The newest entry into the DC film universe has faced a whole host of challenges on its way to theaters, but now that it’s here all that matters is what’s up on the screen. Unfortunately, what’s up on the screen is a mess of a film highlighted by brief bits of personality too often drowned out by a movie that can’t get out of its own way soon enough.
The world is in danger. Again. A malicious being has arrived on Earth, called home by the powerful song of three “mother boxes” yearning for reunification — no spoilers regarding their names — and Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) won’t rest until that reunion turns the earth into a “primordial hellscape.” That’s how you know he’s the bad guy. The boxes have spent centuries apart — one is guarded by the Amazons, another is secure in Atlantis, and the third was buried in a shallow hole by the far less reliable humans.
Batman (Ben Affleck) can smell the coming nightmare on the horizon, and along with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), he’s actively trying to build a league of justice-minded heroes to help stop the onslaught. They pull together a scrappy group of disparate personalities and powers with Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but even combined the five worry they’re no match for Steppenwolf without the recently deceased Superman (Henry Cavill) by their side. What to do, what to do…
Justice League, as directed by Zack Snyder with an assist by Joss Whedon — the close-ups of Gadot’s butt are Snyder, the quips during life and death battles are Whedon — is an improvement over the dour idiocy of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the silliness of Suicide Squad. It has its moments, but they’re overshadowed by a myriad collection of issues.
First out of the gate is the heroes themselves. Only two have been properly introduced in previous films leaving Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg to see their stories rushed through with abbreviated intros. Rather than use that time to set them for this film, though, precious minutes are spent with scenes clearly designed as a setup for their own eventual stand-alone features. Aquaman has a very short conversation in Atlantis with Mera (Amber Heard) — they inexplicably create an air bubble to speak underwater, but as Atlanteans, I have to assume they can talk through the water right? — about his attitude towards his mom, the queen. The Flash meets with his incarcerated father (Billy Crudup) intent on proving the man’s innocence and setting him free. Cyborg is angry that his dad saved his life by turning him into, well, Cyborg.
If you’re keeping track, yes, every member of the Justice League does have major parental issues.
None of these details play into the film at hand meaning we’re rushed through these setups only to see them forgotten about for the rest of the movie. Only Miller’s Flash escapes the speedy narrative with some personality intact, and it’s no coincidence that he’s also the film’s secret weapon in the laughs department. While the others sulk and frown their way through their daily existence, it’s the Flash who shows what counts as character depth in his ongoing battle between a desire to help and a lack of confidence that he’ll succeed.
The Flash aside, it’s just hard to engage all that much with these newcomers. Aquaman’s attitude is unfounded, and his powers on land — on land! — are a mix of whatever he needs to do at the moment. (And don’t get me started on the “protector of the seas” smashing a glass bottle into the ocean.) Similarly, Cyborg’s half-man/half-machine existence sees him manipulating matter on the atomic level and pushing back against the laws of physics in ways that go well beyond what’s explained. We don’t understand them, we’re not given time to care about their drama, and both of these things leave us detached from all that follows.
Even if the heroes drag a film down it can still succeed on the strength of its villain, but Steppenwolf is a waste of the processing power it took to create his CG visage. Everything from his world-ending goal to his same-faced minions just screams generically boring. We’re given a sketchily-rendered flashback to the last time he fought on earth, but it does nothing to create a compelling backstory. In fact, one quick Darkseid mention aside he feels wholly detached from anything resembling a story both here and going forward.
The action is just as bland with fights that consist almost exclusively of characters being punched and thrown against walls. CG walls crack, the heroes rise again unscathed, rinse, and repeat. (The exception is Batman who shows some wear and tear, which, along with certain dialogue beats feels like a nod towards his impending exit from the JL universe.) The action underwhelms even when there aren’t walls to smash against as evidenced by an early attack by Steppenwolf on Wonder Woman’s home island. The Amazons reveal themselves as fairly worthless fighters and tacticians compared to what we witnessed in this year’s Wonder Woman — here they attempt to play a running game of keep-away from Steppenwolf without pausing to acknowledge that they’re on a damn island.
At under two hours, Justice League moves at a hurried pace trying to stuff too many character intros in while shortchanging both the story and the characters themselves. There are some laughs, and few among us can resist a call for hope in the face of apathy and certain doom, but it’s clear that DC is scrambling wildly in its attempt at crafting a unified feel between their films. The elements are there, but DC’s still looking for that marvelously elusive secret formula.