Despite Heroic Efforts, Justice League Fails to Rescue the DC Extended Universe

Review by Curt Holman

Warner Bros. Pictures

One of the main things that struck me while watching Justice League, and that stayed with me afterward, was how bad the villain is.

I don’t mean the relative evil of Steppenwolf, an ancient warrior space god bent on finding three artifacts to remake the Earth. I mean how thinly he’s written and how terribly he’s rendered as an all-CGI character. Respectable actor Ciarán Hinds provides an utterly generic voice performance, the character has scarcely more than one facial expression – the most threatening thing about Steppenwolf is that you’ll see him and die of embarrassment for the cast and filmmakers.

But it’s not like Justice League botched a classic character. Steppenwolf is an obscure sidekick to Darkseid, one of the most powerful and iconic villains in DC history. So why isn’t Darkseid the villain in Justice League, the theoretical flagship film in the DC Extended Universe? Good question: it seems as though the filmmakers wanted to use Justice League to gather the team and drop hints about Darkseid, who’ll show up in a sequel, when things will supposedly really pop off.

Which is the problem with nearly most of the DCEU movies to date: They’ve been so intent on setting up an Avengers-like franchise down the road while ignoring terrible decisions about the movies right in front of them. Justice League attempts an obvious course correction from the joyless murk of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but still proves ugly and sloppy, despite some saving graces.

Snyder returned to direct Justice League, but left in the spring following a family tragedy, and Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon came aboard for reshoots and rewrites. (Whedon shares screenplay credit with Chris Terrio, suggesting extensive revisions.) Justice League tries to lighten things up, but you may not notice those efforts for almost an hour. An early sequence conveys how the world has lost its hope since Superman died with a sadness montage set to a Leonard Cohen cover.

Superman’s death seems to have more consequences than mass psychological trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck) has detected an incursion of winged goblin creatures, which he suspects are scouts ahead of an alien invasion of the defenseless planet. Batman reaches out to his new ally Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to help track down new super-powered individuals, following clues left in the previous film. Boozing biker-type Aquaman (Jason Momoa) seems more interested in protecting the oceans than the surface world. Socially awkward speedster the Flash (Ezra Miller) is eager to sign up and make friends, but deeply phobic about fighting. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is a young prodigy given a mechanical body due to otherworldly technology (which proves directly connected to Steppenwolf).

Not only does the film introduce new heroes, they each have at least one supporting character, serving to clutter up an already choppy, overcrowded story (that reportedly had a mandate to run no more than two hours). You can be simultaneously pleased to see, say, J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon and annoyed that he’s only in a couple of scenes. Even a grieving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Ma Kent (Diane Lane) are on hand for wearying speeches that take the fizz out of Adams’ signature effervescence.

Justice League delivers plenty of action scenes, including Batman hunting a “parademon” in Gotham, Wonder Woman foiling terrorists in London and Steppenwolf wreaking havoc on Atlantis and the Amazons’ home. Most feel perfunctory – the ones with Steppenwolf look like videogames – but once the team assembles, the filmmakers allow themselves to have fun. In one scene, a character proves able to see The Flash running at super-speed, and the Flash is shocked to see them SEEING him – it may be the most delightful moment in all five DCEU films that doesn’t involve Wonder Woman.

The actors gamely take on the film’s whiplash changes in tone between Snyder’s gloom and Whedon’s snark. Gadot’s poise may be her greatest superpower, and she never seems caught by the gravity that weighs down Affleck, who plays an effective, understated Bruce Wayne but never seems sure of himself as Batman. Miller sells the Flash’s rabbity comic relief pretty hard, but his snappy patter is always welcome. (The super-speed effects never match the Quicksilver set pieces from the recent X-Men movies, though.)

It’s public knowledge that Henry Cavil, who played Superman in the past two films, is on hand here. I won’t spoil the nature of his appearance, but Justice League draws out far more of his charm than its predecessors.

Despite such saving graces, Justice League falls to earth more often than not, particularly during a headache-y finale with overly familiar action beats and CGI landscapes.

And while Justice League is more significantly enjoyable than Batman v Superman, the latter seemed like the film that Snyder wanted to make. It may have been a grueling betrayal of beloved characters’ comic book origins, but at least committed to its ideas. Justice League feels like a film that nobody really wanted to make – at least, not in the compromised form that arrives in theaters. A lot of people put heroic effort into the production, but the effort is almost all you see.

Justice League. C.  Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon. Stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot. Rated PG-13.

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