Justice League has been in the works and been worked over, for a while. A book could be written about the troubles this movie went through in post-production. A studio and director unhappy with the rough cut, rewrites, the director leaving the project due to family tragedy and extensive reshoots crammed in to meet a looming release date. That’s a lot inside baseball so let’s focus on the final product. As much as I can anyway. I’m going to get into it so SPOILERS are coming at ya.
I’m a mark for DC comics and The Justice League is one of the biggest and best works in the company’s stable. The animated projects, Justice League Unlimited to point one out specifically, is phenomenal. I had high hopes for this movie and came away disappointed but I did get to watch a fun comic book movie with some of my favorite characters.
Let’s me lay this out first: Justice League is without a doubt better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The hard as nails negative stance some people are laying on it put in a much worse place than I think it is. It’s more coherent and way more fun than BvS. There’s a lot to cover here so I’m going keep this simple and break it into two sections: the good and the bad.
I love the cast. While I may have problems with some of the dialog here and there, I found the character portrayals to be spot on. I like Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne and I think he embodies the cowl side of him well. He’s been in the grinder for 20 years and it’s taken a toll. His view of the world was skewed going into BvS and that experience changed him for the better (great line when he’s talking to Alfred about Superman, “He’s more human than me.” He perseveres in the name of good and while he’s always been a loner, he realizes that what’s coming is way too big for him. He needs help and he must work with others. Diana is that first bridge and I liked seeing them work together to assemble a team. His mentorship to Flash is awesome and one of the best character moments in the film. His opening scene is exhilarating and it looks amazing. The Batman: Animated Series come to life. It’s everything I’ve want in a Batman movie (much like the warehouse fight in BvS).
I loved Wonder Woman from this summer and she remains a bright spot in the DC film universe. She gets her own fantastic action scene, in the beginning, her spirit shines through when she tracks down Victor and constantly stands tall and proud through the whole movie. I love what she represents and she’s one of the biggest highlights of this universe. I’d just like to see her do more. When she sees villain Steppenwolf for the first time she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to throw down. She’s in there going to toe with this monster and it’s awesome.
I’m a big Ezra Miller fan and I love him as Barry Allen/The Flash. Perfectly cast and portrayed. He’s weird, funny, scared, and has no confidence. He’s just a kid with these new found powers when we meet him and he really comes into his own through the movie. The kid has flaws and a tainted past that makes him really human. The interpretation of his speed powers are brilliant, often the most impressive VFX in the movie. He probably has the greatest moments in the movie. I’m all about his upcoming solo movie (please don’t do Flashpoint. Much like pulling so much of The Dark Knight Returns into BvS, it’s way too soon to do that story. You have to build up to that, it’s too complex and major an event to do in a film right now. We have to see The Flash be comic book Flash first).
Jason Momoa rules as Arthur Curry/Aquaman. I knew it from the moment he was cast and it all came through for me. He’s such a fun guy to watch, his underwater scenes looked fantastic and I think he gives a lot of life and personality to a character most people easily dismiss. With James Wan behind the camera for the Aquaman movie, I’m really looking forward to it now.
The big surprise for me was how much I liked Cyborg. I’ve never seen Ray Fisher before so he’s a new actor to me and I’m rather lukewarm about Cyborg/Victor Stone. I’ve never read any of his comics and I know him more from Teen Titans where I think he’s overshadowed by other more interesting characters. His introduction in this movie is I think the strongest out of anyone. We meet him in an apartment hiding out with his father talking to him. He’s all covered up and you can see parts of him glowing in the dark. He takes heavy metallic footsteps around the kitchen and it’s an arresting introduction to a character that’s scared of himself. He doesn’t know if he’s human anymore, every day his robot parts are changing on their own giving him new capabilities (the shock from his father has he hovers with boosters in his legs is perfect). I really liked his part of the story and I think Ray Fisher really brought this tough to translate character from paper to real life. Most of the VFX work on him is very good too. There are a few suspect shots here and there but I’m happy with how he turned out.
