Following a shaky start, the DC Extended Universe has reached a modicum of stability (thanks Wonder Woman!). There are still some kinks to work out, but glaring problems like cohesiveness and that whole “Martha!” business seem to be a thing of the past.
Considering the problematic installments that preceded it, Justice League is fine. The story is constrained and doesn’t take itself all that seriously: The Flash notwithstanding, it’s still grimmer than Thor: Ragnarok laugh-fest, which may not be a bad thing.
As we are reminded constantly, Superman is dead. Not only that, its absence is the equivalent of an invitation for intergalactic rogues to wreak havoc on Earth. The first one to drop by is Steppenwolf (a CGI creation voiced by Ciarán Hinds), a New God hell-bent on collecting the infinity sto… I mean, the Mother Boxes, primordial artifacts capable of reshaping planets or destroy them, depending on what side of the bed he wakes up.
Aware something is afoot, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) go on recruiting three other meta-humans -Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash- to at least offer some resistance against the horned alien and his legion of para-demons.
There is something to be said about build-up, an approach that has reported Marvel considerable dividends and is practically absent here. Like in Suicide Squad, Justice League spends a fair amount of time putting the team together and plot exposition (only more competently). This is all fun and games, except that it comes at expense of the main event. A film like this should come after the league’s would-be members are introduced, not before. The excitement of having a bunch of heroes struggling to work together is hampered by the fact we don’t know half of these people.
Yet he biggest problem of Justice League is Steppenwolf. This is not like Marvel’s chronic imbalance between charismatic heroes and uninteresting villains. The New God doesn’t have enough of a personality to be boring. He wants the power to achieve a vaguely defined goal that would only mean something to hardcore comic-book fans. I can appreciate director Zack Snyder’s respect for the original material, but Steppenwolf feels run-of-the-mill at best. Also, if mankind is at risk, perhaps you should invest in more extras than four random Russians.
There is, however, a lot of potential. Old Batman has seldom been explored on film and Affleck makes Bruce Wayne’s struggle to hold on to his humanity believable. Jason Momoa as Aquaman and Ezra Miller as the Flash succeed at making the characters their own (Ray Fisher as Cyborg, not so much). Gal Gadot is not well served by the material, but an early scene -ostensibly shot after the smashing success of Wonder Woman– is a fun placeholder until the 2019 sequel.
Worth mentioning, composer Danny Elfman recycles his 1989 Batman score and John Williams’ iconic “Superman March”, but not the most obvious sound cues. Not a bad idea, but playing coy with such recognizable tunes feels wasteful. Justice League handles pop music more judiciously than Suicide Squad. Alas, if you are going to use Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”, go directly to the source or license the Concrete Blonde version. The cover by Sigrid has no teeth.
There are two areas DCEU has an advantage over Marvel: It has room to grow and is not as shy as the competition of violence and sex. DC can become the adult option in comic book adaptations, but is not there yet. Overdoing it with CGI is not the right approach, let alone using the proverbial death ray in the sky. Two and a half prairie dogs.
Justice League opens this Thursday 16th everywhere.