We’ve seen bad DC movies and bad Marvel movies. But Justice League is something new: It’s a bad DC movie and a bad Marvel movie at the same time.
Engineered as an answer to Marvel’s Avengers movies, Justice League filters DC’s miasma of sin and gloom through Marvel’s larkish self-mockery and winds up failing as both comedy and drama. The credited director is the sometimes-pretentious Zack Snyder, though when Snyder had to take time off because of a family crisis, the movie was finished, in a collision-of-universes decision, by the genre-spoofing Joss Whedon. The finished product is neither ponderous (like Snyder’s Batman v. Superman) nor matey fun (like Whedon’s The Avengers). Its mix of brainless bombast and lame comedy suggests that it could have been directed by Vince McMahon. When, for instance, Aquaman soars through the sky stabbing giant extraterrestrial hornets with his sea-fork (sorry, you don’t get to call it a trident if it has five prongs), it’s neither plausible enough to be thrilling nor absurd enough to be funny.
Justice League cobbles together two tired plots: a ho-hum alien-invasion and a routine let’s-round-up-the-gang story. Placing the world in peril this time is Steppenwolf, an eight-foot alien monster. “He is no ordinary villain,” the press notes exclaim. But “Ordinary Villain” is practically emblazoned on his metallic horns. As he seeks the ultimate might that comes with uniting three power cells called “Mother Boxes,” (shades of Marvel’s Infinity Stones) that were dispersed around Earth in ancient times, it’s not even clear what it will take to defeat him. Can he be shot to death? Burned? What if he lost his horns? What, exactly, is special about him except that he’s big and strong and has a rumbly voice? Snyder and Whedon are content to have him heave things around the digital sets, and then be heaved around a bit himself, with lots of crashing and exploding in a CGI version of WWE. At no time is any of this exciting. In fact, it might well set a new standard for quantity of meaningless, numbing digital garbage.
Batman (Ben Affleck), sensing the advance of Steppenwolf after capturing one of the villain’s scouts — six-foot metallic-looking hornet-men more ridiculous than scary — decides he’ll need help to save the world and so he simply discards the loner personality the character has had for 75 years and becomes a project manager. Goodbye Dark Knight, hello “We Are the World.” Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who despite having rejected humanity for 100 years is also happy to be one of the gang and comes to the Batcave to volunteer.
One of the Mother Boxes, which look like groovy 1970s speakers that change color with the beat, is being guarded by Wonder Woman’s Amazon sisters, one is deep in the ocean guarded by the undersea frat dude Aquaman (Jason Momoa, from the 2011 Conan the Barbarian remake), and one was buried by humans to keep it safe hundreds of years ago. Steppenwolf recovers these one by one, with each set piece rendered as a tornado of CGI, while Batman builds his team. Learning of the sea hero who feeds the villagers each winter in an Icelandic town, Batman-in-mufti Bruce Wayne simply finds Aquaman standing in the first tavern he wanders into. Though Aquaman is already a dedicated servant of human needs, he demurs, then also changes his mind, also for no particular reason.
Batman brings in a callow youth with speedy feet (Barry/the Flash, played by Ezra Miller) and a man-machine and science whiz (Victor/Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher), who comes across as a humorless, second-rate version of Iron Man. He couldn’t be less interesting if he were called Zinc Man, plus he seems to have learned too well from Ben Affleck’s Novocain-injected acting. Flat as Affleck and Fisher are, though, they’re better than Miller, who has been irritating in every film he’s ever made and provides his usual skin-rash presence here. His Flash is meant to be like Tom Holland’s endearing Spider-Man: the excitable, boyish nerd who brings the whimsy and the comic relief. Instead he’s like the loser in the back of the school bus on the field trip who can’t stop delivering one-liners only he finds funny.
Even superhero flicks have to be, centrally, about people.
Gadot’s performance is the only one that is at all appealing, and yet she’s considerably less charming than she was in the first-rate Wonder Woman. That’s a reminder that when it comes to actors, directors matter. Recall that Christopher Nolan drew sterling work from the supporting actors in his Batman movies; here, such Oscar-level talents as Amy Adams (as Lois Lane), Diane Lane (as Superman’s mother), J. K. Simmons (as Commissioner Gordon), and Jeremy Irons (as Batman’s butler Alfred) are criminally wasted. Snyder at least once understood, as Nolan did, that a great comic-book movie should reflect on weightier matters than alien invasion. But he (perhaps at the behest of DC bosses ordering him to be more like the Marvel moviemakers) has dropped the carefully considered Christian allegory of Batman v. Superman in favor of a few offhand references to a fallen world. What Snyder has utterly forgotten is the principle at the heart of Nolan’s Batman films: Even superhero flicks have to be, centrally, about people. Watching dozens of hornet-bots get wiped out may strike some viewers as “cool,” but it doesn’t spark an emotional reaction. Nolan made his action scenes matter. In Justice League, nothing does.