'Justice League' Spoiler Review: The DCEU Stumbles Again

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: the superhero team-up extravaganza Justice League.)

You can't save the world alone, and saving the DCEU might be even more of a challenge. After Warner Bros. and DC finally found their footing with Wonder Woman, the superhero series trips over its own cape with the cacophonous Justice League. What should be a moment of triumph for the series – the long-awaited team-up of their signature heroes – instead feels like an uncomfortable obligation. It's like a weekend visit to grandma – you don't want to do it, there's other things you'd really like to be doing, but you figure you make the effort because she'll be gone soon.

As of this writing, Justice League is underperforming even more than anyone expected. The film failed to break the coveted $100 million domestic weekend opening gross, which will no doubt lead to a string of think-pieces pondering, "What went wrong with the DCEU?" With all this in mind, it almost feels cruel to hammer Justice League more. But this is the task at hand. I come not to praise Justice League, nor do I come to bury it. Instead, I want to try to get to the heart of what makes it tick. This is a garish, visually hideous work of pop art, yet I firmly believe it has its heart in the right place: it wants to tell a fun, entertaining story about a group of people coming together to solve a huge problem, and growing as they do so. But what it wants to do, and what it actually does are two very different things. This Justice League spoiler review will highlight what works best in the film, and what doesn't work at all.

Spoilers follow, obviously.

Justice League Batman

Unite The League: The Set-Up

Welcome to a world without Superman. After two distinct movies about how much of a jerk Superman is, Justice League would like to us to believe the DCEU Supes was really a symbol of hope. That is, of course, how Superman should be, but the DC films have gone out of their way to paint a portrait of a conflicted, angst-ridden Man of Steel who doesn't understand why people won't get off his back. Of course, death changes things. When you attend the funeral of someone who was a jerk in real life, you don't give a eulogy about how much you disliked them.

Over a montage set to an abysmal cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows", we see a world growing uglier, and meaner, following the death of Superman. Racism, crime, misery are all on the rise, and the world at large still seems to be in a state of shock. "Everybody knows the good guys lost," as the one of the lyrics in "Everybody Knows" say.

Ordinary criminals and jerks seem to be flourishing in the wake of Superman's death, but so, too, are Parademon – giant bug-demon people who fly around, hissing and spitting and having absolutely no personality. You might remember them from the mind-numbingly bad dream sequence in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; the one where Batman (Ben Affleck) wears a duster over his batsuit for some reason.

Speaking of Batman, he's feeling pretty guilty about Superman's death. After all, Lex Luthor stoked Batman's xenophobia to turn him against the Kryptonian, leading to a smack-down that ended with the monstrous Doomsday murdering Supes. As if to atone for his hand in Superman's demise, Batman is hell-bent on assembling a team of heroes with extraordinary abilities to combat the Parademons. Rather than do more research into the world of superheroes, Batman has decided to put together a team of people he learned about from all those QuickTime videos on Lex Luthor's hard drive in Batman v Superman. That team consists of:

Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who you might remember from her own movie earlier this year. After single-handedly saving the DCEU, Wonder Woman is forced to take a bit of a backseat here. While Gadot's performance as Diana of Themyscira in Wonder Woman was one of great humor and humanity, here she does little more than strike cool poses with her shield, get saddled with painfully flat dialogue and be the subject of constant upskirt shots from directors Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon. We get it – Gadot is a very attractive woman, but the male gaze has never felt more obvious and unnecessary than it does here, contrasted against Patty Jenkins' wonderful handling of the character in Wonder Woman.

Barry Allen, aka The Flash (Ezra Miller). He's super quick, and super funny. Miller is the MVP of the film, playing his character as a big kid constantly amazed at everything happening around him. As written, Barry is a dud. Even an emotional scene with his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup) fails to resonate with the pathos the film wishes it did. Yet Miller is so charming here; so confident in his portrayal, and clearly the only actor having fun. It's infectious.

Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa). Talks to fish. Heir to an undersea kingdom. Says things like "My man!" and "Yeah-uh!" a lot. In great shape. That's about it! There's not a whole lot to Aquaman here. Sorry.

Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Cyborg had his body destroyed in a car accident, so his father (Joe Morton) used alien technology to turn him into a Cyborg. As a result, Cyborg doesn't have complete control of his robotic abilities. But he can turn his arms into guns, so that's something, I guess?

Very little time is spent explaining why Batman thinks these are the people for the job. Instead, he assembles them one by one and then they go to work. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the worst villain in movie history, has returned from his banishment and wants to gather up the three Mother Boxes. Just what are the Mother Boxes, you ask? Who cares! The movie certainly doesn't. They're MacGuffins – objects awkwardly inserted into the story to further the plot. They sort of look like the puzzle boxes from Hellraiser, only with more lightning shooting out of them.

After the Justice League has their asses handed to them by Steppenwolf, Batman suddenly gets the bright idea of raising Superman from the dead. If you thought Superman was already sort of still alive – since the last shot of Batman v Superman showing dirt rising from his coffin might suggest that – think again. Instead, Flash and Cyborg dig up Superman's corpse like they're in a bargain basement remake of Frankenstein, then the team drops the cold, lifeless body into the moat of water that just happens to be inside the Kryptonian ship left over from Man of Steel. This is the same magic liquid that Lex Luthor used to summon Doomsday in B v S. Just how the hell does this liquid work? Eh, who cares. All that matters is it brings Superman back to life.

Superman proceeds to kick the shit out of the Justice League, and only calms down when Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and reminds him of who he is. While Superman gets his bearings, the Justice League jets off to a location that's clearly inspired by Chernobyl, where Steppenwolf, now in possession of all three Mother Boxes, is about to become an all-powerful world-destroying machine. Superman soon shows up to help, the heroes kill Steppenwolf, and we all go home with splitting headaches.

justice league flash

An Ideal of Hope: What Works

While every frame of Batman v Superman was an oppressive, pummeling bore, Justice League often seems to be trying to be something more. It doesn't always work – in fact, it almost never works. But it's clear an attempt is being made. BvS seemed to radiate hatred; to throw off sour vibes of doom and gloom, almost as if someone was constantly shouting "WHY ARE YOU WATCHING THIS?!" into your ears from scene to scene. Justice League wants to be more hopeful. It wants to believe in a better world; a world of heroes.

"I don't recognize this world," Alfred (Jeremy Irons) tells Batman at one point. Right there with you, Al. While Justice League only scratches the surface of deeper issues, it is very much trying to be a film that reflects whatever miserable hellscape we currently find ourselves in. In such dark, troubling times, it's very hard to hang onto hope, and it's even harder to find heroes rising out of the rubble. Justice League lets its heroes off a little too easily: there's no conflict among them; there's no sign that they need to learn to work together better. They just happen to team up, and that's it. A little more difficulty assembling the team would've gone a long way, but what's here is better than nothing, I suppose.

After two films showing Henry Cavill's Superman as a reluctant jackass, Justice League finally gets him right (I've written more extensively about this here). To quote a lyric from Hamilton: "And all he had to do was die." Some will no doubt find fault in this: it's a betrayal of the character as he's been established in the continuity of the series. Sure, that's true. But here's a counter argument: why would you want to keep that continuity? Maybe I'm being old fashioned, but I'd much rather have a Superman who acts like Superman instead of one who keeps complaining about how everyone wants him to be a hero. Also, I'd say the fact that Superman rises from the grave here is a pretty good explanation for a drastic change in character. Yes, he's acting different than he did in his other two films, but wouldn't you assume that dying and then coming back from the dead would change a man, even a super-man?

Justice League post-credits scene explained

One of the best lines in Wonder Woman comes when Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) tells Wonder Woman, "Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you." The same thing should be said of Amy Adams for the DCEU films. Adams is a great actress, but she continually gets short-changed in these films. Justice League gives her the least amount of material to work with, but the few moments we spend with her are wonderful. Perhaps the best part of Justice League is a quiet, funny scene between Adams and Diane Lane as Superman's mother Martha (yes, that Martha). There are no explosions here; no fisticuffs. It's simply a quiet, amusing scene between Adams and Lane as they bond over coffee and mourn the loss of Clark Kent. Can I please have more of this? Martha and Lois Lane hanging out and shooting the breeze?

