by Miguel B. Martinez
(I’ve included a small DC cinematic history lesson first, but, rest assured, the review for Justice League can be found below if you wish to scroll ahead. No one will judge you for it. Except the ghost of Geordi La Forge, because refusing to read is for chumps.)
In 2011, Warner Bros attempted to create a cinematic universe built around DC Comics properties to compete with the silver screen offerings from Marvel Studios, which has since been acquired and retooled by Disney.
Whereas Marvel found success in their 2008 cinematic-universe launch in Iron Man, WB stumbled and stuttered with a critical and commercial failure in Green Lantern.
Make no mistake, had Green Lantern been well-received by both fans, critics, newcomers, and the wallets of all the above, WB’s DC movie-verse would be far different than it is today, and it’s important to understand what went wrong with Green Lantern, because, judging by the progress made from that first attempt all the way to Justice League, there’s still a long way to go.
Justice League isn’t a bad movie. It just isn’t a great one, either, and that makes it at least a partial failure.
As much as it may make me sound like the kind greedy and arrogant super-villain we expect to see in these movies, we cannot pretend that these superhero films exist in a vacuum, nor can we tell ourselves it’s still 2002 and we should be desperately grateful for the superhero scraps falling off Hollywood’s table.
Audiences are smarter than either the creative forces behind a movie or anyone else gives them credit for.
When there’s an unnecessary lull in a the tempo, we can tell.
When a character’s actions and words are so out of place with what they’ve done and said before, we remember.
When the production reaches a point where the writers have been kicked out of the room and special effects starts driving the story, we recognize it.
And, when someone finally comes along late in the film-making process who is able to convince the right people of the right way to approach the kind of story you can write in your sleep, causing re-writes and re-shoots that get spliced into the final product in an attempt to redeem the story as a whole, we can tell.
This is the case of the unfortunate yet hopeful Justice League.
But, let’s bring it back to Green Lantern, because that’s the only way to understand what Warner Bros still hasn’t learned.
Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Michael Clark Duncan, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, and Taika Waititi, had a lot going for it: strong cast, excellent source material, and the directorial hand of Martin Campbell, who was no stranger to superhero fare, having worked on quasi-superhero franchises like Zorro and James Bond properties. Despite these strengths, however, Green Lantern was essentially a colossal waste of everyone’s time, save, of course, for giving us the off-screen pairing of Reynolds and Lively.
Green Lantern was hampered by unimaginative directing, a cadre of mustache-twiddling villains, poor visual effects, a studio that hadn’t yet bought into the value of DC Comics, and a screenwriting staff that didn’t understand how to balance the strengths of the comic book medium against those of moving-picture storytelling. Despite these shortcomings, the movie manages to be mildly entertaining if you happen to need something to put on the TV while you clean your apartment. Reynolds buys into the movie more than anyone. Mark Strong was perfectly cast and nearly-perfectly written. There’s some very strong plot concepts and themes from the source material that not even this movie could slow down or bury with its own impotence.
Any way you slice it, Green Lantern flopped, and, perhaps what’s worse is that it did so when it was the least convenient: right on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dark Knight Trilogy, when Warner Bros needed to establish themselves in the modern superhero landscape, without depending on Batman to do so. Since then, WB has given us Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Brood—I mean, Justice, Wonder Woman, and, now, Justice League.
(SPOILER-FREE REVIEW STARTS HERE, TRUE BELIEVERS)
Justice League shows us that WB has learned from some, but not all, of their mistakes. The casting is almost impeccable, the musical score, while leaning on nostalgia for big moments, is well-done, the source-material is treated with more respect than most of the previous movie-verse, and the plot, though hamstrung by a tug-of-war between building background for much of the new characters and compressing the relationships between these modern Superfriends, hits many of the points it needed to hit.
The issue, however, is that JL appears to simultaneously depend on the knowledge of diehard DC fans AND assumption of amnesia from the general audience. It’s like the person who finally shows up at the party, but arrives last, repeats the same story that we heard hours before and from multiple people, and then demands we pay for their Lyft after immediately getting drunk and losing their phone. There are going to be people already at the party who were depending on that person to show up and will be entertained and enamored by their presence, no matter how minimal the effort, and, while that ends up working out for that specific relationship, everyone else is either indifferent or inconvenienced by the display. There may even be those who wanted that person to arrive earlier so that they may enjoy a full evening of well-paced drinking and revelry with them.
