In the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the DCEU was left on the ropes and reeling. It was a critical disaster of the highest order for the fledgling DCEU, so much so that as Justice League went into production, executives at Warner Bros were scrambling behind the scenes to restructure the entire cinematic universe in an effort to turn audiences to their favor. Now, some nineteen months later, that scrambling has finally bore an incomprehensibly bitter fruit that has plodded into cinemas with all of the subtlety of a hammer to the forehead. It is a franchise so intent on washing away its past that it even ditches the brilliant score work done by Hans Zimmer in Man of Steel and BvS, instead replaced by a Danny Elfman score so reprehensibly derivative of his own work and mind-numblingly boring that it saps all of the life and energy from what few great images manage to translate to the screen.
In the wake of the death of Superman, Batman’s charge to save and protect the world is renewed and he realizes that a grave threat may be coming soon that he alone cannot stand against. Thus he sets about to form a team of heroes that vaguely resemble heroes one might have heard of before, but the film is so busy heaping shovelful after shovelful of plots and subplots down the audience’s throat that it forgets to take more than a hot minute to actually tell the audience who these characters are, let alone to let us actually get to know them. Instead it rushes through every scene and every setup like a short-distance sprinter, eyes firmly fixed on the finish line, daring not take more than a moment to err from that gaze.
Zack Snyder has always had an excellent eye for casting, and this is no different here. Returning cast members- from Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, and Henry Cavill among others- all shine in their respective roles. Affleck and Gadot in particular are given the biggest character arcs in the story, but each of the individual arcs is just too brisk. This is Justice League, and there is just way too much going on here for the film to be crippled by this woefully short runtime. This is complicated far, far further by a dreadful subplot to bring Superman back from the dead, which makes no sense whatsoever given the final shot of Batman v Superman, and the movie still needs to drag in all of these new characters and to try to give them requisite backstory as well to elicit some minute fraction of actually caring about them. For his part, Cavill is still outstanding as Superman and remains the best part of Snyder’s DCEU, and his scenes with Amy Adams and Diane Lane are the film’s most heartwarming and earnest.
One of the lessons that should have been learned from the extended edition of Batman v Superman– itself received far better than the manically-edited and utterly butchered theatrical cut- is that one needs to allow these stories to breathe and to allow things to develop, and that it can’t be rushed. What DC has done here instead is double down on the way of thinking that made critics and audiences so loathe for BvS in the first place and added even more characters and subplots and obliterated the runtime. If a director’s cut to this film is released, it will be leaps and bounds ahead of this disaster, because there just isn’t enough room for the story to breathe.
Snyder very publicly exited the film some months back after the tragic death of his daughter, and director Joss Whedon stepped in to take the reins which led to costly reshoots that changed 15-20% of the film overall. The end result isn’t nearly as noticeable as one might think. Even in the scenes with a decidedly Snyder-esque flavor to them, the film is much lighter in tone and much more optimistic than the incredibly dark BvS, and Whedon’s scenes do add some funnier bits. We get a lot of shots of the team just being the team together, which is fine, but there’s no real sense of threat or of urgency or of understanding who any of these characters is or why they would become part of this team in the first place. This isn’t an issue of not having done individual solo efforts that focus on the characters ahead of this, either- there would have been plenty of room to explore them, their motivations, and to have them team up to fight against generic villain # 17 if the runtime had been padded out here.
Steppenwolf- no, not the Canadian rock band that was “Born to Be Wild”- is the utterly empty suit of a villain in the film, whose development in the film and motivations are skirted around with a silly throwaway line about “just coming for the boxes,” which is a cheap way of giving him as little screentime as possible (because there isn’t enough to go around anyway) while he throws out lines from the Idiot’s Guide To Being a Supervillain. He is the very definition of an inept, pointless, weightless villain whose presence in the film feels more like it is checking a box than it is creating a character to battle the heroes that can actually provide them with any kind of a challenge. This character is an embarrassment of the highest order and goes from bad to worse when he has to face off against Superman, who is so clearly his superior that he couldn’t even best him in a painting contest where Superman isn’t given any paint, or a brush, or a canvas, and he sleeps through the entire thing. Superman was exciting to watch in action scenes in Man of Steel and BvS because he wasn’t so woefully overpowered, and be it Zod or Doomsday, they definitely gave him the fight of his life (literally, in the latter case). Here, Superman may as well be swatting a gnat. The movie doesn’t even presume to have Steppenwolf beat down the rest of the league, forcing Superman to roar to the rescue in a crowd-pleasing breath of relief. All of the members of the league summarily hand this guy his own rear-end, so Superman even showing up to the final fight seems like drastic overkill.
It’s not that it doesn’t try. It’s not that it doesn’t want audiences to be excited at seeing characters like the Flash or Cyborg. Their designs are fantastic, even the somewhat-too-busy Cyborg. Momoa, Miller, and Fisher are all excellent in the roles, but exactly what is it in this film that requires their presence? The film’s central premise and tagline is “You can’t save the world alone” but it turns out, point of fact, you very well can if your name is Superman. The film spends not-enough time adding Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman to the fold and giving them not-enough development only to betray the primary reason they were crammed into this disaster in the first place, because ultimately none of them are needed. They’re just pretty eye candy stuffed into an overstuffed and under-developed film for fan service.
And make no mistake, fan service is going to be the ultimate legacy of this nonsense. In no other area of the film is this more evident than the score. Danny Elfman was brought in after Zack Snyder departed to replace Junkie XL, who worked with Hans Zimmer on the BvS score, and his approach to the fantastic music in Snyder’s prior DCEU efforts was to jam it into a toilet and hit flush as many times as he could. Zimmer’s Superman theme creeps up but once in the film and only for the briefest of flourishes; the excellent Wonder Woman theme is done with no flavor or punch or energy as percussion is swapped out for Elfman’s trademark, lifeless, whimsical brass. Junkie’s Batman work from BvS is absent completely, and in its place Elfman is content to shamelessly mine his own backlog, dredging up the score from his 1989 Batman film repeatedly in motif after motif. He needlessly drags the original Superman score work done by John Williams into the film to whet the nostalgic appetites of fans from seven years ago who complained endlessly that Zimmer wouldn’t use Williams’ music in Man of Steel. Elfman’s efforts, ultimately, are the story of Justice League itself- it is a hamfisted mix of things and characters we know and some we aren’t familiar with, jammed into a blender with a huge helping of forced nostalgia and rushed so quickly through the paces that the whole thing breezes by in a flash. The only good part of the two-hour runtime, it turns out, is that the audience’s suffering is not prolonged. Four out of Ten stars.
– Nicholas Haskins