by Tyler Jennes
2017 has been nothing short of a juggernaut for superhero films. From serious and contemplative works like Logan to animated kids films like The LEGO Batman Movie to competent and genuinely funny Marvel Studios sequels for both the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor, 2017 has had everything you can think of. But, if there’s one true breath of fresh air to be found this year, it’s the triumphant return of the DC Extended Universe. We’ve had the much-lauded solo film debut of Wonder Woman in June and just recently, we got the long-awaited cinematic team-up of the heavy hitters of DC Comics in Justice League. What these two films have done is renewed the fans’ sense of hope for the future of the franchise after a slew of releases ranged from mediocre to awful hit the silver screen.
Going into this film, I had just about the most neutral expectations one could have. I’ve been burned more than once by DC films, but Wonder Woman had helped to instill some solace. In addition, the contribution to the film by co-writer and Avengers helmer Joss Whedon had added a bit more appeal. So, while I wasn’t expecting to be at all wowed by Justice League, I was not devoid of all hope. It gives me great pleasure to say that this is an incredibly fun film to watch. Not only has it vastly improved on Batman as a character and solidified Wonder Woman as an utter force of nature, but it introduced more than a few characters that show a great amount of potential.
This film was our first real chance to see Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash on the big screen, and not a single one of them ever seemed to drag the film down. Ray Fisher as Cyborg in particular delivered a surprisingly good performance as a hero who sees his abilities as little more than a curse. Aquaman, even with the talking-to-fish jokes, was played with gusto by Jason Momoa, and has made his upcoming solo film that much more promising. Ezra Miller’s Flash is by a wide margin the biggest source of comic relief in the film, which serves as both a positive and a negative. While most of his scenes are fun to watch, there were a couple in which his ‘wily antics’ were a little gratuitous.
Going back to Batman’s development, it’s refreshing to see Ben Affleck have a visible amount of fun playing the Caped Crusader. A common complaint for Batman v Superman was that, while Affleck’s performance was decent, the writing for the character was soulless and overly dour. Thankfully, the same is not true here, as Batman is more relaxed, providing some of the film’s best moments of dry humor. It also helps that the only ‘murders’ he committed this time around are alien creatures rather than actual people. The film also gave us this franchise’s first, albeit brief, on-screen interaction between Batman and J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon.
It probably won’t be that surprising to anyone that Superman doesn’t stay dead for too long in this film. Almost immediately after his resurrection, a battle ensues between the League and a discombobulated Superman. While the concept of superheroes fighting each other is a tired one, this managed to stay engaging all the way through. It is the first major display of all the team members’ abilities and provides viewers with a fair amount of satisfying moments. It’s not until much later that the audience got to see the fully-recovered Man of Steel, and it’s those scenes that provided some of Henry Cavill’s best moments in the franchise. There’s still ways to go before Cavill’s Superman is fully ironed out, but, , if this film is any indicator, we’re on a good path for what his role holds to come. One only hopes that next time around, there won’t be any need to digitally remove the actor’s facial hair.
One of the film’s strengths was the score, made by composer Danny Elfman. This is by no means Elfman’s first time working with superheroes, with his Batman score remaining one of the most memorable of all time. This is one of the more fanservice-filled scores in recent memory, as there are refrains taken not only from his 1989 Batman movie, but from other composer’s scores, like Hans Zimmer’s from Man of Steel and, of course, John Williams’ from the 1978 Superman. While this would not have worked for most other types of films, it somehow doesn’t feel out of place here. Maybe it’s the fact that the film owes itself to so many of the previous DC works, both good and bad. This score only serves to remind the audience of the vast influence that Elfman has had, not just on superhero films, but on the entire medium.
Now, what I’m sure other critics will harp on is the narrative itself. Justice League is the shortest film in the franchise so far, clocking in at just under two hours. This studio-mandated decision served as a double-edged sword. While this runtime helped the film from dragging, there were times where I couldn’t help but think that an important scene or two had been sacrificed to fulfill the mandate. What this also means was that even less time was provided to develop one of the film’s weakest links, the villain. Steppenwolf, poorly CGI-ed and voiced by Ciarán Hinds, never manages to rise above the status of ‘maniacal and all-powerful antagonist that the heroes must band together to vanquish’. The one silver lining is that his motivation opens up few potentially interesting doors for the future of the franchise.
Unlike many of the other recent DC films, Justice League has created a legitimate amount of anticipation for future installments. The wonderfully-done post-credits scene alone left my mind racing to speculate on how the upcoming films would build upon it. It’s my hope that this newfound jolt of life for the DCEU doesn’t fade anytime soon. With Aquaman debuting next winter and Shazam! arriving soon after, it will hopefully give directors not named Zack Snyder a chance to play in the vast sandbox that is the DC universe.