“Superman was a beacon to the world. He didn’t just save people. He made them see the best parts of themselves.”
— Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck).
DC’s Justice League of America was the first superhero “team” book I read as a child, but even in single digits, I realized that, when you have a dozen characters to deal with, it’s tough to do any of them, well, justice. Director Zack Snyder, having already helmed two films in the DC Universe, doesn’t have a dozen heroes to deal with; it’s more like half a dozen, but there are still problems justifying everybody.
Do you really need a plot when people are flying through the air, talking to fish, dressing like a psychopathic giant bat? Yes, I’d submit that you do, desperately, so here it is. Fiendish space villain sporting a ridiculous horned helmet arrives on Earth with his hellish horde of expendable alien soldiers, bent on finding an ancient artifact that will help him conquer Earth and then much of the rest of the Universe. Pardon me, but isn’t that precisely the plot of Marvel’s 2012 The Avengers? Sure, and I can sort of forgive that, because an alien invasion is the logical excuse for getting all these superheroes together, although I’ll note that Tom Hiddleston’s “Loki” in The Avengers is a far better character than Justice League’s CGI-generated “Steppenwolf,” an expressionless and humorless cartoon voiced by renowned actor Ciaran Hinds, although you’d never know it.
While the film’s central cast — Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, and Ezra Miller — tries to find something in their characters to hang their capes and cowls on, Snyder’s busy convincing other well-known co-stars — Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, Billy Crudup, Amber Heard, and Jeremy Irons — basically to do nothing except serve as set-ups for future DC Universe movies. However, DC’s sequencing is off. They’ve done their team-up movie before they’ve done individual films introducing some of these characters and letting us get to know them. Trying to shoehorn it all into a single film makes for an overblown, lumbering mess.
Except for Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/The Flash. Almost alone among the cast, Miller is able to craft a character who seems like a real human being. In some ways, he seems not unlike the DC Universe’s version of Marvel’s Peter Parker — younger and less experienced than the more mature heroes, dedicated to an older relative, and who uses his sense of humor to mask a neurotic personality. Nevertheless, his super-speed sequences are nowhere near as well-conceptualized nor as amusing as Evan Peters’ as Quicksilver, Marvel’s kindred speedster, in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Thankfully, Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman commands the film just as surely as her character commands the Justice League itself, and it pretty much boils down to one thing: She has the most seriously determined expression on her face of any actor I’ve ever seen play a superhero, a countenance that says “I’m not going to let people die” more convincingly than any dialogue ever could. She’s just about the only thing keeping the DC Universe afloat.
I’ve made no secret in the past that I’m not a fan of Snyder’s signature style that he’s adopted ever since 2006’s 300 of using CGI to accentuate the stylized artificiality of his films. I much prefer the approach of Marvel directors like Joss Whedon whose style is to make their CGI sequences look as much like real-life lighting and color as can be accomplished. Curiously, Whedon completed directorial chores on Justice League after Snyder left due to a family tragedy. Whedon accepted no credit on the film and early on announced that his mission was to complete the movie as closely to Snyder’s vision as was possible. At that, he has succeeded, especially in the last 20 minutes of the film which takes place in a red-tinted, Martian-like radioactive wasteland. Doesn’t look real, and works against me believing that a man can fly or that another man can run faster than light.
I wish I could love Justice League, but Snyder and Whedon together can’t surmount the “team” book problem as well as Whedon did in The Avengers. When I go to these mega-blockbusters which I dreamed of years ago as a child — and thought I’d never see — I want to believe in superheroes. I can’t believe in them if they don’t believe in themselves.