REVIEW: ‘Justice League’ is an aggressively bland union of DC’s heroes

 J.K. Simmons, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ben Affleck and Ezra Miller in  Justice League , directed by Zack Snyder.

J.K. Simmons, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ben Affleck and Ezra Miller in Justice League, directed by Zack Snyder.

Superhero team-up movies are supposed to be true event cinema. Even 15 years into the modern (post-Sam Raimi’s Spider Man) era of comic-book movies, it’s still sort of a big deal when a group of costumed heroes get together for the first time on screen. The new Justice League film is no exception: it features the first live-action depictions of characters like Aquaman and Cyborg, and it contains the largest roster of DC’s heroes and villains of any of their films to date.

So when the movie that’s supposed to be such an important moment for a still-fledgling franchise ends up being thoroughly mediocre, does that spell bad news for the series? Not really; unlike the all-but-officially-cancelled Dark Universe movies, DC’s planned stable of films has a considerably more robust fanbase and plenty of attraction for even the most casual moviegoers.  Justice League is also far from the worst offender in the grander ecosystem of superhero movies. That dishonour could go to a handful of other titles: Green Lantern, Suicide Squad, or even League’s antecedent, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Set against the rage-inducing structure, annoying performances and embarrassing scripting of Batman v Superman, Justice League initially feels like a major step forward from its predecessor. At the very least, the new film has some internal logic and the ability to sustain a train of thought about a character or a plot point. But this is a limp improvement – being mostly functional doesn’t create a lot of thrills.

 Affleck's Batman is a questionable focus for most of the film.

Affleck's Batman is a questionable focus for most of the film.

And let there be no ambiguity: other than a handful of fun one-liners and set-pieces, Zack Snyder’s film is only remarkable in how it puts a Band-Aid on the worst injuries in the earlier (non-Wonder Woman) films. It’s a trim, two-hour installment of the DC canon, but compared to the irreverence and fluidity of something like Thor: Ragnarok, there’s still a long, long way to go.

The action kicks off in the wake of Batman v Superman, with Superman (Henry Cavill) dead following the battle with Doomsday. Batman (Ben Affleck) is on the trail of a new enemy that seems to be taking advantage of the loss of the Man of Steel: a force of winged robo-orcs called Parademons. The creatures are searching for the film’s wholly lame MacGuffin, a trio of tessellated Mother Boxes, which apparently contain the power to turn Earth into a Hellscape.

The Parademons are in fact doing the bidding of an entity called Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a huge alien warrior who believes that conquering Earth will get him a promotion at work (the film itself seems bored with his motivations). Knowing he’s outnumbered, Batman decides to recruit a team to face the threat, bringing on Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller). Cue the anti-social tensions you’d expect from costumed vigilantes, and watch them eventually get their act together and save the world.

 Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciarán Hinds.

Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciarán Hinds.

Steppenwolf ought to serve as the new definition for “generic supervillain”. His abilities are vague and his dialogue sounds like someone simply cleaned up the outtakes from a random Transformers recording session. It’s obvious that the screenwriters are using him as a stepping stone to a bigger bad, the god-like Darkseid, who would most likely appear in a later sequel. But Steppenwolf is so tiresome to watch that my mind began to wander: what does he have under that horned helmet thing? Hair? Or are the horns part of his head, and it would hurt to break them off? (To its limited credit, the movie does reveal that it’s a helmet).

The film also fails to address what sort of Batman we have on our hands. When we last saw him, Batman had grudgingly (though ridiculously) accepted that Superman was a force for good. Now his main mission for much of the film is to convince the other heroes that Superman needs to be brought back from the dead. His plan to do it, by the way, is almost as silly as the “Martha!” revelation: something about dropping a Mother Box in some Kryptonian goo as Flash zips past and gives the thing an electric shock. After all the anti-Superman growling and ranting Batman does in the previous film, his new push to revive Supes rings incredibly hollow, a screenwriting contrivance that eats up almost an entire act of the film.

Most of the bright spots in the movie come from quick character moments. Gal Gadot brings some much-needed level-headedness to the ensemble, and sneaks in some good banter here and there. Aquaman and Cyborg are also solid, and even Flash gets one or two good scenes, though he’s clearly been identified as the token comic-relief character, and a lot of material falls flat. As for the supporting characters, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is given just enough to say to avoid feeling like a walk-on role, but we never see the famous reporter do any journalism. Likewise, Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) is in the film so briefly it makes you wish they’d simply saved his introduction for the standalone Batman movie on the horizon.

 Aquaman (Jason Momoa) contributes more good material than anyone.

Aquaman (Jason Momoa) contributes more good material than anyone.

More than anything, Justice League confirms that the DC movies are in desperate need of a governing voice or direction. When Joss Whedon took over the helm of this movie after a tragedy in Zack Snyder’s family, he apparently reined in some of Snyder’s worst impulses: characters and narrative aren’t sacrificed for the sake of comic book panel recreations, and there’s less of the obnoxious slo-mo.

But with two directors, the movie feels like it’s pointing viewers towards contradictory visions of the DC universe, when what we really need is something to rally around. The idea that’s repeated throughout the marketing for Justice League, and even in the world of the story, is “unity”, but the film still leaves us with a very divided group of DC films. All the more reason to hand the franchise over to Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins; hiring the one filmmaker who’s made a good film in this universe is something we can all agree on.

Justice League gets two stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts

  • I had forgotten about how the filmmakers had to remove Cavill’s mustache with CGI, and now I can’t unsee it – his reshot scenes are hyper-distracting.
  • I guess by relocating the climax to a post-meltdown Russian disaster zone, the heroes and villains could brawl without making fans mad about collateral damage?
  • Part of me wanted Steppenwolf's "boom tube" teleporting to sound like a guy yelling, "BOOM!"