I like Henrey Cavill as Superman but he’s often given the short stick on screen due to things completely out of his control. I’ll get to this in a bit.
Justice League also has the best action of any DC movie made to date. The aforementioned opening with Batman sets the stage. The present day sequence on Themyscira with the Amazons on defense is some of the wildest stuff I’ve ever seen. The most epic run of keep away imaginable and it’s another highlight outside of the Wonder Woman movie of how amazing these people are. They take their trusted roles in keeping the world safe seriously with a plan if they lose control of a situation. They do everything possible to keep Steppenwolf at bay, sacrificing themselves at every breach. I mean some of them lock themselves into the vault with a force of nature to buy the escaping Queen Hippolyta more time to get away. It’s intense. Then there’s cool full battle flashback of Steppenwolf’s first invasion attempt, the underground war of the Justice League meeting Steppenwolf for the first time, Superman going buck wild when he’s resurrected by the team (Flash vs Superman is a treat with one of the best reaction shots in movie) and the ultimate battle at the end with everyone team member using their special skills to contribute.
I think most of the glaring faults are technical. This movie looks like it’s not finished at points and that’s a frightening problem. The reshoots apparently replaced a lot and it’s rather obvious what those scenes are. Insane close-ups the look like they were done really fast and done that way to cut corners (money) in production. Put a green screen behind the actors, insert a blurry background of nothing behind them in post-production and move on. You can clearly see what major VFX was planned and worked on from the very beginning (all the work done for Flash, Aquaman under water, the fight on Themyscira) as those parts look very good. The bad work is so bad it sucks all the attention away.
The worst is what they had to do for Henry Cavill. He was filming the next Misson: Impossible movie and he grew a mustache for the role. He was needed for Justice League reshoots at this time and (reportedly) Paramount wouldn’t let him shave it off. Since Superman never has a mustache (and you can’t grow one when you’re dead) they had to digitally remove the mustache. It’s going to go down as one of the worst digital effects in history. His mouth is too small, his nose is screwed up and you can clearly see the line where flesh ends and digital skin begins. A great actor (and character) looks inhuman. It’s so distracting it takes away from whatever Superman is talking about. The first scene in the movie is of him talking to the camera and the effect stares at you like a festering wound. It made me look at Henry Cavill’s mouth in every scene he’s in to see if it was fake, the most obvious tell of reshot footage. It crushes suspension of disbelief in many scenes. Josh Whedon obviously though the effect wouldn’t be a problem because he shoots Cavill so close many times. It just makes it worse, there’s no way to hide it.
And then there’s Steppenwolf. He’s also not finished at times. He’s completely CG (fantastic voice-over work from Ciaran Hinds at least) and he goes from good to what happened. His movement animation is very good, it’s up close where he can fall apart. In the beginning of the movie, there’s a section where it looks like his face is using temporary textures. Like blurry, low-resolution textures from a videogame made 8 years ago. And his lip movement doesn’t work at all! It looks like it’s the first pass at facial animation. You can’t take this thing seriously it looks so off. Ruins the illusion of a real character. This all as to come down to the digital teams not being giving good source material to work with and not enough time to do it.
The two best case scenarios that come to mind for these effects are easy to point out. Compare this mustache debacle to the work the nose replacement effect for Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. That’s how CG replacement is done. That complicated effect was planned from the very start and had enough time to be perfected. And let’s look at Hulk in the recent Marvel movies. He’s too big to not be CG. His body animation is very good (like Steppenwolf) but it’s the motion capture of Mark Ruffalo that sells him as a living, breathing entity on screen. He emotes in a way that a person can recognize and the lip-synching is correct.
Outside of these tech issues, there is also basic story complaints. The movie is too short, it feels compressed (which sounds like is a direct studio reaction to Zach Snyder’s movies tending to run well over 2 hours). The movie just races forward with little logic in mind. Characters just show up when they need to. Major plot devices get rushed through with side remarks. “Have you found the kid yet?” “I have a lead.” Cut to Bruce Wayne in Barry’s hideout. Could we at least know how you got that information? I’d like to see the World’s Greatest Detective be a detective. I’d like to more background of Flash and especially Aquaman (and I know the Aquaman stuff exists). While I appreciate skipping over the doldrums of covering lengthy origins, it’s often done in one sentence here (“So you were hit by lightning?”)
