Film review: The Batman

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Batman.

When The Batman was announced a couple of years ago, I was distinctly underwhelmed. After more than fifteen years of samey presentations of the titular caped crusader going back to 2005’s Batman Begins, I felt uninterested in another “dark and gritty” take on a character whose darkness and grittiness had been done to death.

In addition, as I’ve said on a number of occasions here on the website, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of comic books or their cinematic adaptations. Some are decent enough, but usually the highest praise I can muster for anything in the superhero genre is to call it moderately entertaining; the kind of mindless popcorn action flick that can inoffensively kill a couple of hours.

Batman and Detective Gordon.

That was the mindset I had as I sat down to watch The Batman. Was I about to be blown away and have my mind changed on both of those subjects, convincing me that the world can’t ever have enough dark and gritty Batman movies, and that there’s more to the world of comics than mindless entertainment?

Well, no. But at the same time, I didn’t hate or even really dislike The Batman. It did what its creators wanted it to do, and while I have a few gripes with a story that felt somewhat bloated and muddled in places, as well as a few visual effects that were wide of the mark, overall it was engaging enough to keep my attention. From the point of view of someone who isn’t any kind of Batman or DC Comics superfan, The Batman was good enough. It won’t be my pick for “film of the year,” but it’s unlikely to end up as the worst movie I’ll see in 2022 either.

Batman made his first appearance in 1939.

One point in The Batman’s favour is that it exists in a standalone space and isn’t trying to connect itself to the wider DC Comics “extended universe” – DC’s failed attempt to match the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This allows it to do its own thing without feeling obligated to tie into a dozen or more other titles, and without feeling confusing or offputting for newbies and casual audiences in the way that Marvel films and projects are starting to.

Having seen other Batman films and productions over the years, I felt familiar enough with its world that some of the characters’ names were familiar – Carmine Falcone, Salvatore Maroni, Selina Kyle, etc. – but also I felt that that familiarity wasn’t necessary for anything that The Batman wanted to do. These characters, though they may have familiar names, are new and distinct versions, and their histories, personalities, and connections to one another were suitably explained by The Batman itself. No in-depth knowledge required!

The Batman didn’t insist on a lot of background reading.

From the first moments of the film, The Batman captured the look and feel of Gotham City. From the 19th Century opulent gothic-style architecture to the urban decay inspired by the likes of Chicago, Detroit, and older depictions of New York, I genuinely felt that the version of Gotham City brought to screen in The Batman was real and lived-in; a well-constructed backdrop for the events of the film to unfold in front of.

There was some clever cinematography in The Batman, with well-composed camera shots that felt immersive and highlighted something that would go on to be important later. The film also used light and shadow to great effect, hiding the titular Batman in darkened areas and illuminating scenes in very evocative ways.

The effective use of light and focus was a hallmark of The Batman.

Focus was also part of The Batman’s cinematography, with rain-smeared windows partially obscuring characters and events. The clever camera work would show just enough to build up the tension, as characters could be seen just outside of the camera’s focal area. The sense of movement from these slightly blurry, out-of-focus areas conveyed a sense of mystery that tied in with the theme of a film where the Riddler was one of the key antagonists.

It wasn’t all perfect from a visual standpoint, though. There were moments where the use of green-screens was incredibly obvious, such as a sequence which saw Batman using a wing-suit to escape a tricky situation, when he was dangling from a precarious platform, and later at the end of the film when he was riding a motorcyle. What’s interesting is that this is also something I noted last year in my reviews of two other DC projects: The Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. This recurring green-screen situation is clearly an ongoing problem that Warner Bros. and DC Films need to work on going forward. These moments looked out-of-place and outdated in The Batman, as if the green-screen sequences had been created twenty years ago without the benefits of modern-day techniques and technologies.

Holy ridiculously obvious green-screen, Batman!

There were some neat musical choices on The Batman’s soundtrack. The score for the film was well-produced, evoking the right feelings at the right moments. Occasionally this could feel a little heavy-handed, as if the music was trying to force a certain emotion onto a sequence rather than letting me experience it for myself, but generally speaking it worked as intended.

I also enjoyed the use of the Nirvana song Something In The Way, which came at the beginning and end of the film, kind of bookending the main events. Apparently director Matt Reeves based parts of the film’s presentation of Bruce Wayne on Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who was known for being a recluse.

This presentation of Bruce Wayne was partly based on Kurt Cobain.

Much had been made of the casting choice of Robert Pattinson – a British actor best known for his roles in the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises – in The Batman’s leading role. I felt that Pattinson did a decent job and was convincing as this version of Bruce Wayne; his American accent was fantastic, too.

Zoë Kravitz reprised the role of Selina Kyle/Catwoman from The Lego Batman Movie, though her role in that film was smaller than it was in The Batman. Kravitz likewise did well with this new version of the classic Batman character, and I found her to be convincing in all of her scenes. Indeed the whole cast put in great performances, and I can’t really single out anyone for criticism in that regard.

