Still Halfway to Justice: Uneven "Justice League" offers more levity but garish action gets in way of new team

Justice League (2017)
119 min., rated PG-13.

With 2016’s messy, bombastic, oppressively self-serious and failingly overambitious “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and this summer’s hopeful, confidently helmed “Wonder Woman,” DC Extended Universe superhero conglomeration “Justice League” had to not only cleanse the palate of the former but be as good as the latter. Fortunately, there is more levity, fun and humanity to be found in director Zack Snyder’s follow-up to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which was sapped of all three, and for almost two-thirds of its 119 minutes, “Justice League” is fleet, lively and even enthralling. Unfortunately, for every triumph with the Justice League’s loose, breezy dynamic, there are two steps back, and the scattered high points end up getting drowned out in an uneven whole with garish CG work and a generic dud of a villain. As of now, justice in bringing this iconic mega-team to life in a satisfying extravaganza is only halfway achieved, but there is still hope for an upswing with the DCEU. "Justice League" just isn't that time.

After Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) called a truce over both of their mothers being named Martha and were both joined by Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) to battle Lex Luthor’s engineered monster Doomsday, Superman impaled the monster with a kryptonite spear but selflessly died in the process. With Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman six feet under and leaving the world reeling from the loss, Bruce Wayne/Batman assembles an alliance to take on the End of Days, fast approaching in the form of intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf (a motion-captured Ciarán Hinds) and his army of fear-smelling, insect-like Parademons who are out to steal three Mother Boxes (cosmic cubes of alien technology with infinite possibilities) from the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the Earthlings. Bruce and Diana quickly round up their team, among them gawky young wisecracker Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who dons a red suit and sports lightning-fast abilities as alter-ego The Flash; the whiskey-guzzling Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) who resides in the underwater Atlantis as the trident-wielding Aquaman; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former college athlete installed with robotic parts by his scientist father (Joe Morton) after a lab explosion. Can one of those Mother Boxes help resurrect a certain Kryptonian?

As directed by Zack Snyder and written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who directed reshoots when Snyder had to step away during production after the tragic death of his daughter), “Justice League” has a lighter touch with “Avengers”-like banter, employing the sensibility of Whedon and the best and worst sides of Snyder as a visual filmmaker. The division of directorial visions and post-production issues—most distracting of all being Henry Cavill’s digitized lips when the editors had to erase the actor's mustache he was contractually obligated to keep for another film project—are noticeable on occasion, but there are moments and elements to like here, particularly early on. Sigrid’s funeral-toned rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” plays over the opening credits, dramatizing the hopeless world without Superman, with an amusing newspaper headline asking if David Bowie, Prince and Superman have all returned to their home planets. Danny Elfman’s varied score then swings in as Batman fights off a criminal on a rooftop, jetting audiences back to Tim Burton’s 1989 original for just a moment. Wonder Woman’s solo sequence where she saves a group of hostages from a terrorist group, blocking every bullet with her bracelets, is attention-grabbing, and there is a thrilling set-piece on Themyscira where Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and the Amazons fend off Steppenwolf and his flying minions from getting their Mother Box. Then, as Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg are introduced and their interactions tap into the bickering, joking vibe of a family forced to work together, the film still stays on solid ground. It’s when the plot—standard fate-of-the-world stuff—keeps having to kick in and center on thoroughly lackluster, uncanny-valley-residing CG villain Steppenwolf that the film begins to split at the seams. One would almost rather see a movie with the Justice League going to brunch (which does get its own joke) than save the world. 

As Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ben Affleck is given even less to do here than in his first incarnation as the character whose super power happens to be his wealth. By himself, he stoically conveys guilt for what happened to Superman, but luckily, Affleck looks more engaged when he’s around his co-stars. With co-lead duties, Gal Gadot more than holds her own as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman with her warm yet fierce presence, and she gets a funny gag with her Lasso of Truth aimed at Aquaman. The brawny Jason Momoa exceeds expectations, carrying himself with a devil-may-care attitude and dude-bro bravado, although his Aquaman is missing a few key beats to make sense of why he chooses to rescue the team at one point and then join them. As well-cast and understatedly compelling as stage actor Ray Fisher is as Victor Stone/Cyborg, he’s mostly a cog in the wheel, even with a tragic albeit undercooked backstory that would have made more room for pathos in an origin story. In charge of most of the comic relief is Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, and he is the clear standout of the newcomers, almost reminding one of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man for still being in giddy awe of his powers. While early scenes of Barry visiting his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup) are cut short and his action moments are inferior to all of Quicksilver’s whiplash-fast sequences in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the endearingly enthusiastic Miller is a major source of the film’s joy and energy with cheeky, crowd-pleasing jokes linked to brunch and “Pet Sematary.”

Returning for a handful of scenes, Amy Adams and Diane Lane share some nice moments as the mourning Lois Lane and Martha Kent, who thankfully don't have to be rescued this time, while J.K. Simmons is underutilized as Commissioner James Gordon. Though Ciarán Hinds is credited as Steppenwolf, this part could have been played by anyone. Aside from his giant axe and his army of Parademons, Steppenwolf is as unimpressive as Enchantress and Incubus in “Suicide Squad” and holds no threat when he looks so processed and animated, resembling a mutt mixed with a billy goat and an orc out of “Warcraft.” His agenda to create Hell on Earth and become a new god is also too uninteresting and murky, despite an overt exposition dump.

Less afraid of having a sense of humor than its predecessor but saddled with a pedestrian story, “Justice League” levels out as a down-the-middle distraction at best. If more time had been taken to develop each new member of the Justice League and much, much less time was spent on Steppenwolf, this might have felt more like an epic than a “meh.” Save for a couple exceptions, most of the action is executed as flashy, overblown, weightless blurs that the viewer might as well be watching the “Justice League” video game tie-in and not the $300-million feature film. As is the requirement of superhero movies to end with a big showdown, the one here is such a busy, aesthetically samey destruct-a-thon presumably shot in front of green screens in a studio warehouse that’s supposed to stand in for Russia. No matter what anyone says, “Justice League” will still deliver as the movie diehard comic book fans craved all this time, but when will the hope of better luck next time cease? As with so many superhero movies of any universe, there is always the sinking feeling that the studios fill audiences with promises that never come, hoping they will wait to see the next movie instead. This may be a minor course correction for the DCEU—it’s not a total bust—and maybe the release of a longer “Ultimate Edition” will improve upon things.

Grade: C +