Say this for Justice League, the DC Comics/Warner Bros. offering that hits screens almost everywhere this week: It reverses the bleak course of prior DC Extended Universe movies.
The movie and its plot are born into a world saddened by the death of Superman (as seen in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), and starts with similar somber notes. Steppenwolf and his Parademons, a fairly deep cut for mainstream audiences (but still a callback to BvS) are introduced as the Big Bads, and the mood gets darker still. But eventually, a grudging camaraderie comes about and a light usually not seen in the DCEU shines through - for the most part.
Batman and Wonder Woman are the driving forces of both the plot and the eventual formation of a very informal'Justice League' - those words are never actually spoken by any character in the movie. Whereas a previous viewing of their previous flicks in this continuity-driven middle stop toward an preordained sequel are certainly helpful, they’re fortunately not needed. A Cliff’s Notes version spoken by the characters in-film will get you through.
The movie does a fine job introducing and developing its new-to-the-movies heroes Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. DC is still on its perpetual quest to Make Aquaman Somehow Cool™, which in this instance makes him a whiskey-swilling malcontent who seems to like the White Stripes. Flash is played as a new-hero-on-the-block, unsure of his abilities and full of wide-eyed wonder, while Cyborg is the movie’s convenient deus ex machina, with technology that can seemingly defeat any bad guys and/or plot problem.
Superman (c’mon, no spoiler alert needed, you saw him on the poster!) makes his return, and the production veers off-kilter for a beat as confusion and an inevitable 'good guys fight each other' occurs. But an alliance is eventually formed, and in an interesting and ultimately satisfying way.
Along the way, the mood gets… lighter. Legit jokes between characters (you can decide if they’re funny or not) happen. The opportunity for heroic moments occur, selfless sacrifices are made, and things turn out for the better. The mood is never 100% upbeat, but is way, way, way (thank you, thank you, thank you) better than BvS or Man of Steel (a movie, you’ll note, that thankfully did not contain the word “Superman” in the title).
Steppenwolf’s eventual demise (you had to see that coming, right?) happens in a manner that makes very little comic book sense (or perhaps even real world sense), but hey, if you’ve got some popcorn left or are on a minor endorphin rush from some actual light cracking through, hey - that’s a pretty forgivable sin.
At the end of the day, Justice League teaches us… nothing really. It’s that two-hour layover in Denver on your trip from Los Angeles to New York, but an important stop on a larger journey. It is the captain jerking the wheel and steering a ship on to a different course. Films such as Man of Steel and BvS taught us that the world is a bleak, overtly dangerous place with no hope. Justice League moves on a 30-degree tangent from that. To pull a lesson from one universe over, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies teach us that a burden shared is a burden halved, and that genuine love can grow among disparate parties. Justice League at least shows us that very reluctant partners can come together in a time of shared sacrifice to work for a better tomorrow.
And oh yeah, that middle stop toward an preordained sequel: Yes, there are both mid- (fun!) and post- (holy crap, dark, and here’s your sequel) credit sequences. Stay to the end-end. And DC Extended Universe: It’s up to you where you want to go.