In 2012, Marvel released The Avengers and fundamentally changed the idea of what's possible in blockbuster filmmaking. Five years later, DC has finally managed to bring its own superhero team to life with Zack Snyder's Justice League, and while the result is enjoyable, it also could be better. While it's nowhere near as innovative as its Marvel counterpart, and kind of a hot mess in a few fundamental ways, Justice League is also an insanely fun time as it absolutely nails these DC heroes, offers up some phenomenal fan service, and promises a ton of hope for the future of the DCEU.
The Superman (Henry Cavill) has perished, and the world is in peril. Still haunted by visions of an apocalyptic future, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) continues to investigate Earth's metahumans, and along with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruits a speedster named Barry Allen a.k.a. The Flash (Ezra Miller), a water-powered Arthur Curry a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and cybernetically enhanced Victor Stone a.k.a. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to form a ragtag team. Unfortunately, Bruce's visions start to become fully realized with the arrival of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his Parademons - an alien force hunting three hidden devices known as Mother Boxes in hopes or reshaping the world. Knowing that their help is needed, Earth's hidden champions come out of the shadows to form an uneasy alliance and usher in a new age of heroes.
In a clear response to the critical reaction to the franchise's 2016 entries Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the doom and gloom feels supplanted in Justice League by a palpable sense of fun and raw adventure. Hans Zimmer's moody melodies have been replaced by a more booming and kinetic Danny Elfman score, and there are far more quips to go around - particularly among the youthful newcomers. Certain heavy-handed melodramatic moments feel reminiscent of the previous films (particularly the opening credits sequence), but one thing is clear: DC wants their team-up movie to show audiences a shift towards the tone of its classic animated properties or the recent Rebirth line of comics. Less grit, and more of the heart, humor, and heroism that the icons are supposed to embody.
That's important because, much like Wonder Woman, Justice League represents a vital step forward for the DCEU. The movie is a misshapen screw in an IKEA furniture set: it's malformed and doesn't exactly work as it should, but it's still functional and will hold things together at the point its needed in the larger construction. It makes the occasional awkward stretch to get certain characters and potential storylines in place for the future, but by the time it's over, you have a clear idea of where DC wants to go. More importantly, once the credits start rolling you're sold on each planned solo movie that the franchise is developing.
For everything that Justice League does well regarding tone and table setting for its characters, it's also forced to contend with an incredibly uneven central story. The film regularly grinds to a halt for forced exposition dumps, and while it's nowhere near as sloppy as Batman v Superman or as aimless as Suicide Squad, it also feels overly stuffed with insignificant subplots to push the thin story forward in between quippy dialogue and genuinely badass action. Even at a lean two hours (including credits), it still feels like Justice League could've been shorter with some tighter writing and editing.
In the face of Justice League's narrative faults, the heroes pick up the slack and carry it across the finish line. Pretty much everyone is solid across the board. Gal Gadot continues to bring a regalness and wisdom to Wonder Woman that's impossible not to fall in love with; while Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa both bring fun energies to the ensemble as Flash and Aquaman, respectively -- Miller being full-on awkward and nerdy, Momoa being cocky and boisterous. Ray Fisher similarly turns in a good performance as Cyborg, although (by his very nature) his constant state of evolution makes him somewhat less defined. Then there's Ben Affleck, who finally gets a chance to deliver a Batman that feels ripped straight from the pages of DC Comics. Fans and DC insiders alike have talked about Affleck's questionable return to Batman after Justice League, however, if he goes out on this performance, it would be going out on a high note.
Praise can't be handed out to every character in the film. Not much can be said about Superman's presence in the movie without delving too far into spoiler territory, but it's not a spoiler to say that Justice League is the stiffest and least comfortable that Henry Cavill has looked in the role. More significant, unfortunately, is that Steppenwolf is arguably one of the worst villains that we have ever seen in a DC movie. He gets a few charming one-liners, and he's certainly a faithful depiction of the character, but he's also roughly as compelling as Enchantress from Suicide Squad (a.k.a not very), and as visually impressive as a character from a PlayStation 2 game.
The digital effects used to create Steppenwolf are worth taking a moment to point out, because on the whole Justice League's visual effects are distractingly bad. From the CGI used to create characters like Cyborg and the Parademons, to the obvious green screen backgrounds used in sequences on Themyscira and Atlantis, the film just looks fake - certainly affected by the behind the scenes complications and heavy reshoots that the film encountered through production. It's forgivable in some of the blockbuster's more fun moments (of which there are several), but a movie this important and massive has no right to have its digital aesthetic flaws.
Moving beyond the core Justice League ensemble, the film is packed with a wide array of notable supporting characters, including some who only get a few scenes. Luckily, the film does a fair job of keeping things moving in such a way that its army of side characters never bogs it down. We bounce from Henry Allen (Billy Crudup) in prison to Mera (Amber Heard) in Atlantis to Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) on Themyscira, but Justice League never slips into Spider-Man 3 territory and feels overwhelmed by its cast. The film has pacing problems, but they aren't generated from its character usage, and it does manage to move quickly between these locales, and set the table in a way that feels relatively natural.
Justice League is rough, uneven, and downright ugly at times, but stripping away those serious flaws reveals a near-perfect take on heroic icons, a step forward for the DCEU, and a promise of greatness to come. Even with its imperfections, it's a damn good time that captures the spirit of the mythos, demonstrating that DC has finally found its footing. We cannot wait to see where all of the seeds planted in Justice League go from here.