A film review by Craig J. Koban November 25, 2017


2017, PG-13, 121 mins.


Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne / Batman  /  Henry Cavill as Clark Kent / Superman  /  Gal Gadot as Diana Prince / Wonder Woman  /  Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry / Aquaman  /  Ezra Miller as Barry Allen / The Flash  /  Ray Fisher as Victor Stone / Cyborg  /  Ciarán Hinds as Steppenwolf  /  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor  /  Amy Adams as Lois Lane  /  Amber Heard as Mera  /  J.K. Simmons as Commissioner James Gordon  /  Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth  /  Diane Lane as Martha Kent  /  Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta  /  Billy Crudup as Henry Allen

Directed by Zack Snyder  /  Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon


There are two distinct ways that I could sum up my thoughts about JUSTICE LEAGUE, the long awaited super hero team up film and fifth entry in the DC Extended Universe. 

The 10-year-boy in me that plays with action figures and reads comic books unequivocally loved JUSTICE LEAGUE.  It's a living manifestation of my wildest childhood fantasies come thrillingly to life. 

Now, the 42-year-old cold, emotionally detached, and analytical film critic in me fully acknowledges that, yes, JUSTICE LEAGUE was a very beleaguered production (more on that in a bit) that most definitely has its share of obtrusive issues, not to mention that it certainly doesn't achieve the genre greatness of this past summer's WONDER WOMAN, nor does it have the raw and gutsy genre busting ambition of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.  But JUSTICE LEAGUE is replete some key and welcoming traits that even the first two Zack Snyder helmed DCEU films lacked: warmth, color, and humor.  That, and it has a fine ensemble of actors here that makes this iconic team dynamic, engaging, and, well, super heroic. Their shared charisma is palpable and you want to see more movies with them, and this goes an awfully long way with helping to override many of JUSTICE LEAGUE's creative missteps.

This film's behind-the-scenes production woes could arguably make for an endlessly fascinating documentary.  Snyder finished principle photography on JUSTICE LEAGUE late last year and then hired Joss Whedon (director of two AVENGERS films for the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe) to punch up dialogue scenes during the reshoot process.   When personal tragedy befell Snyder in the form of his daughter committing suicide, he dropped out of JUSTICE LEAGUE during the post-production phase, leaving Warner Bros and the powers that be scrambling to get Whedon to take over the film.  With an unheard of budget of $25 million just for shooting additional scenes alone, Whedon reported re-made twenty per cent of JUSTICE LEAGUE, leaving Snyder receiving sole directing credit and Whedon getting a co-writer director with Chris Terio.



Miraculously, I'm mostly pleased to report that the resulting film - the product of essentially two directors not working in tandem - seems to flow together well and with reasonable fluidity.  To be fair, there are key moments sprinkled throughout JUSTICE LEAGUE where the reshoots stick out like a proverbial sore thumb, but they're not overwhelmingly distracting, nor do they fundamentally take away from the whole.  Snyder's unmistakably slick and sumptuous visual style is chiefly on display, whereas every time key members of the team engage in zippy and acerbic dialogue exchanges Whedon's fingerprints can be felt all over the story.  It's a fairly harmonious marriage of styles, which is complimented by the fact that JUSTICE LEAGUE - unlike many recent super hero cinematic extravaganzas - never wears out its welcome with a self-importantly protracted running time.  At a lean and mean two hours, JUSTICE LEAGUE has expeditious pacing that gives us all of the expositional particulars of all of the characters it's trying to introduce for the first time to viewers.  Considering the predilection of so many blockbusters to be bloated to the point of inspiring watch checking, the narrative simplicity on display here is refreshing. 

There's also a concentrated effort to follow-through on key story particulars of previous DCEU films with further compelling exploration, like how - at the end of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE - Superman (Henry Cavill) gave his life to save the world from a city destroying monstrosity created by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).  As we flash-forward to the beginning of JUSTICE LEAGUE we see a world still in deep mourning over the loss of their most supreme protector.  With Superman gone, Earth has become vulnerable to even more dangerous threats from across the cosmos, leaving one in particular, Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), journeying to the Man of Steel-free planet to wage war and turn it into a fiery hellscape.  When Batman (Ben Afffleck) sees early signs of Steppenwolf's future invasion when he comes across one of his monstrous parademons on a survey mission he's forced to spring to action with a plan to defend his home and the world at large.

Re-acquainting himself with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, not missing a charismatic beat from her sensational solo film from a few months back), Batman decides that the time is right to start recruiting other humans with special abilities far beyond mortal men to form a new super hero defensive league.  Both Batman and Wonder Woman journey the globe to nab their new recruits, including the remarkably fast Barry Allen, aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), the ocean dwelling Arthur Curry, aka The Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and part man, part machine Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher).  After a few key initial attempts to click as a collective and well oiled unit stumble, especially during their first altercation with the god-like Steppenwolf, the newly anointed "Justice League" soon realize that they will have to find some manner of resurrecting their fallen Kryptonian hero to assist them with thwarting Steppenwolf's vast and seemingly unstoppable intergalactic army.

