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Justice League ’s better than Batman v Superman. But it’s more successful as a trailer for Aquaman or The Flash than as a movie of its own.
Watching Warner Bros. pump out superhero flick after superhero flick over the past four years has felt a little like watching your favorite Olympic figure skater with plenty of star potential flub one triple axel after another.
At this point, Warner Bros. has developed a very close relationship with the ice.
The studio’s Superman flagship in 2013, Man of Steel, might as well have been made of tin, as it never find a way to tap into star Henry Cavill’s charm. But Warner Bros. brought back that same stoic Superman to fight Ben Affleck’s aging CrossFit disciple Bruce Wayne in 2015’s ultimately flat Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Then it decided to go screwy with a gang of antiheroic bad guys saving the world in the fizzy disaster in the name of 2016’s Suicide Squad.
Wonder Woman, released in June, was Warner Bros.’ first certifiable critical and box office hit — the only triple it had landed since it started building out the DC Extended Universe. And for the moment Wonder Woman will retain that title, as the studio’s newest flick, Justice League, fails to deliver anything beyond the primal fun of gathering famous action figures together. And that’s even with Gal Gadot in the mix as the gleaming and buoyant Diana Prince.
Gadot’s Prince — the one who fights for those who can’t fight for themselves, an Amazon who will brave a rain of German bullets to stand her ground, a princess who will continue to fight even if everyone else has given up — has become the premier superheroine in the DC Extended Universe. And even though Justice League accidentally confirms that Prince is a main character once again (she gets a overwhelming, joy-inducing solo act), it’s still very much centered on Affleck’s gruff, unfeeling Batman and his tenuous relationship with Cavill’s bland Superman.
What made Wonder Woman so special is that we (and she) realized that being superhuman doesn’t necessarily make someone a hero. In that film, unlike in the other DC Comics movies in Warner Bros.’ war chest, we see what drives her, what makes her question her own ideas of good and evil, and ultimately where she stands.
But Justice League is seemingly indifferent with all that, or with what distinguishes Wonder Woman and her fellow heroes’ goodness from humans and from one another. Instead, the film serves more as a showcase for what they can do rather than what makes them heroic.
When the heroes aren’t pummeling CGI foes into oblivion, they’re either spewing inside jokes or offering lengthy explanation of what just happened or what’s going to happen later. We don’t ever really get to know the characters we’re supposed to root for.
The result is a fancy, lawless spectacle, pumped so full of origin tales, redemption arcs, heroic introductions, orange villain flares, and blue lightning that it buckles under the weight of trying to cram around four hours’ worth of storytelling into two hours of celluloid. The only tight thing in this jumble mess is the Aquaman outfit that strains to cover up Jason Momoa’s Atlantean muscles.
But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that aside from all the disorder, there are a few moments and performances so stunning that they shine through the whirlpool of messiness. And even though Justice League falls flat, it still somehow — for better or worse — makes you anticipated for the solo superhero films, like 2018’s Aquaman, that Warner Bros. will eventually produce.
Justice League suffers from a mediocre, poorly written script that underappreciates its characters. But thankyfully Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller make it work.
The film’s credited writers, Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who stepped in as Justice League’s director when writer-director Zack Snyder departed in May to deal with a family issue), have created a movie that feels like two different films happening at once.
The interaction between the characters is written in Whedon’s voice — almost everyone is witty, and most conversations end with punchlines that linger in the afterthought. If you’ve watched Marvel’s two Avengers movies, both of which Whedon wrote and directed, the dialogue, banter, and beats of the conversations in Justice League will feel very familiar.
What’s strange is hearing the quick, quirky banter against the backdrop of the movie’s overarching plot — a mythic, swirling, Tolkien-esque epic involving ancient alliances, history, and the end of days. Glib inside jokes flank the Armageddon, and it never seems like anyone is taking the impending destruction of Earth seriously enough — the audience is included.
The main story picks up right after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman is dead, and the world is in mourning. Mourning, in this manner, means hanging gigantic black banners marked with an S on famous monuments all over the world. But evil doesn’t cease just because Superman is dead.
Knowing this, Batman has started assembling a group of heroes that is destined to fight for the safety of humanity. Conveniently, Batman v Superman villain Lex Luthor kept neat, organized files on each of Batman’s metahuman recruits — Barry Allen, also known as the Flash (Ezra Miller); Vincent Stone, also known as Cyborg (Ray Fisher); and Arthur Curry, also known as Aquaman (Jason Momoa) — making Batman’s job more like following Google Maps direction than working to form the perfect team dynamic. Wonder Woman, who is shown to be more adept at both the recruiting business and saving the world, agrees to help him out.
Thanks to a conversation between Batman and Wonder Woman that exists only to explain to the audience what’s happening, we discover that an invasion is imminent and that a big, bad, ax-wielding villain called Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) wants to destroy the Earth, so Batman will have to get the gang together faster or else tons of people are going to die. Never mind that it’s vague how this baddie got the name Steppenwolf, why he aims to annihilate everyone on Earth, or what’s in it for him if the plan succeeds.
The team is introduced quickly, and each member’s background is rushed. It helps if, going in, you’re already somewhat versed in Aquaman’s exile from Atlantis and his strained relationship with its queen and his soul mate Mera (Amber Heard) that exists in the DC comic universe. Same goes for Barry Allen’s relentless quest to exonerate his father.