There's a great moment during David Cronenberg's The Fly where Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) sends a cut of steak through the transportive telepods he's been tinkering with in his lab, only to have his girlfriend (Geena Davis) bite the beef and disgustedly spit it into the sink. Turns out, the meat didn't actually teleport between the two stations; the computer merely estimated the complexities of the flesh, rendering it an ill-tasting imitation whose inadequacies were readily apparent to the reporter. Up until this point, that rather ingenious bit of sci-fi exposition in Cronenberg's masterpiece could double as a solid metaphor for the DCEU as a whole (sans Wonder Woman, which stands as an anomaly). These are rank copies, perpetrated in an attempt to try and play catch up with DC's sole competitor - Marvel's now legendary MCU.
As much guff as this writer's given the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, the one thing that cannot be denied is the genuine soul that's injected into each one of their episodic installments. Whether its Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) explaining that he's "always angry", or Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) pondering his own demise, these movies take time out of their otherwise whiz-bang storytelling in order to let us feel the existential strife each of their characters endure. What also helps is that they're usually pretty fun to sit through, as a mixture of great casting and snappy writing allow scenarios to be concocted where we enjoy just hanging out with these super-powered guys, gals and other assorted creatures for two hours at a time every couple of months. In fact, the best parts of The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy movies (the high points of the MCU to date) haven't involved any sort of set pieces, but simply our favorite caped heroes cracking wise with one another.
At first, Warner Bros. and DC opted to offer up the antithesis to these pictures. Man of Steel was a self-serious slog almost completely devoid of humor altogether (though the infamous "tornado dad" sequence will never not be unintentionally hilarious). Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice* doubled down on this anti-joy ethos, as the Dark Knight (Ben Affleck) asked the Last Son of Krypton (Henry Cavill) if he bled before the two threw down in the rain, only to come to a truce regarding their differences because both of their mothers are named Martha (a moment that still feels like a joke the Onion wouldn't publish on its slowest news day). Sure, the jar of piss induced further accidental belly laughs, but once the nine-hour Ultimate Cut hit home video - R-rated and filling in the glaring gaps that were obvious byproducts of studio mandated trimming - it was clear that these fucking movies weren't going to crack a grin even if you sicced a tickle torture master on franchise head Zack Snyder. The infantile Internet descriptor "grimdark" was the name of the game, and WB wasn't budging.
That's until Dawn of Justice became a paradoxical smash/flop, causing WB to scramble, retooling the in-production men on a mission David Ayer joint, Suicide Squad, so that it better resembled the first Guardians picture - a set of somewhat obscure funny book misfits, banding together to battle a cosmos-threatening force whilst tossing out one-liners and practically bobbing along to the needle drop heavy soundtrack. Only the cynical cash-in nature of that movie's re-working was obvious to anyone with a brain, an Internet connection, and a passing interest in the behind the scenes happenings in their favorite pieces of pop cinema. Suicide Squad was a travesty - one of the absolute worst big studio productions in years - and the DCEU seemed beyond saving until Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman came along, delivering an iconic turn for the ages in Gal Gadot's Diana Prince, who swashbuckled her way through a fish out of water adventure, all while becoming a beacon of hope for female fans everywhere.
Sadly, it seems the perfect tone for the DCEU's future was at least partially achieved due to unspeakable tragedy, as director Zack Snyder had to depart the production of Justice League on account of an untimely death in his family, shortly after WB hired Joss Whedon (The Avengers) to step in and punch up Chris Terrio's script. Whedon also performed previously scheduled reshoots that (according to producer Charles Roven) account for 15 - 20% of the movie's finished form, allowing the renowned artist to add his personal touch to the picture. The result is arguably the most purely entertaining DCEU entry to date - a movie that retains the crisp, painterly frame of Snyder's visual compositions (thanks to cinematographer Fabian Wagner's steady lens), while peppering in the clever dialogue and character work Whedon is best known for. To wit, Justice League looks like a Snyder picture, but sounds like a Whedon movie. It's also trimmed to the bone (thanks to a studio demanded two-hour runtime), causing it to move like a breathless hurdler, bounding over any qualitative qualms before you even have time to consider them.
If Suicide Squad was the DCEU attempting to mime Guardians of the Galaxy, then Justice League feels like Snyder and Whedon trying to learn from the latter's mistakes on The Avengers (co-producing a movie that's going to play way too close to Age of Ultron for many's liking). It begins with Batman chasing a criminal (Holt McCallany) on a rooftop, before engaging in an aerial fistfight with some sort of red-eyed flying alien that he splatters against the wall. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) informs us that this "isn't the first" sighting of the creature's kind, and Batman/Bruce Wayne is off to gather up a squad of heroes to combat this army from the skies, as these extraterrestrials have been emboldened by the death of Superman, whose absence has left an nigh unfillable gap of protection and hope on planet Earth.
