Movie review: Great characters can’t quite save ‘Justice League’s’ messy story

This weekend, “Justice League” brought in $96 million at the box office. In most cases, that’s a perfectly respectable number, and one that many films would be envious of. However, for a marquee superhero event film, starring three of the most iconic superheroes of all time — Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman — that number is far less than “super.” Marvel’s own team-up film, “The Avengers,” brought in $207 million its opening weekend in 2012, and “Thor: Ragnarok” just pulled in $122 million a couple weeks ago — an impressive number for a superhero solo film three-quel. Even “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” last year had a $166 million opening weekend.

Right or wrong, poor reviews and some negative audience sentiment after “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad” resulted in much less hype than an epic team-up like “Justice League” normally would have received. While the characters/casting are a bright spot in “Justice League,” the story is a choppy mess, and not what these iconic superheroes deserved.

The plot for “Justice League” is actually fairly straightforward. After the death of Superman leaves Earth open to invasion, supervillain Steppenwolf arrives to unleash an army of Parademons and remake the planet in his image. Bruce Wayne is trying to put together a league of superheroes to stop him, filling the ranks of this super-team with Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.

The problem with Steppenwolf as a villain is that the movie doesn’t do enough to introduce him to audiences (I had to Google “Steppenwolf” to get more background for this review). He’s not the worst superhero villain, but a few more flashbacks could have done a lot to flesh out this character and make him a more interesting adversary for the Justice League. Or previous DC Cinematic Universe films could have done more to hint about this coming threat. It all just felt a bit rushed and sudden.

And speaking of previous DC films, I know some fans have raised complaints about the abundance of superhero origin films, but I personally really enjoy a good origin story. I want to get to know a superhero as an individual — what motivates them, what powers they have, what makes them unique — before I see them in a team-up. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done an excellent job with this. I cared about the Avengers as individuals before I saw them team up to fight Loki. I think “Justice League” suffers because Warner Bros. tried to rush the team-up and introduce three major superheroes while also giving us an event film. I feel they should have released solo Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg films first. Or at least Aquaman and Cyborg movies, since audiences may be familiar with Flash from the TV show on the CW.

Still, my favorite part of “Justice League” really was the characters. The parts were cast well, which makes it frustrating the actors didn’t have a better script to work with. I’ve been a bit nervous to confess this, but I can’t lie — I was actually entertained by “Batman v. Superman,” and liked it more than “Justice League.” “Batman v. Superman” had some major flaws — choppy editing, a so-so Lex Luthor and a confusing plot. But I actually really loved Ben Affleck as a graying, more world-weary Batman. It was a different take on Batman than what I seen before from the live action films. Maybe it’s just me, but Affleck didn’t seem as engaged in “Justice League,” even though I still liked his character. I’ve heard rumors that Affleck wants out of the franchise, which is a shame because I DO want to see a solo Batman film starring him. I also think it should be given an R-rated treatment similar to “Logan,” but that’s a different topic for another time…

Just like in “Batman v. Superman,” Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman steals the show in “Justice League,” lighting up the screen in every scene she’s in. I also liked her interactions with Affleck’s Batman and wish there had been more of those. Another favorite character was Ezra Miller’s Flash; I appreciated the humor he brought to the film and loved seeing his superpowers in action. Ray Fisher was also good as Cyborg, a broken young man not quite at peace with the technology that gives him his powers and saved his life, yet also makes him feel less human. And Jason Momoa is having a blast as the badass Aquaman. His new look? I dig it. Yet again, I think solo Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman films would have helped general audiences connect with these characters more.

There’s one character I haven’t mentioned yet, because it’s kind of a spoiler but also not really, since you can’t really have a Justice League without you-know-who. (Yet still, spoiler warning!) Superman (Henry Cavill) does come back to life, and it’s awesome to see his full powers on display. It’s also good to see him smiling more, and having some fun interactions with the other heroes.

Yet again, it’s frustrating that the story doesn’t do these great characters justice. Some of that may be due to the fact the film is a mash-up of the vision of two very different directors. Joss Whedon took over for Zack Snyder after he left due to a family tragedy. Although Whedon worked his magic in “The Avengers,” the final “Justice League” film is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster — it can’t quite reconcile the darker, more brooding Snyder tone with Whedon’s lighter bits (still, Aquaman sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth was a hilarious highlight of the movie). The final film feels patched together instead of a seamless viewing experience.

Some other complaints I had were portions of dodgy CGI (I won’t get into Henry Cavill’s CGI mustache removal controversy, but it’s entertaining if you want to Google it).

In short, I feel that while “Justice League” is a mess story-wise, I hope this is finally the moment where Warner Bros. will stop and do some soul-searching. Trying to make “Justice League” lighter in tone and with a heightened sense of hope (closer to the tone of this year’s excellent “Wonder Woman”) was a good first step, even though they tried to fix it too late in the process. There’s still plenty of great DC material to mine, but they need to slow way down and develop a more cohesive vision. These characters deserve better.

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