By Jim Sabataso
Remember Hydrox cookies? Just like Oreos, but not quite. They have the key components — chocolate wafer, creme filling — but when you eat one you only think of how much you’d prefer an Oreo. “Justice League” is the Hydrox of superhero team-up movies; a disappointing reminder of how much better the “Avengers” was.
Warner Bros. has had a rough go of building out the DC Extended Universe. Where Marvel Studio’s success has seemed effortless — from the outside, at least — Warner has stumbled from the start. Both “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” were messy spectacles that only delivered negative reviews and a poor audience reception. “Suicide Squad” was even worse. The success of “Wonder Woman” brought hope earlier this year, but now with “Justice League” it seems like it was the outlier in an otherwise unfocused, overstuffed and underwhelming set of films.
Director Zack Snyder is once again at the helm painting his bleak, bombastic vision of the DCEU. To his credit, he has taken criticism from the previous films seriously and attempted to add some levity and heart to “Justice League.” Part of that is thanks to the inclusion of Joss Whedon, who stepped in to take the film over the finish line after Snyder stepped away due to a family crisis. Whedon also contributed heavily to the script, on which he is co-credited with Chris Terrio.
Whedon’s touch is felt in smaller scenes where the characters get to hang out and quip — a Whedon staple. His presence, however, makes it even easier to draw parallels between this film and the first “Avengers” film, which he also directed. The film brings together classic DC heroes Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg to battle a generic and vaguely defined extra-dimensional villain named Steppenwolf, who wants to destroy and/or rule the Earth — his motivations are equally generic and vaguely defined.
Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (he played Mance Rayder on “Game of Thrones”) is unrecognizable as Steppenwolf beneath a pile of makeup and CGI. With his horned helmet and axe-scepter, he looks like an off-brand Loki from “Avengers,” and he’s expectedly underdeveloped and forgettable. The army of Parademons — bug-like creatures who feed off fear, except when it’s inconvenient to the plot — also look like knock-offs of the alien Chitauri from “Avengers.”
One place where “Justice League” does outdo “Avengers” is in MacGuffins. Where the “Avengers” only had one box to chase, “Justice League” has three. So that’s something.
On the hero side of the equation, the cast does well enough with the clunky dialogue and ill-defined motivations the script provides. Ben Affleck’s “I’m too old for this sh-t” Batman pulls the team together easily enough, even if that work did comprise the first hour of the two-hour film.
Fresh off her success in “Wonder Woman,” Gal Gadot is back as the Amazing Amazon, the sole bright spot of “Batman v. Superman.” She is every bit as badass here, even as the film’s male gaze lingers on her with all the subtly of a 14-year-old teenager.
Henry Cavill’s Superman is back, too — sorry, I don’t consider that a spoiler — and this time he’s actually allowed to smile. While the decision to resurrect Supes is an ethical issue the heroes gloss over with shockingly little debate, this is the first time the character has been recognizable as the beacon of hope the previous films have failed to depict.
Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones”) takes up the trident as Aquaman in a bro’d-out version of the character that, as NPR critic Glen Weldon put it, finally answers the question of what the “Aquaman” film from “Entourage” would have looked like. Momoa actually brings some humor to the otherwise uninteresting character, which I welcomed, but hardcore fans will likely take issue with it.
Ezra Miller is another newcomer as The Flash. Miller’s Flash is the team’s rookie and audience surrogate, who seems to be in perpetual awe and terror of the situation he’s been thrust into. He’s fun and quippy in a way that calls to mind CW’s “The Flash” TV series.
Finally, there’s Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher. Cyborg was created using the same technology that powers the mystical boxes in the film. This connection makes Cyborg the film’s de facto exposition machine and also provides him with a vague powerset that makes him a convenient plot device but an uninteresting character.
While there are a lot of flaws in “Justice League,” it still lands somewhere in the middle for DCEU films. It’s enjoyable enough and, at two hours, not even long by modern blockbuster standards. DC fans will likely at least enjoy the thrill of seeing these iconic heroes finally onscreen together.
Still, another disappointment is the last thing Warner needed right now, as it looks to the future of the DCEU. “Justice League” had a lot of heavy lifting to do. In addition to telling its own story, it needed to launch three new franchises — Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg — as well as setting up its own sequel. That work is made especially daunting considering how lukewarm audiences and critics have been on the DCEU thus far.
In the rush to keep pace with Marvel, DC and Warner have failed to take the time to build out its extended universe in a disciplined manner that provided space to develop characters and build a continuity that makes sense. What we have instead is a hurried, mishmash of characters and stories that provides more fodder for anyone wanting to make a case that the genre has run its course.
CHECK IT OUT
“Justice League” (PG-13) is now in theaters.