“A man I knew used to say that hope was like your car keys,” says Superman (Henry Cavill) at the opening scene of Justice League, into a cameraphone held by a couple of flustered schoolboy fans. “It’s easy to lose, but if you dig around, it’s usually close by.”
Still, there’s no trace of the stuff in Warner Bros’ most recent, hapless attempt to jump-start their DC Comics blockbuster brand, which now looks less like a cinematic universe than a pop-cultural black hole, sucking up as much money and audience’s goodwill as the studio can shovel into it.
After a four-movie build-up that started four years ago with Man of Steel, Justice League should have seemed like a culmination, with Batman and Wonder Woman finding new heroes and bringing back Superman in order to fend off an extraterrestrial threat, in much the same way the Avengers did for Marvel five years ago.
Instead, it looks like a sheepish feature-length retraction of the series to date. It’s consistently embarrassing to watch, and features plot holes so yawningly vast they have a kind of Grand Canyon-like splendour: part of you wants to hang around to see what they look like at sunset.
Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne are once again played by Ben Affleck, but his earnest, striving, Just For Men-box version of the character here is all but unrecognisable from the machine-gun-toting hungover gargoyle in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Then there’s Henry Cavill’s Superman, whose personality changes on a shot-by-shot basis, from blank-eyed demigod to lumbersexual funster faster than a speeding bullet.
Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is perfectly recognizable from her solo movie earlier this year – they’d have been insane to tinker – even though we naturally see a lot less of her here, and without Gadot’s full-beam star power to light the way, the movie constantly struggles to get through a sequence without tripping over itself.
Its fundamental lopsidedness might come down at least in part to its unusually chaotic production. The rave reviews for Wonder Woman and pastings for Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad led to a series of frantic course-corrections mid-shoot, which were followed by the sudden departure of director Zack Snyder in unthinkably tragic circumstances, after his 20-year-old daughter committed suicide in March. (Both the remainder of the editing process and the substantial reshoots were watched by Avengers’ director Joss Whedon, who earns a screenplay credit.)
But for whatever combination of reasons, the end result is a broken film, swimming in bad CGI and forgettable mayhem, that you can’t imagine any number of rewrites or reshoots could have saved. It can’t even decide how to begin, and offers up no less than five introductory sequences, including Bruce Wayne pony-trekking in Iceland, Wonder Woman stopping a terrorist attack in London, and yet another instance of that DC series staple, the slow-motion funeral.
One of the movie’s three brand new superheroes, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman – think Marvel’s Thor mixed with the disgraced Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, holding a garden rake in his hand – is introduced twice, formerly trading Whedonian zingers with Bruce Wayne, and then again a few minutes later, with much Snyder-esque gurning and flexing on the prow of a sinking boat.
Ezra Miller’s early shots as the sound-fast Flash bode a little better – as he pays a visit to his father (Billy Crudup) in prison, there’s at least a glimmer of backstory – but then he’s instantly reduced to the team’s fantastically annoying comic relief. As for Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, the movie doesn’t seem to know anything about his character: he has his hood up frequently, and that’s more or less all we get.
Meanwhile, gurgling away in the background is Danny Elfman’s score, which grabs at John Williams’s 1978 Superman theme, Elfman’s own Batman motif from the Tim Burton years, and Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman cello riff, in a panicky fumble for something, anything, the audience might recognize or love. The result, as if it even needs to be said, is an incoherent din, and a total mismatch for Snyder’s images
At least the League’s inaugural mission seems simple enough. Three ‘Mother Boxes’, ancient gadgets with the power to end all life on Earth, must be kept out of the clutches of Steppenwolf, a computer-generated demon voiced by Ciarán Hinds, and his squadron of flying parademons.
Except even the basics of this turn out to be bewilderingly difficult. At one mind-boggling juncture, the group of superheroes inexplicably leaves the final Mother Box unattended in a car park, just for Steppenwolf to beam down and make off with it while they’re up to something else.
For a scene that risible to end up in a $300 million blockbuster is no mean feat – but Justice League is a mess in ways cheaper productions could only dream about. A post-credits scene dutifully teases more to come, but the film’s heart just isn’t in it.