I remember a certain point in my life a couple of months ago, not long after seeing the big-screen debut of Wonder Woman, when I had the thought “How lucky we are to live in a world where we get two Wonder Woman movies in one year.” The prospect of not having to wait two or three years between appearances thrilled me, not really taking into account all that might surround/overwhelm the character in Justice League. It’s the DC/Warner Bros. universe’s attempt to combine many of their most popular characters into a single team, not unlike the Avengers movies do. So would it surprise you to learn that I thought Gal Gadot’s return as Wonder Woman is among the strongest elements in this fairly crowded affair?
With Superman “dead” for most of Justice League, this newfound team is nicely co-led by Wonder Woman and Batman (Ben Affleck)—both of whom take charge when it comes to recruiting new members and facing the heat of battle against the much-prophesied new villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), and his army of flying insect-like creatures (who reminded me a great deal of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz). Taking the lessons they learned from the dearly departed Superman (Henry Cavill) about protecting the innocent, Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince spend a sizable portion of the first half of the movie pulling together a speedster named Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a prince of Atlantis who has found a home on the surface named Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and a young man killed in his prime and brought back to live using cybernetic technology named Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher).
As you might expect from a team origin story, there is some resistance to the idea of playing well with others and fighting a foe that could easily kill them all, which is why one of the smartest and most refreshing moments in the film occurs when Barry Allen, in desperate need of friends, simply says yes to Bruce Wayne’s invitation. Of the newer players, Miller certainly shines; he’s about the only one on screen not playing the ultimate version of a tough guy. He’s never actually “done battle” before, and the idea of doing so terrifies him. It’s an honest and endearing admission to a group of peers, most of whom have spent their entire lives training for combat. I suspect the inevitable Flash standalone movie is going to be adorable beyond words.
I’m still at a bit of a loss as to what exactly Aquaman’s persona is meant to tell us. He’s from Atlantis, but he’s clearly an outcast whose look, mannerisms, and speech patterns seem to indicate a cross between an outlaw biker, surfer bro, and ice trucker. Momoa is actually pretty likable in the role, and has some of the better one-liners, courtesy of co-screenwriters Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who also ghost directed some newly shot scenes when directed Zack Snyder had to step away for personal reasons).
Cyborg should have been one of the film’s most interesting characters; his powers come from the same Mother Boxes that the villain is seeking, in an effort to use their power to level the Earth and beyond. We’re meant to think he might be untrustworthy in terms of where his allegiances lie, but Victor seems like such an honorable person, I never suspected him for a second of being a traitor. He ends up playing a fairly major role in the fight against Steppenwolf, but there still needs to be a great deal of work done on developing his persona and finding his human elements as these films move forward and the universe expands. Even the appearance of Joe Morton (Terminator 2) as Victor’s father doesn’t do much to make us care about Victor’s fate.
Not surprisingly, Justice League feels crowded, but more by supporting characters than super-powered heroes and villains. Amy Adams and Diane Lane make appearances from the Superman films (Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman); J.K. Simmons makes an appearance as Batman’s partner in crimefighting Commissioner Gordon, while Jeremy Irons Alfred returns; the Amazon women from Wonder Woman (including Connie Nielson as Queen Hippolyta) all appear, since apparently one of the Mother Boxes is housed on Themyscira; Barry Allen’s father (Billy Crudup) sees his son a couple of times from behind prison bars; and we even get a glimpse of Atlantis (where another Mother Box is kept) and Amber Heard’s Mera from the upcoming Aquaman film. That’s a helluva cast list to keep track of and give enough screen time to justify their inclusion in the film. And considering that the running time of this film is right at two hours, I almost wish (and I can’t believe I’m going to say this) they’d added another 15-20 minutes of material here to flesh out a few ideas.
I don’t want to say too much about Superman’s place in Justice League. I don’t think it’s any secret that Clark Kent finds his way back to the land of the living, but the way in which it’s handled is clunky and unnecessary. Let’s just say when he wakes up, Superman is a little…confused. And while this momentary lapse of understanding leads to a fun little fight sequence, we know he’ll snap back to normal, so why bother with the charade?
Some aspects of the movie are actually quite exceptional, and I’m happy to report that Snyder’s patented monochromatic color schemes and abundance of slow motion are kept to a minimum here (a special thanks to cinematographer Fabian Wagner, who has done a handful of impressive “Game of Thrones” episodes over the years, including last season’s “Battle of the Bastards”). Still, the film feels abbreviated and choppy, and it’s perhaps a little too easy to tell which scenes Whedon had a hand in—some for the better, but not always.
As crowded as the films sometimes feels, when the team is together and working toward a common goal, Justice League is quite effective and, more importantly, manageable. I actually appreciated the epic-scale of the piece and while the end-of-the-world threat never really takes hold the way it should to enhance the drama, the sense of the real danger is still there. Throw in a suitably dramatic score by Danny Elfman, and this gets a mild recommendation from me.
More than anything, Justice League makes me yearn for the next Wonder Woman movie and whatever Batman movie Ben Affleck may or may not be a part of. Hell, even the post-credits sequence gave me a charge for what that’s teasing. This isn’t a huge leap forward for the DC movie world, but things are creeping in the right direction.