Given all the comprehensively reported behind the scenes drama, the fact that Justice League is coherent seems like a minor miracle. Not only is it coherent, it’s actually fun in places. Zack Snyder’s film (a reported 15-20% of which is Joss Whedon’s) doesn’t leave you on the same high as Wonder Woman and it’s certainly got issues, but it at least seems to demonstrate that Warner Bros and DC’s highly publicised course correction is working.
What it isn’t is particularly gripping, and while that sounds like the biggest possible issue to have, it’s actually somewhat less than totally hobbling when you realise what Justice League’s priorities are. There’s a sense of laying the groundwork, with new characters to be introduced, new attitudes to establish, and a new team to bring to life. On those three counts, the film gets the job done.
The plot, which has Darkseid’s horn-helmed, battleaxe wielding CGI behemoth general Steppenwolf (a growling Ciaran Hinds) coming back to earth to retrieve the all-powerful motherboxes to create a world-ending “unity” is thin. It’s also not particularly fresh: an alien and his army of swarming pawns force a band of misfit heroes to embrace their potential and band together. The threat is the excuse rather than the catalyst and although Steppenwolf gets one or two choice lines, he’s never particularly threatening (and no, being CGI does not help one bit).
Still, the MCU has shown that you don’t necessarily need a great villain to make a fun superhero movie, and the emphasis here is very much on our heroes. Which is just as well, as there are a lot of them to get through.
Gal Gadot’s Diana has had a century to gain some rougher edges to go with the innate positivity and goodness, and it’s still thrilling to watch her charge into the fray. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen is a delightful blend of giddy enthusiasm, clumsiness and nerves who walks away with most of the scenes he’s in. Ray Fisher is fine as Cyborg, playing the character as a high-tech and decidedly more benign Frankenstein’s Creature, although he’s occasionally hindered by being more of a plot device than a character. The whisky-downing, White Stripes-backed Aquaman is the most hard done by and it feels like a fair chunk of his Atlantean scenes are on the cutting room floor. However, Jason Momoa has charisma to spare and his surly surfer dude act is a good fit for the team.
As divisive as Batman V Superman was, it actually does lead nicely into the start of this film. The world is in a dark place following the death of the Kryptonian, so dark that it merits a misery montage with Sigrid’s mournful cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ over the top of it. Even Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has taken a step back from the big stories at the Daily Planet, while Martha Kent (Diane Lane) has had to sell the family homestead.
But it’s also pushed Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and back into the fight. Ben Affleck’s embittered take on the Caped Crusader was great, but he clearly enjoys getting to have a little bit more fun here and works well with the rest of the ensemble as an encouraging if irascible father figure.
For the most part, when they’re on screen together, Justice League works. It’s a strong group with good chemistry (Miller in particular just seems to work well with everyone) and their action sequences are a lot of fun to watch. We see where they’re coming from, what drives them, and where they could go next. It even promises that we could finally see the Superman we actually want (although, obviously, to give anything away about his role in the film would count as spoilers).
So perhaps it was inevitable that the flaws elsewhere are so pronounced. The effects range from impressive to woeful, but it’s really the plodding plotting that keeps Justice League from being anything more than a good time. It sticks rigidly to the most basic formula, right down to the mid-point lull, and the character-strengthening scenes frequently feel like they’ve been placed where they’d cause the least disruption more than anything else.
We left wanting to see more from these heroes, it’s great to see them together on the big screen, and Justice League has definitely got its moments, but it is a little sad that the most enthusiastic response to the film that we can muster is “it’s fine.”