Last weekend (the one before Thanksgiving, I’m not late on this, you are), Warner Brothers released the latest installment in their DC Extended Universe. Though the franchise recently received a lot of love with this summer’s Wonder Woman, most seemed to expect Justice League to follow in the footsteps of last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both in tone and critical reception. The days before the film’s release were spent waiting for the critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer; it opened to a score in the 30s, and currently sits at 41%. So though it ranks a little higher, the consensus seems to be that Justice League is more of the same that Dawn of Justice gave us. But is Justice League really that bad? Is it completely irredeemable, or is it more of an average superhero movie that messes up sometimes but also does some things really well? If I thought it was the former, I wouldn’t be writing this, so let’s keep moving.
You know there will be spoilers after this, right?
First, a few qualms. While I never noticed Henry Cavill’s digitally removed moustache, you could very easily tell when characters were just standing in front of a green/blue screen; there’s at least one scene where the background seems to be an old-school mural, but is much less effective than early Hollywood films. There’s one moment in Metropolis where all the characters seemed to physically be there, and then a shot of a character at the end of the scene suddenly seemed to be fake (a consequence of reshoots perhaps? But if so, come on WB, there’s got to be a balance between getting a needed shot and getting a good shot somewhere). Also, though I can’t tell when Superman’s face is fake, I’m 99.9% sure the Superman in the opening scene is just completely CGI. Even accounting for reshoots, I cannot figure out the reasoning behind this. And if he’s not a completely digital man, then it’s a combination of bad camerawork and VFX? Not really a great choice either way.
Also, we all knew going into this film that Superman was definitely going to be alive again, somehow. I don’t think we knew how complex and convoluted that “somehow” was going to be, but this is a comic book movie; I don’t know how much fault I can give it for being true to form (but I’ll give it a little). Also, if the Justice League had to resurrect Superman, then why did we need that scene at the end of BvS where the dirt was floating off of Superman’s grave? I took that to imply he wasn’t really dead (again, very comic book-y), but then in Justice League he very much was. What gives guys?
And then. And then. An obvious (or oblivious? somehow?) slap in the face just to remind everyone that, despite Wonder Woman’s success, Gal Gadot is still a woman in film: the butt shot. There’s a scene where Gadot is walking toward an airplane, and the focus on her butt is so egregious it would be hard for anyone, no matter their social awareness level, not to notice that it’s no accident, they just wanted a good shot of Gadot’s leather pantsed-posterior. It’s extra disappointing given that Warner Brothers proved just a few months earlier that it’s fully capable of not, you know, just plain and easy misogyny (this is one reason why Patty Jenkins needs a more prominent seat at the Justice League-esque table I’m now picturing exists at WB HQ). Then, once your male-gaze sensor is heightened, it’s easy notice that when the scene cuts to The Flash, we get to look right at his face, but then a cut back to Wonder Woman leaves us with an adjustment so her breasts are in a good line of sight. Apparently, like babies, audiences have no object permanence and would forget that Gal Gadot has boobs if they weren’t constantly on screen.
These faults were what I remembered the most post-viewing. There are other aspects that could be held against it, like its still-too-gritty Snyder color palette and tone, but it seems like (hopefully) the studio is on the way to course-correcting. There’s also nothing stellar about the plot: you’ve got some superheroes joining together, chasing some MacGuffins, and trying to stop a world-destroying villain. It’s fine! Nothing more, nothing less.
Well, maybe a little more.
Though the bare-bones plot may be a little bland, there are plenty of engaging scenes that ramp up the enjoyment. One of those MacGuffins facilitates the return of the Connie Nielsen-led Amazons. There’s a chase scene between the Amazons and the parademons filled with lots of exciting action, but also an emotional look at the relationships between the Amazons as many sacrifice themselves for the sake of their queen’s escape and dedication to protecting the Mother Box, with the scene ending with Queen Hippolyta mourning a fallen soldier who fought beside her and knowing that they’ll need Diana to help save the world.
Before the final fight scene, there’s also a great scene around the middle of the movie where the Justice League (still lacking Superman) really join together. It’s an exciting scene with lots of action and the first real League-wide teamwork.
In a thematically appropriate move, Justice League’s biggest strength is its team. While there’s the obvious dynamic of a whole team coming together, the movie also spends time with one-on-one dynamics. Batman pushes Flash to be brave, Wonder Woman works on gaining Cyborg’s trust, and Bruce and Diana experience friction but ultimately come closer since their Dawn of Justice introduction. Small moments like Flash helping Diana get her sword or Batman driving Aquaman on the Batmobile make it much more believable for this to actually be a team of people working together. And, at least for me, it’s much more enjoyable to see characters actually, you know, interact and have relationships with each other.
Justice League’s similarities to Marvel’s The Avengers (both are superhero team movies with input by director Joss Whedon) have drawn comparisons of the quality of the two films, and while JL usually ends up with the short end of the stick, I honestly believe that this is one area where it surpasses Avengers. Everyone loves the shawarma scene where the Avengers rest post-battle, but it also comes post-credits, not in the film proper. Other than this scene and a finale team-shot, when are they all really together, physically and figuratively? Tony and Bruce get to be “science bros,” kind of, and Hawkeye and Black Widow have history, but it’s just that: history. We see Natasha comfort Clint after his brainwashing, but most of their relationship is references to past missions we don’t get to see. This team spends most of their time arguing until they finally unite at the end. And that’s one way to do it!
But you can also have a team with some members that truly want to work together until they can finally bring in the others. The League’s conflicts are driven less by personality clashes and more by differences in beliefs and strategy. That’s not to say some of the characters in each film don’t have similar descriptions and motivations; Hulk and Cyborg are both self-identified “freaks” dealing with human/science hybrid powers, and Thor and Aquaman are both rugged loner-types. But they instead come together (Superman aside) around the end of the first act, and so spend most of the film together, which, like I said earlier, is just nice to see.
Though it may seem like I had more complaints than compliments, these things are all weighted, with the negatives being mostly smaller incidents and the solid character interactions a positive that lasts throughout the entire film. And though the tone does veer toward being too dark, it’s still fun! Yes, there are some low points, but overall, it’s enjoyable to watch. I liked it, and I had a good time, and that’s really all I need.