In 1978, with the release of Superman: The Movie, we were told “you’ll believe a man can fly”, and we were convinced. Forty years on, and with their latest blockbuster Justice League, DC Studios are appearing to find that saving the world is not as easy as it used to be, with their superhero cinematic universe still not quite getting off the ground.
For a time in the Eighties, Batman and Superman’s cinematic antics outdid their Marvel counterparts, with Spiderman and The Hulk very much stuck on the small screen. But for the last ten years, Marvel have – with the occasional quality dip – built an increasingly popular universe of films, surpassing DC’s past successes, with no sign of stopping. DC, meanwhile, are struggling.
After Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, Justice League is the fifth movie in for DC, and whilst Marvel’s The Avengers brought their heroes together after the same number, they spent time in the run-up telling solo tales, allowing the public to get to know Iron Man, Thor, Captain America et al before they assembled. DC, by comparison, rushed into superhero team-ups and clashes before the audience had the chance to get to know anyone.
Following on from the grim and violent ending of Batman V Superman, director Zack Snyder returns with assembled heroes taking on an Earth-battering invasion. The similarity to The Avengers isn’t helped with that movie’s director Joss Whedon being called in late in the production schedule to help lighten the tone. However, on the whole, the movie works, only the lacklustre villain – the forgettable Steppenwolf – being a stumbling block, but Marvel have been guilty of that at least twice.
Humour in genre movies is very much in vogue at present – even the previously dour Star Wars universe not being immune; The Last Jedi’s more dramatic moments being unhinged by a need to end each scene with a punchline – but it works here, with Joss Whedon’s honed craft of adding clever quips to the existing script balancing out the darkness and sombre nature of Zack Snyder’s approach to taking comic book heroes into the real world.
Performance wise, everyone excels, from Ezra Miller’s earnest and fun Flash finally freed from just making slight cameo appearances, to Cyborg played with confident brooding and wit by Ray Fisher. Meanwhile, Aquaman – recently seen as a catchphrase-spouting outrageous friend of fish in 2008-11 cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold – sees Jason Momoa use both his physicality and gruff demeanour to reboot what could have been a very wet role. Batman and Wonder Woman are much as we found them in BvS, with witty chemistry between the performers, while Jeremy Irons continues as a sarcastic and knowing Alfred, a welcome re-working of Bruce Wayne’s loyal batman who brings the Dark Knight Detective back to Earth with clever put downs.
As is likely expected, the film is a fast-moving comic book tale; at times we aren’t given time to breathe. Brief scenes of the leads relaxing or re-planning help a bit, but in an ideal world there would be more of those.
One of the highlights was a scene where the league – spoilers! – fight one of their own. Suddenly, amid the wit and spectacle, a fight with an emotional hook recharges the narrative in a much better way than the overlong brutality of Batman V Superman’s showdown. The Amazonian Warriors taking on Steppenwolf as he fights them for possession of the Mother Box is another great sequence, reminiscent of one of the excellent Rogue One’s last minute additions, where the rebels flee with the Death Star plans from a manic Darth Vader.
But it’s not all great. Although the visuals throughout are entertaining, there’s nothing spectacular about them, and at times the movie looks distractingly cheap, approaching TV Movie standard.
For some, the Light and shade difference between Whedon and Snyder doesn’t match up. But, for me, it sets Justice League it apart from the previous DC movies that were missing humanity, with only Wonder Woman managing to balance the emotional core.
The problem DC will always have going forward is that their better known heroes have already been very strongly established by other decades; audiences expect Batman to either be camp like Adam West, or a brooding shadowy figure, like those delivered by both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. Personally, I’d like to see the DC franchise continue down its current path, with a mix of characters at its helm, rather than hero-haunted-by-tragedy being the hub of each instalment.
Justice League is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.