I'd like to go on the record right now to say that I think a lot of the bad Justice League reviews are overly harsh. The film isn't perfect, but it's an awful lot better than some people seem to think. I won't declare that JL was amazing and that everyone who says otherwise is receiving some sort of anti-DC bribe, but it was alright. Frankly, after everything that's happened, it's probably the best version of that film we could get out of the DCEU.
I'm not guaranteeing this article is spoiler free, so be warned. If you want a spoiler-free take, check out our official review.
Think back to last March. That was when Batman v Superman came out. The film was DC's grand attempt to kickstart its own shared cinematic universe, similar to what Marvel has been doing since the 2008 release of Iron Man. It was the first time Batman and Superman had appeared on screen together, and it was the first time Wonder Woman had ever graced the big screen with her presence. This was supposed to be it. Marvel fans had got what they had always dreamed of with The Avengers in 2012, and now it was time for DC fans to get the same.
DC and Warner Bros were so confident in the film that they announced a slew of films in anticipation of huge success, from 2016's Suicide Squad all the way up to 2020's Green Lantern Corps. That slate included solo movies, and not one but two Justice League films set to be released a year apart.
Then Batman v Superman actually came out. The film was divisive, to say the very least. It was torn apart by the critics, and fans were polarised on whether or not it was actually any good - to the point where the most hardcore DC fans started accusing journalists of taking bribes to give BvS a bad review. But cinema-goers clearly weren't that impressed either. Despite dominating the box office during its opening week ($161 million in the US, a March record), the film had a 69 per cent drop off in week two. Reports indicated that this figure is second only to the dull glossed-over CG shitpile that was 2003’s Hulk, and equal to whatever the hell X-Men Origins: Wolverine was supposed to be.
Overall the film made around $873.3 million at the global box office, and while that might seem good, estimates claim that the film needed to make $925-$930 million to turn a profit. The film itself cost around $300 million to make, and then you have to take other things into consideration including marketing costs, actors' box office shares, cinemas' cuts, and so on.
Basically that's a long-winded way of saying that Justice League, as a direct sequel to Batman v Superman with much of the same creative force behind it, wasn't in a particularly strong position before filming even began. The complete disaster that was Suicide Squad didn't help matters, and while Wonder Woman was a big step in the right direction there were still concerns to be had.
Zack Snyder then left production to be with his family following the death of his daughter, with Warner Bros. bringing Joss Whedon in to complete reshoots and post-production work. This reminded some people of Suicide Squad, which was criticised for a garbled tone - reportedly caused by the studio trying to salvage the final product during reshoots and merging two vastly different cuts. While everyone involved assured fans that Joss Whedon wouldn’t stray from Zack Snyder’s vision for the film, people nevertheless had concerns.
The Road to Justice League
Now Justice League is actually out, and reviewed, so we can all find out for ourselves what it is like. Reviews are rather mixed, with some outlets effectively declaring it the worst film of all time while other admit that while flawed it also has its merits. I stand with the latter group, unlike Gizmodo UK Editor James O'Malley who really didn't seem to like it enough to warrant anything more than a 'not as bad as Suicide Squad'.
Regardless of how you feel, though, the biggest problem isn't Justice League. The problem is the way DC and Warner Bros brought the superhero team to the big screen, and for that very reason it's a miracle we have the version of the film that we do.
Take the Marvel approach, which is the most apt comparison for a big shared film franchise based on comics. The road to The Avengers was a slow burn. According to reports the plan was always to have Marvel's in-house films lead to The Avengers, but the way they did it was to introduce the characters in their own films. Iron Man, the Hulk, Nick Fury, Captain America, Thor, and Black Widow all had major roles in the five films released prior to 2012's big team up. The only major character not to get a substantial pre-introduction was Hawkeye (who had a shadowy nameless cameo in Thor), though he didn't actually get one until Age of Ultron three years later.
People could walk into a screening of The Avengers knowing exactly who all the major characters were, and even those who hadn't see any other Marvel movies could go home and watch three more great films, one average one, and Iron Man 2. The MCU’s heroes have also been widely praised, despite any differences to the source material, no doubt due to the right mix of casting and scripting to produce characters that people enjoy watching on the big screen.
That's where the difference is. The Avengers was the sum of its parts, and built upon a series of films that were reasonably popular, well received, and faithful representations of the characters. The DCEU's foundations came from Man of Steel which was anything but. It wasn't a bad film, but it was an attempt to create a Superman film in the vein of The Dark Knight trilogy - which is the complete opposite of what Superman is supposed to be.
The film was criticised for its portrayal of Superman as a moody and seemingly tortured by his immense powers - hiding from the world rather than being the beacon of hope that Superman was always meant to be. Then were the issues with Superman killing Zod and the less-than-subtle Jesus metaphors scattered throughout the film.
By all accounts Man of Steel wasn't meant to kickstart a shared universe, with DC flat out denying it prior to release. Then Man of Steel did moderately well, and after the incredible success of The Avengers the idea of a 'shared universe' starting gaining popularity in the Hollywood film studios. Clearly this clicked with DC, who announced the launching platform that was Batman v Superman at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con.
The DCEU started on a fairly low note, from a tonal perspective. A tone that continued into BvS with the continuing miserable adventures of Super-emo, plus a Batman who can't stop murdering people and shooting guns. If anyone's read Batman comics, they'll know that this is a complete betrayal of everything Batman represents.
It was probably a big shock that BvS underperformed the way it did, and criticism of the dour tone is often blamed for the way the Warner Bros treated Suicide Squad in the aftermath. Reports say that they tried to change the tone of the film with reshoots, in attempt to make it more 'fun'.
