So, the first reviews are in and…yeah, the critics don’t like Justice League. Our review’s not due till Friday but could this be more of a blockbuster ‘for the fans’? It’s been a bumpy ride getting here so let’s weigh up the facts.
Justice League is the would-be apex of the DC Extended Universe –the Avengers Assemble to Marvel’s Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor kickstarters. The film unites Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Henry Cavill’s Superman (who died in the last outing), with newbies: Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg, played by Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa and Ray Fisher respectively, to form the titular world-saving gang. The film will see the League, who first appeared in comic book form back in 1960, come up against Ciarán Hinds’ Steppenwolf and his alien army of Parademons, who are scavenging the Earth for three all-powerful Mother Boxes. If this sounds a lot like the ‘Infinity Stone’ plotting arc of the Marvel Universe, that’s because there’s not so much in it. There’s nothing like a McGuffin for getting a blockbuster going.
Unlike their counterparts over at Avenging HQ, DC’s heroes haven’t exactly had the smoothest ride in building a franchise. Though performing very well at the box office, the run’s first three films were a critical hodgepodge. First up, Man of Steel launched reasonably, but was ruined by an unrelentingly dull climax. Then came Batman v Superman, a romp that’s fun moments did little to distract from just how awfully the film dragged at nearly three hours; before Suicide Squad came, went and stank. Some enjoyed it but some like the bounty in a tub of Celebrations – and they’re just as wrong.
Yet, earlier this year, and against all the odds, a twist in fortune was delivered by Patty Jenkins’ wholly enjoyable Wonder Woman. Now the highest grossing superhero origins film of all time (unadjusted for inflation), Wonder Woman marked the first in the set to both smash the box office and receive critical acclaim. In hindsight, Gadot’s appearance as Diana in Batman v Superman being far and away the highlight of that film, it perhaps wasn’t quite so surprising that her standalone project should prove so entertaining. Injecting fun into series, Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air. Sure, it stuck a tad too rigidly to the super-cine-formula but with humour and heart the film managed to exist both on its own terms and within the franchise as a whole, whilst being one that general audiences could actually bare to view more than once. Of course, it was also the first – and, until 2019, only – recent superhero film to place a woman front and centre. Not since 2005’s Electra had a woman been allowed to singlehandedly save the world – providing she wears substantially less clothing than the men.
Pre-Wonder Woman, to suggest that Justice League might be anything less than dire was a bold claim; but what about post? Not only have DC proved themselves capable of producing the goods, they’ve also, inexplicably, managed to resurrect expectations in a way that would make Lazarus proud.
In the favour of Justice League is the positive fan response that the new characters have so far received in the brief glimpses that trailers and promos have offered. One of the main issues with both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman was the fact that their protagonists were so decidedly gloomy. I mean, why so serious? Thankfully, whilst we already know Diana can raise a smile, trailers promise a cheeky-geeky Flash and uber-cool Aquaman, who is, after all, played by Game of Thrones’ Khal Drogo. Heck, even sourpuss himself at it with the Bat-gags. ‘What’s your superpower again?’ Asks Ezra’s Barry Allen, ‘I’m rich’ quips Wayne.
Admittedly, less positive, would be the video-game quality of the computer generated special effects on display in the trailers. One thing cracked by the producers of the latest Star Wars blockbusters is their focus on opting for real effects, rather than digital, wherever possible. Aside from being less distracting in general, it’s a move that grants said franchise an earthiness that still feels lacking here. It’s hard enough to stick with the plot as each film descends to the inevitably chaotic crash bang wallop of a conclusion as it is, without being totally taken out of the moment by the clear artificiality.
That said, against my better judgement, I remain faintly optimistic about Justice League. Tiresome as cinematic universes have now become (Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ appears to have collapsed – phew), there’s nothing wrong with a good popcorn action romp. We will just have to wait and see.
Justice League is out on Friday