REVIEW: Justice League

When I was on vacation back East, my brother took me to see Justice League for its special Thursday night premiere on November 16. However I didn’t have access to my computer to post a review until I got home. So by now it’s hardly a secret that in this movie Superman comes back to life.

After Clark Kent’s funeral in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) form a working partnership, ending their retirement from superheroics and using Lex Luthor’s files to recruit additional metahumans to form a team against a threat that Batman is convinced is just around the corner.

The first two metahumans are surly drunk Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the nervous-but-eager Flash (Ezra Miller). The third is Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), whose genius father used cybernetic parts to rebuild his body after an auto accident that maimed Victor and killed his mother. However this turned Victor into an inhuman cyborg with vast control over technology that sometimes controls him in turn. Moreover, the reason Doctor Stone could perform this operation is because he was using an alien artifact he called a “Change Engine” that turns out to be tied to Batman’s impending threat: Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an alien warlord who is so powerful that in an ancient age, he could only be driven off by a coalition of gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, at least one Green Lantern and a troop of humans who look suspiciously like the Men of Gondor. Steppenwolf’s power is tied to three Mother Boxes (including Cyborg’s Change Engine) that were dormant on Earth until Superman died, at which point they reactivated and beckoned Steppenwolf back. (While Steppenwolf has Mother Boxes, boom tubes and an army of Parademons, his connection to Darkseid is mentioned only once.)

Justice League brought back a couple of things that irritated me about Batman v Superman. The first was angry-yet-stupid Superman. After Steppenwolf beats up the team in their first encounter, Batman deduces that Cyborg can hook his Mother Box up to the Kryptonian biomatrix at Luthor’s lab in Metropolis, and put Superman’s corpse in to revive him. And in one of his best lines, Flash muses whether the revived Superman will be cool and back to normal or whether this will be like “Pet Sematary.” Well, the plan works, and sure enough, the result is more like Pet Sematary. Until Batman uses an unusual tactic to get Clark (Henry Cavill) back to his senses, Superman kicks ass on the entire team, not coincidentally destroying what’s left of his own ruined monument. It sort of makes sense that Superman is not in his right mind after revival, after all he’s been mostly dead all year. But still, it ties into the idea that people are supposed to be afraid of Superman. And that conflicts with a larger theme that is implicit in Justice League: Why do these guys NEED Superman, anyway?

I mean, Batman is the brains and the bankroll, Flash is at least as fast as Superman, Wonder Woman is about that strong, Aquaman is almost that strong, and Cyborg can do things with technology that haven’t even been quantified yet. There are a couple of good scenes that get to the heart of the matter. At one point Bruce tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that Clark was a better human than him. Clark had managed to fall in love, get a job, and live alongside regular people, something Bruce had never done. That and the influence of his foster parents made Clark more grounded than the antisocial Batman. Later there are a couple bits of dialogue where Diana confronts Bruce and brings up the notion that he is (in a passive-aggressive way) trying to get her to take over the team. And he responds that after Steve Trevor died, she withdrew from the world. She didn’t act as a public superhero, and basically hid her light under a bushel while Superman became a public figure. And she responds in so many words that when you’re placed in a position of leadership, and have to make decisions that could get people killed, at that point everyone is Steve Trevor.

Wonder Woman is the closest thing to a morally perfect character in the DCEU, but even she doesn’t see herself in Superman’s role. Superman is specifically referred to as a beacon of hope in Justice League at least once. The problem is that that description could fit Superman in almost any other DC movie before BvS (including Man of Steel) but it’s at odds with the themes of BvS, in particular the idea that Superman is an alien, godlike being who is a figure of fear, or at best awe. This is why the government in BvS had plans to stop him (and Doomsday) with a nuke, and why in Suicide Squad Amanda Waller and her allies were able to present their project on the rationale of being able to stop Superman (or a similar threat) in case he kidnapped the President. The best analog to Superman in Marvel Comics in this regard is Captain America, the Golden Age hero that every costumed hero since has tried to emulate. And that’s because Captain America always does the right thing, even if it means going against the authorities. In Captain America: Civil War, the movie makes it clear that world governments would have good reason to monitor and regulate metahumans, but it also makes it clear that if the US government is against Captain America, then it’s the government that’s in the wrong. Whereas in the Snyderverse, Superman isn’t the world’s greatest hero because of his spirit or inspirational presence. He’s the greatest hero because he is the most powerful being on Earth who hasn’t decided to become a supervillain, apparently because he lacks the initiative.

The assumption of many fans is that Superman is like this in the DC Extended Universe because Zach Snyder is a devotee of Ayn Rand (his production company is called Atlas Entertainment). I have addressed this subject at great length. In any case Snyder, along with scriptwriter Chris Terrio, wrote the original story for Justice League and was directing the movie until the tragic death of his daughter forced him to quit work on the film. Somewhere in this process Joss Whedon got put in (allegedly because test audiences found Snyder’s first run film unwatchable) to co-write the script, and ended up taking over direction as well (even though Snyder is still listed as sole director). As most other reviewers have pointed out, this has resulted in a disjointed and uneven film. It’s sometimes hard to tell where Snyder ends and Whedon begins, but for the most part Justice League is very much a Zach Snyder film- ponderous direction, muted colors, overcast skies and way too much CGI. There is however one scene that seems unquestionably Whedon’s: in the Big Boss fight, Superman has to help Cyborg contain an energy explosion, and when it throws them back, these two characters – who up to now have been MORE grim and serious than Batman – lie back and laugh. And they joke about it. I just couldn’t imagine something this relaxed and good-natured in Snyder’s work up to this point.

Moreover, the earliest previews for Justice League (mostly released before Whedon stepped in) showed Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller having so much fun playing their characters that it gave me the impression that DC was trying to change the direction of things.

At least once in Justice League, Batman says that his drive to form the team (and later, to revive Superman) is an attempt at redemption on his part: Batman almost killed Superman because he had the wrong idea about him. I get the impression that Justice League is a similar quest for redemption on the part of DC’s movie team. It doesn’t exactly work, because the script makes clear that Zach Snyder (and/or Chris Terrio) still doesn’t get Superman. Ultimately, though, Justice League is in the same class as Suicide Squad:  a grim and muddy Snyderverse project that, thanks to bright performances and some last-minute script doctoring, ends up as a patchwork monster that somehow manages to live.

Oh, and I mentioned that Justice League brought back two of the things that irritated me about BvS. The first was Mean Superman. The second was Jesse Eisenberg’s irritating dingbat version of Lex Luthor. Fortunately he appears only very briefly and at the very last scene after the credits. So teasing the next movie with an end-credits scene is one of two things that the DCEU learned from Marvel Studios. The other of course, is hire Joss Whedon to write and direct your movies.