Thousands of years ago, a being named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) came to Earth wielding the power of the three Motherboxes, the combined strength of which could have laid waste to the planet. Thanks to the combined efforts of men, Atlanteans, and the Amazons, Steppenwolf was defeated and forced to retreat. The Motherboxes were divided up among the three races, where they lay hidden and dormant til present day. Now, Steppenwolf has returned with his army of Parademons, forcing Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to recruit the remaining known meta-humans — The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) — to help save the planet in the absence of the one person whose power may have been able to stop Steppenwolf: Superman (Henry Cavill), who remains dead following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The behind-the-scenes story of Justice League has been well-documented, with Zack Snyder directing principal photography but unable to complete reshoots due to a family tragedy. In came Joss Whedon, shepherd of The Avengers films, to oversee reshoots and, some would say, course-correct the film away from Snyder’s more controversial leanings. While we may never truly know the extent to which Whedon shaped the finished film (Snyder remains the sole credited director, while Whedon is listed as a co-writer), the marriage of the two directors actually works quite well. By blending Snyder’s aesthetic with Whedon’s penchants for strong character work and lively action scenes, Justice League often feels like the best of both worlds.
Unfortunately, the movie gets off to a rocky start. The audience is jerked from scene to scene with little time to get situated as the narrative hurries to establish several characters — some new, some old — and plot threads. Things begin to settle down once Steppenwolf makes his first grand entrance, however. By the time the team starts forming, which only takes about 20 minutes, the movie finds its footing; from there through to the end, it’s a pretty damn fun ride.
There are some narrative inconsistencies, and the story moves so fast that audiences won’t have time to really process some of what’s happening til afterwards. But kudos must be given: after the narrative pretzels of Batman v. Superman and the narrative deficiencies of Suicide Squad, it’s refreshing to watch Justice League streamline things to keep the pace ticking at a nice clip. Some will call it “the Marvel effect” — and in many ways, the plot is reminscient of the first Avengers film — but Justice League retains enough of its own flavor to remain a mostly unique experience.
Batman — Affleck continues to prove that he was a great choice for Bruce Wayne/Batman. Calm, confident, with great screen presence and a command of the action, he’s the de facto leader of the League and pulls off the role with aplomb. Rumors continue to swirl about Affleck’s commitment to the role (and the movie even references this slyly), but I genuinely hope he stays.
Wonder Woman — Gadot was born to play this role, and from her first entrance into the picture, she owns the screen anytime she’s on it. Diana Prince gets some nice emotional moments, mainly tying into her experiences from Wonder Woman, and Gadot pulls those off just as well as she does the action sequences.
The Flash — Miller’s comedic timing is great, and the biggest laughs in the movie are all due to him. Barry Allen isn’t given much depth, other than having a father behind bars who he works diligently to exonerate, and more attention could have been paid to Allen using his humor as a defense/coping mechanism to hide the pain he lives with everyday. Nevertheless, Miller’s work is strong and in some ways, he’s the audience’s surrogate within the film, making him someone easy to identify with and root for. People will be very excited to see more of The Flash after seeing this movie.
Cyborg — a largely unknown actor, Fisher’s given the thankless job of being slathered in CG makeup, affecting the ability of audiences to truly connect with the one member of the League whose face we never fully see. Fisher’s work is good, and Cyborg is given some nice character beats (his moments with The Flash are especially nice), but of the three main new characters, his easily leaves the weakest impression.
Aquaman — by casting Momoa, DC made a conscious effort to move away from the stereotypical “man who talks to fish” Aquaman and turn him into a badass antihero who’s rejected both his home world and the people on land. He’s larger-than-life, a loner who joins the League reluctantly, but by the time the big finale comes around, so has Arthur Curry. The work done to bring to life not only Aquaman and his abilities, but the world of Atlantis, is truly stunning. This is a great appetizer for what should be an outstanding standalone feature from James Wan next year.
J.K. Simmons’ screentime is limited as Commissioner Gordon, but he’s fine. As Silas Stone, Joe Morton does good work as well. Jeremy Irons brings his characteristic acerbic wit to Alfred. Amy Adams and Diane Lane don’t spend much time on-screen, but it’s nice to see them. Amber Heard makes a brief appearance as Mera. A certain sixth member of the team shows up in the second half, but has relatively little screentime and isn’t given the chance to really come alive with their performance until the very end.
Visual effects are surprisingly good for the most part. Steppenwolf especially looks quite nice, with Hinds’ facial mo-cap work bringing some life to what could have been a stock CGI villain. The one area where the effects trip up badly is with a certain character who, due to the actor’s involvement in another movie, required a mustache to be removed via visual effects. It’s the first thing we see in the movie and it’s really bad, like Tron: Legacy-level bad. Thankfully it’s limited. Production design and costume work is good. Cinematography is great; I saw this in Dolby Vision and the colors, contrast, and composition all looked excellent. This is a rare modern blockbuster shot largely on 35mm film with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it looks great. Danny Elfman’s score is also surprisingly strong; not that Elfman is a bad composter, but I expected to miss the Hans Zimmer themes more than I did. His Batman theme still holds up, and coupled cinematographer Fabian Wagner’s imagery, will have people cheering. (The credits list John Williams’ Superman theme music, but I honestly did not hear it during the movie.) DC fans will pick up on some references and cameos that were genuinely unexpected by this viewer, including one that had me practically yelp out of sheer glee.
Justice League isn’t the movie I expected it to be, but that’s a good thing. Though it has its flaws, they’re relatively minor, and I’m happy to say that DC’s first superhero team-up is a fun ride that mostly does justice to this eclectic group of characters. Will it resonate with audiences the way Marvel movies have? Probably not, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction towards winning the approval of the masses. Justice League isn’t the best superhero movie of the year, nor is it the worst, and I’m happy to say that it left me feeling optimistic about the DC Extended Universe going forward.
Be sure to stay after the credits for two extra scenes, the first of which is a funny if inessential bit and the second of which is truly awesome and features a couple of characters you might not have expected to see in the movie.