Like most superhero adaptations of the modern movie era, Justice League features an all-powerful villain looking to take over the world with the help of a CGI-rendered army, and a group of heroes willing to fight him to stop it.
But unlike the dour, dark DC films before it—Wonder Woman being the obvious exception—Justice League is fun, colorful, and lean, taking audiences on a two-hour ride with some of the most iconic characters in comic book history.
DC movies have taken a lot of hits from both fans and critics in recent years. Wonder Woman marked a major step up, and while Justice League isn’t on that level, it proves that DC heard the criticism and is course-correcting. Following the muted hero-on-hero broodfest of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this film flips the script and lays groundwork for DC to make its expanding movie universe one that fans should be excited for.
Justice League picks up basically where Batman v. Superman left off: Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead—more on that later—plunging the world into mourning and chaos, giving an opening for the dastardly Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) and his army of Parademons to reclaim the earth and basically annihilate mankind. ("Basically annihilate mankind" seems like table stakes for the average superhero team-up movie these days, but here we are.)
'Justice League' is at its most enjoyable when the movie gets out of its own way and lets the players do their thing.
When the movie opens, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who has discovered a rekindled hope for humanity after Superman’s death, gets a hint of Steppenwolf's plan when he leverages a random criminal (Mindhunter star and scene-stealer Holt McCallany) to lure a Parademon to Gotham City. When he tries to capture it, it blows itself up, leaving behind a mysterious symbol of three squares, which we learn are called Motherboxes—all-powerful items that are targeted by Steppenwolf. With some investigative help from trusted butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the heroes find that Steppenwolf is amassing power, and that they need some serious help in the fight.
Thus begins the jauntiest section of Justice League: summoning the heroes. Batman and Wonder Woman—seriously, can Gadot be in everything?—recruit swashbuckling Atlantean warrior Aquaman/Arthur Curry (a super-jacked Jason Momoa), socially awkward but superhumanly fast The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), and the marginally human Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher, also super-jacked, even if you can't see it) to help fight back. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that another hero joins the fight about halfway through the movie, and that sequence of his return is one of the best parts of the film—here, the hero-on-hero fighting is actually fun—but for the bulk of the film, it’s on the shoulders of these five heroes, and the cast completely delivers.
For all its faults—and there are plenty, including Steppenwolf's blandness, an incoherent final battle scene, and distracting CGI on a certain hero [a SPOILER-LADEN explainer here]—what Justice League does well, it does really well. The production drama surrounding the film has been well-documented. Director Zack Snyder had to step away to deal with a family issue, leaving Joss Whedon to take over for reshoots, creating the potential for a disaster. Justice League is certainly not that, even with the plot and script issues that plague it.
It's no surprise, then, that Justice League is at its most enjoyable when the movie gets out of its own way and lets the players do their thing. Gadot is pitch-perfect in her second stint as Wonder Woman this year, and has us wondering why she can't just be in everything. Momoa is clearly having the time of his life playing the bad boy of the group, zinging Batman for “dressing up like a bat”. Miller provides levity and comic relief, and gives Allen a relatability in which the audience can invest. Cyborg is the least-developed character, and while he’s mostly a big, shiny blob of CGI, Fisher does a fine job playing Victor Stone as he wrestles with the idea that he’s not really human anymore. (Fisher can’t help but smirk when Cyborg gets an opportunity to deliver his comic-book catchphrase “boo ya” late in the film.)
The heroes' banter isn't the only major highlight. Justice League's color palette is far brighter than its predecessors'. An early flashback scene, in which ancient Amazonians, Atlanteans, and the tribes of men unite against Steppenwolf's first Earth-conquering foray, is a standout action sequence as good as anything in theaters this year. (There’s another group that joins the fight—a “corps” of soldiers, if you will, so not to reveal anything too spoilery—that adds a fun Easter egg.)
Another charming addition: Danny Elfman's score. The Hollywood veteran deftly layers in familiar sonic snippets—we hear the classic '89 Batman theme and John Williams’ landmark fanfare for 1978's Superman—giving the otherwise CGI-heavy action scenes an extra layer of emotional heft.
The supporting cast is also a fine complement to all the supeheroics. J.K. Simmons makes an impression as Commissioner Jim Gordon, masterfully implying a years-long relationship with Batman despite precious few scenes, while Amber Heard’s Mera teases at some royal Atlantean drama when Momoa’s Aquaman stops by for a visit. It's a shame we don't get more of them, but Justice League already feels a bit overstuffed as it is.
While Justice League certainly isn’t a complete success, it accomplishes what it set out to do: It continues the DC film universe without breaking it; establishes these heroes as a functioning team; creates strong—and funny—relationships between the characters to build upon; and gives fans many reasons to be excited about the future films in this universe, especially Wonder Woman 2 and Aquaman. (The film has two credits sequences, one that’s pure fanboy fun and another that sets up the Justice League sequel in a fantastic way. But we won’t spoil that here.)
It took decades for the Justice League to unite on screen, and now that it finally happened, it’ll be exciting to see where the team heads next.