#5 in my ranking of the DCEU franchise.
The biggest mistake Warner Brothers seems to have made about their big team up picture isn’t that they forced it too early, it’s that they forced it to be two hours long. I have to imagine that part of the reason Zack Snyder left the project in the middle of post-production was that Warner Brothers was demanding a two-hour film and he knew he couldn’t tell the story he had made well in less than three hours. After the loss of his daughter to suicide, he probably wasn’t up for that kind of fight and simply tossed in the towel, allowing Warner Brothers to bring in Joss Whedon who ended up retooling the movie to such a degree that it feels like a lesser cousin to his own The Avengers rather than the next movie in the DCEU.
The movie has six main characters, only three of whom have any previous screentime more than a couple of minutes in the franchise up to that point. Superman had two movies. Batman and Wonder Woman each had one. But Cyborg, the Flash, and Aquaman had nothing other than brief cameos in Batman V Superman, so the movie needed to really focus on these three, giving them time to grow within the film itself to help them carry their weight. The problem with the two hour runtime is that so much needs to be dedicated to the bringing together of this new group, setting up the plot, setting, and overall conflict, that there’s very little time left for character building. According to Zack Snyder, Cyborg was the emotional heart of the film, and that seems like the right place. He’s the most “outside” of the group, dealing with his own problems of belonging because of his unnatural existence built from one of the Motherboxes hidden on Earth for thousands of years. Whedon seems to have moved the focus to the Flash, though, because Ezra Miller is quippy in a way that fits well with the way Whedon writes dialogue, but the Flash himself isn’t that interesting as he is in the final cut.
So, Superman is dead and Batman has a bad feeling that bad stuff’s coming. He needs a team of super people, so he tracks down the three other people listed in the hard drive he stole from Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman. The first fifty minutes or so of this movie feels like it could be arranged in almost any order as it’s all made up of the kind of set up scenes that don’t really need direct connection to the events immediately proceeding and succeeding it to make sense. It’s fine to have for a time, but when almost the first half of the film is built this way, that ends up making a rather tiring first half to sit through. Anyway, Batman tracks down Aquaman, gets rejected, the Flash who quickly accepts because he needs friends, and Diana tracks down Cyborg who seems willing to help but not join.
The villain of the film, Steppenwolf, shows up in Themyscira and absolutely wrecks the greatest warriors on Earth, the Amazons (the second such beating they’ve gotten in this series) before stealing one of the three Motherboxes on Earth. The other two were hidden by the Atlantians under the ocean and by man, which man had rediscovered and used on Victor Stone to make him Cyborg after a near fatal car crash in a desperate move by his father who had access to it. Steppenwolf gets the second box from Atlantis just as Aquaman is swimming by which allows for a dull information dump about who Aquaman is and how he’s important in the middle of a movie with an actual plot to get to. This somehow convinces him to get involved (really, this movie needed another hour at least of storytelling). Steppenwolf then follows a set of clues to Victor’s father in his effort to find the third of the boxes, which leads to the first team up of the five living members of the nascent Justice League that leaves them with little to show for it.
In the face of such an imposing threat, they decide to use the last of the three Motherboxes on Superman’s corpse to try and revive him, which obviously works, leading to the single best sequence in the film (and, it seems, the only Superman scene preserved from Snyder’s original cut without major reshoots from Whedon). Superman doesn’t know who he is, and he’s angry, especially when he sees Batman, his burgeoning memories pointing to him as an enemy. The five against Superman is a good little action sequence where the highlight is the Flash realizing that Superman is as fast as he is. It’s quality stuff.
And it’s over too soon, but the movie suddenly does have a direction after Steppenwolf steals the last of the Motherboxes. He goes to an abandoned nuclear power plant in Russia where he will combine the three into one, a process that will ignite a terraforming process and turn Earth into a facsimile of Steppenwolf’s planet. Sound familiar? So, the five go to Russia with an objective to stop Steppenwolf, get Cyborg to the Motherboxes so he can separate them (further evidence that he should have been the central character in this ensemble piece), and defeat Steppenwolf once and for all.
The big action scene is big and well done (considering the size and scale, it’s probably also primarily Snyder’s work) with a Russian family thrown in to give the heroes a moment where they save people, most likely in direct reaction to people’s thoughts on the first two Superman movies in the DCEU where the little people were largely forgotten. It’s big and destructive and look good, so there’s that, but it’s ultimately kind of unengaging because the character work is so incredibly thin, all because a story that should never have been squeezed into two hours got squeezed into two hours.
There are also tonal things with the movie. Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder are not similar directors. Snyder is kind of ponderous and self-importantly bombastic while Whedon is light and comic. Whedon as a choice to replace Snyder was an obvious attempt by Warner Brothers to distance the franchise from the stepping stones that Snyder had established. The break in tone would be less of an issue if Whedon had made Justice League from the beginning, but the material isn’t really built to support non-stop quips from the characters. A lot of the fun dialogue (which I do find fun, by the way) seems to break from scenes to have a quip rather than be a rational extension of the scene in any way. It’s a weird, Frankenstein’s monster of a film that way.
I was prepared for Snyder’s cut to be a superior film, mostly because I expected the expanded four hour runtime will be used to fill in the character holes created by whittling the film down so much. I don’t really expect it to be a masterpiece, but for the new cut to be in line with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, ie, big, earnest, ambitious, and flawed. Whedon’s cynicism doesn’t really seem to fit in this universe.
Still, the movie has its charms. Its second half works pretty basically after the flagging first half. It looks good, and there are winning performances all around. It’s mildly entertaining, but nothing exactly special.
*see my review of Zack Snyder’s cut here.