Catwoman.

If films like The Dark Knight and TV shows like Gotham had never been made, perhaps The Batman would feel like the new yardstick against which other adaptations could be measured. But because it comes on the back of other adaptations of the same source material that exist in an incredibly similar thematic and visual space, it doesn’t feel groundbreaking or original in the way it might. It feels if not downright repetitive then just a riff on the same idea, and with a story that wasn’t groundbreaking either, I guess I just wasn’t bowled over by anything that The Batman did.

The Batman’s messaging was also quite muddled. On the one hand, Batman himself is presented as the hero; the caped crusader who wants to prevent crime and terrorism. Yet the so-called villains of the piece are also vigilantes who are targeting the same corruption and systemic inequality that has plagued the city since before Bruce Wayne was born.

It wasn’t always clear who The Batman expected us to root for.

Themes of white privilege and wealth privilege were bubbling just below the surface in The Batman, but the film wasn’t always clear which side of the fence it came down on, nor how it wanted its audience to interpret these themes. Should we root for Batman, even though his family’s past hid crimes, including murder and involvement with the mafia? Does Batman’s role as an avatar of “vengeance” for Gotham City counteract the misdeeds of his family, including, presumably, how they were able to acquire such fantastic wealth for themselves in the first place?

When the Riddler revealed to Batman that he viewed him as an inspiration in exposing the corruption of Gotham City’s police force, politicians, and other community leaders, Batman had no comeback or recourse. Are we supposed to say that Batman’s insistence on not killing his foes, which wasn’t exactly front-and-centre in this presentation of the character, makes him different enough from the Riddler that we can venerate one while condemning the other?

The Batman.

Frankly, the film posed questions through these narrative threads that it didn’t provide satisfactory answers to. Bruce Wayne comes from a position of immense privilege, but the film doesn’t always know how it wants to handle that. Some scenes glorify Bruce’s unlimited resources as Batman, showing off a range of gadgets and high-tech gizmos. Others openly criticise the Wayne family and Bruce in particular for the privilege he enjoys and how he’s perceived.

This gave The Batman a strange kind of moral ambiguity that came close to equating the goals and methods of its heroes and villains. Can we say that Gotham City would’ve been better off not knowing about the web of corruption that the Riddler exposed? If Batman had his way, he’d have prevented that information from coming to light by stopping the Riddler much sooner. It’s only in the film’s final act, when the Riddler revealed his plan to destroy Gotham City’s coastal defences, flooding part of the city, that there was any sense of a “good guy-versus-bad guy” dynamic – and by that point the story was practically over.

An explosion sends seawater flooding into Gotham City.

The Batman’s main storyline is also unusual for this kind of film in the sense that it ends with defeat. Batman was effectively outsmarted by the Riddler, whose plan was at least partially successful. The action stays focused mainly on Batman and a group of wealthy and privileged city-dwellers, so we don’t even get to see how the flooding devastated lower-income communities. With no advanced warning, it stands to reason that a lot of people would have been injured or killed – but the film glossed over all of that to show us Batman, Catwoman, and Jim Gordon battling the Riddler’s minions to save the new mayor and other members of Gotham’s elite… the same elite that the film had spent the preceding two hours explaining were all complicit in varying ways in the city’s corruption.

The ending of this story felt unearned. Batman spent much of the film claiming to be “vengeance” personified, taking out criminals, gangsters, and stoking fear amongst Gotham City’s criminal underclass – many of whom were the same underprivileged folks (often from minority backgrounds) that other aspects of the film’s storyline seemed to be trying to advocate for. The film’s closing minutes showed Batman as a kind of rallying symbol for the city; the embodiment of hope, perhaps. But this transition seemed to come out of the blue, and I didn’t feel that we’d seen much of anything from Batman himself, or the few friends and allies he had, to inform this change in the city’s attitude toward him.

Batman with an injured Gotham City civilian in the film’s closing act.

I wasn’t wild about one aspect of the presentation of the Riddler. We’ve seen depictions of the Riddler before, in productions like the television series Gotham, in which he was implied to be neurodivergent, and those depictions didn’t always succeed at conveying that in a sympathetic way. This is a problem Batman has had across all forms of media going back to its inception, where people with “mental illnesses” are portrayed as being violent criminals, murderers, scheming masterminds, and so on. The entire concept of the Arkham Insane Asylum – which was also featured in The Batman – is part of that, and the Riddler’s depiction leaned into stereotypes of autism and the neurodivergent that are, at best, unhelpful.

I’m a big advocate for better representations and depictions of mental health in media, and this kind of rather crude stereotype of the obsessive autistic loner who becomes criminally violent is not the kind of positive portrayal that we need to see more of. At its best, I’d say it was right in line with what DC Comics has done with the villains of Gotham City going back to the 1940s. At worst, I might say this depiction of a neurodivergent individual as the film’s primary antagonist is problematic.

