Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Justice League “Not Remotely the Worst Film of the Year!” I mean, y’all do remember 2017 spawned another Transformers sequel, right?
As a comics fan for nearly forty years, I’m not among those with unconditional love for every project with the DC Comics imprimatur on it, but their creators have made cool things over the decades. I found Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice the Worst Film of 2016, but The CW’s The Flash is my favorite current TV show, and I thought more highly of the first half of Suicide Squad than many people did. In comics I found the New 52 reboots largely dreadful, but love that “Rebirth” brought Christopher Priest’s Deathstroke and Gene Luen Yang’s New Super-Man into the world. The Flash was among the first super-heroes I ever followed monthly beginning at age 6. When I started making up my own super-heroes circa age 9, Cyborg was among the first ones I ripped off. But I pledge unquestioning allegiance to no fictional characters.
I fully expected Justice League to be an enormous waste of time that would have me nitpicking and raging for hours, given: (a) the departure of director Zack Snyder under tragic circumstances; (b) that former Marvel movie overseer Joss Whedon, the opposite of Snyder on every conceivable level, had been tasked with stitching together the pieces; (c) that Warner Brothers executives had demanded nearly a third of the movie be chopped out to enforce a shorter running time for reasons of greed; (d) they were trying to foist a redundant Flash on us despite the ongoing awesomeness of Grant Gustin; and (e) it’s mostly from the makers of Batman v. Superman. That’s a lot of strikes even before getting to the plate.
Honestly? It wasn’t that bad. In fact, I’ll go on record here and confess I wouldn’t call it “bad”.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot return as aging angry Batman and the wonderful Wonder Woman! The world is worse than ever because their 2017 looks like ours and because Superman’s still dead for now. The Caped Crusader still fights the good fight in Gotham, but Princess Diana of Themiscyra has been a bitter recluse ever since Steve Trevor’s fate in World War I, which was such a tremendous bummer that composer Danny Elfman’s orchestra becomes suicidally depressed whenever she mentions him or even daydreams wistfully about him in silence. But the two have a much bigger problem in the form of a giant-sized conqueror named Steppenwolf (Munich‘s Ciaran Hinds, embalmed in CG), who’s arrived on Earth to track down three MacGuffins that would give him the power to destroy everything. That’s the entirety of his characterization, but super-heroes need something to punch, so here he is in simplistic, punchable glory.
Our Heroes realize they need more than a mere duo for a super-team film and go line up recruits. Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) IS Aquaman, lost son of Atlantis, hunky commander of water and spouter of happy-jock exclamations. Ezra Miller (Fantastic Beasts) IS not Grant Gustin, but his alternate-earth Flash is a homeless Jewish science prodigy whose dad is in jail and who could really use a strong supporting cast that would be willing to overlook his fidgety impatience. Ray Fisher IS The Black Guy From Justice League — a.k.a. Cyborg, last seen in several seasons of Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans and a few episodes of Smallville, who’s now graduated to the big leagues because someone behind the scenes decided that Green Lantern John Stewart for some reason was unworthy to bear the mantle of The Black Guy From Justice League. Now he’s the team’s resident human robot super-hacker and weapons specialist rolled into one.
And Henry Cavill IS a Superman who’s only mostly dead, which may mean slightly alive if Our Heroes can make time for a side quest to reverse the terrible ending of Batman v. Superman before they have to go save the day. Cavill has been headline fodder all throughout production, up to and including the recent mustache controversy, so if you think his resurrection is a spoiler, you really haven’t been paying attention and/or you don’t know how super-heroes work.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Supporting cast members returning from past DCU movies include Amy Adams (Lois Lane, still in mourning), Diane Lane (Ma Kent, still bitter), Jeremy Irons (Alfred, a little less curmudgeonly), Connie Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta, still fighty), and Lisa Loven Kongsli (Menalippe, the nonwhite Amazon with lines). Newcomers who’ll surely have larger roles in future films include Academy Award Winner JK Simmons as an aging Commissioner Gordon who’s known the Batman for years; Joe Morton (Terminator 2) as Cyborg’s dad and key player in his so-far-offscreen origin; Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan from Snyder’s Watchmen) as convicted murderer Henry Allen; and as Mera, future wife of Aquaman, Amber Heard has one minute of murky fight scene and one minute of unwieldy, unintelligible infodump for which her homework was to summarize all the deleted Atlantis scenes.
