The year’s sixth live action superhero release was supposed to be the biggest — but a cursed production won’t let it see justice.
Justice League was supposed to be a pop culture sensation.
The superhero team-up is the DC Extended Universe’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers. Seeing beloved heroes team up on the screen was a cinematic movement so successful it explains why every other movie release this year features a guy in a mask and tights. DC films have been building up to this movie since 2013 with the release of Man of Steel. It brought out top billed superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
And now that it’s here, people don’t care.
The film debuted with a $96 million opening weekend, a feat that would be impressive for any movie that wasn’t Justice League. It’s a comedown of $70 million from the opening weekend of its predecessor, 2016’s horrendous Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That movie (along with last year’s Suicide Squad, which took place in the same film universe) was so notoriously awful that it ruined any chance of success for Justice League, no matter how good this movie turned out to be.
And here’s the shocker. After releasing a string of films of questionable quality, they finally produced a good movie with Justice League. Which makes it ironic it’s the one suffering the most financially.
If you’ve seen any other superhero team-up movie, you know the plot to this one. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are working together to put together a team of superpowered allies to take down a generic, CGI alien bad guy.
The new teammates are Aquaman (Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa), as an awkward take on a “surfer dude” who can control water; Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former football player whose conscious was transported into a robotic body after an accident; and the Flash (Ezra Miller), the film’s clear standout as a speedster who can run faster than light.
Once the team is set up, they fight alien Steppenwolf, a walking video game enemy who is collecting three boxes that, when assembled, have the power to destroy the world. And that’s it. That’s the whole plot. As straightforward as could be.
Everything about this movie’s production had set it up to fail. It’s hard to recall a movie with a more cursed production cycle.
First, it had the reputation of the other movies preceding it to overcome. The film is directed by Zack Snyder, a divisive filmmaker who has been critiqued for trying to infuse dark, gritty realness to his inherently goofy source material. (Seeing men in capes brood over existential issues doesn’t necessarily qualify as entertainment.)
Snyder had to leave the film during its post-production phase due to the tragic suicide of his daughter. He was given the opportunity to postpone the film, but instead passed the mantle to director Joss Whedon to maintain the release date. Whedon proved to be a polarizing choice — he directed both Avengers movies, and his light, quip-packed tone is much different from Snyder’s.
The two directors work surprisingly well together, and without foreknowledge, it might be hard to pick out inconsistencies in the film. Whedon reportedly ordered extensive reshoots, and character and setting appearances sometimes look questionably out of place, if only for a few frames.
The reshoot schedule yielded another problem; Henry Cavill, who played Superman, had a full beard for another role he was filming, which he was contractually obligated to not shave.
The studio ended up making the hackneyed decision to digitally edit the character’s mustache out (surely there were better options, such as simply having the character grow a beard). The character’s upper lip looks like it’s made of plastic in brief glimpses, just enough to be noticeable.
When all’s said and done, the upper lip may be what the film is most remembered for. It’s a symbol of the struggles the film went through, and also represents the overall fakeness of the film.
It’s a very reactionary production — Snyder and the screenplay (written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer) clearly took criticism of previous films to heart. Gone is the brooding overindulgence. Rewritten are the scenes where Batman attempts to contextualize Superman (a literal alien) into modern-day politics.
Instead, what’s left from the double whipped production is a light, simple, but relentlessly enjoyable action picture that does what the movies have failed to do from the start — entertain.
The action beats are adrenaline pumping, and Snyder and Whedon do a fantastic job of making each hero’s blend with others. Flash’s super speed is a highlight, using slow motion to illustrate how he can run around and manipulate every player on the battlefield in just a second real time.
The film is an improvement on every technical level — characters have clear growth arcs (Gadot does a particularly good job exposing the insecurities of her larger-than-life character), CGI has improved (though is still laughably bad, in all honesty), and the tone finally feels natural.
It’s more than a little mind-numbing that, once DC has finally found the path to redemption, fans have seemingly decided to abandon the world. For the movie to be this good is something of a miracle. If plans for this series to continue end up changing (which isn’t out of the question in light of the box office returns), at least it will have somewhat redeemed itself first.
The injustice of it all. ••