It's unclear if the Avengers mastermind had any say in the editing bay, but the way Justice League breezes through the actual "recruitment" portion of its narrative seems to indicate that the criticisms of that film's saggy first act may have been taken to heart. The origin stories of Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) are mostly relegated to asides and quick expository exchanges, as the picture opts instead to focus on what sort of personality each performer brings to their respective characters. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is continuing to kick all sorts of ass on a regular basis, stopping criminals cold in their tracks and re-entering this franchise like she owns the motherfucker outright (because, let's face it, she totally does).
Speaking of personality - Jason Mamoa (The Bad Batch) gives Gadot a run for her money in bringing us a character who feels fully formed from the get go. Swigging whiskey in the rain with a swagger that would intimidate twelve metal Gods after saving sailors from a boat that's been capsized by an alien blast, Mamoa is the guy having the most fun on screen. He's got a cocksure swagger that's utterly infectious, and watching him initially reject Batman's call to collection feels earned. This Aquaman fucks. He don't need no Justice League. The ocean is his playground, and he's going to guard it with everything he's got.
Miller's Barry Allen is equally realized, only he may be more of an acquired taste, as the Perks of Being a Wallflower actor really leans into being the movie's comedic heart, eagerly signing up to work with Batman because it'd be "cool", and generally mugging his way through individual encounters with this newfound band of brothers and sisters. Barry's generally a good kid who doesn't have any friends to call his own; studying his ass off so he can legally defend a father (Billy Crudup) who's been incarcerated for a murder he didn't commit. Watching Barry and Fisher's Victor Stone bond over being the "mistakes" in the group is a nice little touch that feels particularly Whedonesque, and Miller is really attempting to flex in the timing department, embracing his role as the court jester of this evolving DCEU.
If anyone gets the short end of the stick, it's Fisher's Victor Stone, who's presented as the lonely Frankenstein's Monster of the group - thanks to his father (Joe Morton) fusing the former athlete's broken body with alien technology after a tragic accident. Fisher is mostly a brooding bore, only allowed to really start embracing his character's quirks in the final reel, where his inorganic nature makes him essential to stopping the incoming alien onslaught. Only by that point, he's as big a Macguffin as the Mother Boxes that these buzzing, hissing hounds from an intergalactic Hell are searching for; simply present to progress the plot instead of providing another charismatic hero for the audience to latch onto.
Therein lies the major criticism of Justice League as a whole - by shifting this universe closer toward the Marvel formula, it suffers from the issues that franchise had worked out during its initial Phase. Had Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) fought Thor instead of this DC gaggle during either of that character's planetary-hopping early pictures, he'd be lumped in with the "forgettable bad guy" problem that plagued the MCU during its earliest days. There's just nothing really to him beyond looking like a less colorful iteration of Tim Curry's Darkness (from Ridley Scott's Legend) and wanting to rid the planet of humans the same way Ultron did. Beyond a flashback battle with the Amazonians (and some surprise guest cameos), he's given nothing to do outside slapping the Justice League around and commanding his swooping bugs with a booming, distored voice.
Steppenwolf's quest involves three Mother Boxes - one guarded by the Amazonians, one by Atlantis, one by humans - that will grant him the ability to decimate the planet and reshape it into the apocalyptic wasteland he calls home. Essentially, it's another doomsday scenario we know is going to be avoided by the end (subbing in Infinity Cubes for Infinity Stones), robbing the movie of any real discernible stakes, and rendering the climactic battle (which is set at a historic nuclear disaster site) another collection of shat out pixels, smashing into each other while Aquaman shouts "yeah!" like a trident-wielding James Hetfield. It's a bummer.
As for Superman, we're waiting the entire movie for him to finally rise from his grave and help save the planet. The way Clark Kent's resurrected is - well, it's like a lost Return of the Living Dead sequel. There's some weird digital fuckery going on with Henry Cavill's face (that gives him an upper lip that acts as its own Uncanny Valley), but it's pretty comforting once we get the big guy in blue and red back. The entire affair is somewhat contrived, yet the goofiness regarding how he's shoe-horned into these affairs is worth experiencing with as little detail as possible.
But let's face it - in even the best of these superhero outings, the plot is more or less perfunctory. What we really sign up for is watching these heroes bounce off of one another as they find their way, and Whedon's influence ensures that this new iteration of Justice League leans into that element without any sembelance of apologetics. So, while the DCEU may have felt like a pale imitation up until this point, they've finally manufactured a product that actually tastes pretty good, even if still feels like a copy overall. With all of the behind the scenes strife and track record of terribleness that's plagued the series, the notion that their big union picture's actually watchable is something to be celebrated.The fact that it's actually pretty good? Now, that's a damn Saturday morning miracle, and you don't get many of those anymore.