2.5 out of 5 stars.
Let’s start with the good news: “Justice League” is not the worst movie in the DC cinematic universe. It definitely surpasses “Batman v. Superman” (which it is in many ways a direct sequel to) and the horrid “Suicide Squad.” The bad news: saying a movie is better than “Suicide Squad” isn’t really a compliment. And while “Justice League” does get a few things right, for the first film featuring a full ensemble of some of the most famous superheroes of all time, it’s incredibly underwhelming.
One improvement is that we actually get a solid villain in this film, rather than overly quirky evil geniuses or heroes fighting each other. That villain is Steppenwolf, which will mean something if you’re familiar with DC comics, and probably just be mildly amusing if you aren’t. Played by Ciaran Hinds in a motion capture performance, Steppenwolf is a horned creature from the planet Apokolips, who has returned to Earth to find and unite the three Mother Boxes, which contain a mysterious energy that would allow him to conquer the planet (at this point, the plot of the film somehow manages to be both simple and overly-complicated). The world is still mourning Superman (Henry Cavill), who died at the end of “Batman v. Superman,” and many people are in fear of what will happen without him around to defend the planet—a fear that Steppenwolf senses that prompts him to make a move, along with his army of Parademons (they basically look like big humanoid dragonflies).
Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) begin to see the warning signs of Steppenwolf’s arrival, and begin to assemble a team of people with extraordinary abilities to help them stop him. “Batman v. Superman” already established that Diana and Bruce are aware of these other heroes’ existence, so the first half of the film is largely spent briefly establishing their backstories and following Bruce and Diana as they attempt to recruit them. These scenes are actually the best in the movie. The film relies heavily on the assumption that most people watching already have basic knowledge of the other heroes and their powers, but the story still does a good job giving the viewer just enough backstory to get to know the characters and get everyone through this movie without its two-hour runtime feeling too crammed. These heroes include Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), aka the Flash, who has super speed; Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), aka the Aquaman, the heir to the throne of the undersea kingdom Atlantis; and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), aka Cyborg, whose father used technology to reconstruct him after a terrible car accident nearly claimed his life, and giving him the ability to manipulate computers and other tech. All of the actors are quite good, with Miller’s Flash being the stand-out, as he embodies the awkwardness and humor usually associated with the character. Momoa’s Aquaman has potential, but he’s given little to do in this movie, and his powers are not made clear. We see him swim very fast, and Batman makes a couple jokes about his supposedly ability to talk to fish (which, in the comics, is Aquaman’s most famous power), but we don’t see that power or anything else special in action.
But overall, all of the characters, not just Barry Allen, have a bit of a sense of humor in this movie, even Bruce Wayne, which is quite the turnaround from the gloom and doom of “Batman v. Superman.” Most of the humor stems from the team dynamic, which plays out pretty convincingly. The heroes bicker and get competitive, but when it matters, they work together without a moment’s hesitation. But this lighter tone doesn’t carry through the entire movie, which makes the whole production feel quite inconsistent.
“Justice League” is helmed by Zack Snyder, and it looks and feels like a Snyder movie, for better or for worse. There’s a ton of heavy-handed CG effects, stylized action and slow-motion shots, and visually the film is still overall as dark and dreary as Snyder’s previous work. Some of the scenes early on are quite beautiful, though, like a sequence in which Batman confronts a robber on a rooftop in Gotham, or the very first scene in the movie—a wonderful scene, other than the fact that it is problematic to the rest of the story. It appears to be shot on a phone, from the point of view of two young boys interviewing Superman for their podcast. The final question they ask him is something along the lines of “What is your favorite thing about Earth?” Superman looks away, pausing, seriously considering it. He then looks right at the camera and is about to respond, when the scene cuts away to the opening title.
Let’s break this down a bit. First off, these opening scenes are quite serious compared to some of the lighter, even cheesier, sequences that occur later on. They fail to establish a consistent tone for the film. These first scenes, as I also mentioned before, are better than the second half of the movie, which devolves into the bizarre resurrection of Superman and ends as most of the movies seem to end, with the heroes battling a horde of faceless alien creatures. But what this opening scene with Superman really seems to suggest is that this film will be about people—not just blinding saving the world, but helping actual people. It’s a trap that “Batman v. Superman” fell in to, and something that thus far, only “Wonder Woman” has not only addressed, but excelled at.
Sadly, that is not the case for this movie. We get a glimpse of Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira, and of Aquaman’s homeland of Atlantis, but we get barely a glimmer of the world of humans outside of the heroes and their immediate surroundings. We know that the world is supposedly in mourning and in fear following the death of Superman, but where are all these people? More importantly, where are all these people after Superman is brought back to life, because there is literally no reaction seen or even implied from anybody. It seems to me like the return of Earth’s savior might be, I don’t know, kind of a big deal. And despite the fact that the Earth is at stake, it never feels that way, because we never see the effects of the heroes’ and villains’ actions on the world. There are a couple nice moments, mostly (unsurprisingly) thanks to Diana, who decides that after decades working in the shadows it’s time for her to become a public figure and an inspiration to people.
With the right person behind the camera, there’s a lot of potential for the Justice League in the future. They are some of the greatest heroes of all time, after all, and Warner Brothers has assembled a competent cast to portray them. But they deserve better than this. The supporting players—Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons)—deserve better. Most importantly, the fans deserve better.
Runtime: 2 hours. Rated PG-13.