Holt McCallany, star of Netflix’s Mindhunter, kicks off the film as an ordinary burglar with the honor of being Batman’s opening opponent. Blink and you’ll miss Marc McClure, a.k.a. Jimmy Olsen from the Christopher Reeve era, as a Metropolis beat cop in a significant scene.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? It’s a Zack Snyder film, a super-hero film, and a DC Comics film. Today’s secret word is obviously EXPLOSIONS. Between credited writers Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio (Argo), a few morals do make it into the mix:
* Evil is bad
* Hope is cool
* Some loners would rather be part of a team
* If grief persists for more than five decades, consult a specialist or get more encouraging friends
* Superman can too smile (no, really!)
* Zillionaires can totally solve your foreclosure problem if you can get their attention for two minutes
Nitpicking? No two ways about it: Snyder and Whedon do not have interchangeable styles. It’s easy to tell when this patchwork quilt of a production switches from Snyder’s slo-mo explodo visuals to Whedon’s character-driven chitchat and back again. Some dialogue exchanges come off as clunky, some transitions are hasty, and the tone keeps swinging like someone’s slapping a disco ball really hard. In fealty to the Powers That Be who declared the running time shall number no more than 120 minutes, most of the deletions appear to have come from what would’ve been the first hour, the one presumably containing much useful exposition. Once you’ve removed the parts I might’ve liked for the sake of short attention spans, what’s left yadda-yaddas too much backstory. As a result, we learn next to zilch about the trio of heroes still waiting on their solo films, all three of them forced to keep their personal info vague and noncommittal, faint sketches that barely move them to a two-dimensional existence, let alone three.
The lost city of Atantis in particular seems to have taken a deep slashing in the editing room. That one-line description of Amber Heard’s part above? That’s the entirety of Atlantis here. Period. We’re in and out in two minutes like it’s a Star Wars planet about to be nuked away. I have no idea if any of Steppenwolf’s material was excised or not. Comics fans will recognize him as a high-ranking minion of Darkseid and therefore a potential herald of films in our future. Mainstream audience without that preexisting background will see him only as a wannabe alien dictator who must be stopped, with all the depth of an ’80s cartoon villain.
What’s left of his origin is a single extended flashback that’s a straight-up Lord of the Rings pastiche, where hordes of Amazons and Atlanteans replace the elves and dwarves in the grayish, chaotic scenes of vast armies murdering each other over mesmerizing MacGuffins. When the narrator gravely described how the MacGuffins were split up and taken custody by different factions precisely in “One Ring to rule them all” fashion, my wife and I looked at each other and laughed. It’s always awesome when we realize we’re both thinking the same thing.
Anyone really hoping this would be Wonder Woman II will have to be tolerant for a good while. After one heck of an opening set piece, Gal Gadot is relegated to the Debbie Downer of the group, wallowing in pessimism after the events of her own grade-A film and pooh-poohing everyone’s plans so hard that Batman, of all people, has to be the one to lecture her on her negative attitude. Add to this a few moments of objectification (one scene of a guy clumsily falling on her, at least one camera shot that begins on her butt) and this is clearly not Patty Jenkins’ turf. They’re a split-second each, but they’re low notes to anyone who thought Wonder Woman was one of the year’s best films.
