The other day, I talked about how what Justice League did and didn't do (mostly didn't) was a green light for me to do something with the ideas that went unused. Today, I'm talking about Justice League itself, so beware spoilers.
The first thing that struck me about the film was how it tries to be something that the other movies in this vein have not been as of late: succinct. It clocks in at two hours on the nose, including credits and two bonus scenes sandwiched in between the voluminous lists of names of people on the effects teams.
Too bad that succinctness felt like it had been imposed on the movie from on high, and was not really part of its DNA. It feels like 10-15 minutes were sweated out of the film here and there, but in such haste that it is sometimes startling in its amateurishness. Many individual shots feel weirdly truncated, as if too many things that wrecked the movie's PG-13 rating had to be hacked out at the last minute. Here and there we have moments that seem like they're about to lead somewhere truly interesting, only to just drop dead. It feels less like the product of innately compact storytelling and more the product of arm-twisting third-party distillation.
Some of that jibes with what I've heard about the films terribly rocky production history. Most of you reading this know the story; I won't recap it here. The key thing, though, seems to be the decree from on high in the WB watertower that the movie run two hours and not a second more, the better to squeeze that many more showings out of it should it not be the box-buster they were clearly hoping it would be. That's led to any amount of speculation that an extended cut of the film (circumstances here forbid me from calling it a "director's" cut) might surface at some point.
It's not that it's a bad film. A lot of good individual things are in it — the camaraderie within the group, the scene-stealing by Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller, the way Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman remains a highlight, and so on. But somehow they don't add up to enough. Not even in the sense that fans may feel let down — more on that in a moment — but in that the results feel like they are enjoyed despite the whole package and not because of it.
A comment I read somewhere sums up why the movie's amiable but undistinguished nature seems such an affront to fans. When you've been waiting literally decades for something like this to happen, it seems a betrayal to have the results be Merely Okay.
Something else comes to mind about the way fans and lay audiences may react. Lay audiences who never open a comic book in their lives may well find the movie perfectly passable, but I suspect they'll also have that weird Chinese-food feeling: for something that uses the biggest names in popular culture, why is this such a weirdly forgettable story? Fans, though, tend to be more acutely attuned to how mistakes like this are made, and will be better able to pinpoint them: a weak villain, for one. And maybe the reason Steppenwolf is so unintriguing, so unworthy of our respect as a bad guy, is because everything that might have made him interesting was red-penciled. For all his snarling about Fear and Conquest, he's not very fearsome or much of a conqueror.
That right there is a key issue: the way various themes are tossed around by name — hope and fear, chiefly — but not actually embodied in the film. There, I don't think any amount of re-editing would have helped; that seems like a conceptual omission to me. Steppenwolf's big thing is that his minions feed on fear and are attracted to it, and I kept thinking about how you could do so much more with that other than hint at how people are vanishing and getting turned into parademons. There isn't even an attempt at a comic-book level of drama about this material; it's just elided entirely. (I may talk about this in more detail, and maybe how it could have been fixed, in another post.)
You can tell how all this gave me Ideas.
Did I enjoy the movie? Sure, but I had to dial down my expectations about what to get from it — and dial them down a lot more than I felt was required, even for a movie like this. But the movie interests me far more as a case study — something to be taken apart and put back together again, and maybe used as raw material for a better story. One that does better, uh, justice to its ingredients.