On a storytelling level, Justice League is a better film than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s more cohesive, better paced and easier to follow. But it comes at a steep cost.
What the DCEU had gotten right up to this point — maybe not with Suicide Squad — was an investment in theme and how character and story both shape theme and are shaped by it. Batman v Superman is a mess of a film, but it’s an interesting story. It’s ideas of man vs. god, of the repercussions of Superman and the lengths to which Batman’s anger would take him in response, which feels like a continuation of Man of Steel, offers some semblance of narrative satisfaction.
Justice League, seemingly a continuation of Batman v Superman, a third film in this trilogy, is jarringly hollow in comparison. Superman’s death and Batman’s guilt are hardly investigated, and if they are, they’re parsed through in ways that don’t make sense with character; supposed steps taken in regard to those themes turn out to be more circumstantial, convenient and simple than actual elaboration on the story’s previous interests.
In essence, the film abandons what it was set up to be in order to be a cleaner film. It’s slightly, slightly understandable considering the position of Warner Bros. and DC, but it is such a disappointment. There’s nothing to latch onto in Superman’s character (surprise, he’s in the movie). He leans Christopher Reeve in tone, which, to some, might be exciting — but that’s not the Superman that’s been built in this universe. A short moment after his resurrection has the potential to take his character in a frightening, complicated direction, but that potential is quickly passed on and we get a one-dimensional figure that doesn’t even feel like a character.
The same can be said with villain. Batman’s visions of impending doom in the previous installment move nowhere with Steppenwolf, a monstrosity that falls flatter than the horrific CGI that creates him. He’s a typical, bland god-like bad guy spouting boring, cliched lines of fate for the “primitive beings” he’s fighting.
There aren’t many dimensions anywhere in Justice League. The Flash, while decently snappy comedic relief (which, itself, becomes tiresome), is barely two-dimensional. Aquaman’s motivations and backstory are washed over. Wonder Woman’s arc feigns at actual interest in the character — she’s dealing with the grief of losing Steve Trevor and the subsequent struggles she has with being a leader — but the timeline difference makes it difficult to swallow and, in horrifyingly gross fashion, the film sexualizes her and submits her to the filmmakers’ male gaze.
The only character that’s remotely fleshed out is Cyborg. His biomechatronic body has a brain of its own and he’s struggling to learn how to control it. But, considering that Ray Fisher gives a strong performance, it only ends up as disappointing that that arc is traversed here and not more thoroughly in a solo film.
It’s strange because one can almost feel that Justice League wants to be a cleaner movie. Too much of the plotting is expedited and, in turn, easy, leaving us with a lot that’s clean and digestible — until we realize that there’s no substance to any of it. But even in its attempts to be clean, it ends up as a messier looking film than most blockbusters in general. It’s embarrassing that we can tell where the reshoots are, not only narratively but visually. Literally, we see where actors are digitally inserted after the fact and where continuity is interrupted.
And Henry Cavill’s digitally removed mustache leaves his face as… by god, there’s no excuse.
Even the DCEU’s inarguably greatest element, its scores, halts dead with Danny Elfman’s work. We hear, perhaps, ten seconds of Wonder Woman’s theme before it never shows up again. We never hear Junkie XL’s Batman theme as Elfman opts to use his original one. We never hear Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel theme. Elfman leaves us with nothing memorable about his score. The use of original themes don’t make auditory sense for where the characters are meant to be, which, even worse, results in music that fails to serve the narrative on any level.
The film is cheap. It inserts quirky quips here and there to induce laughter that can, momentarily, help us forget its shortcomings. But even those quips wind up yanking us out of the film. They’re infuriating. They’re tonally imbalanced and out of character — especially for someone like Batman. The film also shoves in comic book references to help some of the comic book familiar folk look over its cheap nature, most of which will be missed by audiences not familiar and create no difference as none of the nods have narrative implications.
Some of the fight sequences work and work well. Characters are clear and distinguishable, and the overall battles are well shot in regard to spatial geography.
But it’s difficult to even want to talk about that with any layer of enthusiasm. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy notably lacked well-composed action, but they’re still some of the best superhero movies of all time because of their unparalleled execution of storytelling.
Cumulatively, Justice League is overbearingly cheap. It’s a middle finger to the audience, a “course correction” that does no correcting.
Featured image via Warner Bros.