I was not a fan of the way the Riddler came across.

On this side of the story, though, I will credit The Batman for trying to make a social point. There are subcultures in secluded corners of the internet where individuals gather to discuss their violent fantasies and conspiracy theories, and this side of the Riddler’s presentation felt timely and realistic. I can buy into the idea that someone like that would gain a following – because we can see it happening in real life with the likes of the QAnon conspiracy theory and incel subculture, to name just two examples.

This presentation stuck the landing, even while the Riddler’s felt a little uncomfortable, and in a film that clearly had the ambition of parachuting a superhero into a “realistic” setting, presenting the villain’s henchmen or followers in this way was a clever inclusion. It’s one element that adds to the immersion of the setting.

A group of the Riddler’s followers.

So that was The Batman. I didn’t hate it, but I stand by what I said at the beginning: it didn’t really bring anything new to the table. It felt like an iteration on not only what Batman films have been doing since at least 2005, but also on what DC Films and Warner Bros. have been doing with all of their recent comic book adaptations. We got a dark, gritty attempt to bring superheroes into the real world – a world rife with criminals, drugs, and other problems. There was nothing fun or light-hearted about that… and I think that’s where DC continues to miss the boat.

Comic books and the worlds they created are aimed at kids, and they bring with them comedic moments, light-heartedness, and positivity. A muddled story that couldn’t quite decide who to root for and how in a setting that was as dark and gritty as they come didn’t provide any of that, so when I compare The Batman to even the least-enjoyable Marvel outing, something was missing.

A sequel already seems to be on the cards, with the film even closing with a tease as to who Batman could be facing off against next time. Perhaps when it’s ready I’ll be convinced to take a look!

The Batman is the copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, and DC Comics, Inc. The Batman is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States, and on Amazon Video, Google Play, the Microsoft Store, iTunes, and other video-on-demand platforms around the world for a fee. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Suicide Squad – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Suicide Squad and other recent DC titles.

I always caveat my reviews of comic book films by saying that I’m not really a huge comics fan. I never read comic books as a kid, and while there have been some cinematic adaptations that worked well, for the most part the highest praise I can give most comic book films is that they’re moderately entertaining action fare.

My most recent encounter with a DC Comics film was Zack Snyder’s Justice League – and I really didn’t enjoy that film. But in 2016 I’d watched the first Suicide Squad and enjoyed it for what it was, so I figured I’d check in with this film to see what it had to offer. First, though, I had to figure out what The Suicide Squad is. Is it a sequel? A reboot? A soft reboot? In short, what’s going on with the confusingly similar title?

Poster for The Suicide Squad.

DC has struggled to compete with Marvel in terms of film adaptations, despite having just as many well-known and well-regarded superheroes at its disposal. Following disappointing results with some of the films of the DC Extended Universe, including the original cut of Justice League, DC opted to rework its cinematic offerings, and I think that’s why this film is called The Suicide Squad instead of Suicide Squad 2. DC hasn’t done a good job of communicating all of this, though, at least not to casual viewers. Hardcore DC fans who follow all the ins and outs of the brand and its news will know what to expect from The Suicide Squad, but there’s no doubt in my mind that its confusing name and the deeply muddled state of DC’s film universe is going to be baffling to many would-be viewers – if not outright offputting.

Compounding this was the fact that most of the cast of Suicide Squad didn’t reprise their roles this time around. Will Smith, Cara Delevigne, Jared Leto, and several other big names either chose not to return or saw their roles cut when the DCEU’s plans changed.

Though The Suicide Squad is tonally similar to its predecessor, when compared to the likes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League – a film which tried so desperately hard to take itself seriously that it became unintentionally funny – there’s a wild shift in tone. The dark humour and lack of seriousness in The Suicide Squad is a massive improvement over a film like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and a far better fit for its source material, which was something I appreciated! But it does make DC’s recent cinematic output feel completely disjointed; wild jumps in tone and style make the two films feel like they couldn’t possibly be part of one supposedly-connected, ongoing world. Marvel comparisons again abound because that franchise handles this so much better. Marvel projects are generally consistent in basic things like their style and tone, and it’s seldom the case that one comes away from a Marvel film feeling it’s wildly out of kilter with other parts of the franchise.

The Suicide Squad had a light-hearted tone and knew what kind of film it wanted to be.

Humour is a very subjective thing, and not every joke or comedic moment will have landed for every viewer. But for me, the film’s sense of humour was generally on point. The Suicide Squad didn’t strive to take itself too seriously, and at the same time was able to successfully communicate the stakes involved for the protagonists. That isn’t a line that’s easy to walk sometimes, yet the film broadly stayed on the right side of it.

