Justice League is bad like Road House is bad and great like The Highlander is great. In other words, it’s really not that good, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a great time. A fact Justice League seems more than okay with.
There is a debate about how much of the success, or failure, should go to Joss Whedon and how much should go to Zack Snyder. For simplicity’s sake, we will go with the name on the title card. Regardless of the obvious Whedon touches here and there, in an odd way this feels like vintage Snyder.
But the fact there were two different directors at the helm, both with vastly different styles and personalities, lends Justice League a distinctive flavor all it’s own. Justice League hums with a wonderful if bizarre, idiosyncratic manic energy. Yet, there’s a tonal consistency throughout the whole thing that makes it all feel part of one whole.
The opening scene is one of the more unusual moviegoing experiences this year. Superman (Henry Cavill) is being filmed and questioned by two excited kids. The scene itself is fine; the problem is Cavill’s mouth. After production wrapped, Cavill began filming another movie and grew a mustache. When Cavill was called back for re-shoots, the other studio wouldn’t let him shave the mustache off. The result is our being denied a beautiful mustachioed Superman and being gifted one of the most terrifying uncanny valley effects of an upper lip I hope to never top.
The phantom lip aside the opening credits are vintage Snyder. I would venture to say the opening credits are some of the best visual and narrative storytelling Snyder has done in a good long while. It sets the mood and gives us a feel for how the world is post-Superman.
The movie has the look and feel of a comic book movie. As Justice League steamed ahead, I found myself wondering why I felt so anxious. It was then I realized I was having good old fashioned fun. The type of fun that has the Batman (Ben Affleck) beat up a low-level thug just to use him for bait to attract a flying man-bug only to leave the thug on the rooftop after he kills the creature.
Justice League hits the ground running. It’s origin story devoid of laborious exposition. We start off with flying humanoid insectoids (parademons), move on to Mother Boxes, and then it’s on to Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds). Steppenwolf is what is known as a MacGuffin; he’s necessary but only to propel the plot forever onward.
As onward as a script with essentially three stories mashed together can go. Disjointed as the stories may be it’s never dull and often times kind of charming. I loved how Justice League opens up by showing us the arrival of yet another harbinger of the apocalypse only to abruptly switch to a story about a group of emo loners finding each other and start a band. It’s even better when that story stops cold and turns into a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys adventure as the gang robs graves and breaks into Lexcorp labs to enact a Frankenstein-esque ascension.
I wouldn’t say Justice League forgets about Steppenwolf, but I would say it’s clear it’s only using Steppenwolf. But this is all fine considering Steppenwolf is hardly that interesting or fun of a character. How much time do you really want to spend with a villain who can easily find Mother Boxes in Themyscira and Atlantis but is so stumped by the location of the third in Metropolis that he takes hostages to suss out its whereabouts?
Thankfully we have Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Justice League outright makes the argument that Diana is actually the Superman we deserve. Even as Batman, of all people, talks about how much Superman was a beacon of hope, a shining light on a hill, he points to Diana and says “But you’re a leader.” So for much of the Justice League, we have essentially Bruce Wayne giving Diana Prince pep talks about essentially running for student council president. It’s amazing because fuck yeah Diana Prince is amazing and people should be telling her that every damn second of every day.
So when they finally do bring Superman back from the dead he’s basically utilized for his abilities, the leading is done in a wonderful sort of co-captain way by Diana and Bruce. Gadot is forced to play a different Diana, but it’s not markedly different. Because the story seems to be worked on by men at almost every stage of the process her arc has more to do with getting over the loss of Steve Trevor; literally a hundred years ago.
The fingerprints of men are all over this film. From the hilarious costume changes for the Themysciran Amazons to the numerous low angle butt shots. Some of this seems accidental. The Themysciran armor seems designed to show off the muscular abs and biceps of the warriors. It’s an attempt to show literal strong women. I’m not excusing it so much as trying to figure out why the hell they went in such a bizarre situation.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is reduced to the grieving girlfriend who doubles as a third act signifier. Martha Kent (Diane Lane) is made to utter some preposterous overly countrified things. Mera (Amber Heard) does, I don’t know what she does actually. But she’s onscreen for a couple of minutes, and she guilts Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) into doing the right thing.
All this only heightens the fact that men were clearly the head of every decision making process. Despite all of this Gadot proves herself, once again, a movie star. She walks through every scene of this movie with confidence, poise, and a fierce badassery. Not even the male gaze can diminish her presence and ability. No matter the outfit Gadot emerges unscathed as we are left desperately pining for Wonder Woman 2.
Everyone from Affleck to Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg gives an enjoyable performance. Fisher is given little to do aside from trying to out-brood the Dark Knight. But he manages to find moments in the rubble. “Why have you not told them I’m alive?” He asks his father, Silas (Joe Morton). “Are you afraid they would see a monster?” Silas assures Victor that he’s not a monster. “It’s odd that you thought I was talking about me.”
There are great bits of dialogue strewn throughout as well as some howlers. Such as when Ma Kent utters “You know bankers. They pounce like cougars on a dime.” But even when the dialogue ventures into the outright corny the characters are recognizable. For the first time in three movies, Superman feels like Superman. There’s such a joy when Kal-El shows up to the final battle I felt like a child again. The phantom lip comes and goes. It’s never as bad as the opening scene, but you’ll be on the edge of your seat as it reappears, like a jump scare.
There’s a lunacy to the whole Justice League affair, but it wears its lunacy on its sleeve with unabashed pride. It all works. The stuff that doesn’t work, the bad special effects, corny dialogue, hilariously misplaced music homages, it all comes together for a singular joyous, raucous good time.
Justice League feels as if people who love comic books got together and made a comic book movie that’s not ashamed it’s a comic book movie. There’s an undercurrent of despair undercutting most of the first half of Justice League. A feeling that the world is not as it should be and that basic justice and decency have fled for warmer climates. To Joss Whedon, Chris Terrio, and Zack Snyder’s credit Justice League never gives in to these feelings.
Instead, they have the audacity to be funny, sad, dorky, cheesy, and sincere. The heroes are actually heroic even if like Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) they need to be mentored along the way. Justice League is demonstrably hopeful as opposed to theoretically hopeful. The characters and story aren’t bogged down by ponderous, boring pseudo-intellectualized ideas about heroism.
The movie is a mixed bag to be sure. Sometimes what’s so great about it feeds into what also makes it so bad; like a Klein bottle. It’s a wonderfully nutty alchemy in which it’s hard to parse one from the other. Justice League is not the Citizen Kane of superhero movies, but then again it’s not trying to be. It is what it is, and what it is is something all it’s own.