After you’ve seen Justice League come back and listen to our Spoiler Special.
Justice League, the latest IP-to-cash conversion scheme from Warner Bros. and DC Comics, seems to hate its predecessor almost as much as the rest of us did. Last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was as grim as its title was ungainly; Justice League actually attempts to make jokes. That film was nihilistic, with protagonists who beefed with each other for no particular reason; this one strains to be hopeful, with unlikely compatriots uniting for a greater good. That movie, despite its promised tête-à-tête, was weighted down by extraneous flashbacks, clunky exposition, and inscrutable teases of future films. And this one … well, it muddles through a lot of flashbacks, exposition, and marginally less inscrutable teases. What did you expect? Even the strength of Superman couldn’t turn this ship all the way around.
Because the film brings together some of our most iconic comic-book superheroes, Justice League ought to have left fans and studio execs feeling giddier than Lex Luthor on New Death Ray Day. Instead, thanks to Batman v Superman’s poor reception, reports of extensive reshoots, and the continued employment of Ben Affleck as Batman, there’s really been just one reason to look forward to this sequel: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), whose solo film earlier this year was a hit both with critics and at the box office, and whose thrilling, disarming treatment of its source material suggested that the deadly serious DC Extended Universe might be able to locate some panache and heart. And that’s what it tried to do, bringing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon late in the process to script-doctor the already filmed movie and then, after director Zack Snyder stepped back from the production amid personal tragedy, take over as director of the reshoots. If you thought DC’s movies could use a sprinkling of Marvel dust, here we have it.
While we don’t quite know who oversaw what in Justice League, you can feel the two men’s sensibilities gnawing at the other. Here is a world where Superman (Henry Cavill) has died, killed in the last film by oh-who-cares-at-this-point, but an opening sequence tries to play things both operatically—lots of civilians shuffling in slow-motion misery—and playfully: We glimpse a newspaper front page containing pictures of Superman, Prince, and David Bowie with the headline, “DID THEY RETURN TO THEIR PLANET?” It’s prophetic: Justice League can’t quite shake the crudely philosophical, bulging-muscles melodrama by which Snyder (300, Watchmen) became an A-list director, but it wouldn’t mind injecting the pizzazz of a good Tony Stark–Bruce Banner banter session, too. Often these approaches collide in the same scene.
I doubt the villainous Darkseid himself could devise a torture device as punishing as the first hour of Justice League. As with the front half of Batman v Superman, it is almost entirely setup, a tangle of vignettes and backstory involving an imminent threat (Batman is tracking an invasion force of buglike “parademons”), new heroes with varying degrees of interest in joining the fray (Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, Ezra Miller’s the Flash, and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman), and a triple-MacGuffin plot, which involves mysterious doomsday cubes and an ancient battle between gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, and men. These strands emerge rapidly yet elliptically, shrouding what is actually a very simple story: A “new god” named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) wants to turn the Earth into a hellacious tribute to his fellow cosmic deities, but he needs the three “mother boxes” to do it, and that means it’s time for Batman and Wonder Woman, pals since BvS, to call in their top prospects.
At that point, the team finally teams up and—to my immense surprise—the film, at least in spurts, becomes kind of fun. Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the same driven, ass-kicking, and name-taking outsider that she was in her solo film, but this time she’s pushing others—like the tragic and reticent Cyborg—to come into their own super-responsibilities. Momoa plays Aquaman like a cowboy taking his third ride on a mechanical bull, a happy bro-warrior who is the team’s loose cannon. Miller’s Flash might be the greatest joy, because he plays the speedster like a neurotic, inexperienced oddball who, when he meets Batman for the first time, tries to explain his costume with, “Oh, I do competitive ice dancing.” (There’s a decent gag involving the universal truth that brunch is useless.) Speaking of Batman, Affleck has lightened up, and while his arc with Wonder Woman doesn’t quite land, at least he’s not unpleasant to be around. Last year, he grimaced at Superman and asked, “Do you bleed?” This time, he’s no longer cribbing his dialogue from a video game, issuing an intentional echo when he takes a hard fall: “Something’s definitely bleeding.” (The less said about Steppenwolf—who has the face of an extra-pruney Emperor Palpatine and cardboard-villain lines such as “You will scream!”—the better.)
It’s not just the principals who have made a course correction. Of course there is still Snyder’s signature action style, involving debris-flecked set pieces and lots and lots of timeline ramping in which the speed gets brain-meltingly slow, the better for us to witness the carnage. But even that technique comes in for a ribbing, as when the Flash races beneath a plummeting Wonder Woman to poke back in her direction the sword she is trying to catch. Justice League is aware of its director’s tics and sometimes manages to leaven them, but there are a lot of tics to overcome.
I realize I am allowing this film to slide under a very low bar. As the better Marvel films have shown, you need a lot more than zippy repartee to make a superhero film feel heartfelt and thematically resonant. And this one, despite its Whedon-y patches, is mostly a senses-assaulting mess, an offense to good taste as well as basic narrative cohesion. In one scene, Batman asks his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) where the team has just arrived, an island between Metropolis and Gotham that they discussed literally one scene earlier. Later, Batman will radio Alfred from a locale that the film has taken pains to identify as a communications dead zone. These plot holes are only the most obvious signs of the movie’s troubled origins, and they’re rather small compared with the abyss that separates the movie’s divergent tones.
It is clear by now that the brains behind the DC Extended Universe have realized that the pummeling, ponderous approach of Zack Snyder and the comic-book influences he mines—chiefly, the brooding ’80s works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore—will no longer do. (It certainly did nothing to help last year’s Suicide Squad, the worst DC film of them all.) While Wonder Woman entrusted the character to a director’s original vision to great reward, Justice League is a quarter measure, an attempt to square grimness with goofiness. As long as there are at least a dozen more of these films coming, it’d be nice if the next time Aquaman (2018), Wonder Woman (2019), and Cyborg (2020) return to save the universe, it’s one we’d actually like to spend some time in.