As mentioned above, Ezra Miller's Flash is a treat. While he gets stuck with a lot of jokes that fall-flat, Miller delivers them all with gusto, and he's easily the most-relatable member of the team. The sooner he gets his own standalone film, the better off the DCEU will be. I didn't quite buy into the subplot involving Barry working to exonerate his convicted felon father – the details are incredibly scant, so it's hard to really latch onto this – Miller does his best to sell it. Most of the comedy that works here is the result of Miller's facial expressions – he always looks bewildered, like a kid on Christmas. He also gets to make a pretty amusing Pet Sematary joke, which is something I never thought I'd see in one of these films.

One last positive thing: at one point, Jeremy Irons is forced to say "Aquaman." He pronounces it as "AHK-WAH-MAN" and it's delightful. I wish Iron was in James Wan's standalone Aquaman film just so I could hear him pronounce it again and again.

justice league red

A Snack Hole: What Doesn't Work

There's a scene in Wonder Woman where Diana, having spent her entire life on a picturesque island, takes one look at the cold, dirty visage of London and says, "It's hideous." That's how Justice League feels. This is one of the most visually unappealing blockbusters in recent memory. A blob of steel-grays and rash-reds that don't so much blend together as they do clash and make your eyes ache. There is no excuse to make a film this ugly anymore. During an extended fight scene in a sewer, where the Justice League does battle with Parademons, the screen could've been filled from top to bottom with a Brillo pad and I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. Cinematographer Fabian Wagner should have to turn in his DOP badge and gun for this one.

Much has already been made about how still-credited director Zack Snyder left Justice League before the film was finished, and Avengers director Joss Whedon came in and handled reshoots to get the film across the finish line. I won't speculate about how much of the film is Snyder's and how much of it is Whedon's, but it's clear Whedon did extensive work on the film, especially when you consider the trailers for Justice League, which are loaded with shots not in the final film. That said, it is painfully obvious this is the work of two different filmmakers.

Snyder's penchant for money shots drastically clash with Whedon's more pithy, quippy character moments. The end result is a schizophrenic film that can't keep track of itself. In an opening scene, we see a clean-shaven Batman prowling the rooftops of Gotham. Yet the next time we see him, he's sporting a huge beard. Then he shaves the beard off. You can argue this is all just meant to show the passage of time, but it happens so quickly that it becomes distracting.

I don't know who to blame for the over-sexualization of Wonder Woman – Snyder or Whedon – but either way it's glaring. Patty Jenkins didn't shy away from highlighting how attractive Gal Gadot is, but Justice League hammers its audience over the head with this. The camera doesn't present her here, it oogles her, taking its sweet time to shoot Gadot from the ground up, never missing an opportunity to focus on her rear end. It's explicit, and unnecessary.

One thing we can firmly lay at the feet of Whedon is the film's lighter tone. Whedon is, after all, known for his breezy, comical, pop-culture infused dialogue. Unfortunately, the "jokes" in Justice League don't work at all. They almost all fall flat, and what's worse, the editing of the film builds-in pauses after the jokes, assuming the audience will be cracking up and might need a moment to recover. But that hilarity never comes, resulting in very awkward beats of silence. Near the end of the film, Wonder Woman surveys the blunderings of her male counterparts and quips "Children," and then there's a pause that feels as if it lasts for ten full minutes before she finishes with, "I work with children!" It's excruciating.

The dialogue in general is atrocious, filled with moments where characters keep spouting exposition riddled with clunky line-reads. When Batman first meets Aquaman, he addresses the underwater hero as "Arthur Curry, also known as the protector of the oceans!" Who the fuck talks like that? Sure, this is a comic book movie and some theatricality and suspension of disbelief is required, but that is painfully bad dialogue.

