I didn’t hate it.
That may seem like an odd way to begin a review, so let’s back up for a second. I have long been what you might call a “DCEU hater”. I openly mock most of the films and constantly question the decision-making going on behind the scenes. I’ll admit, it’s fun to pile on, especially with the way DCEU fans react every time a new DC film gets bad reviews. Most of the time I’m just trolling, but I’m also legitimately frustrated with the state of DC’s cinematic universe.
Many people think that I’m just a Marvel fanboy. I’ve been a Marvel fan my entire life and I legitimately see the Marvel Cinematic Universe as one of the most impressive cinematic achievements of all time. They’ve created a 17-film universe (with 7 more on the way) while managing to maintain a consistent level of quality. Furthermore, the universe has spread onto the small screen, with 200 episodes of related television (and much more on the horizon). Questions of quality aside, that’s pretty damn impressive – unprecedented, even. Marvel has set the standard for what it means to have a shared universe, and while it’s true that I prefer them, I also love DC and their characters. The Dark Knight is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I’m a big fan of what the CW has been doing with their DC shows. Comics-wise, DC has been kicking Marvel’s ass ever since their “DC Rebirth” initiative last year. All-in-all, I like DC only slightly less than I like Marvel, which is where the frustration comes in. I would love to see an amazing DC Extended Universe. If at times it seems like I’m rooting for these movies to fail, it’s only because I want them to get better. While Justice League makes some improvements on the formula of past DCEU films, it’s not the “better” that I’ve been hoping for.
Like all of the DCEU films before it, there are things to like in Justice League. The characters are, for the most part, very well done. Batman and Wonder Woman, who both shone in Batman v Superman, are dependably good here, although they’re not quite as compelling as they’ve been in the past. This time, it’s the newcomers who really shine. Ezra Miller’s Flash and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman serve as the film’s comedic relief, although they fulfill this role in completely different ways. Miller’s Flash is the awestruck, excitable team member who’s constantly putting himself in awkward situations, while Momoa’s Aquaman is, for lack of a better term, an aloof “bro” who openly mocks the other team members. Both of these character’s sound kind of awful on paper, but it works surprisingly well in the movie. If nothing else, I can say that I’m excited to see where both of these characters go in each of their upcoming films. Superman also makes a strong showing, as he’s finally allowed to become the hero we’ve always wanted him to be. The real surprise, however, is Cyborg. If you’re anything like me, you saw Ray Fisher in those trailers and thought “yuck”. While his CG armor still looks pretty bad, Ray Fisher infuses the character with a ton of humanity, and in many ways he becomes the beating heart at the center of the film. You may or may not know that Cyborg was originally a member of the Teen Titans, and it wasn’t until DC’s “New 52” reboot in 2012 that he became a founding member of the Justice League. I agree with what I’ve seen some others say: this film is the first time in which it has felt like Cyborg actually BELONGS on the Justice League. I wish that supporting characters like J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon and Amber Heard’s Mera had bigger roles to play, but I suppose it’s only fitting that the focus was put on the Justice League itself. They are by far the best part of the movie. It’s too bad they couldn’t have faced a more fitting villain.
If the Justice League are the best part of the film, then their adversary, Steppenwolf, is the worst. If you have no idea who Steppenwolf is, you’re not alone. I’ve been reading comics my entire life and I barely have a clue who Steppenwolf is, and after seeing Justice League, I’m still unsure. He’s your shallow, run-of-the-mill CGI villain whose sole role is to be strong enough and menacing enough that these strangers have to team up to defeat him – in other words, he’s a glorified punching bag. It’s truly a shame that they didn’t launch this team with a stronger villain – DC’s Avengers could have really used a Loki. Say what you will about Michael Shannon’s Zod, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, and Jared Leto’s Joker, but at least they tried for something less generic. Steppenwolf is just lifeless. He’s so bad that Joss Whedon (who directed a significant portion of this film, but we’ll get to that) favorited a tweet asserting that Steppenwolf is the worst comic book movie villain of all time. When the co-director of the movie thinks your villain is bad, you’ve got a problem.
By now you’re probably wondering, “Okay, so the characters are good and the villain is bad. You just described most Marvel films. What makes this one worse?” Well, that’s a very good question, and the answer is kind of hard to explain. The DCEU, with the exception of Wonder Woman, has been a complete mess up until this point. I’ve seen all those movies numerous times, and while watching, I’m constantly trying to figure out what exactly DC was going for. My current “theory”, which is backed up by, well, other people’s theories, is that Zack Snyder attempted to tell a story about super heroes in a world that wasn’t ready for them. They weren’t trying to copy Marvel, they were going for a more grounded, cynical approach. It was the story of powerful, flawed men learning to become heroes in a world that didn’t want their help. I don’t know why we expected anything different from the “visionary” mind behind the Watchmen adaptation.
While Snyder’s approach had its proponents, critics and general audiences vastly favored Marvel’s fun, colorful, humorous universe. Additionally, while the films of the DCEU were ambitious, two of them were a complete mess; neither Batman v Superman nor Suicide Squad felt cohesive. They’re shattered fragments of a whole that have been stitched together by the studio into something vaguely resembling a film. Snyder and Ayer both faced an enormous amount of studio meddling and neither was able to see their vision fully realized on the screen (although I’m sure the Extended Cut of Batman v Superman comes close). Warner Bros. heard the cries of audiences that wanted shorter, funnier, and lighter films, but they were unable to rework their directors’ visions into something that resembled a Marvel film. With Justice League, they’ve come closer than they ever have before, but all of the backdoor meddling has lead to a film with a debilitating identity crisis.
