Cinema: 'Justice League' Isn't Great, But It's an Improvement

DC has taken a few bumps and bruises over the past few years, and for good reason. In their desperate attempt to keep up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’ve slapped together a series of sluggish, morose films that have not only bombed with critics, but fundamentally misunderstood what makes their superheroes so appealing to fans. They’ve missed the mark so spectacularly, in fact, that it's reached a point where even a mediocre outing would be a welcome sign of improvement.

That mediocre outing is Justice League. This is a backhanded compliment, of course, but a compliment nonetheless, especially given how much the film had working against it: two mismatched directors (Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon; only the former is credited), the fact that nearly half the film was reshot in the months leading up to its release, and that it had to introduce newcomers in a way that meshed with the franchise while simultaneously setting up future installments. It should’ve been a cinematic abomination. Instead, it's a passable team effort that shows DC is, at the very least, making an effort to improve.

The premise of Justice League is incidental, a means of rallying the titular band of heroes, and the film treats it as such. There is a big, bland CGI villain named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) with an army of bugmen and a desire to steal an assortment of vaguely powerful cubes. Like I said, incidental. The point is to get Batman (Ben Affleck) in panic mode, so that he and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) travel the globe in search of new superheroes to fight at their side. They eventually find what they’re looking for in Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a hulking sea king, The Flash (Ezra Miller), a quick-witted and quick-footed teenager, and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a college football star who’s now, well, a cyborg.

As individuals, these heroes are anything but mighty. Gadot is earnestly bland, despite what fans of the overpraised Wonder Woman would lead you to believe, Momoa and Miller aren’t given much dimension to play with, and Fisher’s acting is somehow more robotic than his CGI exterior. Where the film prevails, and where future installments would be wise to narrow its focus, is that the shortcomings of the cast are less problematic when they’re grouped together. Scenes that show the Justice League assembled, bickering and bonding, are easily the best in the film, as they bring out the humanity in their respective (and technically inhuman) characters.

Whedon, the mastermind behind 2012’s The Avengers, claims to have followed Snyder’s vision of the film religiously, but it’s easy to distinguish many of the standout bits as overtly Whedon-esque in tone. The Flash’s introduction sees him crack more jokes than the previous four DC films combined, and many of them actually hit the mark (one involving brunch, does not). Aquaman appears to open up to the rest of the team before a battle, only to realize that he accidentally sat on Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. It’s a clever way of merging coy humor with character development, and it's reminiscent of the sort of thing Whedon would have done with Thor had he stayed on at Marvel. Even Batman gets in on the fun, revamping one of his Batman v Superman threats (“Do you bleed?”) after taking a particularly rough pummeling (“Something’s definitely bleeding”).

Unfortunately, whenever Justice League ditches its banter for CGI mayhem, the film’s enjoyment goes with it. The action sequences continue to be an incoherent eyesore for audiences, blurring the lines between poorly-rendered film and impressively-rendered videogame. Snyder has proven himself an adept action director in the past (300, Watchmen), but his reliance on impractical effects have seemingly worsened with time, to the extent that scenes with obvious cinematic potential, like Steppenwolf’s raid on the island of Themyscira, or the climactic throwdown in Russia, are frustratingly inept. For a film largely marketed on its spectacle, it is far and away the weakest component.

Another glaring issue is the way the film revises its depiction of both Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman. The former hangs over the film as a beacon of hope, a role model the rest of the Justice League can’t seem to stop comparing themselves against-- when in reality, the Superman we met in Man of Steel and who died in Batman v Superman was a selfish, unpleasant bore. Absolutely no tears would be shed for the man in real life, and the disingenuous spin goes on to cheapen his inevitable return. Meanwhile, Batman has been demoted from team leader to the Justice League's weapons supplier, as his only real contributions, so he states in the trailer, come from being “rich.” Of course, it doesn’t help that Affleck delivers his lines as though he’s already got one foot out the franchise door.

Between all these flaws and virtues, Justice League breaks about even, making it, quite literally, a halfway decent film. Yes, the acting needs work, as does the main villain, and the action continues to be embarrassing for a superhero genre that’s currently experiencing a golden age. What the film does have, though, is a spark of hope, a sense that the DC Universe is finally correcting mistakes faster than they're making them. Their journey to the promise land may still be treacherous, but at the very least, they seem to be headed in the right direction.