The opening scene of Justice League shows Superman (Henry Cavill) speaking directly to a group of young admirers, likely after he’s saved them. Presumably shot from a mobile phone (due to the portrait-mode frame) Superman answers their questions with a wide-mouthed grin and a cheesy charm. It’s the most classical vision of Superman we’ve seen yet in this grim-and-gritty iteration of the Man of Steel in the DCEU, but it’s also noticeably off somehow. The grin is, quite literally, fake–Superman’s mouth is a CGI reconstruction in order to edit out Cavill’s mustachioed visage. The result distracts and distances the audience due to its artificiality.
Superman’s fake CGI mouth is an apt analogy of Justice League as a whole, a patchwork of scenes and images from a storyline which is at-once simplistic and convoluted. Very little about this film–the stakes, the characters, the environments–feels grounded in any sense of reality. Nor does it have the operatic fever-dream cinematography or philosophical musings of Zack Snyder’s previous DC film, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Where that film was a noble failure in its ambitious reach, Justice League is a middling mashup of sensibilities and styles, with filmmaker Joss Whedon (The Avengers) finishing up this film after tragedy struck the Snyder family. You can see the trademark Snyder flourishes in some of the action sequences, as well as the Whedon snark and banter in much of the dialogue.
It’s not that Justice League is unenjoyable. I’d say it’s the most lighthearted of the recent Superman films, and Cavill is more akin to Christopher Reeves’ depiction of the character–less brooding, more corny lines, and a (small) sense that this Clark Kent is truly a good person. The new superheroes are quite humorous too, particularly the blunt Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the hyper-awkward Flash (Ezra Miller). Some of the jokes don’t land, but I did find myself chuckling a few times, something which didn’t happen in the somber Man of Steel and BVS. And while Justice League pales in comparison to this year’s Wonder Woman–far and away the best superhero film of 2017 and of the DCEU–it’s nowhere near the incoherent travesty of Suicide Squad. In short, it’s a semi-fun trifle.
Regarding Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot’s Diana is the strongest and most interesting character in Justice League, taking up the mantle of leadership needed by the team of lone-wolf superheroes. Even though Batman (Ben Affleck) gets the band back together, it’s Diana who serves as the ethical compass and the true leader. Batman is less violent and angry than in BVS, which means he’s also less menacing or interesting. And then there’s Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a cobbled together cybernetic robot akin to a scientist RoboCop. Fisher gives a noteworthy performance as the troubled Victor Stone, which is sadly undermined due to the distractingly poor CGI. As much as the performance feels real, the appearance of Cyborg doesn’t. Similarly, the villain Steppenwolf is wonderfully voiced by Ciaran Hinds, but he’s entirely a CGI construct, and not a very good one at that. Any confrontation with Steppenwolf feels like actors yelling at a green screen. This is Justice League‘s biggest problem–when everything is made in a computer, there’s little for the audience to really connect with, apart from pixels. This is why the best fight sequences in the film are those with human characters and conflicts, particularly a terrorist attack thwarted by Wonder Woman. In the best moment of action, she saves a crowd of hostages from a gunman’s bullets, using herself as a shield. It’s genuinely heroic; even as we know she’ll dispatch of these baddies with relative ease, the stakes feel real. (It’s also very disappointing that Diana, as well as the other women warriors of Themysrica, are noticeably objectified in this film, with lingering camera gazes and more revealing outfits. It’s yet another reminder of the significance and greatness of Wonder Woman.)
Justice League is quite short on actual justice (unless CGI punchfests or quasi-Frankenstein resurrections are just) or leagues (excepting the distance traveled in a race between the Flash and Superman). There are too many characters to keep track of or care about–I haven’t mentioned Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Jeremy Irons, J.K. Simmons, Billy Crudup, Amber Heard, or Connie Nielsen, nor the brief return of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. It matters very little, because little within this film feels real, having been primarily manufactured in a computer. In the closing credits, there are hundreds of names listed under various companies for visual effects. It’s not that this role is insignificant to cinema–CGI is beneficial and has its place–but to return to the fake Superman smile, it has to still be true, or else it feels hollow. Still, if you are looking for DC superheroes having epic battles with hordes of para-demons, look no further. I’m going to go rewatch Wonder Woman.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0974015/