In a post-Rotten Tomatoes world, we tend to define most of our media consumption in stark pass/fail terms. “Justice League” is one of those curious movies that plows so hard and fast into dead center, it defies binaries: Was it good? No. Was it bad? Well, no. And somehow, yes to both. Albeit aggressively average and safe, Zack Snyder’s latest effort is simply too inoffensive for me to hate. So I guess this is, technically, a positive review.
That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but I do feel Snyder deserves a modicum of credit here. “Justice League” is his best DC movie by default, in large part thanks to the addition (finally) of a few key ingredients: colors, levity, and a dash of that good ol’ fashioned superhero optimism. Amazing how steeping your characters in total darkness isn’t actually what people want, huh? Only problem is, we had to drag the light out of Snyder et al with such force, it feels almost begrudgingly given. The amp for color, levity, and optimism has been turned up to 11, almost sarcastically so. But the effort to improve is there, and “Justice League” is definitely an improvement over the rest of Snyder’s messy, tonally haywire trilogy – not by much, but an improvement nonetheless.
This is a movie brimming with such half-victories. Everything is almost there, but nothing comes to satisfying fruition. I was often more excited by where I thought it was going than by where we ended up. Superman’s death, for instance, has to be one of the most spectacularly botched lay-up’s in modern cinematic history. Just think about it for a second: the death of your savior character (who is also a pop culture icon) coincides perfectly with prevailing feelings of conflict and discord in the real world. If only there was some universally recognized, unifying force to save us all! What a brilliant set up. What an incredible opportunity for transcendent story-telling that utilizes the audience’s innate knowledge of a character to say something about us and why we need heroes. Or do we need heroes at all? I don’t know, the movie didn’t ask. Whatever point it wanted to make is lost in the rapid-fire lexicon of deep lore nonsense.
Superman’s lackluster handling is but one drop in a seemingly endless ocean of missed opportunities. Make no mistake: this is not the Justice League movie any of us hoped for or deserved. This is not that rare Hollywood homerun that awakens your inner youngster and makes you believe a man can fly. This is just some action flick with those guys in pajamas you know. But it’s also watchable – dare I say, even enjoyable at times – if for no other reason than because these are familiar icons finally together onscreen. It’s fun to see Batman and Flash trade quips about their personal expenses or Aquaman catch a gnarly wave with an assist from Cyborg (sorry, ladies: Wonder Woman is given a pitifully small amount to do in this one). There’s a reason these men (and woman) in tights are still around: they’re just good characters. And witnessing the jump from page to screen is exciting to see from a cultural standpoint, if not thrilling to watch as a film.
Unfortunately, almost all the heavy lifting is left to nostalgia. Just play Batman’s classic musical cue (and a certain other theme you may have heard once or twice), and the filmmakers hope we’ll forget the ill will sewn by those last few flicks. “Remember the glory days!” is the mantra of the movie. This is a frustrating approach for two reasons. First, as bad as previous entries were, you can’t simply ignore them. Doing so destroys any sense of continuity and gives a big middle finger to whatever fan base has amassed. And second, falling back on what worked 20+ years ago every time a new approach fails is a horrible model for long-term success. That’s exactly how we end up with cookie-cutter filmmaking that churns out the same half-baked movies every few years (lookin’ at you, “Force Awakens”). Snyder’s vision clearly wasn’t what audiences were looking for, but that doesn’t mean you throw in the towel and never try something new again.
I’m as conflicted over this movie as it is with itself. There are so many cooks in this kitchen, it’s a miracle we got anything resembling a coherent movie at all. I wish I could say the inner conflict wasn’t readily visible, but it really is: “Justice League” has a pretty bad case of schizophrenia. You can’t escape the feeling that the movie is constantly batting down a dark impulse to blow everything up. There’s plenty of lip service about “hope” and the like, but always in the form of an afterthought – a way to fill space between explosions. Joss Whedon’s makeup job, while helpful, just isn’t enough to elevate this one above the realm of “fine.” That may be higher praise than most of Snyder’s filmography receives, but the end result is a confused vision halfway between a sequel and a soft reboot (a “Frankensequel,” if you will). Again, I respect what they were going for, but this is copied homework, no two ways about it.
If you go into “Justice League” expecting something as bad as “Batman v. Superman,” you’ll like it fine. If you adore these characters and just want to see them in live-action, you’ll like it fine. If you do not fall into one of those very specific categories, you will not like it fine. And it’s really that simple. Don’t let anyone tell you this is the worst or best movie they’ve ever seen – it isn’t. “Justice League” is a true “Gentleman’s C,” coasting on the name-recognition of its properties and nothing more. As someone who happens to fall into both of the aforementioned categories, I’d say I’ve seen worse coasting.