints a slight backstory as he visits his imprisoned father.
Energised by new vigour after being inspired by Superman’s selflessness, Batman requests background info on various metahumans as he aims to put together a team capable of defending the earth against an ancient extra-terrestrial New God, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), having been awakened by the world’s mourning of Superman following the events of Doomsday in Batman v Superman. That’s about all the background audiences are allowed, however, as Aquaman / Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is left as a mystery, his heritage as an Atlantean ruler of the waves merely glimpsed. In an ideal world, he would have enjoyed his own origin story before the ‘big team’ instalment of DC’s superhero franchise was released. Wonder Woman clearly benefited from this with her own film this year, suggesting that the release of Justice League feels a little rushed, in a bid to piggyback off the popularity of rival studio’s Marvel’s Avengers franchise. Aquaman’s lack of origin story feels like a missed opportunity, leaving the character in desperate need of being fleshed out, as he oozes unfulfilled potential.
Batman declares “We’re all held back in our own way” as he makes his case to use the powerful Motherboxes that Stephenwolf seeks to unite, to revive Superman. It’s difficult to believe this with conviction, and difficult to invest in each hero as held back by their limited backstories. Furthermore, Cyborg / Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) is a brooding character who seems to have come out of the blue to anyone not acquainted with the comics, with nothing but his strained relationship with his father and battle with coming to terms with his new physiology to anchor him in the sympathy of the audience.
Where Justice League wins points, as most films often do, is in the way the team interacts with one another, in this case through banter or mentorship. The Flash’s wide-eyed and inexperienced nature in contrast with a worn and weathered Batman makes for an interesting dynamic, as the latter imparts profound advice on the former: “just save one”. There’s also interesting development between Diana and Victor, with the latter still grieving over Steve Trevor’s death in her origins film.
With superhero films being so explosively out of this world and removed from the reality we know, the key to a movie of the genre hitting the mark often lies in striking the perfect balance between the awesome gravitas of CGI spectacle, with a sense of genuine humanity. To a large extent, this is achieved. The League are reminded that they aren’t gods through Diana’s voice of reason, highlighting the risks it poses dabbling with the unknown technology and power of the Motherboxes to resurrect Superman (Henry Cavill). When Superman does return after his revival, his thrashing of each League member without seemingly breaking a sweat, also serves as a seldom reminder of their few weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Incidentally, Superman looks great for a guy who has been dead a while, part of which may be to do with the fact that Cavill was also filming M:I6 – Mission Impossible at the same time, for which he had to sport a moustache for his role. It’s become widely discussed that Paramount refused to let Cavill shave the facial hair, resulting in it being digitally removed in post-production, a truly painstaking job for the editor. Memory re-gained, it becomes clear Superman is the ultimate beacon of salvation for humanity. While the Flash saves a human family whose struggle for survival has been denoted in various scenes in the film, Superman, rather amusingly, saves a building’s worth of people, hinting that even metahumans are inferior next to his abilities.
The film’s humour, team camaraderie and winning interactions, plus the fact that it, quite rightly, never escapes the ‘saving lives’ and ‘teamwork’ roots inherent of its genre, can’t quite overcome the bitter aftertaste that Steppenwolf leaves as a wholly undeveloped villain who lacks both substance and real threat. Though there is an attempt to instil fear in his legend of being so terrifying that an alliance of human, Amazonian, Atlantean and Green Lantern Corps warriors and Olympic Gods was needed to defeat him, Steppenwolf remains a feebly CGI-ed meaningless monster without rhyme or reason.
Is Justice League a success? That depends on which lens you view it through. As an intense comic-book fan you will undoubtedly find faults with it. As a standalone film, the plot is over simplistic but the action enjoyable. To compare it to Marvel is a mistake. It would be best to judge DC films based on their own unique gritty, edgy and dark style. Though DC’s Superman was first created in 1938, DC, through their own shortcomings, lack the modern legacy and forethought that Marvel films possess, having introduced characters in their own origin films before their successful collaboration with Avengers Assemble. On the other hand, DC’s superhero empire feels hastily put together, with its main characters barely introduced to viewers, leaving audiences thinking, in true Flash style. “Oh, that’s rude”.