Justice League is not, strictly speaking, a bad film. It’s not awful. It’s not even terrible. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly good either – and it certainly doesn’t do justice to the expectations of both Warner Bros. and any still hopeful DC fans out there. With the lowest-grossing opening weekend of any DCEU film, it seems that not only is Justice League simply a mediocre piece of film-making, but also one that failed to generate any real excitement. So, what went wrong?
After Wonder Woman, you would have been excused for thinking that the DCEU had turned a corner. Finally, after several films that were at best divisive, we were presented with something that was actually, genuinely good. Sure, it had its flaws, but it also had charm – it broke box office records, received positive feedback from both audience and critics, and – as a first for the DCEU – it caused people to actually give a shit about some of the characters. Suddenly, the future was bright.
Enter Justice League, the film which should have been met with excitement. There should have been speculation, there should have been hype – there should have been at least a level of pleasant interest. Instead, pre-release responses ranged from polite disinterest to an uneasy apprehension, with Ben Affleck reconsidering his role as the DCEU’s Batman and director Zack Snyder (understandably) stepping down as director late into Justice League’s production due to bereavement. Directing Justice League then fell to Joss Whedon, a move which may been heartening to those who enjoyed 2012’s Avengers Assemble, but less so to those who recalled 2015’s uninspiring Age of Ultron, or Whedon’s questionable Wonder Woman script pitch. The trailers were flashy but lacked substance, and come opening night the film ultimately failed to have gained sufficient traction.
All of this would have been redeemable, of course, had Justice League actually turned out to be a good film. Yet it is, in a word, underwhelming. In some ways, it had a tough job to do – several of the characters (Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, Ezra Miller’s Flash) required fresh introduction, the eventual ‘Big Bad’ Darkseid needed further development, and Superman needed to be brought back from the dead. On top of that, the team needed to be justifiably brought together, going from a bunch of largely unknown loners to a comfortable unit in just two hours of screen time. This isn’t helped by the fact that Justice League is blatantly embarrassed about its title, with characters pointedly discussing the “team”.
In fact, the dialogue in general is hit and miss – the light quips from Miller and Momoa jar awkwardly with the bluntly-written grumblings from Cavill and Fisher, whilst Affleck languishes nervously somewhere in between, a Batman stuck in characterisation limbo. Gadot’s Diana Prince, meanwhile, is considerably diminished compared to her solo outing, taking a back seat as the film struggles to establish its fresher faces. This is doubly disappointing given that Wonder Woman is currently DC’s most favoured personality.
Plot takes a back seat to prioritise excessive CGI over actual content
Plot, meanwhile, takes a back seat in a film which would prefer to prioritise excessive CGI over actual content. The toning down of Snyder-esque slow motion and gloom, whilst an understandable move given responses to Man of Steel and BvS, has resulted in a film that is neither here nor there. A moody atmosphere developed in the first act (set to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’) raises hopes – perhaps, thinks the audience, this film will see Snyder return to his 2009 Watchmen heights. Alas, it was not to be – Justice League‘s style is neither here nor there. All we are left with is excessive (and surprisingly unimpressive) special effects, brief dialogue, and repeated failures to establish any moments which would endear characters to the audience. Jokes fall flat, plot is lacklustre, and the screen is so damn busy that the viewer’s brain just sort of switches off.
By the film’s climax, the screen is flooded by swarms of gimmicky-looking parademons whilst an orgy of brightly coloured tendrils sprout from every possible angle; the credits reliably inform you that Ciarán Hinds is somewhere to be seen, but he’s shrouded so completely in effects that he may as well not have been cast at all. Any angry, one-dimensional, overly tall villain will do in the DCEU it seems – it didn’t work so well in Wonder Woman, and it fails to work here.
Justice League struggles to quantify not only the power of its villains but also of its heroes – Superman is particularly overpowered, at one point holding out against the entire rest of the League (sorry, the “team”). In fact, as soon as Supes shows up, the final act is pretty much over – there is no tension, no intensity. The film doesn’t so much end as fizzle out. The team is assembled; we hear that Darkseid is around (somewhere), and post credits scenes show (spoilers) that Luthor has escaped, and Joe Mangianello’s Deathstroke has invested in some fancy hair dye.
Yet, it is really difficult, as one walks out of the theatre, to actually care. Justice League doesn’t detract from the DCEU – it certainly doesn’t predict doom for the franchise – but it ultimately fails to add anything interesting.