Justice League, Warner Bros./DC’s long-awaited answer to the embarrassingly successful Marvel universe franchise, at times gleefully flirts with incoherence, but never forgets to be fun. Superman (along with his alter ego Clark Kent) is dead as the movie opens (though Superman actor Henry Cavill is second-billed in the opening credits), and if you missed its predecessor, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, you’ll just have to try to keep up. Using notes confiscated from super-villain Lex Luthor, Batman/Bruce Wayne and his longtime family retainer Alfred, are hot on the trail of some sharp-fanged, winged, insect-like alien invaders who are drawn to fear. Batman knows, as does immortal Amazon Princess Diana/Wonder Woman, that an invasion is coming, and that without Superman, Earth is under-defended.
Not only is it under-defended, America seems to have become a bleaker place, with rising crime and the Kent family farm being sold at foreclosure auction. We are left to speculate that the rise of Donald Trump is a direct result of a loss of hope following the demise of Superman. Things can only get worse. And sure enough they do. Super-baddie Steppenwolf, who made his first appearance in the early seventies, soon appears, complete with devil’s goat horns (like Tim Curry in Legend) along with an army of annoying sharp-fanged, winged, insect-like hench-shmooes,in a relentless search for the three hidden Mother Boxes, which when combined will form the reality-shattering Unity.
To long-time DC fans, Mother Boxes are vintage New Gods lore, going back to legendary Marvel artist Jack Kirby’s arrival at DC in the mid-seventies, which resulted in a raft of new characters (The Forever People, Mr. Miracle), plotlines and of course, Darth Vader precursor Darkseid of Apokolips. To newbies, you’re just going to have to try to keep up.
That shouldn’t be that hard, frankly, as the Mother Boxes, sentient cyber-beings in the comics, are treated like any other movie Maguffin here. They’re just the thing the villain wants to get to destroy the world, and our heroes have to stop him.
Ben Affleck returns as bejillionaire Bruce Wayne, who can afford any technical marvel in the world, apparently, except a razor. Affleck manages less depth than he did first time around in the role, though may be largely due to a script that divides its attention among more characters. The script allows Wayne a few funny lines this time around though, and Affleck makes the most of them.
Justice League spends considerable time getting the band together and introducing characters Batman vs. Superman only teased in Easter Eggs: the Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a socially awkward misfit prone to snappy dialogue and running at the speed of light; Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a tattooed amphibian from Atlantis with a chest too big for anything short of an IMAX screen and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a brooding combination of man and machine who’s sort of The Six Million Dollar Man by way of The Matrix.
Viewers of a certain age will be unable to separate out Saturday morning Super Friends cartoon of the seventies, which featured many of the same characters but with a straight-faced mock gravitas. This is far more human and newcomers Miller (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Momoa (Game of Thrones) are dangerous scene-stealers. Both adroitly milk their best moments – The Flash’s touch of Cowardly Lion before his first major engagement with the enemy, or when Aquaman chugs a bottle of liquor before plunging into the churning North Atlantic, scenes where the movie hits the perfect balance between deadly seriousness and comedy.
Cyborg is far more brooding, which Fisher effectively conveys with body language that suggests he’s carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders. His superhero persona, we are given to understand, was born out of agony. He often wears a hoodie which can’t help but evoke Trayvon Martin, although the movie is already too cluttered to sustain a meditation on race relations.
Bruce seems to have developed a bit of an unrequited thing for Wonder Woman, played again, thank Zeus, by the incomparable Gal Gadot who lit up last summer’s Wonder Woman standalone movie like a thermonuclear explosion. The fact that Diana/Wonder Woman is thousands of years old doesn’t seem to bother him – the inimitable allure of the older woman indeed.
Amy Adams and Diane Lane reprise their roles as Lois Lane and Martha Kent, and the movie would not have suffered had their parts been bigger. But Batman vs.Superman was widely criticized for its length, and Justice League’s comparatively tidy two hour running time is almost certainly a direct response.
We could have used more of Jeremy Irons, who is wonderful in the part of Alfred. Ciarán Hinds provides the voice performance for Steppenwolf, who is otherwise completely computer-generated. His contribution is a bit of a waste, as is J.K. Simmons’, who joins a long and distinguished list of actors who have played Batman supporting player Commissioner Gordon. Simmons, who also played J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies, is the latest actor to have appeared in both Marvel and DC properties. Affleck, who toplined the generally reviled Daredevil feature is also on the list, with Ryan Reynolds, who has played both Marvel’s Deadpool and DC’s Green Lantern. Ciarán Hinds was featured in the Ghost Rider sequel, which he’d probably rather you forget.
The director, once again, is Zack Snyder, though Snyder left the project after the tragic suicide of his daughter. Reportedly, most of principal photography had been completed. The rest of the shoot and post-production process was, ironically, taken over by Joss Whedon, whose Avengers movies are the competition. It’s hard to say where one filmmaker leaves off and the other begins, but the film’s flavor tilts more toward Whedon than Snyder, whose trademark grandiosity is less evident.
Still, the filmmakers remain regrettably committed to a dark, muted palette that’s singularly unvibrant, and the chaotic, formulaic action set pieces start to drag. Oddly, the special effects are par at best, and pale beside the far superior (and far more frightening) property damage sequences in Man of Steel.
Justice League may be messy, but it is entertaining. The screenplay, by Chris Terrio (Argo) and Marvel Studios auteur Joss Whedon (Marvel’s The Avengers), has a paint-by-numbers construction, but snappy dialogue. There are elements that feel like course corrections, though some were necessary. This franchise is still finding its way – but find it, it will. These are iconic characters, several of them older and more enduring than many Marvel characters. The movie adaptations need to be worthy of them, but they’re getting there.
Viewers should be aware that there is a scene inserted during the end credits, á la Marvel, and another, even longer sequence, follows the end credits.