Justice League is pretty much exactly what you would expect the follow-up to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015) to be, except a good half hour shorter, which is perhaps its greatest quality. Again directed by Zack Snyder, who also helmed Batman v. Superman and the DC Universe jump-starter Man of Steel (2013), Justice League fulfills the promise of bringing together a team of DC Comics superheroes to fight off an otherworldly being hellbent on—what else?—destroying the planet Earth, and goes about this process with a world-weary sense of necessity enlivened with a few doses of comedy likely inserted by Joss Whedon (The Avengers), who was brought on board late in production to finish shooting when Snyder chose to step down following a family tragedy. It is all but impossible to discern what is Snyder’s material and what is Whedon’s material because it is all shot with the same overstuffed, dreary high style that has characterized most of Snyder’s work, perhaps most prominently in these superhero films. Justice League begins by introducing or reintroducing all the major characters, starting with Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, who gears up as the vigilante Batman with help from his versatile and dedicated butler/righthand-man/multi-screen watcher Alfred (Jeremy Irons, once again injecting a needed dose of oh-so-British wit and reserve). The opening scene in which Batman simultaneously battles a robber and a winged creature known as a Parademon that we later learn is a minion for the film’s primary villain is a stylish introduction, with its Frank Miller-esque rooftop setup dominated by film noir-ish water towers and injection of leering horror. Alas, anything that is good about this opening quickly turns repetitive.
Sensing impending doom from the return of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a vengeful alien monstrosity who is apparently not named after the late-’60s rock band, Wayne sets about assembling a team of gifted freaks from around the world. He is aided and abetted by Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), whose increased presence here was surely influenced by the unexpected critical and commercial success of her stand-alone film last summer (it is, hands-down, the best DC Universe film so far, not counting Christopher Nolan’s unrelated Dark Knight trilogy). Wayne first goes after Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a hulking, long-haired, tattooed mystery-man who turns up regularly in Iceland when he’s not living underwater. Wayne sends Wonder Woman’s alter ego Diana Prince to convince Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a young man-turned-cyborg thanks to experiments by his well-meaning father (Joe Morton), while he hones in on Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), an awkward twentysomething who lives off the grid and move faster than perhaps even Superman. Which, of course, brings us to the Man of Steel himself, who you may or may not remember was quite possibly dead at the end of the last movie. Well, Henry Cavill’s prominent second billing during the opening credits assures us right away that Supes will be back despite his absence from the promotional one-sheets and all the trailers. As it turns out, raising Superman from the dead isn’t as easy as it sounds, and one of the film’s more interesting ideas is that he re-emerges in a state of confusion and anger, which is much more dramatically compelling than all the one-note glowering he did in the previous film.
Alas, “dramatically compelling” is not a phrase one would use to describe Justice League as a whole. Like its Snyder-directed predecessors, it is a mixed bag whose every good quality is all but cancelled out by its missteps, missed opportunities, and over-eager attempts to cash in on the current superhero craze without bringing anything unique, meaningful, or even just fun to the table. The presence of Ezra Miller as The Flash brings a needed dose of energy and Millennial humor that helps to offset some of the grim seriousness, but it also means that he often stands out in ways that aren’t necessarily intended, as if wandered in from another movie. When the film tries to give moments of humor or would-be iconic one-liners to the other characters, they mostly fall flat. Do we really need to hear Cyborg intone “Boo-yah” after the film’s climactic smackdown, which, by the way, feels interminably longer than it actually is? The film also suffers from a largely uninteresting villain, whose quest to bring together three supernatural cubes that are hidden all over Earth is little more than an excuse to set scenes in exotic locations and then create a generic CGI hellscape on which the action can be staged.
The actors are all generally good, although some of the returning performers feel a bit like they’re phoning it in at this point (Amy Adams as Lois Lane, I’m looking at you, although I realize you can’t be entirely faulted given how forced your part is written). The new faces seem a bit more engaged, with Ray Fisher giving Cyborg a palpable sense of frustration and alienation and Jason Momoa making viscerally plausible one of DC’s more absurd superheroes (alas, no talking to fish occurs here, but it’s jokingly referenced enough times to make us overly aware that the writers realize how silly it might look). Headliner Ben Affleck is once again appropriately dour as billionaire Bruce Wayne / crime fighter Batman, although his one-liner joke about his superpower being the fact that he’s “incredibly rich” feels particularly awkward and unfunny in the context of the current political debate regarding a massive overhaul of the U.S. tax system that many argue will inordinately benefit the wealthiest at the expense of the middle class and the poor. While Wayne arguably uses his obscene wealth for the noble purpose of fighting for justice as a giant, heavily armored bat, we shouldn’t hold our collective breath for anything like it in real life.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros. / DC
Overall Rating: (2)
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