Keeping a relatively lighthearted tone throughout was to the film’s benefit. Not only was it appropriate for a story that bordered on the ridiculous (a giant starfish from outer space) but it provided The Suicide Squad with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. A lighter style allowed the film to embrace much of the silliness that comes from comic book characters and their visual styles, and compared to other DC titles The Suicide Squad leaned into campiness in its costuming and took in its stride some truly wacky concepts, characters, and premises.

The Suicide Squad has a pretty wacky and silly premise, and the film leaned into that in a big way.

There were some definite visual misses in The Suicide Squad. The CGI and green-screen work was far from perfect, and though the worst moments were few and far between, in a film with a budget of more than $180 million that really shouldn’t be happening in the first place. There were some “uncanny valley” moments with the CGI, particularly CGI moments involving the film’s human characters. Then there were some moments where the use of green-screens was just incredibly obvious to the point of being offputting.

Interestingly, these issues also plagued Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In my review of that film I wondered if some of the visual effects misses might’ve been due to the lower budget afforded to the re-editing of the film. It now seems as though that wasn’t the case; DC just isn’t especially good at green-screen and CGI moments. In a film that relies heavily on visual effects, this isn’t just noticeable – it actively detracts from the experience and can completely ruin suspension of disbelief.

One of several green-screen moments that missed the mark.

After his recent controversy for apologising to the Chinese dictatorship, it was ironic – no, it was grotesque – to see John Cena playing a character whose defining characteristic is is love of freedom and peace. Though this character was always presented as a semi-antagonist, something about the casting really got under my skin. Cena’s portrayal of Peacemaker was fine – competent, even. But knowing how the actor favours Chinese money over basic human rights, seeing him spouting lines like “I would do it for liberty” was vomit-inducing.

Idris Elba took the leading role in The Suicide Squad and put in a creditable performance as a mercenary “with a heart of gold;” taking on the dangerous mission for the sake of his daughter. Giving Bloodsport this extra motivation added an extra dimension to the character and kept him believable – despite the wacky situation and the chaos that unfolded around him. Elba had previously played Krall, the villain in Star Trek Beyond, and it was fun to see him in a different role on this occasion.

Idris Elba’s Bloodsport was the main hero of the piece.

Margot Robbie got top billing alongside Idris Elba, but in 2016 I felt her forced “American” accent as Harley Quinn was just plain awful, and unfortunately that situation has not improved in the slightest in the years since. Robbie put in an otherwise impressive performance as the damaged, psychotic Quinn, but her accent was never believable and that did detract from the character at points.

The surprise star for me was Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior, who played Ratcatcher 2. Her deeply emotional portrayal cut through what was a strange and even silly premise to become an unexpectedly impressive performance in a film laden with established stars. Her character arc, coming to terms with the loss of her father and finally putting to use his odd invention, was elevated far beyond what it could’ve been by Melchior’s performance, which is even more impressive considering that The Suicide Squad is one of her first ever English-speaking roles. She provided vulnerability and emotion to the character – and the paternal relationship between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2, while not fully developed, really formed the film’s entire emotional core.

Daniela Melchior put in an amazing and emotional performance as Ratcatcher 2.

The decision to begin the film with a fake-out – setting up a secondary “suicide squad” and then watching them get slaughtered – was a bold decision. Setting up a different crop of characters, and framing that part of the film from the point of view of one of them, did succeed at setting up Harley Quinn’s storyline and at communicating the stakes involved and the level of risk to the main characters. But at the same time it felt cheap; setting up minor characters – redshirts – to be killed off allowed most of the other main characters to survive their so-called suicide mission. Only one of the principal characters on Bloodsport’s team ended up dead by the film’s end, which might not be enough for a film literally called The Suicide Squad.

Perhaps the decision for all but the Polka Dot Man to survive is DC’s way of teeing up another sequel. If that’s the case, I would definitely be interested to see Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2 return for another outing. The disjointed way DC still runs its cinematic arm makes me wonder if they have any such plans, though – and if they do, whether it’ll ever happen!

The characters from the film’s opening act were all killed (except one).

In a film with a larger cast, some characters can end up feeling underused, and Peter Capaldi’s Thinker definitely fell into that trap. Set up early on in the film as one of the main villains of the piece, he ended up being little more than a one-dimensional hurdle for other characters to blaze past on their way to completing their mission. Peter Capaldi is an actor I’ve admired in the past, yet in recent years he never seems to land roles that are honestly worthy of his time. His tenure in Doctor Who saw lacklustre stories, and now his role in The Suicide Squad was, at best, a run-of-the-mill “mad scientist” trope.

It was a little disappointing we didn’t spend more time with the Thinker, nor really learn what he was doing at Project Starfish. A brief scene showed off a number of caged folks infected with the Starfish’s face-huggers and a few gory-looking but unexplained experiments. Yet the Thinker, despite being the closest The Suicide Squad got to a supervillain, had no motivation, no real accomplishments, and seemed to exist simply to fill a hole in the script.

