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Justice League review: the demons flee, and so should you
Monday, November 27, 2017, 13:18 (IST)
'We're not angry with you. We're just disappointed.' Remember those stinging words that your parents would use when you'd fallen spectacularly short of their expectations? I heard them after stealing £2 from my mum's purse to buy Italia '90 World Cup stickers. The entire team responsible for the ugly mess that is Justice League will hear them from movie-goers all over the world now. It's not that expectations were high after a string of so-so releases thus far in the DC Cinematic Universe (DCU), but superhero fans had hoped that a collision of some of their favourite characters would somehow result in an entertaining romp that would rival Marvel's Avengers movies. It doesn't.
There is no more crowded marketplace in cinema today that the superhero genre. Marvel are at 17 and counting (the latest being the spectacularly brilliant Thor: Ragnarok) in their cinematic universe, and that's not even including the regular appearance of X-Men movies, while this marks the fifth entry in the expanding DCU. If you're going to release a film of this nature, you can't simply trot out a generic goodies vs baddies adventure and expect it to find universal acclaim. Superhero films either need to be innovative, finding a new angle on the genre, or be so well-written and brilliantly told that you can't help to be drawn in. Justice League ticks neither of these boxes.
Instead, it commits a long list of cinematic sins. The story, about Batman (Ben Affleck) drawing together a team to fight a really bad baddie, is limp and predictable. There's a sense of inevitably at each plot point, as each member of the so-called Justice League first rejects, then joins the Caped Crusader. The bad guy – Ciaran Hinds' entirely one-dimensional Steppenwolf – has a couple of obstacles to overcome on his way to unleashing hell on earth, but there never seems to be any doubt that he'll succeed. He has an army of demonic bugs at his disposal which look quite menacing, but are never a believable threat to heroes with superhuman abilities.
The script is leaden, earnest, and far too expositional. While the DC movies are intentionally darker than their Marvel counterparts, there's still a place for wit and deftness of touch, but here the characters just seem to explain the plot to each other for our benefit. Those characters don't really develop much – new hero Cyborg gains the courage to leave his apartment, and the frankly rubbish Aquaman (whose role mainly consists of standing around with his top off) decides to stop drinking for a bit in order to join the team. But no-one really grows, or learns anything, or changes for the better. Nobody in the film is on any sort of emotional journey, and so it's hard for us to do any more than gawp at the occasional moments of spectacle. And they really are occasional, given the criminally poor CGI and a final battle that feels like we've seen it four or five times before.
The only really interesting thread to the movie is the role of Superman (Henry Cavill), killed at the end of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, and still very much dead for much of this film. Forgive me if you've not worked this out already, but there is of course a resurrection – and when Superman does come back it's immediately clear that Steppenwolf's days are numbered. That's the problem with Superman of course: he's just too powerful. At least this does create quite a good theological metaphor though.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Batman is a kind of Paul the Apostle, rallying this church of lesser superstars to fight on in the name of their great fallen hero. The forces of darkness rise, but do not overcome them, and all the while there are rumours and hopes that their fallen messiah might return. When he does, in a moment that's part-resurrection, part-second coming, he fulfils the mission that they have been carrying on in his absence. Superman's alien abilities have always made him something of a Christ figure in film – including the Christopher Reeves classics – and he perhaps most clearly plays that role here. The demons literally flee at his return – and while there's at least a stalemate when only his proxies are fighting the good fight, there's no doubt about who will earn the final victory.
Perhaps the most disappointing element of the film is the under-use of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Her stand-alone movie is by far the brightest light in the DCU so far, but here she's a sidekick, reduced to fighting secondary battles and supplying wisecracks. At one especially poor moment, Aquaman even refers to her as 'hot', despite that fact that no-one mentions his or Henry Cavill's impressive torsos. It's as if all the good work of Wonder Woman is undone in an instant; DC should be doing better than this – but after Justice League you're left wondering if they really can.
Yes, I'm a bit grumpy, but only because Justice League had the potential to be so much more than this. This many great heroes on screen together should have made for an epic adventure; instead it's a string of unexciting things that we don't care about. The tragically-enforced change of director halfway though (Zack Snyder was replaced by Joss Whedon after the death of the former's daughter) may have something to do with it, but the predictable story wasn't good enough in the first place. If DC keep going, they have to do better than this with subsequent movies, and if they don't, then on this showing there will be few fans praying for resurrection.