“Unite the League”
Directed by Zack Snyder (and Joss Whedon)
Starring Gal Gadot, Ben Afflex, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill and Ciaran Hinds
In the wake of Superman’s death, the world is going a bit crazy. Wonder Woman (Gadot) and Batman (Afflek) try to keep a lid on things, but when Steppenwolf (Hinds) shows up and steals an artefact called the Mother Box from the Amazons, it’s time to bring together the metahumans identified by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg): Arthur ‘Aquaman’ Curry (Momoa), Barry ‘The Flash’ Allen (Miller), and Victor ‘Cyborg’ Stone (Fisher).
While a second Mother Box is stolen from the Atlanteans, the third box – given to humanity in the wake of a deeply Lord of the Ringsy historical flashback to Steppenwolf’s last attack on the planet – is recovered by our heroes. After some to and fro, Bats persuades the others to use the box to revive Superman (Cavill), who promptly goes ape and tries to kill everyone, until Alfred (Jeremy Irons) turns up with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). While Supes recuperates, the rest of the team head off to thwart Steppenwolf, and prevent the three boxes combining into the Unity and remaking the world in the image of Steppenwolf’s home, Apokolips. They do pretty well, but get slapped around a bunch, until Superman turns up, all better, and it’s all done bar the shouting.
What’s wrong with it?
There’s a thing we’ll call ‘the Superman problem’. How do you do a team story in which all the players are equally valuable when one of them is Superman and the others aren’t. Justice League solves this problem by pretending that it isn’t a problem, and that because Superman is so obviously superior to his team mates – his superhuman strength and endurance are superior to those of Cyborg, Aquaman, and even Wonder Woman, he’s almost as fast as the Flash, shoots more heat beams from his eyes than every other member of the League combined, and has every power in the world over Batman – it is somehow narratively satisfying to have a villain who becomes a complete non-event the moment Superman is on the scene. Basically the only other characters with anything unique to offer are Batman, because he’s loaded, and Cyborg, who is wifi enabled. I guess Aquaman can control water, but again there’s this thing called the Aquaman problem, and our denouement mostly takes place in a virtual desert.
In a similar vein, the film resolves the Batman question – what good is a man who dresses as a bat to fight crime? – by coming down hard on the side of ‘he’s a bankroll, and that’s it.’
I really did expect to see Isildur and Elrond showing up in the flashback.
Wonder Woman has pretty much the same outfit as in her solo outing, but with a few extra butt shots thrown in (one in the skirt, one in trousers.) Coupled with the more… sports casual look of the Amazon armour, this has attracted much debate, and while some – including the actresses playing the Amazons – have offered more or less convincing defences of those costumes, there is a distinctly raised presence of the male gaze in the shooting of this film, and Steppenwolf infantilises Diana in a way that Ares, her actual uncle, never attempted.
Superman comes back from the dead a little awry, primarily so that we can pad the middle eight with some blue on blue action and get a bit of a retread of Batman vs. Superman, only with the fight being the total curb stomp it kind of should have been the first time, because apparently Batflek didn’t get the memo.
Not only does Superman basically make the other members of the team redundant once he turns up, he doesn’t even get an epic smackdown with Steppenwolf. He knocks him around almost dismissively, then leaves him disoriented enough for Aquaman and Wonder Woman to keep him busy while Supes saves some civilians, before coming back to enable the coup de grace.
As a largely CGI character, Steppenwolf lacks material presence and threat.
We only get a brief appearance of a non-human Green Lantern, and no Martian Manhunter. Weaksauce.
What’s right with it?
The film introduces three new major characters: the Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman. Of these three, Vic Stone is somewhat hamstrung by being a glowering plot dump, but shows some promise in the final scenes. Barry Allen and Arthur Curry, however, are far more in Wonder Woman’s – if you will – league than that of the growling MEN! of Dawn of Justice.
Miller plays Allen as a delightfully awkward soul, isolated from the world by his single-minded quest to clear his father’s name. Curry is played with Momoa’s customary verve, and comes across as a blend of the Justice League animated series’ grim sovereign of Atlantis, and The Brave and the Bold‘s outrageous swashbuckler.
The film recognises that Diana is the natural leader of the League, especially with these incarnations of the characters. There’s a lovely moment when Batman is hamfistedly goading her about Steve Trevor, and Barry – who has not known either of them for long – notes that if Diana kills Bruce, the rest will cover for her.
In one way, setting up a Diana/Bruce romance feels like romance for romance’s sake. On the other, I have a sentimental attachment to the similar relationship in the animated series.
How bad is it really?
Justice League is a lot better than Man of Steel or Batman vs. Superman, and the less said about Suicide Squad in most contexts the better. On the other hand, sticking to comparative DCEUology, it’s no Wonder Woman. It’s easy to perceive the lighter tone as the hand of Whedon applied to Snyder’s bleak canvas. Sadly, the flaws of both men are there to see, in the dull League on League sidebar and the often fumbled attempts at feminist themes (Wonder Woman remains awesome, but in his mid-credits appearance, Lex Luthor is holding court on a yacht full of bikini babes.) It’s not terrible, but it’s a definite step backwards after Wonder Woman landed as the DCEU’s first smash.
Comparisons to the MCU are inevitable, and while the older cinematic franchise is by no means perfect, the newcomer continues to misfire more often. It may well be that the MCU lacks substance, but its entries are invariably slick and enjoyable. In attempting to deliver something more gritty, in a somewhat heavy handed style, the DCEU continues to produce less satisfying fare.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Justice League is a tnetpole blockbuster. It is therefore pretty damning that there is no real wow moment; no scene to evoke fist-pumping triumph in the viewer.
What’s up with…?
- Ciaran Hinds? A fine actor, but he’s unrecognisable behind layers of prosthetics and/or CGI, and lacks the physicality for actual combat scenes with the League.
- The goon? Batman threatens a goon at the beginning to attract a parademon. The goon then becomes immensely interested in the potential invasion. He establishes an odd level of character, yet does not turn up later in the film.
- Not-Chernobyl? Steppenwolf sets off his plan to destroy the world in an Eastern European nuclear accident site. Not Gotham, not Metropolis, not Themiscyra. It’s basically some middle of nowhere nothingsville, where there are a few people to save, but no high density populations and, more importantly, no-one and nothing that we care about in immediate peril.
Production values – Although beautifully made, Justice League suffers from an over-reliance on CGI, which harms its attempt to be the gritty answer to the MCU. 9
Dialogue and performances – This is a mixed bag. There’s some good banter, but nothing really timeless. The performances are almost universally good, but some are more hampered than others by relentlessly dour characterisation. 8
Plot and execution – The plot is a basic MacGuffin hunt, but the rival hunter lacks the necessary sense of menace and sophistication to completely hold the interest. 8
Randomness – The plot is pretty tight, although there is a lot of material thrown in just in passing. 4
Waste of potential – After Batman vs. Superman, this film would score well here. After Wonder Woman, I judge it more harshly. 10