The script in general, by Whedon and Chris Terrio, is the film's biggest problem. Perhaps a longer cut gives everyone more to do, but as it is here, every character except Batman gets short-changed. One gets the sense of the film trying to give Wonder Woman more to do since her solo film was the best entry in the DCEU so far, but she's mostly stuck striking cool poses and bickering with Batman. The rest of the team doesn't fare well either. Momoa is clearly trying to have fun with his Aquaman, but the character is a walking cliche; a bro'ed-out surfer dude who brings very little to the team. Ray Fisher's Cyborg gets the shoddiest treatment of the bunch, which is a shame because Fisher's performance is quite good. But it's clear the film itself just isn't interested in him or his character.

Joss Whedon Steppenwolf tweet

As lackluster as our heroes may be here, they don't even come close to approaching the blandness of the film's villain Steppenwolf. Why, exactly, the makers of Justice League thought this character should be the main bad guy when DC has a great rogue's gallery to choose from is a mystery. Ciarán Hinds does the best he can with his voice-over work, but Steppenwolf is probably the most boring villain ever captured on screen. He has no arc; no real mission. He just wants to gather up the Mother Boxes and then...what? Destroy the world? Rule the world? It doesn't matter. He's boring, and everyone deserves a slap on the wrist for thinking he should be the big bad for what's supposed to be the ultimate DC team-up film. Worse than that, he's a bland CGI creation that never even looks close to real. 

Beyond these failings, the script also shoe-horns in fan-service moments that just don't work. We get a muddled sequence where Aquaman returns to Atlantis and chats with Amber Heard's Mera, who then proceeds to dump a bunch of exposition on him. It's an achingly dull scene, and Heard seems completely out of sync with the film itself. There's also a scene or two involving J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon that serves no purpose whatsoever. It exists solely to introduce Commissioner Gordon into the narrative, and then quickly forgets all about him. In a film that already seems rushed and undercooked, keeping moments like this are a mistake.

I suppose I'm contractually obligated to mention the weird CGI used to remove Henry Cavill's mustache. Cavill grow his 'stache for the next Mission: Impossible film, and rather than have him shave it off for reshoots, WB decided to digitally erase it. A lot of people have pointed out how bad this looks in the final film. Here's the thing: it didn't really bother me that much. The shitty script bothered me more.

justice league dceu

The Future of The DCEU

Where does the DCEU go from here? More stand-alone stories would be a good idea. The power of Wonder Woman was in how unconcerned it was connecting itself to the rest of the DCEU. Focus on smaller, more emotionally-driven narratives over big, dumb spectacle. That could be the secret to building a better superhero universe.  Justice League should've been an event. It should've been something that shakes the very ground itself. Instead, it's just another entry in an ever-growing list of superhero films. There's nothing special about this moment; nothing awe-inspiring. It's just another brick in the wall.

At the very least, we can thank Justice League for giving us a heroic Superman again. Cavill might have a chance now to do the character justice in a stand-alone Superman sequel; one void of the angst and woe that prevailed in Man of Steel and Batman v SupermanZack Snyder is likely done with this franchise, and that's likely for the best. The filmmaker has had his chance to bring his vision to this series; now it's time to give someone else a chance. The fact that WB and DC haven't backed a dump-truck full of cash up to Patty Jenkins' door and asked her to take over the DCEU is a mystery at this point; what are they thinking, exactly? 

Justice League will likely have its defenders. There are fans of these characters who will be so happy to see them all together on the screen that they'll likely overlook the mountain of flaws. That's fine. But for the rest of us who want more; who want to see these heroes embark on better adventures, there has to be a world beyond Justice League. In some respects, Justice League should be thought of as the punk phase of a rebellious teenager. They've got it out of their system, and now it's time to grow up a little.

Is there fun to be had here? Sure. There are occasional moments in Justice League that have the semblance of fun, like when Barry uses his Flash speed to lightly tap the tip of Wonder Woman's sword as it flies through the air so she can catch it. But the fun is few and far between, occupying a bigger picture that lacks coherence and grace. Such criticisms tend to get a person like me labeled as a "hater," but it shouldn't be a crime to want more from these movies. Wonder Woman proved you can make a popcorn flick that has heart and soul. That's all I'm asking for here. I don't need Justice League to be an overly-intelligent work of high art. I do need it to elicit an emotion in me other than dull exhaustion. Is that really so much to ask for?