And then there’s the matter of Henry Cavill’s mustache hijinks. For those who missed out and/or who never click on any links I share: by the time Joss Whedon’s rewrites hinged on inserting more Superman into the film, this was July 2017 and Cavill was already deep into filming Mission Impossible 6 in the critical role of Dude With Mustache. It was nowhere near as majestic as Hercule Poirot’s, but he was contractually forbidden from shaving it. Therefore he performed his additional Superman scenes with mustache, which was then deleted from Justice League using virtual Nair tech. Consequently, in more than one scene, Cavill’s digitally reconstructed hairless upper lip is seriously distracting.
Less annoying and more, well, in line with how things tend to go on DC’s TV shows: the aforementioned Marc McClure and at least one other policeman are privileged to be given a massive clue to Superman’s secret identity by at least one emotional bigmouth. Consider it their reward for trying to be helpful, I guess.
So what’s to like? The studio executives got their way: so much of the original screenplay was tossed out that what’s left is Basic Super-Heroism 101. There’s a bad guy. The heroes punch him. Good triumphs over evil. At times it’s stylish, thrilling, and eminently entertaining on an above-average whiz-bang kiddie-cartoon level but cranked up to maximum volume so you can feel like it’s macho adult fare though it’s fundamentally not. If you hate super-heroes from the get-go, there’s nothing for you to see here. If you’re a casual popcorn-flick fan who’s only added the super-hero genre to your viewing repertoire in recent years, Justice League will be much easier for you to follow than Marvel’s later films, which have become increasingly mired in continuity and tougher for non-fans to climb aboard the bandwagon without spending 30+ hours catching up on Netflix first. The DC Cinematic Universe isn’t too far from ground level yet, and Justice League doesn’t aspire to take it much higher than that.
Those who hated previous DC offerings may be surprised to witness occasional glimmers of fun, optimism, and levity in the mix, many of them thanks to Whedon, who doubtlessly needed something to take his mind off his own recent, shameful controversies. Not all the jokes land, but they’re a needed break from the grim-‘n’-gritty atmosphere. It’s no Thor: Ragnarok by any means, but frankly, now we know Taika Waititi is an impossible opening act to follow. On the other hand, the Venn diagram of Snyder and Whedon finally got us the visibly heroic, morally inspiring Henry Cavill Man of Steel that my wife, a longtime Superman fan, had been utterly denied in his last two attempts.
My own personal favorite part: Ezra Miller’s performance overcoming his thin material. His Flash is a wildly different rendition from Grant Gustin’s, but stands on its own. He’s a Barry in a completely different place — inexperienced, completely new to the concept of super-hero fight scenes, left alone on his own for too long, still trying to figure out frightening and confusing concepts such as group dynamics and polite human interaction. His expressions are often funnier than his lines, particularly in one of the film’s most inspired little moments — the first time he meets someone at least as fast as himself. His combination of immaturity and incredulity makes him the perfect viewpoint character for an audience trying to find an inroad, any inroad, into this supposedly amazing world of DC Comics that they keep hearing about but still don’t get.
How about those end credits? to answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed scenes during and after the Justice League end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…shortly after the first wave of names in print: Superman and the Flash meet on an open field and agree to an old-fashioned super-speed race like they used to do back in the Silver Age of comics. They place their bets, they take their positions, and they’re off and running. And the winner is…whoever you want it to be when you write your own fanfic conclusion.
Meanwhile at the very, very end after the end credits: Jesse Eisenberg returns as the loathsome Lex Luthor, easily escaped from prison and garbed in a Hackman-esque suit, cruising in a yacht with a pair of babes when a visitor hops aboard. Special guest Joseph Manganiello (Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday) makes his DC Cinematic Universe debut as longtime Teen Titans villain Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke, complete with eyepatch, white hair and goatee. Eisenberg muses on “the return of God” (i.e., that meddling Superman) and poses a question to his new colleague: “Shouldn’t we have our own League?”
To be Continued!
Oh, and after that came the saddest part of my day. For some reason my wife got really excited at this endd scene. Then I realized that she doesn’t know Joseph Manganiello from Adam, with or without hair coloring, and I had to break it to her that Deathstroke was not, in fact, being played by the great Clancy Brown. To be fair, his resemblance was uncanny.