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D: Zack Snyder / 120m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton

If Justice League required the writing of a school report card, then that report would likely say, “Must do better.” A movie that furthers Warner Bros.’ insistence on building the DC Extended Universe one laborious movie at a time, this is unlikely to upset fans (who may well point to its lighter tone as reason enough to be happy with the finished product), but it should still provide cause for concern for anyone able to watch the movie objectively or without a vested interest. Although this is an improvement on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), there are still plenty of problems on show, some of which seem inherent in Warner Bros.’ approach to the DCEU, and some that have arisen out of the efforts made to address those same problems. If Justice League is to be as financially successful (if not critically) as previous entries in the DCEU – and early box office returns are casting doubt on this – then even more lessons need to be learnt.

The movie begins with the world mourning the death of Superman (Cavill), and crime apparently on the increase (though strangely, it’s hate crime that the movie chooses first as an example). Batman (Affleck) is still fighting criminals, as is Wonder Woman (Gadot), but an encounter with a strange, alien creature, a Parademon, leads the Caped Crusader to believe that a major threat is coming to Earth (alas, how and why he believes this, is left unexplored, possibly because it would add yet another plot hole to the many already on display). Wonder Woman confirms this, telling him that Earth is being targeted by Steppenwolf (Hinds), the “ender of worlds”. Steppenwolf and his Parademons are looking for three Mother Boxes, power sources that if linked together, could destroy Earth entirely (why he’d want to do this is another plot hole left for the movie to fall through). With one box entrusted to the Amazons on Themyscira, the second to Atlantis, and the third hidden by man, Steppenwolf collects the first two with unseemly ease, leaving Batman and Wonder Woman with only one choice: to find other people with “abilities” who can help try and defeat Steppenwolf; and yes, you guessed it, save the world.

Batman recruits the Flash (Miller) in record time, but has little luck with Arthur Curry (Momoa), the so-called Aquaman. And then there’s Cyborg (Fisher), part man, part machine, whose existence is due to his scientist father’s use of the third Mother Box (conveniently discovered for this very purpose) after his death in a car accident. Keeping hold of the third Mother Box long enough to resurrect Superman (more of which later), Batman and his new friends, including a newly motivated Aquaman, trace Steppenwolf to an abandoned nuclear power plant in Russia (plot hole alert!), and attempt to stop him uniting the Mother Boxes and destroying the world. In the process, Batman, the archetypal loner, learns to become a team player (even though everyone in the Justice League is, effectively, an archetypal loner, it seems to be more relevant to him than anyone else).

In assembling their own version of the Avengers, Warner Bros. and DC have tried to cut narrative corners by curtailing any origin stories and sidelining any character arcs. This leaves the newcomers looking and feeling like late additions to the story rather than integral parts of it. Batman and Wonder Woman are placed front and centre to provide the gravitas this series is committed to, while the Flash is used primarily to ensure there are plenty of laughs to be had (an improvement on previous entries, definitely, but by the end of the movie, a little over-used). But if any one aspect of Justice League should raise concerns about Warner Bros. and DC’s abilities to handle this franchise effectively, it’s in their treatment of Superman. The decision to kill him off at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was possibly that movie’s best idea, but here his resurrection is handled so badly that it feels like an insult. Resurrected purely so that there can be a showdown between Superman and the League, the movie ignores the possibility of a much stronger and more long-term story arc* in favour of a ten-minute punch-up that’s abruptly halted by the appearance of Lois Lane. If anyone is in any doubt that Chris Terrio’s screenplay isn’t up to much (even with Joss Whedon’s additions), then this is the moment that confirms it.

The movie retains the series’ inconsistency of tone, and superficial world building, as well as its plodding attempts at exposition, as well as its over-reliance on big, flashy, hollow set-pieces that deaden the senses and lack imagination (hero hits villain with crushing blow, villain hits hero with crushing blow – and repeat, again and again). It jumps from scene to scene without the slightest concern for its own internal logic – which is continually ignored in favour of getting to the next showdown – and it takes liberties with its minor characters; if you’re not Wonder Woman, but you’re still a female character, be prepared to be given short shrift at almost every turn. Shoehorned into the narrative for no particular reason than that they’re part of the canon, the likes of Commissioner Gordon (Simmons) and Martha Kent (Lane) appear briefly and for little purpose. And yet again, the villain is the least interesting character in the movie, a fully-CGI character who is effectively a thug from another dimension, and who has all the villainous intensity of a playground bully.

For a movie that reportedly cost $300 million to make, Justice League also looks a little on the cheap side at times, with some backgrounds looking incredibly fake (check out the cornfield scene with Lois and Clark for an idea of just how awkwardly the marriage of CGI and on-set footage can be rendered). Snyder still manages to direct as if he can’t believe he’s been given the chance to shepherd such a huge franchise in the first place, and his inability to make individual scenes work as part of a greater whole remains firmly in place. As for Joss Whedon’s contribution, there are certain scenes that bear his imprint, but not enough to offset the dour approach adopted by Snyder, and even though the movie is demonstrably lighter in tone than its predecessor, the inclusion of some much needed humour isn’t enough to make up for the pedestrian plotting and the lack of a convincing storyline (or indeed, any storyline). “Must do better” indeed, and as soon as possible.

Rating: 5/10 – still unable to contend with, or overcome the issues that hold back the DCEU from achieving what it’s capable of, Justice League is what might best be described as “a happy mess”, but that’s doing the lacklustre nature of the overall material something of a favour; Gadot and Miller head up a cast who can only go with the flow and hope for the best, while the mythology building is put on hold in favour of several underwhelming scraps that reinforce the notion that whatever else happens in future DCEU movies, it’ll still be safe to assume that buildings will continue to crumble, and important storyteling lessons will still need to be learnt.

 

*What if the following had happened: Superman returns from the dead but is different, less interested in doing good, more selfish and unapproachable. Unwilling to help defeat Steppenwolf, the League has to find a way to defeat him themselves as a team (which they do). And so, by the time of the next Justice League movie, their foe is Superman himself, whose transition to the “dark side” has become more pronounced (oh, and there’s no Kryptonite to help them out). Now that sounds like a great storyline.

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