JUSTICE LEAGUE most assuredly shines and stands out on a level of team dynamics, showcasing all of its lead actors owning their respective characters with a real passionate relish while forging solid chemistry with one another.  Early scenes featuring Batman and Wonder Woman trying to convince their various handpicked heroes to join their squad have an unexpected comic urgency to them, especially with Miller's infectiously nervous energy that he brings to the deer-in-the-headlights Barry Allen, who takes a whole ten seconds to decide to take Batman up on his offer (Miller, if anything, serves as a fully engaging and endlessly likeable audience surrogate here, reacting to everything around him with open mouthed awe and astonishment).  Less cooperative is Momoa's Aquaman, whose tattooed adored body, rock star mane of hair, and hard boozing disposition makes him an odd fit to be a team player.  Momoa immerses himself fully into all of Aquaman's tantalizing possibilities as a rugged tough talking hero, whose own ultra macho posturing is turned upside down in one of JUSTICE LEAGUE's best and funniest sequences where he ridicules every team member right to their faces...but only because he's accidentally sitting on Wonder Woman's lasso of truth.

Diana Prince herself is just as elegantly poised and confident as she was in her own origin film, and Gadot once again shows why she's arguably the best member of this cast with the trickiest performance balance to pull off.  She's the unofficial matriarchal leader of the league and equal partner to Affleck's Batman, who has intriguingly emerged from the ruthless, law breaking vigilante in BATMAN V SUPERMAN and now into a reasonably minded and considerably more mellow crusader of justice that has learned from his past indiscretions.  There are a few teases thrown in here and there that Wonder Woman and Batman are heading towards romance, but JUSTICE LEAGUE thankfully and mercifully dispenses with that.  Rounding off the team is the surprisingly complex arc of Fisher's Cyborg, who's dealing with his own life after death after having what remains of his physical human body being grafted to robotic parts.  If anything, he's the most sad and poignantly sympathetic of all the Justice League members.

Then again, JUSTICE LEAGUE is perhaps too littered with too many other supporting characters for its own good, especially considering its own mandate to be an economically short film (at least as far as this genre is concerned).  The story reintroduces us to past DCEU characters, like Amy Adams' Lois Lane and Diane Lane's Martha Kent (both having two potent scenes reuniting themselves with Cavill's Superman).  Kal-El himself also returns (which is no longer the spoiler that it was once considered), albeit with odd digital makeup (Cavill infamously had his moustache - that he was contractual obligated to keep for another film - digitally erased from shots that he participated in during JUSTICE LEAGUE's reshoots, resulting in something that's not as jaw-droppingly distracting as some have pained to point out, but nevertheless still draws unwanted attention and scrutiny to his character).  New faces also appear, albeit somewhat unnecessarily, like a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo by J.K. Simmons as Commission Gordon, an appearance that feels more like an obligatory placeholder tease for a larger role in the upcoming Matt Reeves helmed BATMAN solo film.

JUSTICE LEAGUE's biggest sin is its execution of its main baddie in Steppenwolf, a being of majestically and intimidatingly bassy tenor thanks to the voice work of Hinds, but he's mournfully reduced to a garish and frankly ugly looking CG creation that lacks any level of memorable flair.  Steppenwolf is a menacing figure, but lacks an inspiring physical presence throughout the narrative, and his backstory as well when it comes to his motivations to invade Earth in the first place are somewhat ill defined and lack embellishment.  If anything, he serves the larger purpose of being a MacGuffin-like entity that leads to the formation of the Justice League itself, but beyond serving as a catalyst that springs Batman and Wonder Woman to proactive action, Stepphenwolf seems oddly inconsequential here.  Comic book purists will know of his ties to the much larger villain in the DC comics world in Darkseid, but casual filmgoers leaving JUSTICE LEAGUE will undoubtedly have trouble making those connections.

And despite the fact that JUSTICE LEAGUE has neatly trimmed the monotonous fat off of its running time, I still would be interested to see a longer cut of this film that allows the many of these new characters more thorough and meaningful introductions that don't feel a tad rushed out of the gate.  Yet, you still have to kind of admire how nimble footed Snyder's and Whedon's approach to the material is here, diving headfirst into multiple origin stories and giving us all of the core details we need to know about them with minimal fuss (and in less than two hours, which is thanklessly commendable).  More importantly, JUSTICE LEAGUE is made with energy and urgency, and at the risk of employing an overused and simplistic descriptor, it's fun and has its heart in the right place.  This is not a transcending piece of super hero filmmaking (if anything, the makers here play everything achingly safe), but its aims were to course correct the DCEU into something more inviting and purely entertaining.  On those basic levels, JUSTICE LEAGUE accomplishes its own end game and is a modest success.  

And while watching the entire team strike a victory pose at the film's climax it was awfully hard for the cold hearted 42-year-old film critic in me not to crack a smile like a wide-eyed 10-year-old.  


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