The challenge behind reviewing a film like Justice League is that its pervasive, constant failures sound like an exaggeration. Nothing about the film—from its unimaginative special effects to its thin characters to its half-hearted jokes—comes close to stirring a recognizable human emotion. In fact, the film makes Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice seem better by comparison. At least Zack Snyder’s 2016 cinematic folly had genuine ideas and themes it attempted to explore. Snyder is back in the director’s chair, with an assist from Joss Whedon, and he squashed all his earlier ambitions in favor of a simple, inelegant “gang of misfits save the world” rehash. At best, this film will be forgotten, representing a minor stepping stone in the DC Extended Universe. At worst, it has singlehandedly set the superhero genre back for years.
Superman (Henry Cavill) died the end of Batman v Superman, and the mourning period has given way to a worldwide crime wave. The busiest of the remaining superheroes is Batman (Ben Affleck), who can barely keep up with bank robbers, only to realize that mysterious flying monsters are popping up everywhere. These creatures look like a cross between The Wizard of Oz’s winged monkeys and Robocop, and they are sent by the demigod Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). They exist, of course, so each member of Batman’s new team has something to do during the obligatory, chaotic climax. But first Batman must assemble the members: he easily recruits The Flash (Ezra Miller), an over-eager kid, while Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) only joins after she senses the existential nature of Steppenwolf’s threat. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are tougher recruits, but soon they’re flying through the ruddy, computer-generated night sky like video game characters without any heft.
On top of the superheroes, screenwriters Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon must juggle many supporting characters, including Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and The Flash’s father Henry Allen (Billy Crudup). This gives Justice League the feeling of an overlong trailer, with scenes scurrying from one locale to the next. The unfortunate consequence of this approach is that it robs the heroes of nuance. Wonder Woman was a terrific superhero film because Gadot had an opportunity to show her character’s strength and vulnerability, and in Justice League we have Batman telling her (and us) how she feels. Indeed, the film prefers to explain all the characters, so they never quite have a chance to develop chemistry. Whedon peppers the film with jokes, mostly from The Flash, but all the decent punchlines are derivative riffs on what you’ve seen in better superhero films.
The most glaring, egregious failure of Justice League is its villain. Steppenwolf’s backstory is a lazy Lord of the Rings riff, and he never seems like a threatening force. He is merely a placeholder, a cipher for the Justice League to showcase their powers. Also his dialogue is downright bizarre, with him repeating the phrase “mother power” so often that he sounds like Mike Pence.
There is no force of will, or sense of heroism in Steppenwolf’s defeat, only the default acknowledgment that the film must end. If there is anything amusing in the action—filmed so the backgrounds are incoherent as the characters careen across the frame—it is unintentional. Momoa plays Aquaman like a morose rock star, for example, and his repeated shout of “YEAH-UH” sounds like a bad impression of Metallica’s James Hetfield.
Snyder and Whedon focus their attention on Superman rising from the dead. This leads to the film’s only interesting scene, where a confused, newly resuscitated Superman fights Batman, Wonder Woman, and the others. The action has some sense of danger, although an odd detail of Cavill’s appearance undermines it. You see, Cavill was contractually obligated to keep a mustache for a new Mission: Impossible film, so animators had to take out his facial hair during the reshoots. Cavill is a handsome, charismatic actor, except his CGI upper lip is an unintentionally amusing distraction. This expensive, ludicrous solution for a simple problem—borne out of byzantine studio demands—is an apt metaphor for this film’s failures.
At just under two hours, the best thing about Justice League is it’s mercifully short. The filmmakers seemingly learned from the critiques of their earlier films, like how Batman v Superman was too bloated, and too dark in tone. Snyder and Whedon eliminated those qualities, and put nothing unique in their place. In fact, this film jettisons the themes that the DC Extended Universe has developed for years. Superman’s return lacks triumph, or an exploration for what he means to the world. If he is a messianic figure, it is only as a clumsily handled deus ex machina.
And that is not the only action trope, since Steppenwolf also needs MacGuffins that looks suspiciously like the Tesseract from The Avengers. To its detriment, Justice League constantly invites comparisons to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Snyder’s latest inspires any passion, it will be among the tiresome, inevitable squabbling between DC vs. Marvel fanboys.
Justice League opens Friday in theaters everywhere.