Wherever they may be, I like to think James Whale and Mary Shelley are having a chuckle and enjoying the brouhaha surrounding “Justice League”, the latest entry in the self-beleaguered DCEU. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie; assembled from an assortment of different parts and bolted together in the hope that it will come alive. Like Mary Shelley’s fearsome creation, it’s as equally capable of grotesque and terrible acts as it is of delivering inspiration and moments of greatness and humanity. And like James Whale’s 1930s masterpiece, it’s great fun too.
Inspired by Superman’s sacrifice and troubled by the mysterious appearances of flying demons around the world, Batman (Ben Affleck) sets out to gather allies in a fight he believes is coming. But Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) knows the attack has already begun and their new recruits of The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) may not be enough to stop the onslaught of Steppenwolf.
The key to enjoying “Justice League”, warts and all, is whether you can swallow the breathtakingly shameless retconning of the character of Superman (Henry Cavill) within the DCEU. Provided you don’t choke on that, there’s enough here to sate your superhero appetite. It’s not fine cinematic dining, to be sure, but I ended up having a pretty happy meal.
The ingredients aren’t blended too well, which given the well-documented production problems is hardly surprising. Zack Snyder’s trademark nihilistic misanthropy sits awkwardly alongside a notably lighter tone and while some of this is attributable to Joss Whedon’s script polish and directorial reshoots, there’s evidence that Snyder himself was attempting to reposition the characters, albeit in his own inimitably bleak and cynical way. Indeed, many of Whedon’s more obvious insertions feel forced and lame, not helped by the terrible job that’s been done digitally removing Cavill’s moustache. His Superman performance is – one scene excepted – so different in this film that the effects work plunges his entire face into the uncanny valley. It’s as if Superman had never smiled before and only learned how to do it, without the benefit of a mirror, by watching other people. The moustache removal is indicative of the general quality of visual effects in the movie, a disappointingly uneven step down from previous entries but on a par with some of the less polished sequences of “Wonder Woman”.
As in “Man Of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice”, Superman presents the biggest issue for “Justice League”. His reintroduction, some half-way through the film, has you thinking you’re still watching the worst parts of “Dawn Of Justice” and destabilises the work that’s been done before setting up a slightly quippier, lighter tone. Flashbacks, including a toe-curlingly awkward smartphone ‘found footage’ opener do little to rehabilitate this Superman but the other members of the league provide more fertile ground for the shoots of something different to sprout.
Ezra Miller’s Flash is a standout and he enjoys a fun chemistry with Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who is much more fun than his mopey and dour trailer appearances would suggest), increasing my interest in both their potential solo outings. Aquaman is a bit of a mixed bag, with his characterisation one of the most uneven and inconsistent of the movie and there’s little here that really combats any of the mockery the character has suffered in the past save Momoa’s own personal charisma and physique. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman doesn’t really shift the needle from her own movie but at least holds the line but Ben Affleck’s Batman is an altogether more interesting prospect. The character seems weary and reluctant, driven by a sense of duty but lacking any real enthusiasm for his task. It’s an interesting perspective on Batman and Affleck plays it well. The real mystery, though, is whether art is imitating life or vice versa. The squabbling banter doesn’t sit well with this team, at least not yet and like in the case of Superman, the movie seems to hope we’ll just forget much of what we’ve seen these characters do in past movies and just enjoy the moment.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around three Mother Box McGuffins (which perform multiple handwaving McGuffin duties to keep the thin plot from just falling apart) and the villain is an anonymous, atrociously rendered CGI creation who wields an axe which can apparently slice through stone like butter but leaves his opponents conspicuously uncleaved. There’s an interesting subtext to the movie in that the death of hope in the world and the corrosion of social cohesion and justice is ascribed to the death of Superman, an allegorical equivalent for the rise of Trump in the real world. In both cases, the toxic influence traces its roots to Russia: parademons in the film, manipulation and fake news in ours. It’s a metatextual reading that’s unlikely to sit comfortably with the film’s original director, noted Ayn Rand admirer Zack Snyder and it may be Whedon’s most obvious middle finger to the tiny, poisonous but extremely vocal DCEU fan faction. It’s a sad artefact of the clunky and clumsy opening introductory sequences that the film provides some far more interesting potential plots only to discard them in favour of some cosmic mumbo-jumbo that links the film to relatively obscure comic book lore (at least from the general audience’s point of view). In her first scenes, Wonder Woman deals with some fundamentalist terrorists who seem to be somewhat –ahem – anti-life, and we never really get to know what happens to them. They would have made an interesting initial foe for the League to assemble to defend against, with an Apokalyptic threat perhaps growing in the background, ready for the sequel. But such an approach would require patience; patience and confidence, two commodities the DCEU seems to have exhausted recently.
But from all of these hastily assembled and disparate body parts, Warner Brothers have created a cinematic monster that does just enough to give the impression of life. The characters are actually fun and there are even some truly wonderful moments between Superman and Cyborg and between The Flash and, well, everyone. I came out of the film feeling entertained, upbeat and – thanks in part to two well-judged and intriguing credits stingers, actually excited about the future DCEU slate. I hope – against hope, thanks to the lukewarm box office reception – that Warner Brothers screw their courage to the sticking place and go forward with this current team (yes, Affleck included) because a “Justice League 2”, free of Snyder and helmed by a single director (not Whedon) – could be the spectacular DC superhero epic we’ve been waiting and hoping for. It may have bungled the resurrection of Superman, but “Justice League” managed to resurrect my interest in the DCEU.