Justice League does the impossible. It takes a cast overflowing with talent, a bevy of beloved comic book characters, and $300 million and turns it all into two hours of tedium. It’s a laughless tale of people trying to make you laugh, occasionally charming its way out of a consistently dull existence. Choice performances might be enough to drip-feed some fans, but they are hardly enough to make up for lackluster action smothered by blinding CG and a befuddled story.
Make no mistake, though: there is a story. Picking up after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and smashing into the present day parts of Wonder Woman, the world is reeling from the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) as crime, discrimination, and hopelessness are all on the rise. There also is—inexplicably at first—the return of a villain long lost to time.
Steer clear of that second on-ramp to Mistakeville, though: that explanation isn’t at all satisfactory. It’s a breezy and lawless collision of whatever meandering threads Warner Bros. managed to lay in the DC Extended Universe. Once the understanding of why everything is happening is delivered, you’re left more confused than before it started. When did they establish all of this—any of this?
The answer is never (at least to a satisfactory degree), and that’s almost the single largest failing of the film. There is no patience here. It wants to be payoff after payoff, each character the embodiment of the worst aspects of their history. They are only their strengths, acting as ad hoc deus ex machina as needed for the story. Water becoming a problem? Call Aquaman (Jason Momoa). Technology in the way? We’ve got a Cyborg (Ray Fisher) for that.
Obstacles are ginned up on the level of serial MacGuffinism where there is no drama established from the start of a startlingly truncated arc to the end. It is, at this point, the calling card of director/co-writer Zack Snyder (that and slow motion action sequences). It’s an immature and uninteresting diorama of cool moments slapping up against each other. The time in between the bookends are fraught with visual excitement, but you are left feeling unfulfilled and hollow when it’s over.
You can most easily see this if you carry in some amount of DC lore knowledge. Snyder and his cohorts (namely co-writer Chris Terrio) want so desperately to integrate some hallmark components of the Justice League. One relationship has seeds of romance that are, in particular, beyond forced. It’s uneasy, illogical, unfeeling, and unearned.
It’s a habit of this film. It cribs a plethora of bits and pieces from other movies and shows and comics and stuffs them in with abandon. That, alone, isn’t a problem per se (see Ready Player One), but the ones Snyder chooses to incorporate are so brazenly obvious that you kind of wince. Iconic stunts or poses or maneuvers not even a few years old are reused without reverence or reference. (The opening credits are even shockingly reminiscent of Watchmen‘s.)
And it’s all at the cost of a better story. The movie makes the dreadful mistake of turning this into a nearly singular Batman story, the assembly and victory of the Justice League falling somehow squarely on his overwhelmingly square jaw. And that’s a problem when the cardboard-level depth given to Bruce Wayne in Dawn of Justice is carried over whole cloth.
An incredible number of better stories are teased and immediately dismissed. Cyborg, for instance, touches on a wealth of fascinating considerations that come with his seemingly otherworldly reincarnation. What part of him, if any, is truly alive? Are the questions he asks of himself and others from himself or from others? But then—oops—he’s just a guy that makes electronics do things even though the oh so meaty parallel between his partial death and Superman’s full death is right fucking there.
It feels like a two-hour examination of a checklist of expendable things in the DCEU. Anything that can’t be immediately undone or forgotten just won’t be done. Injuries, egos, homes: ostensibly shattered but quickly smoothed over. That includes treating Themyscira and its inhabitants as modern equivalents for an exploding Golden Gate Bridge, throwing away the tremendous work done in Wonder Woman with casual considerations of this immense, hidden world. Like, how hard is it to share production notes that say, “Don’t put them in leather bikinis.”
With all these problems (and many, many more), it’s impressive then that some of these characters still manage to shine through. Some of it can be attributed to Joss Whedon stepping into the post-production process after Snyder departed to tend to family issues; the timing of certain edits and the rhythm of character interactions are inescapably Whedonesque. But make no mistake: the magic of turning nothing into something is at the hands of these actors.
Ezra Miller is a shining example as Barry Allen/The Flash. He’s disarming in all the right ways, stumbling over and amplifying the fact that he’s a speedster being shoved into combat boots. It’s something that would otherwise be a delectable facet of the character to explore in his own movie, but Miller plays it up so as to rope you into his quirky collection of affectations and hammy responses, somehow melding into the proper form to work with every other character and their own oddities.
Momoa is similarly terrific. He feels like the ultimate culmination of what DC has been trying to turn Aquaman away from but not necessarily into (they’ve regularly struggled with what to do with him in the comics), which is to say bland, ineffectual, and forgettable. From the moment you see Momoa as Arthur Curry—not even in full Atlantean regalia—you are drawn to him. He’s gruff yet warm in a blisteringly cold world, boiling up the torrential waters around him with his charisma.
In the same way that Gal Gadot’s meager yet indelible appearances as Wonder Woman in Dawn of Justice made everyone look forward to her standalone film, that is undoubtedly going to be the effect of Miller and Momoa in this movie. But even without these stellar players in this otherwise dour game, it’s hard to see how everyone involved could have failed Batman and Superman any harder. (Yeah, Superman. He’s in so much of the marketing materials, you’d have to be dead to not know he’s in this movie.)
Batman is basically nothing here. He has inconsistent ideas of what justice looks like, sure, but more importantly he has nothing going for him. Normally, his lack of superpowers are made up with his legendary intelligence and ingenuity, but throughout Justice League, he is the guy that calls Alfred that he’s in trouble and needs another thing for the animators to render. And it doesn’t help that Affleck isn’t quite phoning it in but certainly noncommittal to his time under the cowl.
It really doesn’t help that across the DCEU, you see glimpses of other prodigious talents being squandered in milquetoast roles. Amy Adams returns as a criminally underutilized Lois Lane, J. K. Simmons makes his first appearance as a picture-perfect but painfully unnecessary Jim Gordon, and Amber Heard is pretty much absent as Mera. And let’s not even talk about Billy Crudup.
Justice League has a lot of problems drowning out a handful of winning moments, like a pin dropping in the middle of a hurricane. But the biggest problem seems to be that it is inextricably tied to the DCEU, which is somehow also inextricably tied to Zack Snyder. He has a good eye for any given shot that will look good, but when his movies have to do more than look good for more than a moment, it all falls apart.
We’re likely never going to find out in explicit terms what contributions came from Snyder/Terrio and what came from the two months of reshoots via Whedon, but the fact that no one is making assumptions and instead calling it indisputable fact which is which and which side of the coin they enjoyed says far more than I could ever put into words. Perhaps with a touch of self-awareness, Snyder has inserted him into an allegorical part of Batman. Could they save the world without him? Maybe. But he’s here anyway.
Final Score: 4 out of 10