Peter Capaldi’s character of the Thinker felt underused.

The Suicide Squad wasn’t shy in its criticism of American foreign policy, particularly the way the United States can be selective when it comes to favouring liberty and human rights. There were echoes of American policies toward Cuba and nations in Central America in its portrayal of Corto Maltese, as well as the United States’ general policy of supporting “pro-American” dictators all over the world.

These themes have been explored better and in more detail in other films, and while their inclusion in The Suicide Squad wasn’t necessarily bad, it didn’t exactly make for biting satire either. Nor was it particularly original; the political themes present in the narrative had things to say that have already been said both in entertainment and non-fiction on many other occasions, and the film added nothing to this conversation that hasn’t already been discussed and dissected in many other projects. In that sense, the political stuff was a bit unnecessary. It added little to the film except to elevate the ambiguous morality of Viola Davis’ character of Waller, the leader of the suicide squad programme.

The political themes didn’t really add a lot to the film, and similar criticisms of American policies have been done better in other titles.

Seeing Waller get her comeuppance from members of her own team was satisfying, and perhaps this was the best-executed moment on that side of the film. Waller had been presented as ruthless in the first Suicide Squad, but on this occasion we saw her team grow increasingly uncomfortable with the way she handled the squad and their mission, culminating in her getting wacked on the head. It was definitely a satisfying moment, but as with a couple of other storylines it feels as though there was no real resolution to what happened between Waller and her team.

Even the post-credits scene, which revealed that the Peacemaker survived, didn’t see Waller getting her own back or even interacting with her team in any way. After being knocked unconscious she never says another word on screen to any of them, and that conflict, which had been expertly built up in a number of sequences across the film, feels like it reached its climax then fizzled out. Perhaps it’s something else to be addressed in a sequel?

Perhaps a future sequel plans to look at the conflict between Waller and her team in more detail?

The Starfish alien, which was the reason for the story, was definitely one of the weirder villains I’ve seen in any comic book film to date. It was familiar enough to not be frightening in its appearance, yet it was also eerie in the way it moved. The face-hugging smaller starfish were like something right out of sci-fi horror classic Alien, but despite being unoriginal were still intimidating enough at first to seem to offer a degree of threat.

The fact that the suicide squad themselves were so easily able to fight off the smaller, mind-controlling starfish was poor, though. I’ve said this before, but the concept of a zombie virus, Borg assimilation, or anything else that can control minds and turn allies into enemies is deeply frightening; the thought of losing control of one’s body is, for many folks, a fate worse than death. Yet when it really could’ve mattered, The Suicide Squad wasted this concept. The only characters we saw get caught by the face-huggers were nameless goons (and one villain). As a result, the Starfish alien lost its only genuinely threatening aspect pretty quickly.

The smaller mind-controlling starfish only seemed to harm minor characters and extras.

It was still a giant monster to fight, and the squad had trouble taking it down. Because of the name of the film there was a sense that any of them could’ve been in danger, yet as noted only one character ended up being killed off during this climactic final battle. I had become somewhat attached to the likes of King Shark and Ratcatcher 2 (and the adorable Sebastian the rat) so on the one hand I’m glad that they all made it. On the other, it feels as though there could’ve been more casualties.

A film called The Suicide Squad and which sets up the premise of a forlorn hope type of mission seems like it should’ve ended with more casualties. Even one of the characters who appeared dead – Peacemaker – was later revealed to have survived, so at least part of the film’s premise doesn’t feel fulfilled. Though losing a protagonist is almost never fun, in some stories it feels right – and The Suicide Squad was certainly a story that could’ve seen more of its protagonists fail to make it home.

The main characters (bar one) survived to the end of the film.

Other superhero films using a team-up premise often set up at least some of their characters beforehand. As a result we know going in what to expect from them. In the case of The Suicide Squad, one negative point against the film is that none of the characters really felt like villains. We didn’t know any of them (except Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn) before the film started, and though we heard from Waller and others that some of them had done bad things in the past, that never really came across on screen; none of them felt like bad people.

To me, this chips away at the premise of The Suicide Squad. It wanted to throw anti-heroes at a far worse villain, allowing us as the audience to feel like they were redeemable and not all bad. Yet because of the way the film started and the way the characters were introduced, none of them ever really felt like bad people or even people who deserved to be imprisoned. Perhaps if we’d seen for ourselves a montage of some of their worst moments earlier in the film that sense could’ve been present, and the moral ambiguity it would’ve brought to the film might’ve elevated it into something more complex. Instead we were given that fake-out sequence with the suicide squad B-team.

The titular suicide squad – and friends.

Overall, I had a good time with The Suicide Squad. It wasn’t the perfect film by any means, but it was funny when it wanted to be, it leaned into its over-the-top storyline in a way that was in keeping with its comic book origins, and featured a couple of truly outstanding emotional performances that I wasn’t expecting.

