Like many young kids in the ‘80s, I adored comic books. Novels were a well spent afternoon, but comics were a lifeblood; an organic force of righteousness wrapped up in endless possibilities. Within these pages laid stories for every boy or girl imaginable. Tortured teens blessed with wall-crawling abilities, billionaire playboys who risk life and limb for justice, and even a few gods along the way. While far too many fans quibble these days about the differences between Marvel and DC, I have grown up with a firm admiration for both. It’s not the label that matters, it’s the story being told. And with Justice League, DC has finally arrived at their toughest test yet.
I’m not going to belabor the director changes or behind-the-scenes drama of Justice League, because frankly, I just don’t care. What matters to me – and should to audiences at large, as well – are the representations of DC’s beloved characters on that enormous screen in front of us. Far too much in fandom is spent dissecting these films, with each and every misstep fodder for debate and hyperbole. Minute continuity errors and “reality” conflicts are bandied about incessantly. Yes, in a story revolving around men who fly and women who thrive on a magical island, we somehow find the time to argue over the inconsistencies in accuracy. Yet, when all is said and done, the only question I care about is this: did I have fun?
As Justice League begins, Bruce Wayne / Batman (Ben Affleck) is on a mission to assemble a team to face an unknown threat. Parademons – bug-like minions who thrive on fear – are popping up all over the place, like wasps at a picnic. As he realizes the main reason we don’t have a Superman (Henry Cavill) handy to combat whatever’s coming is primarily because he had a bat up his ass in the previous film, Batman takes it as his personal agenda to save the planet. The problem is, Bruce Wayne’s superpower is cash flow. That’s not gonna cut it.
So he convinces Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to join him in recruiting a team of super friends. These new entries – with their own movies waiting in the wings – include Victor Stone / Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a man whose body was so damaged his father rebuilt him into a lethal man and machine hybrid, who may be unable to control his seemingly unlimited power; Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the dude-bro King of Atlantis who rules the seas; and Barry Allen / Flash (Ezra Miller), a young man who can race at the speed of light, haunted by the false imprisonment of his father.
After the obligatory meet-and-greets, followed by a reluctant admission that they need to work together, this newly formed League takes the fight to the power behind it all, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Imagine how disappointed I was to find out the actual band was not a villain at play, and instead we have a ridiculous CGI monstrosity who ponders and wanders aimlessly, searching for three magical boxes and yammering on about how people will love him once he puts the shackles on them. Ultimately, it’s the foe of nearly every superhero flick as our supervillain needs to collect and connect these three boxes to level up and put a leash on planet Earth.
What doesn’t work? The CGI representation of Steppenwolf. While not quite Scorpion King-bad, he never emerges as much more than a top-tier video game boss on rookie difficulty. His monologues are trite and clunky, while his threats are supremely one-note. These films ALWAYS excel with a more nuanced, human villain. Toss in Playstation 4 graphics and you have an adversary who gets the job done, but is easily forgettable. What was his name again? Exactly.
What does work? Every damn thing else! Oh, how I would love to be the third director on this flick and excise Steppenwolf altogether, because every scene with the actual Justice League was an absolute blast. Humor, heart, heroics – this is the 3H club of ass-kickery. Director Zack Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon form a strong compliment to each other. Snyder has a wondrous eye for magnitude and grandeur presentation (though a curious obsession with actors’ derrieres), but his banter efficiency is lackadaisical at best. Whedon, on the other hand, excels at witty repartee. His quip skills are on point. Combined, these auteurs have delivered the best of both worlds. DC has had its fair share of issues bringing their Extended Universe to the screen, and within these frames, they have finally resolved the dilemma.
Pacing was tightened and pointless exposition was tossed, time just flew by. As did the smiles and laughs from the necessary levity at a tale as absurd as anything comics have to offer. Affleck once again stomps criticism by proving he belongs in this cowl, Momoa’s charm and fierce determination elevates Aquaman to more than an inside joke, Miller makes a valiant effort with Flash (though TV’s Barry is stellar in comparison), Fisher brings life to a thankless character (albeit with one unfortunate boo-yah), and Gal Gadot once again proves why she deserves top billing in every DC film from here on out. For a film full of characters I was only moderately informed on, I walked away feeling I took my initial step toward joining this family. In a limited amount of time, without the obligatory origin movie for several of them, these actors delivered tangible representations of the heroes fans have loved for decades. And each finds their own moment to shine.
For the first time since Deadpool, a superhero flick felt not long enough. Whatever the reason, filmmakers who tell stories with capes believe they always need twenty minutes of meandering when we could have easily jettisoned past them to get to those after-credits stingers by now. Justice League suffers no such issues. When the film is done, I wanted more. GIVE ME MORE!
The one thing I absolutely adore about how DC approaches their films, is how tangible the stakes feel. Even if the ultimate villain is a weak, spectacled mess, the ensuing brawls always feel ripped from the pages of my favorite comics. These are deities (well, except for that rich guy), and they deserve battles worthy of their power. I want to see impossibilities brought to the screen, light vs dark in a monumental struggle for dominance. I want to feel the heart of a hero, coupled by the force of a god. I want brutality and perseverance. Justice League delivers this in spades.
Did I have fun? YEA-YUH! I walked out of that theater with a Joker’s grin on my face, believing in this team, their unity, their plight. I wanted to round the hall, grab another ticket, and rejoin my newly formed Justice League for one more go at saving the world. I wanted to sit on the Lasso of Truth, race The Flash, and chuckle at Bruce’s enigmatic reactions to all of the nonsense he put in motion. With the eagerness of Barry and the focus of Diana, my decision was met with crystal clarity: I am all in.
Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher
Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon
Directed by Zack Snyder