Justice League: More Assembly Required, by Tyler Smith
Like many others, when it was announced that DC was going to be following a different release format in its cinematic universe than Marvel, I was skeptical. It seemed as though introducing certain characters individually through their own films and then bringing these already-established characters together would be the definitive course of action. But I decided to reserve judgment until Zack Snyder’s Justice League was released. Now that I’ve seen it, I can safely say that I was absolutely right. While it can be a good thing to subvert a formula, sometimes it’s there because it works.
By the time The Avengers was released in 2012, we already had relationships with the vital characters of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and, to a lesser extent, the Hulk. And Hawkeye and Black Widow had at least appeared in the previous films. So when they finally assembled into a team, it was an exciting prospect. In this film, however, we are introduced to three important heroes, two of whom could have had (and probably should have had) their own previous stand-alone movies. But, instead, the film often comes to a screeching halt as the backstories of Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash are clumsily shoehorned into the larger plot, trying desperately to make us care about these people before throwing them into the middle of the action.
Of course, it’s not exactly as though said plot and action are remarkably exciting, either. In fact, so much of it seems like a hodgepodge of other (often better) films that it started to become amusing. With Superman now dead, the world is losing hope, but the real fear comes from the possibility of invasion, either galactic or supernatural. This happens early on, as the evil god Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) collects three “Mother Boxes”, cosmic devices that, when assembled, have the power to destroy and recreate worlds. With his new weapon, he seeks to remake the Earth into a desolate wasteland.
If you’re like me, this should all sound a bit familiar. Loki – I mean, Steppenwolf – is just the latest in a long line of galactic baddies bent on world domination, and the Tesseract – er, I mean the AllSpark, er, I mean the Mother Box – is just another vaguely powerful MacGuffin that kicks the story into gear. There’s even a flashback to a age-old battle in which several different tribes of people band together to fight Steppenwolf, ultimately defeating him and separating the three Mother Boxes, giving one to the Atlanteans, another to the Amazons, and the third to the Dwarf Lords, who hide it deep in their Mithril mines.
Am I being unnecessarily glib? Yes. And maybe also a bit unfair. After all, these epic blockbusters all borrow pretty liberally from one another, so why single out Justice League? Probably because, when faced with naked exposition, one can’t help but be reminded of the various sources that are being pulled from. It is this same bald-faced exposition that the writers use to give us vital information about Aquaman, Cyborg, the Flash, and all the other elements of the film that are only now being introduced into the DC cinematic universe. With that much ground to cover, one can’t really blame Zack Snyder or his writers for being so blatant.
Regardless of who is specifically responsible, the fact remains that this film was doomed to be clunky and uneven long before the dialogue was written. That’s what happens when you try to introduce too many key elements and characters into one two-hour period. There’s no time to let characters or emotional beats really breathe, because there’s simply too much else to get to.
Perhaps the real reason that this is a shame is because this ensemble is pretty solid. Ben Affleck continues to effectively exude a weary fatalism as an aging Batman. Jason Momoa is a tough and amusing Aquaman (though frustratingly ill-defined). Sadly, Gal Gadot – so effective in her own Wonder Woman movie – doesn’t really shine here. Perhaps Patty Jenkins was able to bring something out of Godot as an actress that Snyder simply isn’t, or maybe she just wasn’t given a lot to work with.
Rounding out the league are Ezra Miller as the Flash and Ray Fisher as Cyborg. Miller, an actor that I’ve only ever seen as moody and withdrawn characters in films like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is here an upbeat, excitable presence, breathing energy into every scene. As a character that is essentially the comic relief, Flash is well-utilized and well-developed, with Miller understanding this character both inside and out.
What Miller brings in lightness, newcomer Ray Fisher brings in depth. As the frustrated and ever-evolving Cyborg, Fisher is self-aware and perpetually angry. In his former life, he was a star athlete tragically killed in an unspecified accident. But he was brought back to life by his distraught scientist father (Joe Morton), and that fact is deeply disturbing to him. As Frankenstein’s Monster once said, “We belong dead”; a philosophy that Cyborg seems to agree with. Fisher brings the right amount of melancholy to a character that is at war with himself, ultimately questioning the morality of his own existence. It’s enough to make one wish that the character had been previously introduced and explored in an earlier film, but Fisher’s gravitas goes a long way in filling in the gaps.
The chemistry between the ensemble is almost enough for me to recommend Justice League. Not unlike the heroes themselves, the cast is uniformly strong and rises to meet the challenge. But it’s just not quite enough. The story is contrived, the action is conventional, and the filmmaking is convoluted. It is only the characters themselves who stand out, but that only makes me wish that they were in a better film.