Though DC continues to struggle and not really know what kind of films they want to make, I would say they should try to make more like this one! It was everything I expected from a comic book film, and thanks to the emotional performances of a couple of its main characters, maybe even managed to be something more. There were some visual misses, some underdeveloped characters, and a childish storyline featuring a weird alien, but under that fluff I found a decent action-comedy that I decidedly enjoyed.

The Suicide Squad is currently available to stream on HBO Max in the United States. The Suicide Squad is the copyright of DC Films and/or Warner Bros. Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League – a non-fan’s perspective

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Minor spoilers are also present for other DC films and comic books.

Generally speaking, I’m not someone who cares too much about comic books or their associated films. Sometimes comic book/superhero films make for decent popcorn flicks – such as The Avengers and a few other Marvel titles. And the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films were decent. But as someone who didn’t grow up reading comics, that’s about the highest praise I can heap upon their cinematic adaptations. That’s what I mean when I say I’m coming at Zack Snyder’s Justice League from the perspective of a non-fan.

I can’t actually remember if I’ve seen the original version of Justice League; superhero films tend to be somewhat forgettable, and judging by reviews and fan reaction, Justice League wasn’t one of the best. I’ve definitely seen other films in the DC canon, though, including Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, and about half of Batman vs. Superman (before I got bored and switched it off). In short, I’m not comparing the so-called “Snyder cut” to the original version of Justice League – because it was so forgettable that I’ve quite literally forgotten if I’ve even watched it.

Promotional poster for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Before we get into the meat of my review, I need to hold up my hands and admit to being utterly wrong about something. I never believed for a moment that DC fans would succeed in getting this version of the film released. The hashtag #releasethesnydercut trended online in the aftermath of Justice League’s lukewarm reception a few years ago, and I just dismissed it. These things often die down once the initial controversy over a film has had time to abate, and just like Disney and Lucasfilm were never going to edit or remake The Last Jedi, I felt certain that DC and Warner Bros. would simply ride out the criticism and move on with the rest of their planned releases. I was wrong, having underestimated the strength of feeling and persistence on the part of DC fans, and the fact that Zack Snyder’s Justice League exists at all is testament to their refusal to quit. In the age of social media – where stories and controversies often last a mere 24 hours before vanishing without a trace – that’s impressive.

It’s also indicative, in my opinion, of companies taking fan feedback more seriously than at almost any point in the past. In addition to Zack Snyder’s Justice League I’d point to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – the so-called “Captain Pike series” – that was commissioned purely because of the overwhelming fan response to Anson Mount and Ethan Peck’s portrayals of Pike and Spock in Star Trek: Discovery. More than ever, big entertainment companies are listening to feedback, and that can only be a net positive for fans of any franchise or series.

As the movement to get this version of the film released gained momentum, even the actors joined in.

Onward, then, to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. This film was supposed to be DC’s answer to The Avengers, and any team-up story has to walk a line between relying on what previous entries in the franchise set up and charting a path casual viewers can follow. In that sense, Zack Snyder’s Justice League didn’t do an especially good job. There were a lot of story elements that built directly on top of past DC films, and for a casual viewer or non-fan coming to the film without all of that background knowledge, some events were hard to follow. When I reviewed the Marvel miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier recently, I pointed out that, although returning fans would certainly get a lot more out of the series than I did due to references and callbacks to past films and shows, that wasn’t overwhelming and the production stood on its own two feet. Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t – it feels like a direct sequel.

Avengers Endgame briefly became the highest-grossing film of all time. It did so on the back of casual viewers, not Marvel superfans who show up for every film and series. And because the Marvel producers recognised that, they did what they could to ensure the film didn’t rely excessively on past iterations of the MCU. Maybe the original version of Justice League balanced things better, but Snyder’s cut of the film relies very heavily on other DC titles, and as a result parts of it are nigh-on inaccessible to the casual viewer or non-fan.

Many elements of Zack Snyder’s Justice League – like the fate of Superman – relied 100% on viewers having seen prior films.

The film was very dark – and I mean in terms of lighting, not thematically. If you remember some of the criticisms fans levelled at parts of Game of Thrones Season 8 for poor lighting in some sequences, well Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the same problem almost throughout, as if Mr Snyder forgot to turn on the stage lighting – or deliberately ran the entire film through a crappy Snapchat filter. On a particularly fancy OLED television the darkness may be fine; it was occasionally irritating on my cheap and cheerful LED set. While we’re talking about visuals, it was odd to me to see a modern film shot entirely in the outdated 4:3 screen format. HBO claims that it was a creative choice… but it feels like it was done for no other reason than to give the film a gimmick and talking point.

