If it wasn’t for Wonder Woman, it would have been easy to chalk up Warner Bros. Pictures’ cinematic universe of DC Comics superhero films as a failed experiment. After three films with well-documented troubles in one area or another and piles of wasted potential, things were looking grim for the studio’s DC Extended Universe — only to have Wonder Woman come along and make us believe the DCEU really could, well … fly.
So it really is a shame that Justice League had to go and shoot that idea out of the air.
Helmed once again by Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder, Justice League is the culmination of a long, tumultuous journey that has involved almost as much drama and chaos behind the camera as unfolds in front of it. The film brings back Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and features more prominent roles for Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ezra Miller as Flash, and Ray Fisher as Cyborg, who each made cameos in earlier films. The film also features the return of Henry Cavill as Superman — a plot point that stopped being a secret early in the film’s marketing campaign.
There’s a host of other returning characters and newcomers to the DCEU in Justice League as well, but in most cases, the roles they play are essentially extended cameos.
Of all five films in the studio’s live-action universe so far, Justice League begins on what might be the sourest note.
There were no shortage of jokes made in July when it was reported that the extensive reshoots the film was undergoing (which are fairly common for big movies like this) ran into some trouble due to Cavill’s contractually obligated facial hair for the Mission: Impossible movie he was working on at the time. That must have been one big mustache, because the digital editing used to hide it ends up giving Superman’s face a bizarre, clay-faced pad of digital polish that manages to be both distracting and off-putting just at the point when most films are trying to get in sync with their audience and reel them in for the upcoming adventure.
It’s just one brief scene, but it sadly sets the tone for what Justice League has in store for its audience.
The success of Wonder Woman gave superhero movie fans hope that WB would take the lessons it learned from that film and apply them to the faulty formula it had been using for the first three films in the franchise — and in that respect, Justice League shows some signs of progress. Its tone is lighter than that of Man of Steel and the oppressively dour Batman V. Superman, primarily due to an abundance of witty banter that fluctuates between being legitimately funny and feeling forced.
When the humor in Justice League works, it raises the entire film with it, but when it falls flat, it feels like an annoying in-joke emphasized by too many winks and nods.
Snyder also makes the curious decision to have Justice League firmly set in the shadows (sometimes literally) of both Man of Steel and, to a greater degree, Batman V. Superman.
Along with countless plot points directly tied to the events in Batman V. Superman, the film also goes to great lengths to convince you that Superman’s death at the end of that film fractured the hopes and dreams of the entire world. Throughout much of the film, humanity — particularly Batman — remains in a state of deep, deep mourning for Superman that the film hammers home with every option available to it, from its color palette (which spans the spectrum of grays and not much else) to a score that would seem more appropriate for a funeral than a movie featuring a caped superhero who dresses like a bat to fight crime.
Whether Superman actually earned that degree of adulation with his actions in earlier films is certainly up for debate, but when so much of Justice League is anchored to Batman V. Superman, the problems of the latter film — awkward dialogue, inconsistent tone, etc. — tend to find their way into this one. Justice League is haunted by Batman V. Superman just as much as it’s informed by it.
Snyder’s affinity for speed-shifting action sequences is also in full display in Justice League, and he puts it to heavy use in scenes involving Wonder Woman, Flash, and Superman. The way the film depicts Flash’s super-speed, for example, relies almost entirely on filming Miller in action at different speeds as he interacts with his environment or other characters. It’s a technique that looks good initially, but begins to feel a little over-used about halfway through the film when nearly every scene is an action scene, and every action scene uses the same technique.
As for the superheroes themselves, Gadot’s Wonder Woman continues to be the best part of any movie she’s in — and that includes Batman V. Superman. Meanwhile, Affleck’s portrayal of The Dark Knight benefits from the added humor this time around and feels like a more fleshed-out character rather than what he did in Batman V. Superman, but Affleck still feels like a good Batman trapped in a bad movie.
Of the three newcomers — Miller, Momoa, and Fisher — Miller’s quirky speedster gets the most development (and the best jokes), but all three characters’ parts seem more focused on setting up their solo movies than establishing a genuine superhero team dynamic.
Although the film does have some fun moments and exciting sequences peppered throughout its mercifully short two-hour runtime, Justice League ends up being a testament to the danger of trying to cram too much into one movie. Sure, it has comedy, action, spectacle, and mature takes on some of the most popular superheroes of all time, but it falls short of being exceptional in any of those elements. It’s a film that feels desperate to check all the boxes, but uninterested in doing much more than that.
Sadly, that acceptance of being “just okay” is a recurring theme for WB’s superhero movies, which typically manage to make money at the box office, but not as much as they should make, given the characters involved. And like all of the movies not named Wonder Woman that came before it, Justice League is a movie that should be very, very good based on everyone involved, but ultimately ends up a forgettable, underachieving pastiche of better movies.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends
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