The plot is as bare bones as you can get. Steppenwolf’s motivation for collecting the Mother Boxes barely goes beyond, “I conquer worlds, that’s what I do. Now that Superman is dead, Earth is going to be easy pickings.” And when he gets mad that they are standing up to him, “Why are you bothering with this, you’re weak and will never win.” He’s a dude that’s used to getting what he wants. That’s it.
Lois is disappointing again. She doesn’t contribute anything and more or less stands on the sidelines. We see her in this movie still in mourning, retreated from her career as a journalist. At the start of the movie, we find out that people are being kidnapped. How about Lois digs into that and gets in touch with Jim Gordon? Jim Gordon is also more or less a cameo, I want more of him too!
Having Superman’s first scene back being a fist fight with the other heroes is a bizarre decision. That’s not the Superman people want to see and it more or less feels like it was shoehorned in just because it was a comic book what if? wishlist idea from some random person on the street. Like, “What would it be like for these guys to fight off Superman? That could be cool!” While the logic to get to the fight kinda works, it’s a reach. Batman’s emergency solution is for Lois to be there in case Clark cones back violent. But he waits to bring her out. The logic makes no sense. Why wouldn’t you have her there right from the start? That way she brings him to his senses right away or he’s fine and he gets reunited with the love of his life right away. No matter what, the “love conquers all” motif still works. And good lord is he mean to Batman when he comes back! He’s not supposed to remember things (hence his confusion/anger when he’s resurrected) but he certainly remembers the past when he says “Do you bleed?” to Batman (there are a few strange dialog choices scattered about the movie). And Superman’s face looks like a mess in the ultra close up with the digital mustache replacement. That makes it even more of a horror show.
After two major scenes defending the theft of the mother boxes, the third is stolen without much of a reaction. That third defense should be the action scene that replaces Supes v JL. If he just came back to life, he wouldn’t have been at full power because he hasn’t been in the sun for months. That’s the out for Supes not being strong enough at the time to keep Steppenwolf from taking the last Mother Box.
And In The End
There’s a ton of “why didn’t they do this?” everyone can come up and that’s easy to say when you’re not in the production, the one financing it, or the one with the deadline. It’s easy to look at this from the outside with 20/20 vision. All of the behind the scenes drama and resulting jumbled “fixes” make me want to see Zach Snyder’s full version of this movie. For better or worse (as seen by the choices made with BvS) the movie probably would have felt complete at least. I appreciate trying to get Superman back on course but it wasn’t handled well.
With all of this said, I ended up having fun watching this because I got to see the actual Justice League on screen saving the world. Even the stuff that I think is weird, I rather liked watching. For example, Superman vs JL is a wild action scene, to watch. Flash and Cyborg digging up Clark’s body is morbid as hell but their dialog is strong and builds them both as characters with a great fist bump call back in the final hero shot. I really like the quieter scenes. Barry with his dad, as brief as it is, is great. When Barry sees Steppenwolf for the first time and panics, Batman steps up as the veteran to give him the talk that cements why we love superheroes, regardless of how “powerful” they are. “Go in and save one.” “Then what do I do?” “You’ll know.” That’s beautiful! Cyborgs alienation and fear of the unknown is very poignant for today. I want to hang out with Aquaman, he’s a scream! I want to do volunteer work with Wonder Woman because she’s an inspiration!
I do think Justice League is a springboard to greater things. Let’s slow things down, get some more solo movies done in the spirit of each character and then we can come back for another team up a few years down the line. And a final note to WB for the best way to make everyone happy: Slow down. Hire comic book writers to write the scripts. They know the material, they know what makes the characters tick. A Paul Dini Batman script could get you an Oscar.