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Justice League Review: No Pressure

Minor spoilers for Justice League below

On whichever side of the Great DC Debate you fight, there’s no denying that Justice League has a lot to prove. DC diehards who insist there’s nothing wrong with the direction and tone of the DC Extended Universe up to this point might worry that the pivotal team-up has been “Disney-fied” or made into a comedy to appease critics and Marvel fans; others that the beloved Wonder Woman was the exception to the rule for the DCEU, rather than a fresh start. Fans on all sides have followed the various controversies surrounding Justice League’s production, like Joss Whedon taking over director duties from Zack Snyder at the last minute, and simply wondered how it will all turn out.

Through all the setbacks, uncertainties, reshoots, shake-ups, and drama, it seemed unlikely that Justice League would wind up anything other than a complete mess. And yet, here we are: Justice League is a pretty good movie.

The plot is basic: Batman and Wonder Woman sense an incoming threat, an ancient alien invader named Steppenwolf. They determine their best course of action is to assemble a super-team comprising Cyborg, The Flash, and Aquaman in addition to the two of them. The League comes together in fits and starts, but by the end, every hero–yes, all of them, wink, wink–shows up to do his or her part in a climactic battle.

It’s Superhero Movie Plot 101, but crucially, it’s more or less coherent from beginning to end. It’s also fun, with plenty of huge laughs and some terrific (although CG-heavy) action scenes. Yet overall, it retains that serious, Zack Snyder-ish tone that sets the DCEU apart from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much of Justice League‘s thematic focus zeroes in on the hopelessness of a world that’s suffered defeat after defeat, of which Superman’s death in BvS is only the latest. For a variety of real world reasons, from the current state of politics to the seemingly endless tragic mass shootings, this is going to resonate with audiences right now.

It would be condescending and unfair to simply heap Justice League with praise for these accomplishments, when it actually suffers from many of the same flaws that have plagued both DC and Marvel’s movies for years. Like Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League‘s Steppenwolf has about as much depth as a shallow pothole. He shows up in search of the “Mother Boxes” with the sole goal of destroying the world, serving as nothing more than the catalyst for the Justice League to form.

Also similarly to Thor, Justice League‘s CG is occasionally distracting, especially where Steppenwolf is concerned. In close-ups the villain’s face can look like a video game character’s, and not in a good way. In addition, the movie opens with a cute smartphone video of Superman from before the events of BvS–not unlike the opening of Spider-Man: Homecoming–during which you should try not to stare too hard at Henry Cavill’s mouth, given they had to digitally remove his mustache during reshoots.

The mad and the mighty

All that aside, Justice League‘s real draw is the epic team-up of this handful of super-powered heroes. They all have their time in the spotlight, including a surprising number of smaller, character-to-character moments that help flesh each one out and establish them at concrete points in their personal arcs that can be picked up in later movies.

The Flash, for example, gets a couple of scenes with his dad, imprisoned early in Barry Allen’s life for allegedly murdering Barry’s mother. We get to see Cyborg wrestle with his newly minted body, struggling with his father’s decision to rebuild him–but also interacting with other heroes, including Flash and Wonder Woman, in believable scenes that add layers to all involved. Bringing this many main characters together isn’t easy no matter who’s in the director’s chair, especially when half of them are being introduced here for the first time. Amazingly, Justice League mostly pulls it off, even if a couple of plot points get glossed over too quickly.

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Ben Affleck continues to do just fine as an older, more hardened Batman. He lacks the charm of previous Bruce Waynes like Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, but you could also blame that on this Batman’s place in the story as an underpowered hero who’s been outstripped by god-like colleagues and foes. He’s also taken to subtly self-medicating with presumably very fine brown liquors–watch how much whiskey he pours himself in one scene after a tough fight–which is a chewy little detail for those paying attention.

Wonder Woman has the second largest presence of all the heroes, though her role was reportedly not expanded in this year’s reshoots, counter to speculation that she’d be made more prominent thanks to her standalone movie’s success. Gal Gadot’s youthful, idealistic, positive character is a perfect counter to Batman, and it often seems like she’s holding the team together–if not leading them outright. She glows, and her presence is much appreciated.

The three we haven’t met before–Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg–hold up admirably thanks to some fantastic casting.

Jason Momoa may not be the Aquaman fans recognize from the comics, but he’s one you’ll want to get to know better. The hard-drinking, no-BS King of Atlantis is relatively early in his personal story arc, but the equal draughts of humorous pessimism and raw badassery Momoa brings to the screen should have everyone excited for his standalone film next year. At one point he rescues a drowning sailor, unloads him unceremoniously in the nearest pub, and downs a full bottle of whiskey on the unconscious man’s tab. Yet later, Momoa shows off his comedic chops in a scene that may or may not involve Wonder Woman’s confessional lasso.

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Cyborg is the most dour of the bunch, which is saying something, for a team that also includes Batman. Granted, Victor Stone is also early in his arc, hooking up with the League shortly after being rebuilt as Cyborg. There’s no faulting him for being less fun than the others, given his personal trauma and turmoil; the bigger problem is how his deliberately vaguely-defined powers allow Cyborg to serve as constant deus ex machina, hacking anything and everything that needs to be hacked.

Thankfully Ezra Miller keeps things light as The Flash. Miller has impeccable comedic timing, and although every characters gets a proportionate number of quips throughout Justice League, most of the big laughs come from him.

Hatchet vs. scalpel

Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad felt like giant compromises marred by meddling, half measures, and band-aids stuck on bleeding wounds. They were hatchet jobs. But while Justice League went through about as much production turmoil as either of those, the changes to it might have been made with a scalpel wielded by a skilled hand, cutting away only what was necessary to make it a stronger movie.

It’s not trying to solve all the genre’s problems–and it doesn’t.

So the villain is uninteresting and the plot occasionally moves too quickly as Justice League juggles a half dozen main characters. These are small prices to pay. Like one of its many taglines, Justice League feels “all in”–a movie driven by a vision shared among its stars and filmmakers, that succeeds at the most important things it sets out to do.

Justice League is everything you want in a modern super team-up movie: a diverse crew of well-developed heroes coming together, butting heads, cracking jokes, and kicking butt. Despite the DCEU’s sputtering start, Justice League coalesces in the end, and it works in many more ways than not. It’s not trying to solve all the genre’s problems–and it doesn’t. But as a team-up movie and a fresh jumping-off point for the DCEU, Justice League is a 100-story leap in the right direction.

The Good The Bad
Fantastic cast of heroes Flat villain
Surprisingly funny Distracting CGI
Plentiful character development for an ensemble Sometimes moves too quickly

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