I almost skipped Justice League, mainly because I expected to hate it. I was lukewarm on Man of Steel—liked it more than many people did, but found Zack Snyder’s whole worldview pervasive and unpleasant—and I loathed Batman vs. Superman. My comic book Justice Leagues are the Giffen/DeMatteis version (as mentioned many times before), and the Grant Morrison big-seven version.
The strengths of the first of those include humor, light interpersonal comedy, and strong characterization. The strengths of the second are epic scale, reliable undertones of hope, and a love of the bombastic grandeur of the DC superheroes. Zack Snyder’s cinematic interpretation of the team seemed unlikely to exhibit any of those strengths, and I’m way too frazzled-dad to have time or energy to hatewatch things in the theater. So Justice League was a skip-until-cable-and-maybe-not-even-then.
But my daughter, now nine, declared in no uncertain terms, “If it has Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, I am all about it,” so off to the theater we went. And, much to my surprise, I totally, unreservedly enjoyed it. It wasn’t flawless—far, far from it—and it certainly wasn’t deep. But it pushed a lot of the same buttons as Morrison’s JLA run in the comics: it was all the big-name DC heroes, interacting and fighting a thin, unambiguous bad guy. And sometimes, that’s enough.
After the jump, some slightly more SPOILER-y thoughts….
I’ve heard a lot of people saying that this feels more like a Marvel movie than most of DC’s previous cinematic ventures, a fact that’s generally attributed to Joss Whedon’s involvement. (The entire messed-up production of this movie has turned the whole thing into a Rorschach for people talking about it—anything people like, they tend to ascribe to Whedon, whether or not there’s any evidence for it.) And…that’s an interesting accusation to me, because I’m beginning to feel like fans generally overrate the depth of Marvel movies.
I had just re-watched Guardians of the Galaxy, showing it to the kids for the first time, and I’ve gotta say: Justice League, on first viewing, feels far more coherent and character-driven than GotG did on rewatch. (In fairness, my initial response to GotG was entirely favorable, so there’s plenty of reason to believe JL will similarly deteriorate in my esteem should I ever watch it again.)
(In further fairness, since starting this piece I have also watched Guardians Vol. 2 for the first time, and thought it blew both GotG v.1 and Justice League out of the water. So make of that what you will.)
Avengers: Age of Ultron was thin (at best) to begin with and is, for me, completely un-rewatchable. The first Avengers was thin but managed to justify its shallowness by parlaying the relative depth of the characters developed in their previous solo movies. I’m not sure “like a Marvel movie” is as notable a compliment as people like to believe.
For me, if Justice League is like any Marvel movie, it’s most like Thor: Ragnarok, because that too was a shallow, amusing romp that totally re-characterized its protagonist from his previous appearances. But where Ragnarok got a pass for its character overhauls thanks to a likeable director and a cool Led Zeppelin song and a few other good decisions, Justice League has (it seems to me) been criticized for simultaneously trying to be a sequel to the previous DC movies while also flat-out jettisoning the things that didn’t work.
This Justice League movie asks us to take on faith that the whole world loved Superman, and that his death has sunk the entire globe into a lunatic depression. And, y’know what? I’m totally fine doing that, because that’s how it SHOULD be. That’s the kind of hero Superman is, and the kind of lead hero the DC Universe should have. There’s a really weird bit of doublethink going on, where some people are like “Zack Snyder’s movies haven’t ever shown us the real Superman!!!!” while at the same time grumbling that Justice League isn’t staying true to that character. It’s kind of bizarre to (correctly) castigate the films for wrongheaded directions and then reprimand them for trying to simply ignore the things that didn’t work.
But here I am, falling into the same trap as everyone else and judging the movie against what it ISN’T—a Marvel movie, or it’s predecessors, or what was implied by the subplots in BvS:DoJ, or what was leaked in rumors from the set, or what Zack Snyder might have done alone, or what George Miller would’ve done, or what I’ve been imagining in my head since I was eleven. And I think those comparisons are where this movie—where ANY movie, really—is going to fall down. Because on its own, this thing was harmless, entertaining, superhero movie fun.