Such things add nothing to cinema for me; I’d rather see a well-written, well-executed film in a standard widescreen format with proper lighting and colour temperature. These things are gimmicky in the extreme, and while that may be all well and good for arthouse films or Oscar-bait, in what is essentially an action film about superheroes from comic books made for children, these attempts at cinematographic “artistry” fall flat on their face. They’re indicative of a film taking itself far too seriously. Not only that, but the bland colour palette drowned in brown and grey tones; splashes of colour were desperately needed to liven things up.

Why make the film so dark, with such a boring palette? And why the 4:3 resolution? One word: gimmick.

Until just a few weeks before it was released, the plan had been to broadcast the film as a four-part miniseries; having seen it I think it could certainly have worked in that format. At over four hours (including the credits), Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a long film. That’s sometimes true of directors’ cuts, which is what this version of the film is, but it certainly makes it better-suited to streaming than to the cinema.

Speaking of streaming, the film is only available on HBO Max in the United States, and is accessible on a patchwork of other streaming and/or pay-per-view services in the rest of the world. This messy approach is caused, of course, by the fact that HBO Max is a US-only service at present. In short, where you live will determine how and even whether you can access Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which is never the best way to go about releasing a film, let alone one that was the subject of international fan attention. Sometimes companies need to be reminded of a simple fact: there’s a world (and an audience) outside of the United States!

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available on HBO Max if you’re fortunate enough to live in America.

Everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels like it’s deliberately made to stand in direct contrast to The Avengers and other Marvel titles. Marvel films have tended to embrace much of the light-hearted campiness that comes with the territory for a comic book adaptation, and though doing so can lead to some odd tonal moments where brightly-dressed superheroes find themselves in warzones or other semi-realistic scenarios, the sense of humour and lighter tone can work. DC films in general – and Zack Snyder’s Justice League in particular – seems to hate everything fun and light-hearted about comic books.

What I mean by that is that here we have a film that is going out of its way to be as gritty and dark as possible, to leave behind any of the joy and humour one might expect in a medium originally intended for kids and teenagers. I said earlier that the film takes itself far too seriously, and this is a case in point. These are cape-wearing superheroes of children’s fiction, yet Zack Snyder’s Justice League treats them as though they were hardened characters straight out of a gritty drama about a real-world war. In that sense, I would argue it’s a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be; a film defining itself in opposition to two other projects – the original version of Justice League and Marvel films like The Avengers – but without knowing what its own identity is. What is there to fill the void?

The titular Justice League.

Because of how desperately seriously Zack Snyder’s Justice League tries to take itself, it became unintentionally hilarious at points, and I found myself chuckling at some of the lines and even character moments – the actors played the material they were given so deadpan and straight, and because of that, some moments that were meant to be important, tense, or dramatic ended up just being laughably funny.

Some of the names used for the heroes and villains just aren’t on the same level even as Marvel. “Thanos” has a somewhat poetic or classical quality to it; “Darkseid,” in contrast, does not. The fact that Darkseid is visually similar to Thanos, and his aim – to capture magical macguffins and conquer Earth – is not too far removed from Thanos’ ambitions either, makes the main villain of the piece feel like a knock-off. Maybe that’s unfair – the original version of Justice League was released before Avengers Infinity War brought Thanos to the fore. But even so, watching it after seeing the best Marvel has to offer leaves me with the distinct impression that DC has a long way to go to catch up.

Discount Thanos.

All in all, I found the plot to be rather pedestrian. There’s an ancient supervillain who’s able to return thanks to the Mother Boxes – another silly name for a macguffin – and he’s dead set on conquering Earth. One superhero isn’t enough, so Batman tries to get them to team up. Despite initial resistance from some of them – which was flat and one-dimensional at best – the heroes eventually get together to hatch a plan: bring Superman back to life as he’s the only one who can stop the bad guys.

Bringing someone back from the dead only to discover they aren’t the same as before they died is a trope as old as the written word. We see it in everything from ancient legends of necromancy and witchcraft all the way through to modern works like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. So the Superman storyline wasn’t anything different or innovative, and the fact that Superman quickly returns to his old self after an encounter with his true love is a rather Disney-esque take on what could’ve been a theme that played out in a much darker way.

All he needed was a hug. Aww.

With Superman being so much more powerful than the other superheroes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has a challenge to make their inclusion in the story after his resurrection feel worthwhile, and the film fails to rise to meet it. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the resurrected Superman didn’t need the others – he was perfectly capable of stopping Steppenwolf and the other villains on his own. The other heroes got moments, of course, as the film neared its climax, but the way Zack Snyder’s Justice League chose to present its own story and its own characters made it patently obvious that all but Superman were surplus to requirements.

