There is, perhaps, no comic book film with as much baggage as JUSTICE LEAGUE. After the DC film series kicked off with MAN OF STEEL (divisive among viewers, but I adored it), and was followed up with BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and SUICIDE SQUAD – two films that were widely maligned for their bleak portrayal of heroes and major script issues. This year, WONDER WOMAN arrived in theaters with an upbeat, positive message and soared to the top of the box office with an outpouring of critical praise. It’s a series of highs and lows, and JUSTICE LEAGUE arrives at a critical point in the film franchise. Does it continue the impressive storytelling that began in WONDER WOMAN, or does it fall into the same hole that doomed BATMAN VS SUPERMAN?
I’m relieved to say that JUSTICE LEAGUE is fun. In fact, it’s one of the most fun films I’ve seen all year. That’s the word that kept echoing through my head as I left the theater: FUN. It’s not a comedy by any stretch, and there are some very poignant moments in the film, but JUSTICE LEAGUE embraces how fun a superhero movie can be. It’s a serious tonal shift from the earlier films – and it resolves many of the issues that I had with BATMAN VS SUPERMAN (specifically with regards to the characterization of Batman and Superman). JUSTICE LEAGUE also really embraces the idea of a team that works well and respects each other. Whereas Marvel films typically deconstruct their teams and have the heroes fight each other, JUSTICE LEAGUE is a celebration of its heroes coming together.
The story of JUSTICE LEAGUE is fairly simple. Following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in BATMAN VS SUPERMAN, the world is in mourning. When Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) arrives on Earth with an army of parademons (insect-like aliens) and a goal of destroying all life on the planet, Batman (Ben Affleck) must work with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to create a team of superheroes that can stand up to the threat of Steppenwolf. They recruit The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – but even that might not be enough to save the planet.
When I went into JUSTICE LEAGUE, I was very nervous about the film introducing three new superheroes. Yet I found myself blown away with how well the characters were integrated into the story without much difficulty. The standout is The Flash, who Ezra Miller plays with a wonderful, manic attitude. As expected, The Flash is the comic relief – but it really works in the film. Not only is his character funny, but his physical gags are some of the biggest laughs in the entire film. I was very nervous about Cyborg, a character with a complicated backstory and powers that can’t be easily described. In fact, leaving the film – I’m still not entirely certain about either. But it’s a testament to Ray Fisher that Cyborg really works. He’s the brooder of the team, but he does warm up as the film goes on. And the last new addition is Aquaman, who has surprisingly less screen time than I anticipated. Jason Momoa does a great job with him, but the character has a complex backstory (as briefly touched on in a quick scene in Atlantis) that left me wanting more.
Easily the weakest link of JUSTICE LEAGUE is its villain: Steppenwolf. His backstory is never really explained in a manner that I found satisfying. Ciarán Hinds is decent in his portrayal of the villain, but he seems like a fairly standard villain that populates most comic book films. There’s nothing about him that stands out – but I think that’s ok. The Justice League has a wide array of villains, and Steppenwolf is certainly not one of the many recognizable names. Steppenwolf’s role in this film is to stand against the heroes, who receive the vast bulk of screen time. With three new heroes to introduce, it makes sense that Steppenwolf is more of a generic villain. While it’s not ideal, he serves his role dutifully and isn’t a drain on the film itself. If anything, I just wish his character had been expanded on more.
Of course, Gal Gadot continues to play Wonder Woman to perfection. She was born to play the role, and her charm is infectious. Ben Affleck also does a muchbetter portrayal of Batman in this film. He’s more relaxed, and not consumed with a dark, smoldering rage that was so oppressively omnipresent in BATMAN VS SUPERMAN. He feels guilty for his role in Superman’s death, but it doesn’t way him down – it drives him to be better. As for Superman, Henry Cavill has finally found the character. Superman is played to perfection here. This is the embodiment of the hero that is well known to stand for truth, justice, and the American way. These three characters ground the film with their gravitas and understated humor, allowing the newcomers to flourish and find their own voices.
The action sequences in JUSTICE LEAGUE are outstanding. The film is much more colorful, which makes the action pop more. They’re also peppered with funny moments, making the film feel more fun. It’s honestly like seeing a comic book come to life. The film also has a wonderful soundtrack – one of the best superhero film soundtracks in recent memory. Danny Elfman does an outstanding job with it, even including some easter eggs like incorporating themes from BATMAN (1989), SUPERMAN (1978), and Batman: The Animated Series.
JUSTICE LEAGUE is an impressive turnaround for DC Comics. The characters feel so real, and there’s a mountain of easter eggs for fans to uncover. There is so much heart and laughter to be found in the film, and I was itching to see it again as soon as I left the theater. Simply put, JUSTICE LEAGUE is pure, unabashed fun.