Thoughts on ‘Justice League’

So, the other day I decided to finally check out Justice League. And…yeah, it’s really bad. Don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing like as bad as Batman v Superman (which is one of the very few films I hate as much as The Last Jedi). That film was painful; this one is entertainingly bad, and it has some definite highlights.

Gal Gadot being one of the key high points. I’m just gonna sprinkle pictures of her throughout to give you something nice to look at.

With Superman dead, Batman and Wonder Woman soon discover that fear-fueled ‘parademons’ are spreading all over the Earth, heralding the return of Steppenwolf, an agent of Apokalypse, who plans to destroy the world with his three all-powerful ‘Mother Boxes’, which in ancient times were captured by the Amazons, Atlateans, and Humans, who each took and guarded one (hilariously, the humans are shown burying theirs…about two feet underground). So, Batman and Wonder Woman set about gathering three other powerful allies: Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash to try to stop him.

So…yeah, the story is pretty standard: villain wants to use ancient superweapon to conquer and/or destroy the world. Essentially it’s the same plot as The Avengers, which really emphasizes how badly done it is in this case.

In the first place, Steppenwolf is a terrible villain. He has no motivation other than a pure desire for power – great characterization there; never seen that before – no unique design, nothing entertaining or interesting to say, no perspective, no discernable personality, no backstory, nothing. He might be the single most generic bad guy I’ve seen in a major comic book film (well, the guy from Thor: The Dark World might have him beat).

Really, with all the fantastic villains in the DC Universe that haven’t shown up yet – Grodd, Sinestro, Brainiac, Mongul, Vandal Savage, and so on – who the heck decided to go with Steppenwolf? I’d never even heard of him, and I’ve got a decent working knowledge of the DCU. He’s one of Darkseid’s warriors, and…that’s about it. He’s not an interesting villain, but he’s related to one. It’s as if, instead of Loki, The Avengers featured Thanos’s cousin, Manos.

…okay, never mind; that would have been awesome.

It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf looks as though he stepped directly out of a God of War game, without getting a graphical upgrade.

Another huge problem is that the Justice League itself is…kind of a failure. You see, as conceived in this film, it only exists to fight Steppenwolf because Superman isn’t around. Then they reach the conclusion that they can’t stop him without Superman, so they revive him and…after that it’s pretty much just marking time until Superman fixes everything.

Now, I love Superman, and pretty much the whole reason I watched this movie was because I heard they actually tried to get him right this time, so I did enjoy seeing him basically take over the film every time he was on screen (the scene where he effortlessly beats the crap out of the entire rest of the League at once is easily my favorite). However, this is supposed to be a Justice League movie: a team up. But apart from maybe Cyborg, no one else even needed to be there for the climax. They went from the whole team at once barely being able to faze Steppenwolf to Superman punting him around the room like a volleyball.

See, this is another reason Steppenwolf doesn’t work as a villain: he’s just a straightforward physical threat, meaning that, to fight him, they just need the strongest fighter they can possibly get. Or to put it another way, there is absolutely nothing the likes of Batman can do against him, while in turn there’s absolutely nothing Steppenwolf can do to counter Superman.

Contrast this with The Avengers, where Loki is able to bring both physical power and deadly cunning as well as his own private army to bear against the heroes, meaning that he can fight each of them – and vice versa – in their own particular way or all of them at once. Likewise, every single one of the team had a crucial role to play in the climax, one that suited their character and abilities, with Captain America strategizing and rescuing civilians, Iron Man running the perimeter, Hawkeye calling out movements and sniping from a distance, Black Widow handling tech and infiltration duties, while Thor and Hulk tore up the battlefield. Everyone had a moment to shine; everyone had a reason to be there.

The problem is balance, and this film has none of it. The Justice League, arguably the single greatest superhero team in comics, is nothing but a holding pattern for Superman.

(For what it’s worth, I actually think a good choice for the villain would have been Brainiac: he has the physical power and resources to challenge the team, but without being simply indestructible, so the less-powerful team members would be able to contribute, and he has the intellect to counteract Superman’s overwhelming physical force and necessitate a coordinated effort to stop him, as well as being a planet-level threat.)

Then, of course, there’s the problem so many people have pointed out; that the whole franchise has so very clearly been rushed and that, going into this team up, we’ve only met Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and only the latter two have had their own films (and only Wonder Woman has had an actually good film). Also, Wonder Woman was introduced in Batman v. Superman and has already fought alongside those two, meaning that when it comes to the characters we actually know, there’s no novelty factor to seeing them team up as they were practically introduced as a team, and when it comes to the others there is no investment since we’re meeting them for the first time. The ‘team up’ aspect of this film is about as botched as it could possibly be.

(That isn’t even considering the fact that this version of Batman tried to straight-up murder the world’s greatest hero in a fit of paranoia the last time we saw him. You decided to do it, franchise; you’ve gotta live with it).

