justice league

Each movie in the DCEU can be parsed by its sound. Man of Steel remains — to me, at least — the best of the DC films so far; the theme at its core is simplistic, but it aches and it soars, and speaking on a broader level, it also comes closest to synthesizing the superhero with the present climate in the way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films did. The score for Batman v. Superman is operatic, almost gothic (“The Red Capes Are Coming” is remarkable in this regard, baroque in style and an inverse to the Man of Steel theme), impressive in its ambition even if doesn’t necessarily manage to pull it all together. Wonder Woman is bright, more “classic” in terms of the film scores it evokes, in line with its less dreary tone and how it hews closer to the usual superhero movie template.

All this is a way of saying that Justice League falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. Danny Elfman gives us notes of insanity reminiscent of his work on the Burton Batman movies, but what glimpses we get of a unique film are lost in trying to incorporate bits and pieces of the previous films, not to mention the incessant noise that comprises the fight sequences. This isn’t to say that it isn’t good. On the contrary, Zack Snyder’s latest film is fine; it’s just perhaps a little lesser than its predecessors due to how much it tries to scale back its ambitions and play by the rules.

The story is of a piece with The Avengers and other such group efforts: the world comes under threat by a force too big for one hero to take on alone, and so a handful of them band together. The threat, this time, is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, regrettably lost behind CGI goop) and his army of Parademons, and the handful of heroes is made up of Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa).

As with any “team” film, Justice League spends its first act presenting us with vignettes that introduce us to each hero. They play like parts of different movies, all of which I’d like to see given platform in the same way we’d seen Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) grow up in Kansas, but don’t quite mesh when thrown together like this. There are interesting nuggets there — Zack Snyder’s Gotham has shades of his magnificent Watchmen adaptation in it, and Aquaman’s choice to hide away in a remote fishing village hints at a self-discovery film more interesting than the relatively thankless role he has to play here. The Flash, meanwhile, is most compelling in the short scenes he has with his father (Billy Crudup) as he struggles with both growing up and superhero-dom rather than just one over the other.

Cyborg, unfortunately, is least well-served by the film, as his design suffers the same problem that the recent Transformers films do, i.e. there’s too much going on, to the point that there’s nothing to really look at. This is a pity largely because Ray Fisher is such a warm presence, and because the brief glimpse we got of him in Batman v. Superman suggested we might get more emotional weight between him and his father (Joe Morton), not to mention a look at a kind of body horror that has been curiously absent from superhero movies despite how inherently it’s a part of the genre.

There are hints of that more interesting movie scattered throughout Justice League, primarily in the first hour, in which Zack Snyder’s touch is most visible. As the man behind 300 — and, thus, most of the visual action conventions of today — he has a definitive style, and when he’s allowed to exercise it, it’s still stunning in a way that can’t really be aped. As the movie goes on, however, the film’s aesthetic grows less and less distinct, and the streaks of light that trail after each swing of Steppenwolf’s axe turn from being gorgeous to being boring videogame accoutrements.

The further Justice League gets into its run time, the more the movie gives into the impulse to make itself like every other superhero movie out there. In a manner of speaking, it’s a piece of art caught between two poles: one, the extreme idiosyncrasies that characterized Batman v. Superman (which made it beautiful in my eyes but made it laughable for most, if not all, other viewers), and two, the safer path that guarantees more evenhanded critical responses, but is also much less interesting.

The pressure to go with the latter is chiefly responsible for how uneven Justice League feels. The added jokes feel misplaced, and the way in which the female characters are robbed of what interiority they had in favor of being comic book cut-outs (Wonder Woman is both mother and nagging wife to the group, and also suffers the indignity of doing nothing in particular throughout; I’ve already forgotten what Lois Lane was doing) reads particularly poorly in light of the current cultural climate and what we know of the production.

Ironically, it’s Superman who most embodies this back and forth. (And here, I suppose I must warn for spoilers, though you’ve probably already guessed what I have to say next.) His return is one of the most interesting parts of the film, as it also involves the loss of his memory. He’s suddenly deadly, the embodiment of the threat that Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) had crowed he would be, and it’s startling to see Justice League tread even close to making the beloved superhero a villain. But, after he inevitably comes to his senses, it suddenly starts ask why he needs to team up with any of the rest of them in the first place. He seems to be more powerful than all of them combined — why bother with the flim-flam?

All that said, Justice League still stands well enough on its own. It wobbles only because it’s a movie — a franchise — at a crossroads. As for what direction it’ll take, I know what I’m hoping for: I’ll trade in the Pet Sematary jokes for a gothic opera Batman any day of the week.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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