JUSTICE LEAGUE continues DC’s attempt at a shared universe, which commenced with 2016’s BATMAN v SUPERMAN. BvS faced a challenging fan reaction, and despite the premise’s promise, it was widely regarded as being overly dark and melodramatic. SUICIDE SQUAD attempted to redress that balance, by bringing some humour and fun back into the mix, but once again the critical reaction was widely negative. Whilst it was far more successful on virtually every level, WONDER WOMAN has its critics, and the heritage of DC’s grittier, darker universe is still apparent in places. So, is JUSTICE LEAGUE a serious contender to Marvel’s superhero crown?
Set after the events of BATMAN v SUPERMAN, JUSTICE LEAGUE begins with Batman’s discovery that “parademons” are appearing across Gotham City. A mysterious cube pictogram leads Bruce Wayne to Diana Prince, who fears that an incursion event is at hand. Bruce is assembling a team to stand against this new threat – and makes contact with the Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Flash. They team up to take on protagonist Steppenwolf – who will present a threat of epic proportions if he manages to unite the “mother boxes”. All this against the background of a world bereft of Superman, whose absence is sorely missed by the new team of heroes…
Although JUSTICE LEAGUE is undeniably set within the world of BvS, SUICIDE SQUAD and WONDER WOMAN, the first thing I’d note is that the note of JUSTICE is completely different. This is a lighter, easier to digest and less substantial affair. From the opening action sequence – in which Ben Affleck’s Batman captures a criminal in order to lure a parademon to his location – you’ll realise that the gritty semi-horror of BvS is a distant memory. The tone and style of the film is CGI-enhanced over-the-top action – a colourful popcorn flick. Most will find it far more entertaining as a result, but I expect some will also criticise the director’s decision to move away from the dark underbelly of BvS. You can’t please them all, I guess!
JUSTICE LEAGUE has some impressive action set pieces, and you certainly won’t be disappointed in this respect if you judge your superhero movies by this yardstick. However, whilst impressive, the action also lacks any sense of realism. It tends to have a numbing effect after a while, and because we’re dealing with god-like super-fighters, there’s not much of a sense of threat. This emphasises the “cartoony” (rather than comic book) aspect of the film. Again, not necessarily a criticism, but you can’t help feel that this decision has been taken to counter the critical response to BvS…
Plotwise, there’s not much to say. It’s a fairly straightforward “heroes find problem, come together, solve it” type affair. With these ensemble hero films, this is often the case – after all, there are many characters vying for attention here. However, I certainly felt that the premise teased in BvS (those flashbacks! Undeniably the best aspects of the film!) didn’t go anywhere. Indeed, I suspect that LEAGUE was significantly rewritten post BvS, to counter the critics. This is most certainly not the offered sequel to BvS as suggested by that film – but again, dependant on your viewpoint, that might not be such a bad thing.
What about the actual League? Batman feels appropriately “batsy”, with an emphasis on his big toys and technological mastery. He has a crawler-type thing which reminded me a lot of Lego Batman’s Scuttler, as well as a flyer and the ubiquitous Batmobile. I still think that Affleck does a good job as a darker, more brooding Batman, and for me he was one of the more successful elements of BvS. However, it’s questionable whether LEAGUE needed an older, grizzled Bats. Now that the DC universe seems to have started in a lighter direction, I wonder whether Warner Brothers will re-evaluate Affleck’s appointment as Batman.
Meanwhile, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman continues to impress. She gets a lot of screen time, as the joint leader of the League. Her action sequences are again effective, and she shines during some of the slower plot moments as well. However, as I noted earlier, because she is of such epic and god-like fighting abilities, even when she is in danger you never feel any sense of threat. WONDER WOMAN tended to deal with this through the more human, emotive plot developments; and suggesting that, given her naivety, Wonder Woman could even by manipulated by outside powers. There aren’t really any moments or developments like that in LEAGUE, and as such Gadot doesn’t get the opportunity to explore this side of her character.
There’s a definite thrill at seeing some of DC’s classic characters on the big screen for the first time (if you discount their fleeting appearances in BvS). Ezra Miller’s Flash is certainly interesting – presented here as a younger, more flighty version of the character, whose superhero career is still in its infancy. It’s inevitable that comparison will be made with the TV counterpart, as played by Grant Gustin. I felt that Gustin’s portrayal was more effective; whilst Miller’s character shows potential, I suspect some fans will have difficulty accepting Flash’s clumsier character moments (he appears to sprain an ankle at one point!).
As to the Cyborg, Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone invites further exploration; we’re given a pretty scant explanation for the integration with alien technology that keeps him alien. The least developed character, I felt, was Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman. This version of Arthur Curry is also the most removed from any other comic character in the film. There are scant insights into Atlantis, and not much more into the character’s motivation. We already know that LEAGUE will be a platform for further DC hero movies, and both Aquaman and Cyborg are slated to have their own dedicated films in the near future.
Overall, I felt that JUSTICE LEAGUE was a successful superhero movie. It’s in obvious competition with the AVENGERS series, and isn’t as successful in that sense. It could definitely have done with more grounding for several of its characters, which AVENGERS had obviously achieved prior to the release of the first film. LEAGUE counters many objections made to the darker tone of the DC universe, but in doing so it creates new problems. The cartoony style of LEAGUE will be divisive, and may well create as many critics as it does supporters. Go see it and make up your own minds!