Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Any Adams, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Ciran Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Connie Nielsen
Written by: Joss Whedon, Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Studio: Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment
Run Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Your opinion of Justice League depends almost entirely on which other superhero films you compare it to. Considering the bumper crop this year alone – including two that may rank among the best ever – it’s definitely a ways down on the food chain. It can’t begin to compete with The Avengers, the film it most clearly aspires to, and even the weakest entry in the MCU offers more texture and sophistication than this one. Wonder Woman eats its lunch, of course; in fact, a considerable portion of whatever magic it holds comes courtesy of Gal Gadot, whose curtain call here stresses her uncanny perfection as the Amazing Amazon.
So yeah: on the whole, it could be a lot better. But consider also what it’s trying to outrun. BvS might well be the worst superhero movie ever made – it certainly wastes the most resources – and of the previous four entries in the DCEU, three of them actively suck on toast. Sure, Justice League follows a very straightforward path: simplistic, direct and leaving a lot of good material undeveloped. But it’s also fast-paced, reasonably engaging, and finds something resembling the essence of its five main superheroes for the first time ever. (Again, with the glorious exception of Gadot, who needs no help.) You have to walk before you can run, after all, and this movie – finally, blissfully – seems to understand that.
It also actually feels like the DC Universe for the first time ever: brighter, sunnier and with a good deal more joy to it. That helps it accomplish its most basic task of entertaining us, aided by a script that drops the pretense of competing with the MCU. With Superman (Henry Cavill) gone, evil is on the rise, topped by the sinister Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who can now fulfill his long-held dream of Blowing Up the World Because Reasons. He needs three mystic cubes to do it, and the planet’s remaining heroes need a game plan before he can do that. In addition to Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Ben Affleck’s still-brooding Batman, they include the Flash (Ezra Miller) who’s not sure he’s up for the big leagues; Aquaman (Jason Momoa), reimagined here as a water-breathing party dude; and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), struggling to deal with his nifty new robot parts that might just have made him a monster.
The steps are clearly labeled: team up, fight Ming, heal psychological wounds, high fives all around and party at Wayne Manor afterwards. There’s also a super-secret sixth hero involved that the ads haven’t hinted at in any way and that no one could ever imagine showing up in a million zillion years. That actually represents the film’s weakest moments: awkwardly handled, inexpertly deployed and lacking the dramatic resonance they clearly envisioned when the whole affair kicked off. Co-director Zack Snyder gets a little creepy with the camera angles too: Gadot’s wardrobe veers into the sleazy and a brief section on Wonder Woman’s home of Themyscira stands as an object example of the male gaze.
The action scenes, too, are largely pedestrian, and lack the pizzazz one expects from a film of this scope. So too does Justice League short-change its characters by trimming down some potentially delightful exchanges in order to ramp us up for the next round of fisticuffs. (Gadot has an aborted exchange with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred that feels like a wasted opportunity, and we don’t see nearly enough of JK Simmons’ unflappable Commissioner Gordon.) Continuity with previous DCEU movies is an absolute hash, and while I understand this one’s need to make a clean break, it still leaves a number of head-scratching moments. Had the franchise been on firmer footing, this would have stood as a big letdown: the kind of movie that might have passed muster ten years ago but has been hopelessly swamped by smarter and more sophisticated four-color fare.
Having said that, the franchise isn’t on firmer footing, and while Wonder Woman remains one of the best superhero movies ever, it doesn’t feel of a kind with the rest of the DCEU. The fact that Justice League could have been better matters not at all when you look at the wreckage it stumbled from, and in that context, it becomes... if not a flat-out delight, at least step in the right direction. Miller gets the best of it, and the prospect of more Flash movies with this kid sounds a lot better than it did a few weeks ago. But Fisher and Momoa get terrific mileage of their characters too, and the movie finds a nice balance between its gaggle of heroes without unduly favoring any single character over the others.
So too does co-director Joss Whedon pepper it with a little quiet wit, allowing this universe to finally breathe as a result. Though a tad rushed, the pacing keeps things energized and helps the film past the soggier action sequences quite well. It’s not enough to make up the vast distance the franchise has yet to go, but it seems to have found its ear for the material at long last.
More importantly, it makes for a reasonable amount of fun in its own right: certainly not in the same company as Thor: Ragnarok (no choice if you’re debating which one to see this weekend), but enough to put a gentle smile on your face and look towards future movies with a little more hope. DC has lost so much ground to the MCU that comparisons no longer seem fair. It has a task at once larger and more modest: make us forget what came before and look hopefully at what’s to come. It pulls the task off while leaving us with a moderately engaging two hours behind it. Considering the alternatives, I’d call that a deal.
Rob Vaux has worked as a professional film critic since 2000: writing for such sites as Collider, Mania.com, Flipside Movies and the Sci-Fi movie Page. He also runs a blog, www.cinema-stache.com, covering musings and notions on the world of film. He lives in sunny Southern California with his wife and a whirling menagerie of animals.