“No protectors here. No Lanterns. No Kryptonian. This world will fall, like all the others.” ~ Steppenwolf
“I miss the days when one’s biggest concern is exploding wind-up penguins.” ~ Alfred Pennyworth
“A strong man is strongest alone, ever heard that?” ~ Arthur Curry
“You wanted me to be a leader, but leaders get people killed.” ~ Diana
“Superman was a beacon to the world. He didn’t just save people, he made them see the best part of themselves.” ~ Bruce Wayne
And so the DC cinematic universe carries on, trying to play catch-up with the Marvel cinematic universe in the fifth entry in the franchise, if one counts the shared continuity that started in Man Of Steel, followed in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman. That last film, a highly successful and entertaining origin story that hit theatres in the summer, finally got the DC universe right in this continuity. Justice League picks up where Batman V Superman left off, with Bruce and Diana’s organizing of the superhumans we got a glimpse of in that movie into a team. Zack Snyder directs the film (with a designated pinch director, yes, that is a term, now, in the form of Joss Whedon) after helming two of the previous films in the franchise.
A prologue set deep in the past finds Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), the big bad of the film, accompanied by an army of Parademons (ugly bastards from another world, just like their boss) trying the old conquering the world ploy on Earth, only to be stopped by an army of Amazons, Atlanteans, Olympian gods, humans, and Green Lanterns. Their technology, called Mother Boxes, are dispersed around the world. In the present day, months after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Steppenwolf returns to have another go at world domination in an attempt to get back on the good side of his master. All that stand in his way are five heroes (plus a sixth late in the game): the Justice League. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) bring together Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
Justice League has been in the making for years, going back to the time when Christopher Nolan was making his Dark Knight trilogy (which are an entirely different continuity and were outstanding films, not reflecting the issues that the current DC cinematic shared continuity have had). It had long been stalled in the production process, until Snyder came along with Man of Steel, a film the studio wanted to be the start-off for further continuity. Snyder would return for the bleak Batman V Superman, and also directed the bulk of this, until a personal tragedy caused him to step away from post production and reshoots. Joss Whedon, who was involved in the screenplay with Chris Terrio, stepped in to cover the bases on that. There is a bit of a stilted feel of things at times though, and perhaps that has to do with two directors- two different styles are stitched together.
Terrio’s screenplay, with light humour mixed in from Whedon’s side of things, is a sprawling epic that plays off of what has come before- character dynamics, the history of the DC universe, the previous films- and takes it in a new direction. Steppenwolf might be a strange name for a villain, but he’s previously established in the DC universe as a forerunner for someone who’s even worse, and the parademons are also as well established as a formidable threat. The story has to bring these heroes together (even if some of them would rather stay right out of it) to face a threat that can’t be solved by one person- a good reflection of the prologue, which brings a disparate group to fight together against the same threat. The story, as things go along, certainly is lighter in tone than the utter bleakness of Batman V Superman or the lunatic energy of Suicide Squad.
The production values certainly look good. Parademons and the look of Steppenwolf, for instance, are well rendered and menacing. Amazonians, Atlanteans, Olympians, and the Lantern Corps all come across as you’d expect. New characters have been designed in a way that both fits a movie reality and their comic book origins. Cyborg, a mix of human and machine as a result of an accident, looks much like he would in the comics, only with more technological detail. The Flash, the scarlet speedster, ends up with a costume that takes his abilities into consideration, but still rings close to what we see on the printed page. Aquaman, a character who’s often been belittled (mostly because of a cheesy 70s animated show) looks quite different- instead of a blond haired man with a yellow shirt, we get an exotic looking ferocious warrior with scale armor and a trident, looking like the last person you’d want to irritate.
The cast is fairly well chosen, some of them new, others returning from previous films. Ciaran Hinds is one of those character actors you’ve seen in movies and television shows down through the years- Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 2, Amazing Grace, Road To Perdition, The Sum Of All Fears, Munich, The Woman In Black, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Nativity Story are among his extensive resume. Much of the role he plays here is a combination of motion capture as Steppenwolf. The character is a scheming, ambitious villain, but tired in other ways, seeking a way out of the servitude he finds himself in. Hinds gets to chew the scenery throughout like a megalomaniac, which you expect out of the Big Bad in one of these.