So the film is a conceptual nightmare, but the problems don’t stop there. The film is riddled with plot holes, moments that make no sense, and just bad writing in general. Things like a random street thug somehow guess the monster that attacked him was from space, or Cyborg hacking the Batcomputer by accident (though it doesn’t really matter since Bruce has no problem straight up telling Aquaman that he’s Batman in front about twenty civilians), or the fact that, as far as I recall, we never learn just how Cyborg’s father got hold of the Mother Box (spoilers, I guess, except it’s so poorly established that I’m not even sure if they meant it to be a twist). He just has it, yet Steppenwolf can’t find it, but knows that the people in the lab know where it is? Actually, where was it? Cyborg just flies off and grabs it from…I don’t know, wherever it was being kept.

(Speaking of the Mother Boxes, what a stupid name for the Macguffin. And hey, just think: if Steppenwolf had only called them Martha Boxes he could have gotten Batman on his side).

Don’t tell Captain Marvel she’s smiling!

Aquaman has apparently spent his whole life staying away from Atlantis, yet knows where they keep their ultimate secret that could doom the world and he can just swim in there whenever he wants (also, way to waste such a pivotal moment in his story: his return to Atlantis after growing up on land lasts about five minutes during which he visits the basement vault). Batman and Wonder Woman somehow don’t notice the hulking half-robot listening in on their conversation from about twenty feet away because he’s partly hidden behind a tree. Batman’s contingency plan in case the revived Superman has lost his mind is to show him Lois Lane: why not just have her there the whole time?

And so on and so forth; the film is just shy of incoherent in its writing and it struggles to maintain any kind of structure at all. Cyborg’s subplot with his father goes completely unresolved; Flash’s arc with his father involves two scenes and a lot of running puns. Aquaman has no arc at all to speak of; he’s just kind of along for the ride. And Batman is mostly tasked with trying very hard to make us forget how badly his character was betrayed last time around and not really succeeding.

Wonder Woman’s ‘arc’ is that she hides herself away from the world rather than being a beacon of hope like Superman, and then at the end she goes public. Apparently not one of the hostages or terrorists in her opening action sequence bothered to mention the superhuman Amazon that saved the day, nor did anyone notice the insanely beautiful woman in low-cut armor and a skirt standing on the rooftop or running around town. Seriously, if she regularly spends her time beating up terrorists in broad daylight, how, exactly, has she remained ‘in hiding’ for the past century?

(By the way, the rent-a-villains here identify themselves as ‘Reactionary Terrorists’, which kinda made me laugh: Hollywood is really desperate to avoid reality on that particular subject, isn’t it?)

Then there’s the Flash. My, my, my…

Hold onto those good feelings. Here we go…

See, I like the Flash. On the Justice League cartoon (which is about thousand times smarter and better written than this film, by the way) he was probably my favorite character. I love how they wrote him as an immature goofball on the surface and a truly humble, selfless hero underneath; the guy who doesn’t just save people, but remembers their names afterwards, and all the while he’s second only to Superman in terms of raw power. Flash was awesome, and since then I’ve always had a soft spot for the character.

Now, this Flash, on the other hand, is one of the most obnoxious characters I’ve seen in a superhero film. He’s this wimpy, chatty, smirking little douche who keeps making dumb, unfunny jokes at the worst possible times, when he isn’t tripping over his own feet or chatting nonstop like he thinks the mere sound of his voice is hilarious. If you took your average hipster college student and forced him to watch everything Joss Whedon ever wrote Clockwork Orange style for a few weeks on end, you might end up with something akin to this Flash’s personality. He is that insufferable.

There were only two moments with him that I actually liked; one was when he and Cyborg are digging up Superman’s grave (by the way, why those two? Wouldn’t Wonder Woman and Aquaman have been quicker?) and he comments that he could use superspeed to do the job in an instant, but can’t help feeling it would be disrespectful. That felt at least moderately like how a real human being might behave. The other was the great “Oh, crap!” moment during the fight with Superman when he realizes that Supes can move and react just as fast as he can.

On the subject of the Flash, let’s tackle this film’s attempts at humor. It goes about as well as its attempt at a villain. I think there was only one joke in the film that I actually laughed at (I laughed at quite a few other parts, however). For the record, it was when Batman is laying out their plan for the final battle and Aquaman just says, “I think we’re gonna be dead way before that.” I also kind of like it when one of Steppenwolf’s hostages pleas, “We have families!” he answers, “Why does everyone keep telling me that?” Because it is a good point; he literally just killed someone who made the exact same plea a second ago (it’s pretty much Steppenwolf’s only good moment in the film).

