The conventional wisdom is that Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman (2016), the first two entries in the wannabe “DC Extended Universe”, were critical duds partly due to their unremittingly dour tone. The grim, brooding atmosphere that worked well in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2015 - 2012) is a poor fit for stories about the Last Son of Krypton, or so the thinking goes. In truth, tone is not actually one of MoS's or BvS’s more glaring flaws. Notwithstanding the pouting of comic book fans with inflexible notions of how Superman “should” act or a Superman story “should” feel, Snyder’s conception of the material at least offered some fresh, off-kilter interpretations of iconic characters and scenarios. (Michael Shannon’s General Zod remains the DCEU’s most engrossing villain, by an enormous margin.) The films also boasted plenty of inspired design and striking images, even if such sensory pleasures were often shrouded in desaturated digital murk.
No, the most significant issue with MoS and BvS (the latter more than the former) is their general unintelligibility. Snyder’s DCEU films are feverishly ambitious and remorseless, but they are also unforgivably sloppy; chock-a-block with hazy motivations, muddled chronology, and glaringly disjointed editing. Not even Batman in his World’s Greatest Detective aspect could flowchart the theatrical cut of BvS, although it wasn’t until David Ayer’s Suicide Squad last year that filmgoers truly got a taste for how incoherent and illogical a major studio blockbuster could be.
Sadly, Warner Bros. seems to have learned some cock-eyed lessons from their early stumbles, as the solution that has plainly been applied to Justice League—Synder’s third foray into this dubious franchise—is to make it more Avengers-y. Accordingly, Marvel Studios’ crossover event helmsman Joss Whedon was enticed to team up with Chris Terrio and take a whack at the screenplay for League. (Whedon also stepped in for Snyder when the latter had to depart at the tail end of the production for family reasons.) Whedon’s fingerprints are discernable in the new film’s slathering of quips, jibes, and other super-banter, particularly the nervous, deadpan witticisms tossed off by Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller). Admittedly, Whedon’s warm-hearted snark is welcome, and Miller delivers the film’s more delicious lines with marvelous comic timing. (An anxious reference to Pet Semetary is among the film’s best wisecracks.)
However, jokiness can only do so much to support a clumsily conveyed story, particularly when the humor feels like a drizzle of icing rather than an essential component of the film’s narrative and thematic recipe. (See Guardians of the Galaxy for an example of the latter done right.) Justice League revives the storytelling problems that bedeviled Snyder’s previous DCEU outings, leaving the viewer to grope their way through confused plotting, kludgy exposition, and half-baked characterization. Avengers at least had a bench of well-developed heroes fresh from their own solo films, illustrating the advantages of Marvel’s painstakingly pre-planned approach to the blockbuster franchise. League is obliged to introduce three new “meta-humans” and a super-villains, each with their own vaguely conveyed history and character arc. As a result, everything in the film feels rushed and undernourished. Entire scenes flicker by without much clarity regarding their place in the narrative, or their relationship to the preceding or following scene. Every filmgoer will be reduced to a dazed senior citizen, whispering queries to their grandkids: "Who is that? Where is this? What’s happening?”
Unlike Suicide Squad, however, Justice League isn’t an aggressively unpleasant slog. Indeed, Snyder’s latest film is often downright fun, especially when he seizes on his performers’ raw charisma, or when a live-wire moment of stark dramatic tension cuts through the muddled storytelling. The latest baddie to threaten Earth is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds via motion capture), a hulking, armored godling with a colossal battleaxe and an army of zombified insectoid “Parademons” at his command. Like most cinematic supervillains of late, he’s criminally bland, having no significant attributes beyond being big, strong, and mean. (However, Hinds does get to bellow one utterly delectable comic book line: “Praise to the mother of horrors!”) Ages ago, the dimension-hopping Steppenwolf was routed during his attempted conquest of Earth, and he’s itching for payback. Integral to his plan are three “Mother Boxes”—surely the silliest MacGuffin name in years—which, when brought together, will allow him to rapidly terraform the planet, incidentally wiping out all life in the process. (Wasn’t that General Zod’s exact scheme from Man of Steel? Whatever. It hardly matters.)
Standing in opposition to this apocalyptic yet somehow tedious menace are uncertain partners Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. the Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Alerted to Steppenwolf’s imminent invasion, the pair scramble to recruit others with extraordinary abilities: the lightning-fast Flash, who is still getting the hang of his powers and his hero status; self-exiled Atlantean prince Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who likes booze, solitude, and the small-bore heroism of rescusing fishermen; and Victor Stone a.k.a., Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a deceased A student and star athlete resurrected via alien cybernetics by his own scientist father. Naturally, Bruce and Diana encounter some resistance when putting the team together—although not from Barry, who geeks out over the Batcave and is enthused to have some actual friends. Also naturally, the group eventually comes together to oppose Steppenwolf, learning lessons about cooperation and camraderie in the process. Yay!
