It’s impossible to process Justice League without considering Batman v. Superman, the film’s literal predecessor, and The Avengers, its spiritual one. The DCEU’s latest team-up movie is so much in conversation with these two prior films, so much reacting and responding to them, that it almost doesn’t make sense without them.
It was The Avengers, the 2012 Marvel movies, and its billion dollar box office take, that sparked Hollywood’s current fascination with franchise-wide crossovers and the race for each studio to construct its own cinematic universe. Its release is the seismic event in superhero cinema that moved the film arm of D.C. comics from only producing siloed, solo flicks for its best-known characters, to packing as many recognizable faces and logos into each movie as possible, and promising more interconnected adventures to come.
At a broad level of generality, Justice League borrows plenty from The Avengers. Both films feature an alien invasion led by a helmet-horned antagonist who promises to pave the way for a bigger bad to come. Both feature the occasional extraterrestrial cube, which some folks want to use as a power source and others want to use as a weapon. And both feature a collection of heroes who are not on the same page, who bicker and take sides against one another, and who need some grand event to reunite them. Having Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon on board to help pinch hit for DCEU maestro Zack Snyder (Justice League’s director) just reaffirms the inevitable parallels between the first big superhero team up film and this one.
But just as Dawn of Justice felt like a reaction to the public response to Man of Steel, Justice League feels as much like an attempt to course correct from Batman v. Superman as it does an effort to play catch up with its competition. Critics complained that BvS was too self-serious, so Justice League a plethora of jokes, light-hearted moments, and the sort of meta winks that have Whedon’s fingerprints all over them. Fans groused about Batman v. Superman’s extended runtime, so Justice League comes in at a crisp two hours. And there were rampant critiques about the dour tone that pervaded the DCEU films, so Justice League pitches itself with a more optimistic spin on these characters and their world.
And yet, this attempt to imitate the movie that started the hero team-up craze, and to fix the tonal problems of a predecessor which disappointed audiences, just leads Justice League to make its own, brand new mistakes, which will no doubt be fodder for yet another change in direction for the next big DCEU film.
The most tangible of these issues is the awful CGI that distracts from start to finish. Steppenwolf, the film’s computer-generated antagonist, occupies an entirely different world than the flesh and blood characters in Justice League. Anytime his pre-rendered domain intersects with the nominally real world, there is a sharp dissonance that takes the viewer out of the movie. Everything from the villain’s uncanny valley visage, to the fact that the climax of Justice League takes place an off-the-shelf PlayStation 2 environment, signals phoniness to the audience and makes all the action feel miscalibrated and inconsequential.
But the deeper problem of Justice League lies in how underdeveloped most of its characters are. One of the advantages the first Avengers movie enjoyed was that four of its heroes had starred in their own films that already established their personalities and perspectives, with the other two Avengers playing significant supporting roles. As a result, it only took a handful of scenes in that film to reorient the audience.
The DCEU, on the other hand, only really introduced half of its team in prior cinematic outings, and one of the best-known Leaguers spends most of this movie in a box (the film opens with what amounts to a Superman flashback). That means Justice League’s hurried effort to reintroduce its crew in the first act has much more ground to cover from the start, before it even attempts to introduce the major conflict, themes, or villain of the picture.
Consequently, only Wonder Woman’s introductory vignette can coast on having a full film’s worth of exploration and simply offer the fun of a thrilling action set piece. That leaves Aquaman to briefly make sarcastic quips at Bruce Wayne; Flash to have his entire situation explained in exposition by either Batman or his imprisoned father; Cyborg to banally brood in noir shadows amid unconvincing graphics; and for Batman himself to skulk around a cutscene from Arkham City. The result is that only Diana feels fully realized by the time everyone’s being duct-taped together on the titular team of heroes.
It also means that the major players in the film come off as caricatured rather than fully-formed. There’s not really time in Justice League to tell Cyborg’s full story, so the movie ups his brood factor to try to give him character. Flash goes from being the compelling, untested kid finding his way through this wild situation in the first half of the movie, to devolving into some superpowered Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. And everyone, especially Aquaman, starts spouting catchphrases and rejoinders so cheesy, I half-expected the King of Atlantis to blurt out “Cowabunga!” at some point in there. There’s interesting story threads for each character in the league, but each is either rushed or discarded as the film plows forward.
**MAJOR SPOILERS for the film follow below.**
Despite those mistakes, Justice League finds its own unique, laudable moments, which are entirely distinct from either of its predecessors. The peak of these is the “save one” sequence, where the young Flash starts to get cold feet when as the situation grows dangerous. Batman instructs him to just save one person, and let it all unfold from there. It’s a simple idea, but one that builds nicely as the sequence goes on, and provides the optimistic bent that had been so demanded by fans and critics alike, in an organic and relatable way.
And as much as Justice League follows the Avengers blueprint, it also finds ways to subvert that film’s story beats. If there’s one self-contained arc in D.C.’s new team-up movie, it’s the same one that its Marvel equivalent had — centered on the idea that these superheroes could be a powerful force for good if they could learn to work together, but that they need something important, something that’s missing, to unite them. For The Avengers, that was a significant death, but for the Justice League, it takes a resurrection.
To that end, Justice League manages to make good on some of the promise of Batman v. Superman that was lost in the execution of that film. In many ways, Justice League is the other half of BvS, the answer to the questions that the prior movie was asking, and both films come out looking better for it.
It’s a creditable twist that when Batman seeks to revive Superman, and cautions Alfred to have the “big guns” ready, his saving grace turns out not to be a super weapon or a dose of kryptonite, but rather Lois Lane, there to remind Clark Kent who he is and whom he’s fighting for. It’s a clever moment, and an echo of that much-maligned “Martha” scene, which reveals how Batman now understands that the way to “get” to Kal-El is not with weapons or technology, but through their shared humanity, and the people in their lives who drive their actions.
By the same token, BvS wondered aloud and often if the world really needed Superman. Justice League tries to answer that query, and the closest thing to an overall theme the film can offer is that the world is broken without him. There’s a firm conviction that Superman brought our planet and its people hope, and without him there’s only a debilitating fear. The Man of Tomorrow is a unifying, reassuring force in Justice League, for his mother and the woman he loves, for the team that needs him, and for the world at large.
It’s a solid throughline. And while there’s new plot threads to pick up, and future teases galore, the best thing to say in favor of Justice League is that it takes care to resolve much of what Batman v. Superman set up, in an unexpectedly satisfying fashion.
The only issue is that in trying to split the difference between its lead-in and its competition, Justice League turns out to be a fine but unavailing outing for what is supposed to be the climax of D.C.’s Cinematic Universe. It is not nearly as fun, enjoyable, or clever as The Avengers. And it is not nearly as contemplative or grandiose as Batman v. Superman.
Instead it’s stuck in a strange middle ground, taking a team-up that fans have been salivating over for decades and making it into an enjoyable enough, but roundly generic superhero action flick, rather than the world-beating crossover the movie-going public has been waiting for. In trying to find a middle ground between those two approaches, and those two aesthetics, Justice League emerges as a film that’s the lesser of either.