Speaking of characters, I didn’t feel like any of the heroes or villains really saw any significant character development, despite the film’s four-hour runtime offering plenty of time for satisfying arcs to play out. Cyborg/Victor is the character who came closest, and was clearly wrestling with his feelings toward and about his father for much of his time on screen. But the others – Batman, Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and even Superman once he got over his initial shock at returning to life – were basically the same at the end of the film as they had been at the beginning. We know that these are heroic characters, people who will shoulder the responsibility of saving the world and put the needs of others before themselves. But in a film where several of them felt like spare parts already, having five almost-identical character types doesn’t make for the most interesting setup.

Several of the main characters felt very similar to one another.

The main storyline involving Steppenwolf and Darkseid seemed to be built on very shaky ground. In short, Zack Snyder’s Justice League asks us to believe not only that powerful aliens capable of travelling the stars were beaten 5,000 years in the past by the combined forces of Earth – including humanity, barely out of the stone age – but that they then somehow forgot the location of Earth, despite their obvious abundance of technology. If the villains in the film were the descendants of those who fought and lost millennia ago, I could kind of understand that they might not be aware of where these Mother Boxes were, but they’re supposed to be the same people – yet they didn’t even know what planet to go to.

The film tries to explain that the boxes only awakened after Superman’s death as there was no longer a force powerful enough to prevent the attack on Earth. But there are two problems with this premise: firstly, Superman is what? 35 years old or thereabouts? The boxes had millennia before Superman ever arrived on Earth when they could have awoken. And secondly, Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and the others should have always known that they were on Earth, even if they didn’t know the precise location of each box.

One of the magical macguffin boxes.

The Mother Boxes are, as mentioned, little more than magical macguffins to allow the story to flow and to give teeth to the villains. But the logical inconsistencies in their story makes it difficult to accept them as the foundation for the film’s narrative. How did Darkseid and Steppenwolf “lose” the location of Earth when they’d literally been here before? The film doesn’t explain or acknowledge this, yet it feels like a pretty major omission.

Compared to a lot of villains out there, both in comic book/superhero fiction and beyond, Darkseid’s objective is incredibly basic. He seems to want to conquer and kill for no other reason than “because.” He’s an evil-for-the-sake-of-it kind of villain, and those kinds of characters just don’t stand up to villains with more complexity and nuance. If I were being rude I might say that asking for complexity and nuance from a superhero film is too much, but there are many decent examples of villains in the genre whose motivations are understandable and hold up to scrutiny. Even if the overall objective is the same – conquering Earth – some villains just have a better reason for doing so than Darkseid. The film tries to throw in a revenge plot, saying that Darkseid’s earlier defeat is spurring him on, but that doesn’t answer the most basic of questions: why does he do what he does?

Steppenwolf, Darkseid’s henchman.

It was a profoundly odd choice for this version of the film to end with a long epilogue sequence that clearly set up a sequel – a sequel that we’ve known for four years isn’t going to happen. DC has completely reworked its film output, partly due to the perceived failings of the original version of Justice League, and several of the actors who took on the roles are done. Batman is being rebooted without Ben Affleck, Superman without Henry Cavill, and as far as I know there are no plans for Ray Fisher to reprise his role as Cyborg. Wonder Woman 1984 received mixed reviews, and while there are plans for a film involving this version of the Flash, as well as for a sequel to Aquaman, it seems all but certain that this version of the Justice League is finished.

Under such circumstances, I question the decision to end the film in this manner. It’s clearly teasing a sequel, but at the time Zack Snyder’s Justice League was being edited and compiled, Snyder and everyone involved knew that no sequel would be forthcoming. It feels almost mean-spirited to end on this note; it leaves the whole story feeling unfinished. And unfinished it is, as Darkseid wasn’t defeated and his planned invasion is coming – but it seems unlikely we’ll ever see that on screen.

The film’s final moments set up a sequel that everyone knows isn’t ever going to be made.

There were some great special effects and CGI moments in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but there were also some awful visual misses. Cyborg is firmly in the uncomfortable uncanny valley, with half a human face and half a CGI face on a CGI body, and the two halves don’t mesh well at too many points. There were dozens of moments where the use of green screens was patently obvious; just off the top of my head I’d pick out several close-up shots of Barry/Flash running at high speed, and the queen of the Amazons on horseback as some of the worst examples of this. Although Justice League had a huge budget, perhaps some of these visual misses are due to the fact that this director’s cut had less money to work with? That’s a guess on my part but could explain some of the issues.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film that tried very hard. At various points it wanted to be The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and even The Lord of the Rings. Though it clearly took inspiration from better films, the way it put them together and brought them to screen makes it a substantially weaker film than any of them; a popcorn action flick with delusions of grandeur. If this is what fans wanted, I’m genuinely happy for them, and the fact that I’m not really a comic book/superhero fan was perhaps always going to colour my impressions of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Even with that caveat, however, I have to say I’ve seen far better comic book films.

So that was Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s probably the worst film I’ve seen so far this year. I don’t think I need to say anything more than that.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States, on Sky or Amazon in the UK (via pay-per-view), and via a patchwork of other streaming services internationally. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Films. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.