Justice League will either leave you annoyed, indifferent, disappointed, infatuated with promise, or an amalgamation of all the above. I am one of those all the above types.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Justice League in the moments when it attempts to achieve more than the bare minimum. Ben Affleck’s Batman allows himself to have fun with the role yet again. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is everything we needed her to be, all at once intelligent, strong, graceful, and merciful. Ezra Miller’s Flash embodies the kind of portrayal we’ve already been warmed up to in the CW’s The Flash series, but with some added quirks. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman may have been more Jason Momoa than Aquaman, but if the ultimate goal to make everyone accept Aquaman as a genuine badass, it’s hard to go wrong with Momoa. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is certainly a welcome surprise, although general audiences may find it difficult to invest in a largely-CGI monotone-speaking character. And, yes, though perhaps one of the most terribly-kept secrets of the film, Henry Cavill’s Superman does return and he’s allowed to smile and embody the character in ways he simply wasn’t allowed to before.
Besides the strengths of the cast, the film nearly succeeds in adapting Geoff Johns’ New 52 “Justice League: Origin” arc, in which the Justice League must assemble to combat an alien invasion that none of them could handle alone. In the film, they’re trying to stop an ancient villain from obtaining a cube of alien origin that can simultaneously open portals and lead to the destruction of the planet. They have to depend on the leadership of a lost hero to guide them to victory, distilling their strengths and weaknesses and focusing them on the goal of truth, justice, and the American Way. Little do they know, however, that, even if they win this battle, a larger threat looms.
If your immediate thought is that this sounds way too much like Marvel’s Avengers movie, it’s only because it does, and the only entity that should be blamed for that is Warner Bros, who failed to buy into the superhero genre early enough to make a dent in the movie-going audience’s cultural psyche.
Furthermore, while Marvel gave us Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki to imbalance and vex their heroes, we’re saddled with a 10-foot-tall monochrome CGI villain in Ciarin Hinds’ Steppenwolf. Hinds does an excellent job with the voice work, but Hinds’ efforts on that front overshadow the special effects to the point where you lose the tangible sense of dread and uncertainty that should accompany a villain worthy of the Justice League, who appear to be trapped in a bad video game where they’re forced to skip essential dialogue scenes in order to get the experience over with, already.
Don’t mistake me, there are some great lines in the film, the moments when you can tell that Joss Whedon has a hand on the wheel, but the overall movie is inconsistent because of what Warner Bros has already (mis)managed to create prior to JL.
Had WB not been so intent on playing catch-up with Marvel, we could already have Aquaman, Teen Titans (with Cyborg), and Flash films. While some may argue that these are unnecessary (and it is possible to do so), those same people may be unwilling or unable to see the merit in that commitment to patience in world building. The movie should not have been as uneven as it was, because it wouldn’t have been necessary to spend the precious screen time on all-too-obligatory introduction scenes. We would have been more welcoming of characters like JK Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon and (moreso) Amber Heard’s Queen Mera, because it would have felt like being reunited with old friends instead of being on a forced play-date after you’re already too old for play-dates.
In essence, Justice League needed to show us how much WB has learned since their failure to start a cinematic universe since 2011, and what we’ve seen is a glimmer of hope in a snowstorm of executive and creative ignorance. We expected more from this movie, and rightly so, because, as much as the Justice League film may have succeeded in scoring a superficial victory, like their titular heroes, the cinematic universe needs to shape up for the looming threat of Marvel’s Infinity War Part 1.
If you left the theater feeling like Warner Bros and crew might not be up to the task, you certainly aren’t alone. And, if you walked out of the movie feeling more hesitant than hopeful about opening your heart and your wallet to someone arriving to the party this late and lacking this much self-awareness, nobody can fault you.
6.5/10 – Due to the sheer frustration factor of feeling as if this movie could have easily been the first in the cinematic universe and nothing would have been lost.