J.K. Simmons comes on board as Commissioner Gordon, a mainstay of the Batman mythos- with some of the same dynamics the two characters share in the comics and previous movie incarnations, partners of a sort who meet on rooftops and conspire together. Simmons, who’s one of those marvelous character actors who just make a movie more interesting by being around, has been in the comics adaptations before, having had played the grouchy J. Jonah Jameson in the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films (one halfway expects Gordon to bark “Parker!”). Diane Lane and Amy Adams reprise their roles from previous films in the DC continuity as Martha Kent and Lois Lane, this time finding themselves stunned by a turn of events that strikes close to home, and both actresses play to that. Jeremy Irons returns as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred, still bringing a dry, sardonic wit to his take on the character.
Ray Fisher appeared briefly in Batman V Superman as Victor Stone, the young athlete whose life is shattered in an accident and whose scientist father Silas (Joe Morton, returning again as the sympathetic genius) has managed to keep him alive, though as more machine than man. As Cyborg, the character has multiple technological advantages, including flight, weapons, and technological manipulation, and the actor, playing at least in part through motion capture, conveys the notion of a young man trapped forever in a metallic shell, likely to never have a real life of his own, but still holding onto his humanity.
Ezra Miller is another young character, Barry Allen, already established in a cameo from Batman V Superman as having super powers as the Flash, helping people out in swift, but unheralded ways. The character is a university student quietly trying to live his life, being drawn into a much bigger world than he would have been prepared for, but he comes into his own as the story unfolds, and the character has a light, funny touch, particularly in how he interacts with everyone else around him.
Jason Momoa gets a fun role as the gruff and fierce Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman. The Atlantean warrior and royal is a metahuman whose great strength comes from his Atlantean biology, and he divides his time between ocean and the seashore. He’s dismissive and standoffish at first, feeling his loyalties must be to Atlantis, but circumstances bring him to accept a place in the wider world as well. The actor gives the character an intensely physical quality, a ferocious energy, and seems to be having fun as he goes along. It also helps that he’s got good chemistry with Mera (Amber Heard); the two characters will be back in a solo film in the not too distant future.
Henry Cavill returns as Clark Kent, otherwise known as Superman, after his death in Batman V Superman (death doesn’t really last in the comics, so why should it in movies?). How that return plays out is a bit convoluted, but Cavill plays the character in a different way than we’ve seen before: initial confusion at first, a natural reaction to a contingency measure of sorts secondly, a seeking out of who he is thirdly, and a return to glory when it really matters.
Gal Gadot impressed a lot of people with Wonder Woman during the summer, and she was the best part of Batman V Superman as well, and her return here as Diana is welcome. She’s spent a century after the events of her origin film on Earth as an immortal, quietly staying out of the way of humanity, apart from her mother and her Amazonian people. With the close of Batman V Superman, Diana has had to accept that she has to come back into the world, working with Bruce Wayne (and bantering and bickering a bit too) to forge a team to meet overwhelming threats. The actress plays her as someone of strength, principle, integrity, and will. emerging from the shadows and rising to the occasion.
Ben Affleck returns (though will he return again, that’s the question) as Bruce Wayne, the cranky Dark Knight who’s spent years as a vigilante in the darkness of Gotham City and who picked a fight with Superman in the previous film, well, just because the story told him to, before realizing that he was fighting the wrong person. His take on the character is lighter than it was in that film, where he certainly went for the grim and gritty. He’s still world weary, a non-powered human being with a brilliant mind, a lot of money, and an iron will who’s become more willing to trust and work with others to counter threats. He may not be a metahuman like those around him, but Affleck still plays the role as someone you don’t want to annoy.
Justice League still bears some of the marks of a problem for the DC cinematic universe: in trying to catch up with the Marvel cinematic universe, which hasn’t stumbled, the DC universe stumbles a bit. This happened with the previous films (with the exception of Wonder Woman), and it does happen here. Rather than just let the films tell themselves, the studio seems obsessed with playing catch-up. Two directors, with very different styles, end up creating a tone of inconsistency at times. That said, however, it is entertaining, giving the new characters a chance to shine and for the audience to get to know them. It also tells a sprawling epic that builds off of what’s already come before, gives us characters who mesh fairly well together, and which points ways to the future for all of them.