A film confused in its tone due to its dual directors, Justice League is a serviceable action film – but the gulf in quality between the DCEU and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is getting larger with each passing release.
Cast your mind back to the heady days of 2012. Obama is re-elected for his second term as POTUS, London hosts the Olympic games, Adele’s album 21 is (still) in the top 40, and most importantly of all Marvel release the culmination to phase 1 of their Cinematic Universe – Avengers Assemble, which goes on to become (At the time)the third highest grossing film ever. It’s not a perfect film – it takes far too long to get going, is a little too long in general and is often a little overly patriotic in its representation of heroes. Yet it did a lot right, and almost created a blueprint for superhero ensemble films. If such a blueprint existed, it might look a little like this:
- Charismatic yet flawed heroes who bicker and squabble but unite when it’s needed the most: CHECK.
- Good mix between stunning action set pieces and funny quips between large ensemble cast: CHECK.
- Compelling villain with believable backstory and reason for wanting to take over/destroy the world: CHECK.
- Enough throwbacks to previous films and hints about future films to keep die hard fans happy while not alienating casual viewers: CHECK.
Now let’s fast forward five years, and the release of DC’s equivalent film – Justice League. Originally directed by Zack Snyder, who left the project due to his daughter’s tragic suicide, and then finished off by fellow Superhero aficionado Joss Whedon (yes, he of Avenger’s directorship), Justice League attempts greatness on so many fronts, yet falls sadly short. In each of the criteria above, Justice League is a weak attempt at creating an ensemble masterpiece for DC’s A-team of heroes. Let’s examine the blueprint afresh and see how it did:
- Charismatic yet flawed heroes who bicker and squabble but unite when it’s needed the most: MISSING. Justice league introduces us to three heroes who have yet to be fully seen on the big screen in the DCEU: Ezra Miller’s The Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Partly due to the pared down run time of the film (well, relatively – its exactly 2 hours long), and partly due to DC’s reliance on Superman, we never really get enough time to get to know or care about DC’s new additions. Ezra Miller is excellent as Barry Allen/The Flash, with a great mix between awkward comedy and young energy. Yet the other two additions could be almost anyone else, with their powers or personalities not really fleshed out.
- Good mix between stunning action set pieces and funny quips between large ensemble cast: MISSING. Okay, so the action sequences in Justice League are pretty great. Thankfully not as over the top destructive as either Man of Steel or Batman V Superman, you can actually see and follow what is happening. This is partly because of the great slow motion effects utilized as part of The Flash’s super-speed, and partly because DC have clearly realized that bigger action scenes aren’t necessarily better. A strange consequence of changing director mid-production is that you can tell Whedon has attempted to lighten the tone and add his trademark quips to the film. Some of this works, but much of it doesn’t. Many lines sound strange coming out of Ben Affleck’s Batman, or Henry Cavill’s Superman. DC has gone for a more earnest and straight tone with their movies, and throwaway quips clash with this.
- Compelling villain with believable backstory and reason for wanting to take over/destroy the world: MISSING. Ask a sample of 100 people WHY Justice League’s villain Steppenwolf wants to destroy the planet, most of them will either shrug, or tell you something like “because of some cubes he was collecting, or something?”. Steppenwolf may be just about the most generic villain in any Superhero film to date. What are his powers? Who knows. How strong exactly is he? Who cares. The plot of the film is based around stopping Steppenwolf gathering three powerful cubes which together which would allow him to transform (???) the planet to his home world. Yet in a plot hole larger than all of the Justice League‘s muscles combined, they leave the final cube unguarded in a car park, allowing the villain to easily swoop in and take it.
- Enough throwbacks to previous films and hints about future films to keep die hard fans happy while not alienating casual viewers: MISSING. Marvel excel at teasing their next film, or mentioning previous films in a way which doesn’t alienate casual viewers who may not have seen every film in the series. Justice League on the other hand, would actually be difficult to 100% follow if you haven’t seen at least one of the films leading up to it. The characters reference events or people in such a way that you would struggle to develop any connection with the hero if you don’t understand the connection fully.
Justice League is not an awful film. It is fast paced and not overly long – the decision to keep the run time down was definitely the right one. The cinematography feels very much like a Zack Snyder film, i.e. more like a comic book than a film. Frames from the film could be lifted wholesale into a graphic novel and not feel out of place. This is one aspect where DC has a more distinct visual identity than Marvel. Marvel films often feel like an action/comedy film with Superheroes in. DC films on the other hand, mainly thanks to Snyder’s influence, feel like a comic book come to life. It is also great to see DC embracing the girl power. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is an inspiring and powerful representation of a woman – something severely lacking in the genre. The sound-track is great, featuring a mix of classic sounding Superhero themes and modern music, all scored by Danny Elfman. On balance, Justice League is a film caught between being overly dark and depressing on one hand, and attempting to copy Marvel’s light comedy based style on the other, Justice League is a poor version of both.
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