First, the good news. Justice League is better than its joylessly somber dress rehearsal, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now the “but”…you knew there was a “but” coming, right? But it also marks a pretty steep comedown from the giddy highs of Wonder Woman. When Gal Gadot’s proto-feminist Amazonian avenger got her solo showcase earlier this year, there were a lot of DC partisans who finally had a reason to feel bullish about the state of their union. Following the exit of Christian Bale in 2012, it was the first real glimmer of hope that maybe the studio was headed in the right direction. That the future was bright. Justice League won’t extinguish that hope. Not by a long shot. But it also doesn’t quite translate into a winning streak either. It’s a placeholder in a franchise that’s already had too many placeholders.
Directed by Zack Snyder (with a big assist from Joss Whedon — a balancing act of darkness and light), the film kicks off with the world mourning the death of Superman. Rank and file mortals aren’t the only ones grieving either. Minus the Man of Steel, Batman and Wonder Woman are down a man. And into this imbalance has come a swarm of locust-like flying demons doing the buzzing bidding of a mysterious super-threat to humanity. Our heroes need help. So Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince head off to recruit a trio of new teammates to join the cause: Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg.
The first third of the film, which doubles as a previously-in-the-world-of-DC catch-up as well as an assembling-the-new-team scouting mission, has a welcome breezy energy. The pace of Justice League, which clocks in under two hours, feels like a blessing after so much bloat in previous superhero films. And Snyder’s gorgeously slick visual style is as easy on the eyes as ever. He seems to dream in comic book panels. While Gadot is as effortlessly charismatic as she was in Wonder Woman, Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman has turned into a bit of a drag (only occasionally leavened by Jeremy Irons’ ever-loyal Alfred). There’s a smugness in his performance that only appeared around the edges in Dawn of Justice. Now it’s the whole show. When Affleck’s Bruce Wayne heads off to convince Jason Momoa’s Aquaman to enlist, he wisecracks, “I hear you talk to fish…” with a cocky, condescending grin on his mug. At that moment, Affleck looks like the highest-paid captive in a hostage video. Fortunately, there are other actors who look like they actually want to be there.
With his long rocker hair, boozy swagger, and frescoes of scaly tattoos, Momoa looks like a cross between Michael Phelps and a member of the Oakland branch of the Hells Angels. You could argue (as comics lovers have for ages) about how critical it is for this team to have an ambassador to the deep, but Momoa ends up getting one of the movie’s best scenes. During one of the group’s impromptu pow wows, Aquaman begins to insult all of the other superheroes and their backstories — except for Wonder Woman, whom he has a thing for. He thinks he’s just saying all of these brutally honest things in his head, then he realizes that he’s actually saying them out loud because he’s sitting on Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.
Ezra Miller’s the Flash, on the other hand, is more overtly needy in his bid for laughs. Like Tom Holand’s Spider-Man, he gives the movie a energetically loose and nerdy shot in the arm. At first, his nervous, stammering character is a caffeinated breath of fresh air. He’s like a stand-in for all of the fanboys in the audience, geeking out over how cool the Batcave is. But after a while a little of this shtick goes a long way, and you’d gladly trade in half of his motormouth one-liners for a blurringly fast action sequence half as clever as Quicksilver’s in X-Men: Days of Future Past. As for Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, a tragic, Robocop half-man/half-machine loner genius…well, someone has to draw the short stick. At one point, he’s even forced to say “Boo-yah” — a word no one other than a ‘90s SportsCenter host could successfully pull off. In what will be a secret to absolutely no one, there’s also the Lazarus-like resurrection of Henry Cavill’s Superman, who still has to sort out his tense relationship with the Caped Crusader.
Once united, the Super Six have to take on the villain behind all those flying insects, Steppenwolf. And during his first appearance it quickly becomes clear that Justice League has an Apocalypse problem. Like that big blue X-Men baddie, Steppenwolf is one of those patently phony CGI creations that gives the film a uncanny-valley shlockiness. He looks like a cross between a Viking and a billy goat. The best thing about him is that he booms threats in the menacing basso profundo of Ciaran Hinds. The worst thing is…pretty much everything else, including his world-destroying M.O. to find and unite three all-powerful, vibrating supernatural “mother boxes” that are only slightly less ridiculous than Infinity Stones. Is it really that hard to come up with a decent villain who wants something other than geometric maguffins?
Still, there are things to like in Justice League. The chemistry between the old and new castmembers being the main one, thanks to Whedon and co-writer Chris Terrio. And the handful of call-back cameos from Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, Diane Lane’s Martha Kent, and Connie Nielsen’s Queen Hippolyta are all welcome without overstaying that welcome (the same goes for newcomers like J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon). It’s obvious to anyone watching Justice League next to the other DC films that the studio brass handed down a mandate to lighten the mood and make things funnier and more Marvel-y. And, to an extent, Justice League accomplishes that. But it also feels like so much attention was paid to the smaller, fizzier character moments that the bigger picture of the film’s overarching plot was a second or third priority. Some day, hopefully soon, DC will get the recipe right again and duplicate Wonder Woman’s storytelling magic. But today isn’t that day, and Justice League unfortunately isn’t that film. C+