Zack Snyder’s risky Justice League should not work. And, let’s be clear, it doesn’t work as a whole. Given the turbulent recent history of the DCEU film series, this film needed to fit a specific mold. The risk here is like a high-stakes game of poker; don’t flinch by showing your fold card.
And, if it didn’t follow on the heels of some of the more dramatic, risky previous entries in the series, that wouldn’t be a problem.
Justice League picks up immediately after the events of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. The world mourns the loss of Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) bears that guilt. As Gotham City weathers strange attacks from insect-like figures, Batman begins to piece together an impending doomsday attack. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) returns to offer her support in assembling the Justice League.
Toward the end of Batman vs Superman, Snyder gave us a sequence in which he introduced us to the future members of the Justice League. The sequence gave us a quick intro without potentially spoiling future character-only entries. If Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, the credited screenwriters, had stuck to that sequence as a basis for this film, my respect for the first half would have increased.
As it is, Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) are all left to have an extended re-introduction. Each character’s extended introduction establishes their emotional vulnerabilities and their team functions.
The first hour is used to reintroduce our main characters; a risky move considering that it wasn’t entirely necessary. It does work to show just how broken Superman’s death left all of our characters. It also reflects how vulnerable Ben Affleck plays the character. Jeremy Irons, as the venerable Alfred Pennyworth, continues to offer his brazen consul and is a source of amusement throughout.
The screenwriting duo interweave establishing story elements for the second half of the film in between the remaining introductory moments. As we build our League, we get to witness Jason Momoa’s dry wit with his deadly serious nature, something we got in spades with The Bad Batch. I did get a sense of déjà vu as they use similar elements from Man of Steel as Kal El tried to blend into the world around him to introduce us to Aquaman.
Gal Gadot’s welcomed return as Wonder Woman is framed through the tense sexual overtones briefly presented in BvS. Some of the drama between Wonder Woman and Batman felt unnecessary, it served the needs of the story. As we see, Bruce’s gruff exterior is a good match for Diana’s sensuality, a result of their acting than the story.
Cyborg’s story was the least interesting aspect of the film. We see the majority of his creation in BvS when his dad, Silas Stone (Joe Morton, in another déjà vu moment) used the Kryptonian power to rebuild his son. Ray Fisher’s acting through the CGI implants was fine, but unremarkable. The story’s dangers for his character and those that surround him were rendered moot.
Ezra Miller’s The Flash was the true “hold-card” of this deck as we learn about he and his past; a broken individual much like Bruce Wayne became after his parents were felled. The difference here is that Barry uses his humor to try and break up a tense situation, something that plays to Miller’s strengths as an actor. Most of the humor works, even if it becomes tiresome toward the end of the film; a limitation of the film’s story, not of the actor’s work.
If it seems like I’m focusing this review on the character development, it’s because this is the best aspect of the story, and yet, it is its own worst enemy. Midway through the story, a tonal shift occurs that wrecked the flow. It gets recovered in the end, but the recovery is marred by a well-structured, but cheesy special effects-heavy battle.
Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” sums up my feelings best with “Ah you hate to see another tired man lay down his hand like he was giving up the holy game of poker.” The risky Justice League prevails through adept acting and very solid character moments. Terrio and Whedon showed their fold card: we focus too much time on the character moments and not enough time meting out justice.