I know Aquaman has now joined the DC Extended Universe, but did Justice League have to be this soggy?
Continuing the damp and dingy aesthetic he established in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder has delivered a superhero superteam movie that looks like it’s been left out in the rain. And I’m not just talking about the scenes of Aquaman (Jason Momoa) swimming around a gray, blurry Atlantis. There is a worn visual quality to so many of the scenes in the movie, especially when CGI effects are used in place of actual locations. Too often, watching Justice League feels like looking at a photo in a wet magazine.
There is a thematic reason for this, I suppose. In the wake of Superman’s death in Dawn of Justice, a pall has fallen over Metropolis, Gotham City, and most of the world. While Batman (Ben Affleck) tries to hold things together, a new threat arrives: an interdimensional demon known as Steppenwolf who wants to turn Earth into a fiery hellscape. (It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you the talk of Change Engines, Mother Boxes, and the Unity.)
Steppenwolf registers as one of the dullest comic-book villains in quite some time; comprised entirely of glowering CGI (with the growling voice of Ciaran Hinds), he barely registers as present. Still, he’s enough reason for Bruce Wayne to call in backup: the aforementioned Aquaman; an eager, quick-footed kid known as The Flash (Ezra Miller); a desperate scientific experiment gone awry called Cyborg (Ray Fisher); and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), so far the only real bright spot in the DC universe.
If nothing else, these new faces bring some much needed personality to a series that—with Affleck’s grim Batman and Henry Cavill’s bland Superman at the center—was as lifeless as Bruce Wayne’s empty mansion. Momoa’s Aquaman may not make much sense—part surfer dude and part roadie for a hair-metal band, he’d be more at home in a Fast and Furious movie—but at least he piques your curiosity. Miller’s The Flash is almost indistinguishable from Tom Holland’s gee-whiz, wise-cracking Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I was still thankful for his doses of humor. Far better than both is Fisher as Cyborg, a college athlete trapped in the cybernetic body designed for him by his scientist father after a nearly fatal accident. There are allusions to Frankenstein’s monster here, and Fisher brings just the right notes of sadness and rage to make the character register in the brief moments he’s given.
Part surfer dude and part roadie for a hair-metal band, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman would be more at home in a Fast and Furious movie.
As for Gadot’s Wonder Woman? She deserves better. If her standalone movie was a welcome retort to decades of superheroines being subjected to the male gaze, Justice League is a dismaying step backward. Wonder Woman still comes across as incredibly powerful (in truth, she’s probably the most capable of the bunch), but often the camera angles are positioned to draw our attention to a specific physical feature (and not her eyes). What’s more, too much of the humor relies on sexual innuendo, whether it’s Alfred (Jeremy Irons) joking that Bruce Wayne’s interest in Wonder Woman may not be entirely professional or Aquaman, while under the power of her truth-compelling Lasso of Hestia, nearly drooling while describing how attractive she is. And let’s not even get into the unfortunate moment, during a battle, where The Flash falls on top of Wonder Woman in a compromising position while she is momentarily unconscious.
In Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins certainly acknowledged her heroine’s beauty, but the movie also emphasized that her body had a purpose beyond being looked at; it was the weapon of an athletic warrior. Jenkins also made the wise decision to set an early battle scene on the bright beaches of Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira. Real water splashes, actual sand sprays, and the CGI that is used is crisp and clear. It’s telling that one of the more effective action sequences in Justice League also takes place on Themyscira, under that same blue sky. If there is any hope for this series moving forward, it will be if Wonder Woman is the new model. Let’s get these heroes out of the dankness and into the light of day.