Warning: Heavy spoilers in this review
For anyone who is a fan of superhero movies, it’s been a banner year. This is truly the halcyon days for the ol’ capes n’ tights genre and the newest entry into this world serves up some of the most iconic superheroism in recent memory. Justice League unites all the top DC favs into one big, bombastic ball of visually striking action sequences mixed with a fun dynamic between teammates and a resolution to the thematic arcs set up in the unbelievably dull Man of Steel, the lopsided BvS and the critically applauded Wonder Woman.
First and foremost – the visually dynamic presentation is second to none for the superhero genre. Boasting a strong, almost Venetian-style presentation to its main characters in action, Justice League definitely eclipses its counterparts in terms of sheer visual spectacle. The action sequences largely favor longer takes and smoother flow (though there are a few scenes that lean more towards the heavily edited style of its Marvel counterparts) which imbues the characters with a larger than life presence that brings to mind the classical depiction of the Greek gods of the Mannerist style. Also, each action sequence is just a rocking good time filled with a memorable score and (surprisingly) amiable team dynamic. This team actually works together with the absolute bare minimum of melodramatic in-fighting. When the in-fighting does occur it’s usually grounded in each character wanting to push each other to be the best versions of themselves, rather than clashing egos. There are more than a few moments that any comic book fan will beam at (including Superman literally carrying an entire building of families to safety, Batman’s return to form as Gotham’s protector and Wonder Woman looking like the Greek Goddess she truly is in nearly every scene).
That dynamic helps keep the film afloat during a very basic story (but that’s par for the course for superhero films of this magnitude). Steppenwolf isn’t the most interesting villain by far, but his character is a strong enough connective tissue between the Amazons, Atlantans and humans that it makes the coming together of the Justice League feel organic and understandably something they all can rally behind. Ultimately its the team working together that not only brings Superman back to life, but is also instrumental in helping him realize that being Superman is not only important for Earth, but also for him as Kent to reach that top teir of Maslow’s heirarchy.
The obvious stand-out character is Arthur Curry (Aquaman) as Momoa manages to both be a living God and that guy at the bar you could have a drink with. There’s an especially vulnerable moment when he’s accidentally sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso that will exemplify that point. Barry Allen (Flash) is the audience surrogate for the whole affair as the “aw shucks, I’m awkward” kid who is just finding his legs as a hero amongst seasoned veterans and Victor Stone’s (Cyborg) take on the ‘tech guy’ was a nice addition to a genre usually replete with interchangeably-abled fighters.
The weak point for the cast was the dynamic between Wayne and Diana Prince as well as the “chemistry” between Clark Kent and Lois Lane. A lynch pin moment for the film (Superman’s return to the living and needing Lane to regain his humanity) was vastly undercut by a very stilted and awkward performance from some oddly scripted lines. This moment should have been the emotionally-rich turning point for a returning Superman, but it really took the film off the rails with just how awkward it was. Wayne and Prince’s borderline romantic subplot was Hulk/Widow-levels unnecessary and their drive to push each other to become better versions of themselves should have been played up more as that was an element more germane to the film’s overall themes.
On the subject of themes, it was refreshing to see so much set up paid off in this film – especially in regards to Batman and Superman’s tumultuous relationship. The call-back to lines like “Do you bleed?” and “the world doesn’t need you” are especially poignant as a confused, frenzied, newly revived Superman literally holds Wayne’s life in his hands. Additionally, we get to see the evolution of a grizzled Wayne from a jaded, bitter, violent vigilante to a more hopeful, positive, humane hero. In BvS, his first instinct is to kill Superman if there’s even a one percent chance he’s a threat (this was called back as well, where he’s trying to convince the League to revive Superman even “if there’s a one percent chance it’ll work!).
In JL, he sees that using the stronger human emotion of love can help stop a potentially unhinged Superman. As previously stated, Superman also comes into his own. In MoS, he was listless and torn about being a hero. In BvS he’s crestfallen at how people don’t trust him and how easily people belive he’s evil. With JL, Superman’s return from the dead makes him realize how much he loves this world and ignites his full-on desire to be its protector. He also realizes he’s not alone (something he struggled with in previous movies) and doesn’t have to save EVERYONE and stop the bad guy all by himself.
The League allowed him to make up for what he was unable to do in MoS – save the civilians while still fending off the big baddie. Instead of single-handedly doing everything he acts more like a utility player – being at the right place at the right time to help his teammates and inspire them to go all out. It’s a rough 3-movie arc (2/3rds of which are VERY rough to watch) but it’s most definitely there. Even Wonder Woman gets a moment of realization when she is forced to accept that’s she’s closed herself off since the events of Wonder Woman and has shirked the very responsibility she’s asking her JL teammates to undertake.
Overall, Justice League has more than few rough patches that keeps it from being a great film outside the superhero genre (in contrast to Fox’s LOGAN), but it still works as a larger-than-life battle with new gods, old gods and man all working together to take down a malevolent force. Getting to see some truly iconic superhero moments on film makes Justice League feel like a live action adaptation of a two-parter from the early 2000’s Justice League cartoon more so than an adaptation of the comics themselves with its typically simple superhero storyline and preference towards brevity for characterization.
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