Wonder Woman was a big success, seemingly putting DC back on track to producing a solid film adaptation of its properties. At the moment it’s clear that the film was an anomaly, with almost universal praise. The right attitude towards making it clearly helped, and it showed that DC can do things right when given half a chance - and a director who fully understands the characters they’re bringing to life.
Now That the Film is Here
And then we get to Justice League. A film that definitely suffers because of what came before, particularly since it's a direct sequel to the much-maligned BvS. Unlike The Avengers which worked without having to see everything that came before it, Justice League doesn't work unless you've seen BvS. To understand what's going on you have to see the same film that was filled with plot holes, butchered both Superman and Batman, and, perhaps worst of all, made Superman's death boring. It somehow managed to be more controversial than the original Death of Superman story in the comics, which is saying something.
But Justice League works fairly well. It's fairly concise, lacking any serious plots holes and reasonably fun to watch. While the villain’s motivations still require some guesswork to piece together, I can't say there are any individual points that stood out as being problematic. The characters were treated reasonably well, particularly Superman who's had a hard time of things with Zack Snyder behind the camera. DC and WB could do with not giving the gruff murdering Batman a bunch of jokes, but at least there are other characters to help lighten up the tone.
That's not to say it doesn't have its issues.
There's a problem with the pacing, particularly during the first half, and things don't really pick up until Superman returns from the dead. Batman and the other League members generally just plod around for an hour while Steppenwolf does his thing, collecting motherboxes and kidnapping random people - and given the villains obvious strength and technological prowess he doesn't have much in the way of resistance until the very end of the film.
Character development is another obvious flaw, particularly with Aquaman, though this is most likely down to the studio-mandated two hour runtime. Left to his own devices Zack Snyder would have created a five hour version of the film that intricately filled out the backstories of every new character - but nobody wants to sit in a cramped cinema with a bunch of other people for that long. Especially not when they've been desperate to go to the toilet since 30 minutes in.
Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman have appeared in other films, so they're okay. Cyborg is the main focus of the film due to his relationship with the motherboxes, so both Aquaman and the Flash lose out a bit - the former more than the latter. It's been noted that a lot of scenes related to Atlantis and Aquaman were cut, and Willem Dafoe's Velko is mysteriously absent from the theatrical release. All we get is a brief glimpse at the city during the flashbacks, and a single scene where Aquaman tries to stop Steppenwolf from stealing the motherbox. Couple that with the fact Aquaman turns up to the group meeting quite late, and you have a half formed character that gives Batman dirty looks he mentions talking to fish.
Flash gets more screentime, so he's not as undeveloped as Aquaman, but there’s still a lot that we don’t get to see on screen. We know his mother was murdered and his father was wrongly convicted of the crime, but that's it. We don't know anything about his fledgling hero career, nor do we see any other supporting characters (Kiersey Clemons' cameo as Iris West was cut).
You can attribute these shortcomings to the short run time. Two hours is above average, but it's still not a lot of time to introduce three brand new characters and do them justice (no pun intended). That's an issue of the road taken to get to Justice League rather than Justice League itself.
The one thing that doesn't make any sort of sense is the quality of the effects. They are really rather poor, and not befitting a blockbuster-level film of this magnitude. One with an estimated $300 million budget to boot. Frankly there's no excuse for how bad Henry Cavill's upper lip looks, or why his suit looks as though it's been added into the film by someone like me. Or why Steppenwolf's face seems to be almost completely paralysed, and seems to have built itself a cabin in the uncanny valley.
I can only assume that it was a matter of timing. Warner Bros estimates that Joss Whedon filmed 15-20 per cent of the final cut, though Screenrant's analysis shows that this figure is much lower than the film itself suggests. Snyder's departure was announced back in May before the film's reshoots began, and reports claim they were ran over schedule - which is why Henry Cavill had an unshaveable moustache in the first place.
It Could Have Been a Lot Worse
Justice League is far from perfect. It has its problems, but considering the way the DCEU has been handled up until now it's a small miracle that it isn't a steaming pile of garbage.
DC fell into the same trap that all other Hollywood film studios in the aftermath of the MCU's success, and rushed to try and force its own shared universe onto the big screen. Both DC and Warner Bros expected Batman v Superman to be a roaring success, guaranteeing the future of DC comic adaptations, but it wasn't and they were stuck. They had all the grand plans for what should and could have been a Marvel-rivalling film franchise, but because they rushed into things they ended up as a figurative deer in the headlights.
It feels like it should have stopped, cut its losses, and tried again - much like Universal seems to be doing by putting the 'Dark Universe' reboot on hold following the poor reception to the recent reboot of The Mummy. But the DCEU carried on at full steam, with the studio trying to retroactively fix the issues people had with previous films.
By all accounts Justice League should have been a lot worse than it is. But it’s not. It's a flawed cinematic adaptation of the comic team, but it's far from unwatchable and it doesn't make you sit back and go,"what the fuck was that?!" every 10-15 minutes.
If you’ve yet to see Justice League, I encourage you to see it for yourself. I personally found the film to be funny, engaging, and reasonably well thought out. The characters have good chemistry, even if they are forced together by circumstance, and I would say that it’s definitely on par with some of the movies Marvel has produced over the past decade. Not the really good stuff like The Avengers, Winter Soldier or Civil War, but it’s certainly a lot better than Thor: The Dark World.
It's not the best adaptation we could have, but it's certainly the best version of this particular film given everything that's happened.