*Please note this review has some minor spoilers.
The DC Cinematic Universe has been plagued with issues from its inception. With last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice being so divisive–critically torn apart, the film still managed to gross more than $800 million worldwide–and news of various movies happening within and outside of the DCEU, Justice League is surprisingly the first time I’ve felt somewhat optimistic about the superhero team’s future. It’s nowhere near great and there are several problems that plague the film–such as tonal issues, characterization, etc.; however, it’s still a step up from past films, which is saying a lot for a movie that’s had to go through two directors and weeks of reshoots.
Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is still adamant about putting a super-powered team together after whisperings of dark times ahead. He isn’t quite sure what lies ahead, but he’s sure he needs the help of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) to stop it. What they have to stop turns out to be an ancient evil in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciarián Hinds), who battled the likes of the Amazons thousands of years ago, his fear-feeding parademons by his side. He wishes to reunite the three alien mother boxes in hopes to restore his planet and replace the earth, killing everyone.
The first hour of the film relies quite heavily on setting up brief backstories for the lesser known team members. We were introduced to Cyborg, Aquaman, and The Flash very briefly in Batman v Superman, but despite a bit more information on each character, Justice League relies on its audience to already know something about them, which is a mistake given that many non-comic fans are walking into the film without background knowledge on any of the three new characters.
There’s a brief scene between Aquaman and Mera (Amber Heard), but it doesn’t tell us much other than they are not yet in a relationship and their statuses in Atlantis not yet what comic fans know them to be. We also learn how Victor became Cyborg and the issues he has with his father; and all we learn about Barry is that he has no friends and his dad, Henry (Billy Crudup), is in jail after allegedly killing his wife. (An aside: if you watch CW’s The Flash, you’ll notice a scene in the jail that looks suspiciously too much like a scene from the show). The point being is that each of these characters would have greatly benefited from their own solo movies prior to this film. It’s why Wonder Woman is the most developed because she got to shine in her own film without having to shoehorn her background into an already full movie.
Tonally, the film is a bit off. As in, you can distinguish certain scenes that were shot by Zack Snyder and others that were shot by Joss Whedon. The film shifts from dark to light and only sometimes finds a balance between the two. The action scenes are fun to watch and thankfully never go on for too long. Some of the CGI isn’t that great, but the film still manages to provoke some beautiful shots, such as Wonder Woman standing proudly atop a statue of justice and or Lois and Clark standing in the field together with the sun fading in the distance. The team-up of superheroes itself is good and fun, but lacking overall. As mentioned before, this is largely due to the lack of development of the newer characters than with the chemistry of the team.
Speaking of the team, it’s strange that Batman is the one to get everyone together, especially after it’s discovered who Steppenwolf is and that Wonder Woman knows of him. It’s then that Justice League should have put her front and center rather than have her play second fiddle to a forlorn Batman. Even though he spends a lot of time making Diana feel bad about not stepping up to fight (which is ridiculous because it’s not like she’s been hiding out alone somewhere and refusing to help), she does have one of the more developed arcs of the film. Yes, Justice League mentions Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) quite a few times and Bruce even cites him as Diana’s reasons for her unwillingness to step up, but it’s not fair to say that Diana stepped back simply because she’d lost Steve, though the movie will have us believing this. In some ways, the film undermines her character because it makes her less than who she is.
Diana explains that it scares her to ask anyone to follow her so willingly into battle knowing that they might die for a cause and because of her. She can encourage and help people, but asking them to die for her is a sacrifice she’s not willing to make. Given what she’d learned on her very first mission in the human world, the loyalties she built, and the losses she suffered, it isn’t far-fetched to understand why she’s reluctant to ask this of others and risk people’s lives in the name of her own beliefs and reasons. Despite what Bruce tells her, Diana proves herself more of a leader and the glue that holds the team together. She shows compassion to Cyborg’s guardedness, empathy toward Barry’s fear of screwing up, and logic in the face of the questionable task Bruce takes on of resurrecting Superman. If anything, her presence proves that Batman is a largely inefficient leader because he lacks the skills to work with others or even inspire them.
Jason Momoa is charming as Aquaman and he easily steals the scenes he’s in. Ray Fisher brings some depth to Cyborg, which is impressive given the little he has to work with. Henry Cavill’s Superman is honestly the best iteration of his character so far. He’s less broody (save for one major scene), he makes quips, engages in humor with his teammates, and seems far more hopeful than in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. This is the Superman we know and deserve. Ben Affleck is still good as Batman, but he’s full of guilt about what happened to Superman and so his mood is even more of a downer. Ezra Miller’s Flash is unfortunately reduced to comic relief and he’s unlike any iteration of Barry Allen you’ll find in comics or TV (he leans a tad more toward being more like Bart than Barry). Some of his lines are funny, but he never quite becomes a full-fledged character, which is a shame since The Flash is meant to be one of the most powerful superheroes in the League.
Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, one of the best characters in DC Comics, also gets the short end of the stick when it comes to her arc. She and Cavill have a strong moment together later in the film, but it would have been nice to see more of her, specifically with regards to reporting on the events of the film. Through her, we might have seen more of the global scope and repercussions of Steppenwolf’s actions, but the public’s point of view is diminished and only appears in a brief montage at the beginning of the film. And last, but not least, Gal Gadot once again brings a quiet strength to Wonder Woman, her compassion and resilience a standout among the rest of the team.
Steppenwolf as a villain isn’t the greatest, but even though he’s underwhelming and the stakes don’t feel as high, the plot is at least coherent and moves at a decent pace. Again, the investment in the team is only there because there’s a sense of enjoyment that comes from watching them interact with each other. When they fight together, they don’t quite feel like a unified front, but when they’re interacting on a personal level, there’s more of an easy camaraderie. It’s a camaraderie that has a lot of potential in the future.
Ultimately, Justice League had some good moments and largely feels more positive and hopeful than its predecessors (the exception being Wonder Woman, of course). The film isn’t great, nor is it abysmal. It simply exists and is enjoyable to a certain degree if you’re at least willing to let certain things go. The plot makes actual sense even though the stakes aren’t high and it would’ve been nice to see more of a build-up for Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash, but I suppose their individual storylines will unfortunately have to wait. And honestly after the problems Justice League has had prior to release, the fact that it’s not atrociously bad is surprisingly good enough for now.
Justice League's plot makes actual sense even though the stakes aren’t high and it would’ve been nice to see more of a build-up for Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash, but I suppose their individual storylines will unfortunately have to wait. And honestly, after the problems Justice League has had prior to release, the fact that it's not atrociously bad is surprisingly good enough for now.