The elephant in the room is Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal El, a.k.a. Superman (Henry Cavill), whose death appears to have plunged the world into a sustained outbreak of violence, bigotry, and fanaticism. (Unfortunately, Justice League barely has time to convey this intriguing plot point, yet alone to develop it into something thematically robust.) Bruce is still moping over his role in Kal-El’s demise, but there is added urgency now that a seemingly invincible interdimensional threat is bearing down on the planet. Once Bruce learns that the Mother Boxes have the power to restore life, he hatches a mad scientist's scheme to resurrect Superman, who will presumably be able to stand toe-to-toe with Steppenwolf without breaking a sweat. However, the other members of the nascent Justice League think that this is a Very Bad Idea.
Justice League’s most frustrating flaw is that it proves to be so… ordinary. A super-powered team-up of this magnitude should be spectacular, but Snyder’s efforts to rein in his penchant for outlandish sci-fi devastation results in an adventure that feels distressingly anonymous. The film’s most memorable action sequence occurs just ten minutes into the proceedings, when Diana foils an anarchic terror plot disguised as a bank robbery. Snyder fittingly cribs from Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins’ refinements to his own lavish, speed-ramping style for this scene, but elsewhere all the fisticuffs and explosions are kinetic yet entirely forgettable. (Even the Flash’s slo-mo heroics feel like weak tea compared to Quicksilver’s wittily imagined set pieces in the X-Men prequels.) Annoyingly, Aquaman isn’t given nearly enough to do. Terrio and Whedon’s screenplay regularly strands him far from the oceanic settings where his powers are best utilized. Consequently, Arthur is obliged to engage in a lot of bland jumping, punching, and trident-poking; there are no telepathically summoned great white sharks, unfortunately.
Gadot is once again the DCEU’s gleaming star in this outing, delivering the only performance that conveys authentic warmth and nobility, at least among the super-powered characters. Amy Adams, as usual, gives the thinly-written Lois Lane more heart than the part deserves. Affleck remains a fine fit for this late-model, weary Dark Knight Returns iteration of the Caped Crusader, although he seems almost sheepishly exasperated to be bossing around a band of living gods. Which may be the point: Batman makes the plans, but Wonder Woman wears the crown, at least in Kal El's absence. Gadot even allows viewers a peek at her Amazon’s more maternal side, as she offers elder stateswoman guidance to Bruce and a mentor's encouragement to Victor. Momoa is the odd man out: In the abstract, the mellow, lone wolf persona he brings to the Prince of Atlantis has potential. He's part surfer bro, part Han Solo scoundrel, and part Aragorn-style banished scion. Something about the laid-back jocularity of the character clashes with the rest of the film, however, in a way that Miller’s fretful wiseass Flash does not. Fisher’s character has the most long-term dramatic potential—a legally dead man whose Swiss army knife powers are evolving at supercomputer speeds—but the actor is given virtually nothing to do other than sulk about, mourning his existence like Frankenstein’s monster.
There’s lots of room for nitpicking when it comes to Justice League’s story. Dwelling near Steppenwolf’s lair at a contaminated ex-Soviet site, a random human family serves as a clumsy stand-in for the billions of people the League wishes to protect, but there’s little about the nameless clan that invites the viewer’s interest or investment. The Atlanteans and their warrior-princess Mera (Amber Heard) appear and then vanish from the film so quickly, they don’t have time to leave much of an impression, let alone for the screenplay to adequately explain their role or Aquaman's history. There are nonsensical and aggravating plot points aplenty; the worst occurs when the League quite literally leaves the third Mother Box laying around for Steppenwolf to nick while their backs are turned. (You had one job, Cyborg.)
This sort of ham-fisted storytelling wouldn’t be so objectionable if Snyder’s new film had more personality. To make the feature more palatable to viewers who groused about the bleak bombast of the director’s earlier Superman films, Warner Bros. has ironically neutered Justice League, turning it into a disposable Avengers Lite. Gone is the grandiose "Tales to Astonish" spectacle embodied in Krypton’s wondrous design. Gone are the left-field gothic and giallo touches like blood gushing from the walls of the Wayne family mausoleum. Gone is anything so defiantly weird as Bruce’s Road Warrior vision of a barren Earth under the boot of a tyrannical Superman. Excised of any potentially alienating eccentricity, Justice League is merely a mildly entertaining and thoroughly unremarkable digital blip, its cinematic ungainliness offset only by its stars’ charms and its sporadic splashes of Saturday morning cartoon delight. (Stay for the mid-credits scene: It’s a winner.)