Maybe the easiest way to parse my thoughts on what this movie IS is to break those thoughts down by the main characters. (Maybe not, but…this formless ramble needs SOME kind of structure, so here we go.)
- Batman. I love the visual of this Batman. I love that he can finally move like Batman. I love seeing him fight something other than sadistic clowns or rooftop thugs. I even like the voice modulator as a solution to Batman Voice because (and here’s where you probably lose any last shreds of respect for my opinions) Christian Bale’s Batman Voice went beyond meme-ably amusing and more or less broke the character for me. (Bale is, arguably, my least favorite cinematic Batman.) So this Batman was mostly fun for me. They still haven’t solved the eternal dilemma of how to make a villain that causes problems for ultrapowerful super heroes but that a hypercapable mortal can be helpful against—Morrison’s solution, to make Batman SO hypercapable that it transcended to superpower on its own, doesn’t quite work with this version of the character—but they found facets of the character’s guilt and responsibility and loneliness that I liked, and they showed him punching good. Justice League‘s Batman ranks as eminently watchable.
- Wonder Woman. So many small decisions with Diana that really emphasized how great Patty Jenkins was on her solo film. But Gal Gadot manages to overcome them all—the endless shots framed around her ass, and the implication that she retreated entirely from the world because of a boy, and the need to make her the exasperated mom figure for the boisterous males—through her sheer charisma and apparent joy in playing this character. And I hope I never stop tearing up as my daughter literally bounces in her seat when Tina Guo’s electric cello buzzsaws into Wonder Woman’s theme and Diana starts kicking ass in slow motion. Justice League’s Wonder Woman ranks as still a delight despite their best efforts.
- Flash. I’ve seen some complaints that, whatever delightful thing Ezra Miller is doing here, it isn’t the Flash. Which…isn’t totally wrong. It’s certainly not Barry Allen, straightlaced police scientist and total square in a bowtie. It’s also not Grant Gustin’s TV Barry Allen, a cheerful, smiling, slice of Wonder bread in spandex. But what it’s remarkably close to, in some ways, is a combination of 1987’s Wally West (the eating, the inexperience, the occasional bad decisions) and Morrison’s JLA Wally West (the younger one in some awe of the other heroes). So it worked for me on the fundamental level (Miller’s entertaining performance) and was still recognizably A Flash, if not The Flash they intended. Justice League‘s Flash ranks as perfect for an ensemble role.
- Superman. See above. This is the Superman I’ve been wanting to see for two movies: Cavill’s looks, Snyder’s special effects, a costume that’s not color-corrected into grayness, all grafted to what I view as the actual iconic underpinnings of Superman. I don’t really care how we got here, Justice League’s Superman ranks as finally where he should be.
- Cyborg. I give Ray Fisher all the credit in the world for making this clunky batch of CGI junk, tied to a fragmented, incomprehensible backstory, a viable character. There are many ways he isn’t great, but all of them are down to the script and the effects crew. Justice League‘s Cyborg ranks as better than he should be.
- Aquaman. Well, they can’t all be winners. Jason Momoa brings a likeable enough Hawaii vibe to the character and he certainly appears to be having an enormous amount of fun, but…I have no idea what his deal is, what he’s been doing, why, etc. Little screenplay things like that. They try to give him moments (notably an incident with Diana’s lasso that’s borrowed straight out of an obscure Christopher Priest JLA story) but absolutely none of it coheres for me. About the only thing that saves him is that the visual is very reminiscent of the hook-handed Aquaman from Morrison’s JLA so he kind of fits in visually to what I’m expecting. But Justice League‘s Aquaman ranks as hopefully much less well-realized than he will be in his solo film.
I guess my point with all of this is, this is a likeable group of actors portraying a likeable group of heroes. They are pursuing one of the most obvious McGuffins in film history (it’s a classic fantasy-trope of “these three items must not merge”) and opposed by a videogame cutscene. (So maybe it really IS just like a Marvel movie.) In the end, the only thing that mattered to me about this movie was the simplest: my whole family—wife, daughter, son, and me—left the theater happy, talking about the bits that we liked and wondering where they would go with the next one. And for me, regardless of what had or hadn’t come before, that was more than enough.