For the rest, we have truly cringe-inducing jokes. For instance, “I’m not the one who brought a pitchfork” (said after seeing said pitchfork turn back oncoming floodwater), “Woah, he is tall!” “I’m a snack-hole,” “what is brunch?” and so on. We also have the old (and God is it tired) Whedonesque gag of self-consciously describing what is happening on screen (“Oh, they just left. That’s rude”). Part of the trouble is that so many of the jokes come from the Flash, who, again, is incredibly obnoxious in his whole persona. Another problem is that they often come at the worst possible moments. There’s a bit where Steppenwolf murders an innocent woman just off screen after we hear her begging and crying for mercy, and then it’s immediately followed by the Flash ‘comically’ panicking. Or after the dramatic fight with Superman we cut to Batman – Batman – lying on the ground ‘comically’ griping about which bones are broken (was there a typo in the script? Who the heck gives that kind of gag to Batman?). Or there’s another moment where Aquaman gives an actually decent line about how he’s fine with dying for an honorable cause, approaching something like character…then it transitions into a joke about him sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso and babbling the truth, which is not just tonally inappropriate, but completely subverts his assertion by having him admit that he isn’t fine with dying. Thanks movie: you have a good character moment and then immediately spoil it for a cheap gag.

Also, they’re really convinced the phrase ‘talk to fish’ is funny. Every time someone says it, there is this awkward-as-hell pause like they’re just waiting for the laughter to die down. I don’t know why they thought this was so funny; it’s a light chuckle line at best, but any humor is utterly ruined by the subsequent “you’re laughing now” performance.

So, this is a very bad film, let’s call it. Is there anything good about it?

Besides the obvious

Again, Superman is easily the best thing about this film. After two movies dedicated to tearing him down, they finally make an attempt to get him right. It’s terrible from a storytelling point of view, but Lord, it is satisfying to see him curb-stomping everyone in this film (Batman absolutely deserved to get pounded into the pavement after BvS). Likewise, when he shows up in the final battle, the first thing he does is note that there are still civilians in the area and head off to make sure they’re safe. That is something Superman would do (though it does point to the problem that the writers are clearly struggling to find a way to keep the battle going once Superman shows up so that we don’t notice that the story is basically over the moment he joins the fight). He gets a little time to be with Lois, to enjoy being home in Kansas, even to submit with good grace to an interview with a bunch of nervous kids for their podcast (this is the opening scene of the film, by the way, and it establishes his character better in two minutes than the previous films managed in over five collective hours…though this is where the infamous reshoots came in. My very first note on this film is “Holy crap! What’s up with his lip?!”)

(Speaking of civilians, at least this film makes a point to show innocent people in danger and being rescued by our heroes, putting the climactic battle into context. Which is more than some films – including one whose title may or may not rhyme with ‘slack anther’ – bother to do).

Gal Gadot is still the perfect Wonder Woman, and she struggles to maintain a level of class throughout the proceedings. I actually kind of like her interactions with Bruce Wayne, though otherwise she really doesn’t have much to do except draw the eye every time she’s onscreen and participate in the action scenes.

Aquaman is actually my favorite of the newcomers: he actually has something of a decent personality, being a laid-back, inwardly bitter badass who saves people with a bad grace then charges drinks to their tabs. His thrill in combat and macho persona were pretty enjoyable and made him stand out from the other characters. I’m actually thinking I might go see his film when if comes out, not because I think it’ll be good, but because I figure this guy is at least entertaining company.

I also did appreciate that Cyborg, despite his utterly bland personality, was allowed to give his catchphrase “boo-yah.” Though the delivery fell flat and only served to remind me of how much better his character was portrayed in the Teen Titans cartoon (again, the show aimed at children was much more human, thoughtful, and better written than this film ostensibly directed at adults).

I will say that parts of the film do work as dumb fun, and there is some undeniably cool imagery. The parademons looked good, and I admit I did like seeing one of the Green Lantern Corps show up in a flashback.

Oh, and the opening credits, done over scenes of the world mourning Superman, is very nice, even if not earned by past films. It’s a somber, respectful piece of work in the midst of all the chaos and nonsense.

Likewise, I liked the mid-credit scene of Superman and the Flash starting a race, even though Flash is still obnoxious as ever. The bit where Superman asks “which coast?” is pretty much perfect.

On the other hand, it’s followed by a post-credits scene featuring the return of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, just to remind us that John Wayne wasn’t that bad a choice to play Genghis Khan. God, I’d forgotten how annoying his voice is: I was chanting for Deathstroke to kill him.

Oh, yeah, Deathstrokes there in the post-credits scene too, and Luthor tries to set up a sequel. Like that’s gonna happen.

Justice League is the film The Avengers could have been had the filmmakers not put the time and effort into building the world and characters and managing the crossover with care. It isn’t anything like one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but it is probably one of the messiest films I’ve seen, at least in terms of a major franchise. It’s falling apart at the seams, trying to do too much and ultimately achieving very little. Through a combination hubris, greed, pretentiousness, and impatience, Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder tripped over themselves to get to this point as soon as possible with a string of mostly-terrible films, with the result that the long awaited dream of a Justice League film, featuring some of the greatest superheroes of all time, thought impossible for decades, has come true at last and the best that can be said of it is “dumb fun.” What a sad indictment of the entertainment industry.

End on a high note