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Justice League, the latest DC Comics superhero hit directed by Zack Snyder, is looser, goosier and definitely more enjoyable than the last one. The bar could scarcely have been lower due to that the previous film, Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice, was such an interminable boredom. The superhero and villain dynamic remains pretty much the same as last time (slayers going to slay,…) but there are a few new faces now and Wonder Woman has more room to do than sitting in the background. The story is a confusion of noise, visual clutter and murderous digital gnats, but every so often a glimmer of life flickers through.
The last time he showed his face on a film, Superman (Henry Cavill) appeared to die, a plot twist that not even the most credulous viewer could believe. So, of course he’s back in this one, eventually, although first the band needs to get together. Having seen trouble on the horizon, Batman (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne) — portrayed with a sepulchral growl and bespoke stubble by Ben Affleck — takes the lead this time around. He’s the insistent manager as well as the scowling host, the guy with the cool digs, smooth rides with blinking screens (“critical damage” reads one with great comic-book sincerity) and suave butler (Jeremy Irons as Alfred). He’s also pretty much of a yawn.
The pumped-up Mr. Affleck once again is found filling out the bat costume from ripped stem to stern, but his suit remains irritatingly larger than Batman’s (or Bruce’s) personality. Bat-Bruce clearly has some kind of unrequited thing for Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, a charming super-presence), which leads him to stammer like a teenager. (She’s got other things on her mind.) He has money and quite a sense of humor, including about his wealth, which inspires one of the film’s few nice laughs. Mr. Affleck, a generally appealing actor who can plumb the depths when pushed (“Gone Girl”), needs something more substantial (or just more jokes) if his Batman is ever going to work.
As it is, the little bit of bat brooding in Justice League feels unmotivated and unearned, and lacks the shading of the character in the Dark Knight or even in the Lego movies. Such a shame, and it would be dire if he earned a more valuable role. But Justice League is about solidarity rather than flying and soaring solo, so the movie spends considerable time piecing together its newest parts: the Flash, a.k.a. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a zippy wisenheimer wreathed in lightning; Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), an underwater warrior with a chest full of muscles and tattoos; and Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a machine man built from metal and serious attitude.
The original Justice League of America (like it was called) was initially convened in 1960; the film sets in the present or at least a facsimile of the same. The world is in mourning for Superman, and so is Lois Lane (Amy Adams, shedding tears and largely wasted). Everything is about to get worse, as of it has to, leading Bat-Bruce and Wonder-Diana to round up a troika that was teased previously. Some of the stealing scenes in the film are of the introductions to these three new faces, who step up beauty pageant-style to fill in some back story — one is from in Atlantis, the other two are from hard-luck city — while showing off individual quirks and superpowers.
Justice League settles into a groove once it finds its gang. As Bat-Bruce moodily pushes and prods and Wonder-Diana smiles and smirks, the newbies jockey for position. The Flash gets most of the best jokes, and Mr. Miller makes most of them work, mostly in the role of in-house fanboy with a sense of the Cowardly Lion. It’s golly-gee stuff, but it’s also human and Mr. Miller keeps you hooked, as does Mr. Momoa (“Game of Thrones”), who supplely shifts between gravitas and comedy. When Aquaman chugs a bottle of alcohol before plunging into a stormy sea, the film hits the comic-book sweet spot between drop-dead seriousness and self-amused levity.
Cyborg isn’t as buoyant a presence, which makes sense for a character who’s been partly cobbled together from scraps and a sob story that Mr. Fisher puts throughout with a bowed head and palpable heaviness. The hoodie he sometimes wears, which can’t help but evoke Trayvon Martin, imparts a larger meaning that the movie doesn’t or can’t explore. Like the references to an upcoming world disaster that suggestively shudders with larger implications, the hoodie suggests moviemakers who are still struggling with keeping an eye on the off-screen world while spinning a fictional universe that can somehow offer a quick escape from it.
Mr. Snyder stays regrettably committed to a dark, desaturated palette that borders on the murky, and this film’s chaotic, unimaginative action sequences can drag on forever. But the touches of humor in Justice League lighten the whole thing tonally and are a relief after the dirgelike Batman v Superman, which he ran into the ground with a two-and-a-half-hour running time. (Justice League clocks in at a not-exactly fleet two hours.) Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, the new movie shows a series that’s still finding its footing as well as characters who, though perhaps not yet as ostensibly multidimensional as Marvel’s, may be more enduring (and golden). It has justice, and it has banter. And while it could have used more hanging out, more breeziness, it is a start.