Justice League has a lot going against it. The de-facto sequel to Zack Snyder’s nearly universally detested Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this entry has to try to shake off the built-in audience resentment from that film, while also attempting to dramatically extend the DC cinematic universe and set up countless future films featuring new characters. Oh, and it also has to tell a somewhat comprehensible and engaging story, while hopefully putting the DC film franchise back-on-track. Those are some herculean tasks for one movie, and Justice League often buckles under those insane expectations.
As the film opens, the world is mourning the death of Superman, who perished at the end of Batman V. Superman. Meanwhile, Batman (Ben Affleck) is investigating a series of mysterious bug-like creatures that have been appearing throughout the city. We quickly learn that these are in fact Parademons, creatures controlled by the god Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a being with a horn-rimmed helmet intent on wiping the Earth clean for whatever reason. In pure McGuffin fashion, he needs not one but three “Mother Boxes” to unleash his full power, which are scattered and hidden between The Amazons, The Atlanteans, and us mere mortals.
After Steppenwolf attacks the Amazons, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) reaches out to Batman for help. Thus begins the “putting the team together” sequence of the film, which takes up a solid 50% of its running time. We eventually meet The Flash (Ezra Miller), a nebbish teenager with the ability to run really fast, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the tattooed, hard-drinking bro who can communicate with fish, and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a teenager who was fused with a robotic body after a devastating accident, whose primary function seems to be that he can google things without pulling out a smart phone. While this section of the film drags on for way too long, it also features the best character moments between the diverse cast as they riff off each other and start gelling into an actual team.
If that sense of wise-cracking superhero comradery sounds familiar, it is — after director Zack Snyder had to bow out of the film at the 11th hour due to a death in the family, none other than Marvel Cinematic Universe director Joss Whedon (Avengers) stepped in, and his light-hearted sense of humour is all over Justice League. After the last few DC films were roundly criticized for their solemn attitude and excessive violence, Justice League was apparently re-written (and re-shot) to add some much-needed levity to the picture, which was somewhat successful.
The problem is that the jokes here are mostly stale, and come via random one-liners instead of actual character moments. What few funny moments exist in the film are overshadowed by the movie’s general sluggishness, which feels interminable despite its relatively svelte 2-hour rung time (the theatrical cut of Batman V. Superman was 151 minutes, with the extended edition running an incomprehensible 181 minutes).
Where Justice League really falls flat is with its main villain, which is about as cookie-cutter as they come. With the generic “evil CGI” face we’ve seen countless times since The Lord of the Rings films, and with nothing to distinguish him from the hordes of other super-villains we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s hard to invest much in our heroes’ struggle with Steppenwolf. To make matters worse, the eventual confrontation is simply an endless group battle in an abandoned nuclear site in Russia that looks like the Hell-level of any first-person shooter you can think of. Filled with Snyder’s love of slow-motion action scenes and bland backgrounds, the last 40 minutes of the film simply feel like you’re watching an extended cute scene from Injustice, without any of the fun or sense of accomplishment.
In some ways, you can’t fault Justice League for being what it is. This is a film that exists solely to set up other films in the franchise. The baseline plot and throwaway villain are completely inconsequential – what’s important is making sure that we see just enough of the three new characters we’re introduced to that we’ll pony up to see their eventual spin-off films down the road. The entire film is basically a stop-gap on the way to (hopefully) better things down the road for the DC cinematic universe.
There are things Justice League gets right – while the jokes often consist of terrible attempts at catch-phrases, there is at least an attempt to lighten things up from the dreary world of Batman V. Superman. The casting is also very done, with Ezra Miller’s The Flash adding some much-needed enthusiasm and energy to the group who all seem like they would rather be doing anything else (Miller essentially plays the Tom Holland Spider-Man role here).
Overall, Justice League just feels like such a squandered opportunity. With a great set of actors and characters most of us are already predisposed to care about, it shouldn’t be so hard to tell an involving story while still setting up the future of the shared universe. Without throwing shade, it’s something Marvel has been doing for years, but even with Whedon on-board to charm-it-up, Justice League remains a scattered mess.