It seems like long before Justice League was due to storm theaters, the haters had already decided the fate of the $300 million budgeted epic. Chalk it up to a lack of faith in director Zack Snyder, perpetrator of such overblown cinematic downers as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—even though Joss Whedon actually rushed in to finish Justice League after a family tragedy made Snyder step aside. Maybe the doubters have never entirely bought into Ben Affleck as Batman or Henry Cavill as Superman, and maybe they weren’t even bullish on the merits of Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) or Whedon (Avengers: Age of Ultron). Or can the animosity simply be down to the silly, clannish rivalry between Marvel vs. DC fanatics?
No matter the reasons, chronic haters aren’t digging Justice League and they’re likely to be tiresomely vocal about it. Because, what—the superhero movie standard of excellence is so freaking lofty? Seriously?
For the rest of us, though, Justice League is a big-scale, diverting, lighthearted, family friendly-ish DC Extended Universe epic. It unites Batman (a born loner), Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg and, that’s right, Superman, and delivers plenty of reasons to grin. Except for Snyder’s apparent insistence on a drab color palette realized by cinematographer Fabian Wagner, Justice League avoids the Dark Knight-influenced sturm und drang dramatics of Snyder’s previous DC efforts. That’s big plus. In fact, at its best, the movie turns out to be surprisingly loose and amiably jokey, its team members bickering, bonding and riffing off each other enjoyably. There’s plenty of straight-ahead action and, mercifully, it’s all done in less than two hours, just as Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara reportedly mandated.
When Justice League mocks and kids itself, and the whole genre, it’s way more effective than when it reaches for grandiosity and pathos.
The plot? Well, it’s pretty much cut from the same bolt of spandex that fuels every DC or Marvel film. Spoiler alert: Superheroes save world. In this one, the planet still mourns the death of Superman. Terrorists, racists and predatory banks are growing bolder. Superman’s house and farm, inhabited by his mother (Diane Lane), face foreclosure. Racist thugs attack a grocer wearing a hijab and her child. We know this scared, spineless, ugly world only too well, and shrewdly orchestrating the images to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” (“Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed …” droned by Norwegian singer-songwriter Sigrid) puts a fine point on the misery.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (glum, beefed-up Affleck) has undergone some sort of spiritual reawakening—Superman’s unselfishness inspired him—and that attracts Diana Prince (Gadot) in an all-out effort to pull together a crack team to save the planet from an ill-defined, unconvincing and forgettable CGI foe named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds). The bad guy is in hot pursuit of three “mother boxes” that, when assembled together, possess uncontainable destructive energy that will hasten the apocalypse and reduce the world to rubble. Or something.
It’s all in the playing, though. Gadot’s Wonder Woman is charming and sensible, best when she coolly watches her team members and observes, “Children—I work with children.” Many of her scenes and reaction shots (Gadot is a master brow-furrower) feel like add-on filler meant to capitalize on the success of Wonder Woman. Ezra Miller is jangly, inventive and accessible as Barry Allen, the uber-nerdy lightning bolt with daddy issues. (Billy Crudup nicely plays Miller’s father.) Ray Fisher brings pathos and attitude to Cyborg, otherwise known as Victor Stone, another guy with unresolved daddy problems. But it’s big, swinging, swaggering Jason Momoa you may leave the theater talking about. He’s an ornery, ass-kicking, beach bum-style blast as Aquaman, whom he plays like the love child of Khal Drogo and The Big Lebowski’s Dude. He’s so screen-grabbing and good at messing with Affleck that you’re looking forward to seeing him and Wonder Woman take over a future DC Universe movie, leaving Batman and tired, skeletal Alfred (Jeremy Irons) to shuffle off to retirement.
When Justice League mocks and kids itself, and the whole genre, it’s way more effective than when it reaches for grandiosity and pathos. It’s not at all bad as it is but, please, next time, more mirth, more Aquaman, at least a stab at a better plot and a way more memorable villain.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.