A blockbuster with more studio notes than script (underlined: “Be more Marvel”), Justice League attempts to inject some levity and rock ’n’ roll into Zack Snyder’s dinosaurian version of the DC Comics-verse; in many cases, it ends up with the worst of multiple worlds. Gone are the artistic pretensions and doofy character motivations of Snyder’s last masturbation fantasy about the caped and cowled, Batman V Superman: The Dawn Of Justice—an overblown superhero movie whose excesses included no less than five dream sequences and an extended homage to Eyes Wide Shut. But the “new and improved” model looks claustrophobically like an overpriced TV pilot, and not in a good way. Say what you want about the tenets of brooding, art-school-fascist superhero worship, but at least it’s an ethos.
Justice League begins by awkwardly reintroducing two of DC’s marquee characters: the ageless Amazon warrior-princess Diana (Gal Gadot), better known as Wonder Woman, and the billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who dons high-tech armor to fight crime on the industrial rooftops of Gotham City as Batman. The messianic alien Superman (Henry Cavill) has been dead for a year, having sacrificed himself to defeat the knobby monster Doomsday, and flying-monkeylike creatures called Parademons have begun appearing on Earth. Thus, with the Man Of Steel gone, the two Dawn Of Justice survivors go in search of three more superpowered “metahumans” with the help of Wayne’s trusted butler and enabler Alfred (Jeremy Irons): the gawky Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), also known as his red-suited, super-speedy alter-ego The Flash; the surly Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), who torpedoes around underwater as the trident-toting Aquaman; and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a former college football star with a cybernetic body and no personality.
As it turns out, the arrival of these Parademons has something to do with a generic horned villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who’s looking for three magical MacGuffins called Mother Boxes, which were entrusted for safekeeping thousands of years ago to Diana’s fellow Amazons on the hidden island of Themyscira, the aquamen and aquawomen of Curry’s sunken Atlantis, and “the tribes of men.” (Snyder’s penchant for shameless quotation mostly goes unexercised in Justice League, but he stages this bit of backstory as a hilariously studious tribute to the opening minutes of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring.) It should be noted that, whether spoken in Gadot’s Israeli accent or in Affleck’s Batman growl, the word “Mother Box” sounds consistently ridiculous—one of those pieces of Jack Kirby-coined comic-book-ese that should never be spoken out loud.
In terms of visual style, the one saving grace of the weaker DC films (including Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad) has been textural variety—an overabundance of coarse, dilapidated, bituminous, complicated surfaces that’s the opposite of the clean-cut, shiny house aesthetic of the Marvel movies. But in Justice League, the more striking details of Patrick Tatopoulos’ grotesque-industrial production design bob through the muddy, nonstop exposition like undigested matter in violent diarrhea. Don’t let the slick, well-chosen production stills fool you: This is for the most part a cramped and cheaply ugly movie, with crappy special effects. The nicest thing that can be said is that the producers have made it impossible for viewers to tell what is and isn’t a reshoot; a significant part of the movie is set in cramped, windowless rooms or in front of obvious green screens.
Most of the action sequences are incomprehensible light shows, presented against the now-standard DC-movie palette of strewn rubble, warehouses, and abandoned construction. Joss Whedon, of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Avengers fame, took over directing duties late in production, which means viewers end up with a soundtrack that includes both a depressing late-period Danny Elfman score (à la Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron) and Snyder’s cheesy, shudder-inducing rock covers. As for who actually helmed what, it’s hard to tell; compared to his bombastic slow-mo shots, Snyder’s direction of dialogue has always been completely anonymous. And it’s in the dialogue that the influence of Whedon—who only received a screenplay credit for his work—becomes obvious.
Although it isn’t within spitting distance of the manic back-and-forths of Whedon’s two Avengers movies, Justice League manages to introduce some humor into a franchise whose prior comedic high point was Jesse Eisenberg’s coked-out-of-his-mind Silicon Valley bro-trepreneur take on Lex Luthor. There are jokes here—actual, funny jokes—though some of them are sadly lost to bad timing and overly busy sound design. There’s even an interesting, pointed observation about the relationship between Batman and Superman—namely, in the notion that the godlike Son Of Krypton actually had more firsthand experience of ordinary human life than the Dark Knight, who has spent his entire life being filthy rich. But Justice League is too busy racing toward its fireworks finale (set, unconvincingly, in “northern Russia”) and product-placing Mercedes-Benz cars to make much of it.
Still, it gives the actors something to do beside sulk and speechify—which is a welcome improvement, as casting remains one of this franchise’s few strengths. Fisher’s Stone is basically an underwritten special effect, but Miller’s young-Jeff-Goldblum-on-Adderall Allen and Momoa’s grumpy, macho Curry fit in perfectly with Gadot’s Diana—the straight woman to this team of competing male egos—and with Affleck’s self-aware, probably alcoholic Wayne, who remains the most credible live-action interpretation of the character since Michael Keaton’s turn in the Tim Burton Batman films. (J.K. Simmons also pops up with a classic, deadpan take on Batman’s mustachioed ally Commissioner Gordon, though the role is limited to a couple of short scenes.) One common complaint about both Dawn Of Justice and Snyder’s earlier Man Of Steel is that the films seemed to resent Superman, the most purely likable of the DC heroes. Justice League actually succeeds at stoking viewer sympathy for these house-wrecking, superpowered titans: They deserve better movies.