Justice League, in many ways, feels like a soft reboot of the DC Extended Universe. It’s a far cry from Snyder’s first two films: the color palette is lighter, the characters crack jokes, and the heroes are finally allowed to behave like heroes. I believe this is due, in large part, to the involvement of Avengers director Joss Whedon. As the story goes, Snyder was dissatisfied with the first cut of Justice League, so he brought Joss Whedon in to help punch up the script for reshoots. During this process, Snyder and his wife Deborah, herself a producer on the film, suffered a horrific tragedy: on March 20th, 2017, their daughter Autumn died by suicide. The Snyder’s attempted to return to work on the film before making the decision to step away completely in order to process their grief. At this point, the completion of Justice League became Whedon’s responsibility.
There are a lot of thoughts and conspiracies out there regarding Whedon’s involvement, none of which are verifiable. One commonly held belief is that after Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. was dissatisfied with Snyder’s handling of their properties and had been looking for a reason (or excuse) to separate him from the DCEU. It makes sense – Batman v Superman made money, but it didn’t make the kind of money that a film featuring Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman together for the first time should have made. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has taken off while DC’s is still floundering and a large amount of that blame has been placed squarely on Snyder’s shoulders. It is, after all, his vision that audiences don’t seem to be connecting with. I don’t know if it’s a matter of misplaced expectations or unfair comparisons, but Snyder’s ambitious, unconventional approach has never been met with widespread acceptance. It seemed as if Justice League was Snyder’s last shot to win audiences over, and it was widely reported that the film was going to be lighter and more optimistic than his previous films. Whether or not that was true, we may never know, because the Justice League that has been released in theaters is not Snyder’s film.
Regardless of whether or not you believe that WB was secretly relieved to have Snyder off the film, one thing can’t be denied – Justice League is as much Whedon’s film as it is Snyder’s. While most blockbusters undergo planned reshoots, Justice League’s were more extensive than usual. A reported $25 million was spent on two months of reshoots, all of which had been written (or rewritten) by Whedon. If this post from someone claiming to have worked on the film is to be believed, Whedon was more involved than anybody initially suspected. His fingerprints are all over this film, for better or worse. Justice League LOOKS like a Zack Snyder film, but it doesn’t feel like one – it’s a fractured whole, the product of two very different visions. It often feels at odds with itself, and what results is a sometimes surprising, often underwhelming film. It’s both bad, without being awful, and good, without being great. For all of its triumphs and failures, it’s mostly just… there, and that’s kind of incredible in a sad sort of way. Also incredible in a sad sort of way are Justice League’s box office prospects.
It’s looking like Justice League will finish its opening weekend with a gross of $96 million, which is a pretty dire amount. It sounds like a big number, but within a certain context, it’s not. Check out the opening weekend totals of the five other comic book movies that have released this year while keeping in mind that Justice League reportedly cost $300 million to make (everything else on this list cost between $100-200 million):
$146,510,104 – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
$122,744,989 – Thor: Ragnarok
$117,027,503 – Spider-Man: Homecoming
$103,251,471 – Wonder Woman
$88,411,916 – Logan
Justice League will be coming in above only the R-rated Logan. Justice League, the film debut of DC’s premiere superhero team, starring three of the most popular, long-lasting characters in history, will have a lower debut than movies starring a talking raccoon, a sentient tree, and a Kiwi rock-man. Justice will be opening below Wonder Woman, Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Justice League’s opening weekend would rank 10th when compared to the opening weekends of films in the MCU. Make no mistake – a $96 million opening weekend is nothing short of disastrous. This movie should be DC’s Avengers, which holds the record for the 3rd highest domestic opening weekend of all time with $207,438,708 – Justice League isn’t even going to make half that amount.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m piling on the film because enough people are already doing that. I just wrote 2000 words on the film and I didn’t even mention Superman’s fake upper lip (Cavill was filming Mission: Impossible 6 during reshoots and Paramount wouldn’t let him shave off his mustache, so almost all of his scenes needed to have his mustache digitally removed, resulting in a stunningly odd effect). I don’t think Justice League is awful; I had fun while sitting in the theater. It’s just that the whole thing feels like an incredible missed opportunity. This was WB’s chance to usher their biggest franchise into a new golden era – it should have been a victorious film that left people excited for the future of the DCEU. Instead, you’ll leave the film feeling mildly unsatisfied. You can tell that something didn’t quite work, but you’re not entirely sure what. You’ve laughed and had fun, but it feels somehow hollow. It feels too short, too anticlimactic almost. I can’t tell you if Snyder’s original vision would have been better or if WB should have simply turned to Joss Whedon in the first place. All I know is that while not an unqualified disaster, this is not the Justice League film we’ve all been waiting for. It feels like a placeholder, but for what, I don’t know. As I look to the future of the DCEU, I’m genuinely not sure what to think. Justice League definitely changed things; I’m just not sure they’ll be the changes that we, or WB, were hoping for.
PS. The first post-credits stinger is really good, but the second post-credits stinger is even better. It’s been a long time since I’ve been surprised by something that I saw at the end of the credits, so kudos to DC for beating Marvel at their own game