Let’s just start with the key takeaway: Justice League is a disappointing film that, despite being the shortest film in the current DC Comics film cycle, feels like the longest and shallowest.
Which might seem strange as Justice League has a lot to do. It needs to establish three new primary characters — Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and someone claiming to be Barry Allen (Ezra Miller). It has to introduce a new villain in the form of New God Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds). It has to pay off ideas seeded way back in Man of Steel and finish a dangling thread from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Oh, and just for fun, it also hints at some of the more cosmic aspects of the DC Universe.
And yet, for all it has to accomplish, the film feels empty. Like this past summer’s The Dark Tower, it lacks an interest in itself or its situation. Steppenwolf’s agenda is, ultimately, the same as Zod’s from Man of Steel. The change in Batman’s persona feels more like Ben Affleck being over it than Batman experiencing an existential crisis over Superman’s death. But perhaps the most damning aspect of Justice League‘s pervasive mediocrity is the way it fails to make uniting the characters on screen a momentous event.
While a plot summary seems silly at this point, here are the broad strokes. When Batman becomes aware of a possible alien invasion, he attempts to bring together to other super-powered beings noted in Lex Luthor’s files. A few initially refuse the call. And when they are finally in one room, they bicker. But Batman has a plan and believes the team will work. Well, with one more addition, perhaps.
That premise is sound, but the script by Chris Terrio and noted feminist/foosball enthusiast Joss Whedon arranges it in a series of extended set-pieces and introductory info-dumps. Here’s a long Batman crime-fighting scene. Let’s have Wonder Woman foil some scheme to reintroduce her to the audience. Let’s have Wonder Woman explain what a Mother Box is over an extended fight sequence out of The Lord of the Rings. Let’s have the person claiming to be Barry Allen list all the things he’s afraid of. But for all the generous screentime the script gives to each sequence, they all feel too long. And like the obvious sets and digital extensions to key locations like the Batcave and the Kent Farm, there’s something artificial to them. The net effect is a leaden pace and a story which fails to engage in just about every way.
A few bright spots emerge in the performances, though. Gal Gadot brings a confidence to her role like no one else in the film. But what Momoa, Fisher and Miller lack in experience-earned confidence, they make up for with enthusiasm. Granted, Momoa is lending his persona to Arthur and Miller is playing someone who is not Barry Allen, but both are likeable enough presences on screen. Fisher may be the strongest of the debuts, though, giving Vic a sense of gravitas and inner turmoil the script really doesn’t have time to examine because empty fights are more important.
Which leads us to one bit spoilery territory: Superman’s resurrection.
For decades, Warner Bros. Pictures wanted to dramatize the Death and Life of Superman. But in the end, it appears as a lifeless CGI mess in which the returned Kal-El fights the team and calls back to Batman’s “Do you bleed?” line from BvS. This is the scene featuring the most maligned of Henry Cavill’s digital mouths to hide his mustache. And, ultimately, that attempt at cinema magic becomes the most compelling thing about the scene because we know how the fight will turn out.
Consider for a moment the way Whedon earns a similar scene in The Avengers. The obvious philosophical differences in Tony Stark and Steve Rogers simmers until Loki uses it to his advantage. The tension spills over into the other characters on the hellicarrier as they all find it uneasy to work together. The subtext, emotional content, and sense that the fight means something are all missing from Justice League. Well, except for one key line uttered by Diana, but the scene moves away from that to resolve — after a fashion — the conflict between Clark and Batman; ignoring a more interesting emotional hook.
And to return to performances for a moment, Cavill finally comes to life as a sarcastic Superman after this sequence. There’s even a little bit of warmth to him and he almost smiles in a few shots. Though, that might be the CGI mouth and not the actor.
Unfortunately, Superman’s return doesn’t solve the key problem with the film: it never feels like the Justice League actually forms. The group figure out how to work together off-screen — a problem it shares with The Avengers to a certain extent — but still seem isolated from one another; even when all six are needed to deal with the crisis at hand. None of the attempts at camaraderie, a Whedon specialty, successfully land. And if the League characters never bond, what’s the point of making a Justice League movie?
Creatively speaking. I’m well aware of the financial reasons to make it.
But unlike BvS, there’s no wildly idiotic moment in Justice League to point at and laugh. Unlike Suicide Squad, there’s no overt ugliness. And unlike Wonder Woman, it fails to present the characters in an inspiring light: one of the film’s stated objectives. Instead, the film sits passively as it weakly hopes that you will love the characters while they repeat the plot of a previous film. Sadly, the lack of passion on the part of the filmmakers means Warner Bros. will have to try it yet again. Maybe next time, they’ll assemble a team who really want to make a Justice League movie.
Justice League is in theaters now.
Oh, also, they finally got a Marvel-style stinger scene right!