You know something is off in Justice League from the opening scene. It’s a flashback, and Superman is talking to a child. What does he say? I couldn’t tell you. I can’t even remember the child. All I could look at is Superman’s mouth as he talked. Computer-generated lips move on top of Henry Cavill’s face. What is this sloppy mess? Surely it won’t continue to be like this?
At least they have an excuse. Director Zack Snyder, who helmed both the Superman reboot Man of Steel and its sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, bowed out after principal photography early in 2017 after a horrible family tragedy. Joss Whedon (Avengers), who had been brought in to punch up the script in reshoots, ended up taking the helm, saddled with the unenviable task of honoring the vision of someone in mourning, while at the same time fixing as many of its issues as he could. Even Cavill’s bizarre digital mouth has an explanation—because reshoots coincided with the filming of Mission: Impossible 6, he couldn’t trim his mustache, and had to have it CGI-ed out. Much like most of what CGI does, it sounds better on paper than it looks on screen.
Whose vision does the film end up being? While some jokes are unmistakably Whedon’s, this is Snyder’s film—the tone and story that was birthed in Man of Steel continues here. But, as teased in the trailer, the tone is lighter than the dreary dirge of Batman v. Superman. Characters try to talk to each other as humans might. Jokes are made, often to lighten the mood after exposition, or in between action sequences. It’s hard to be sure whether that’s Whedon trying to force some humanity or Snyder himself, responding to the criticisms leveled against his previous two films in the DCEU.
It may be Superman’s CGI mouth that’s the tell as to how extensive the reshoots truly were—I didn’t notice a single scene with Superman where his mouth looked authentic—it’s Mustache-Supermans all the way down.
So what’s all the fuss? Why, knowing about the troubled shoot and abhorring the previous two installments, did I still come to see Justice League the first chance I got? A Justice League film might be the biggest remaining fan dream project in the genre. Sure, by the time 2012’s Avengers came out that seemed like a dream, but that was a testament to the work that Marvel did building up those characters, not to the power those characters had over the decades. Iron Man is a billion dollar franchise now, but it’s DC’s characters that are cultural shorthand far from the world of the fanboy. These are the characters people have been dying to see assemble.
What’s the story then? How does Justice League bring them together? Each of these characters are so superlative in every aspect, so powerful, it takes something truly great, truly horrifying, to make their collaboration seem necessary. To bring the Justice League together, the end of the world has to feel imminent and inevitable, and you have to doubt, ever so slightly, that even they can pull it off.
That’s where things start to fall apart almost immediately. The story that Justice League gives us is a hodgepodge of all the superhero films, the fantasy epics, the space operas and the children’s cartoons you’ve seen and immediately forgotten. Steppenwolf, one of the New Gods created by legendary artist Jack Kirby in his unfinished epic Fourth World saga, is an all-powerful regal-seeming monster from outer space. A long time ago, he tried and failed to use three all-powerful cubes, called motherboxes, to takeover the world. Now he is back to gather the motherboxes and try again.
If that feels like I’m missing the interesting bit, if that was hard to read, believe me, it’s much worse on screen. Steppenwolf is fully computer generated, and talks a lot for someone impossible to pay attention to. He has so much empty screen time that the more epic they try to make the danger seem, the more inevitable his fall seems.
We the audience don’t fear the world’s end, but the characters supposedly do. Batman (Ben Affleck) has to break the emergency glass and get a team together. He calls Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), fresh off a 100-year brooding session, who intermittently has been doing some heroism. He calls The Flash (Ezra Miller), new to the DC cinematic universe, who quickly announces that he will be the comic relief for the evening. He calls Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a B-list character DC has spent a long time trying to elevate to the A-list—a Frankenstein’s monster with seemingly-infinite powers over technology. And he calls Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), who here makes up for the forever-silliness of his skillset by being a generic sexy badass.
Where’s Superman? Oh, they’ll get to that later. It’s not a good enough resurrection to bother spoiling, but expect him to show up in when they put a powerful thing on top of another powerful thing, and use space magic to fix him.
Most of the runtime is not spent developing the plot, as there really isn’t time for one. Justice League has to spend its time where it is most valuable, creating momentum for each of these characters into their own franchises, and throwing in as many fan service-y interactions as possible to make audiences holler from their seats.
How are these characters treated? While Gal Gadot is as radiant a screen presence here as she was in this year’s breakout hit Wonder Woman, it becomes clear very quickly how important it was to have a woman behind the camera of that film. Zack Snyder deservedly has a poor reputation in how he films women, and Whedon has fallen quite far from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so let’s place mutual blame in the gross amount of male gaze the two place upon her.
The camera can’t seem to avoid closing up on Wonder Woman’s different body parts, objectifying her at every opportunity. Even the script does so. In one scene, Aquaman is accidentally sitting on Wonder Woman’s ‘lasso of truth’. He starts talking about her beauty, getting more inappropriate by the moment—the joke being that this must be what they’re all thinking. It’s shocking that made it into the final edit, especially after the 2017 we’ve all lived through with unsettled stomachs.
Ben Affleck has always had a cinematic presence even back when he couldn’t act—all big head and jaw. It’s strange, then that he’s the only actor to look awkward in Batman’s cowl, jumping around looking goofier than I could have imagined.
A lot of this film seems off, and a lot seems goofy. Nothing sticks together. The characters make jokes when it’s time to make jokes. They bond and connect when they’re supposed to. They look heroic, and do big punchy superhero things, and they lampshade when even they know it’s too implausible for the audience to take seriously. The threads are showing through all of it, a knock-off designer shirt that won’t even get you through the night.
What did I really find myself thinking during this film? I thought about all the hours of my life I’ve spent watching cartoons as a kid, adolescent, and adult. I thought about when my mother brought me the 70s Flash, Batman and Superman comics I asked her for when I was stuck in the hospital after surgery at age 12. I thought about every superhero movie I’ve lined up for at midnight, sometimes in lazy cosplay. And I thought about everyone I’ve met who’s asked me, ‘why superheroes? Why do they keep making these films?’
Watching a film like Justice League, I could no longer think of a good answer. Marvel seems to have found the solution to how to keep things going—mix in other genres, rearrange the ingredients, keep things fresh. Sure, there’s an underlying emptiness there too, but at least, going down, you hardly notice. This one stripped it down to its bare elements. Big powerful attractive people that are capital-g Good defeat the bad guys. And I wondered, as the audience around me hooted and hollered on cue, if I’d just outgrown all of this.
When I got home, I picked up one of the many DC omnibuses on my shelf, trying to remind myself why I’ve spent so much time on all of these characters. Of course, with the right artists, with the right writers, I remembered. When done right, this stuff is timeless. But if Justice League proves anything, it’s that when you get this stuff wrong, when you don’t find a spark to power the soul of the thing, nothing feels more empty. Nothing is a bigger waste of your time. Justice League could be a lot worse, but even in mediocrity it brought out in me that despair. This stuff will rot your teeth, kids.
- Justice League is out 16 November across the Middle East -