Zack Snyder’s painfully titled “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” had all the worst attributes of modern-day superhero storytelling: unearned gravitas, a bloated running time, and interchangeable CGI-stuffed battles. “Justice League” offers a tepid mea culpa, attempting to liven the material (with a third-act assist from Joss Whedon, who finished the movie when Snyder stepped away for tragic personal reasons).
Taking more than one page from Marvel’s first “Avengers” installment, “Justice League” rounds up the current spate of active D.C. franchise superheroes, and the resulting 119-minute pileup of showdowns and one-liners is an undeniably tighter, more engaging experience. It’s also a tired, conventional attempt to play by the rules, with “hold for laughs” moments shoehorned between rapid-fire action — a begrudging concession that the Marvel formula works, and a shameless attempt to replicate it.
Although “Batman v Superman” combined equally bland dramas about two of the most overexposed fictional icons in pop culture, it stumbled toward a reasonable cliffhanger to kickstart the next installment: the death of Superman. This cataclysmic event, cheaply lifted from one of the comic book’s best arcs, represents a breach in the mythology. What happens when a symbol of absolute power falls? That’s the question “Justice League” uses as an excuse to assemble all of its active D.C. characters.
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It doesn’t take long for Snyder to revisit the familiar faces — a grumbling Batman, the show-stealing Wonder Woman — while adding a few new ones: Aquaman (a pitchfork-touting Jason Momoa, his grimy locks and scowls suggesting a steady diet of heavy metal along with the fish), dopey whippersnapper The Flash (Ezra Miller, eyes bulging in every frame), and the Robocop-like Cyborg (Ray Fisher, who squeezes a modicum of empathy out of an origin story largely told in passing asides).
A martyr to the cause of protecting humankind, Superman’s demise has left Metropolis and Gotham reeling, prone to attacks from flying aliens with glowing eyes from another dimension. For a moment, it seems as if Snyder wants to peer beyond this inane threat. One of the movie’s best sequences is a slo-mo montage over the credits: It surveys the cities in peril as angry men and women on the streets clash with law enforcement, the absence of hope triggering socioeconomic frustrations.
That might make for a more substantial riff on the formula — imagine Cyborg marching with Black Lives Matter, or billionaire Batman facing down Occupy Wall Street — but any insight into our troubled times is quickly trumped by the usual fantastical threats.
Enter Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds, buried in chalky CGI and horns), a destroyer of worlds in the guise of a “Dungeons and Dragons” reject, and the source of those pesky interdimensional aliens. They’re actually his ghoulish army, feeding on fear as Steppenwolf seeks out a series of “mother boxes” guarded by Wonder Woman’s Amazons, Aquaman’s Atlantans, and mankind itself. Collectively, the boxes stabilize all existence — not unlike those “infinity stones” that drive Marvel’s crew to feats of derring do.
It probably makes a lot of sense in the comics, but here it’s an excuse for the usual wreaking havoc as reality’s future hangs in the balance. Fine, let the spectacle take flight: You aren’t paying for profundity so much as seeing the good guys take charge. The threat in “Justice League” is a MacGuffin designed to get the band back together.
As the movie begins, Batman (Ben Affleck, still just one frozen stare away from being an actual statue) got the memo. He’s globetrotting, with his trusty butler/tech guru Alfred (Jeremy Irons) in tow, attempting to cajole Aquaman and The Flash into a new group of fighters mobilized against a murky threat.
Meanwhile, Batman’s on shaky ground with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), though it may just be envy. Fresh from her triumphant origin story earlier this year, Gadot entraps a couple bank robbers early in the movie with a vivacious physicality that makes Batman’s usual shadowy maneuvers look downright weary.
Gadot doesn’t have to say much to make her character click; she’s impervious to a screenplay otherwise marred by its stabs at cleverness. Batman’s muted delivery undercuts his musings: “We tend to act like the doomsday clock has a snooze button,” he sighs, strolling lakeside with Wonder Woman. (Snyder doesn’t favor closeups, so we don’t know if the heroine rolls her eyes.)
As “Justice League” plods on autopilot, the Marvel-movie parallels range from subtle to shameless. The group chemistry is strictly dimestore Avengers, while Batman takes on a paternal role with The Flash that weakly apes the Iron Man/Spider-Man dynamic of “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” The Flash makes oddball jokes about brunch and mutters about confidence issues, while Batman growls nuggets of advice as quickly as possible before the scene just… ends.
The mild revelation of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was it did away with high stakes; “Justice League” attempts to fake them. Steppenwolf is a freaky villain, but he’s just another chortling lunatic rambling about the destruction of the planet.
Still, as a pure assault of archetypes and sprawling set pieces, “Justice League” hums along. From his “Dawn of the Dead” remake to the idiosyncratic “Sucker Punch,” Snyder’s movies trade sophistication for sizzle, and he’s certainly one of the most astonishing visual stylists working in the blockbuster medium.
A fast-paced showdown against Wonder Woman’s Amazons (who seem to be more stripped down than in her standalone film), in which her people face off with Steppenwolf in a ferocious chase, doesn’t go anywhere unexpected but remains a thrill nonetheless. Later, a tossed-off moment finds Aquaman chugging whisky after rescuing a wayward sailor, then diving into the waves like it’s just another Sunday at the gym. “Justice League” might have been more engaging as a constant montage of such inspired moments, abandoning a plot that only gets in the way. No such luck.
The movie struggles to match its epic scope with a reason to care. Danny Elfman’s forgettable score (sadly, there have been many in recent years) does nothing to enhance the suspense, and the vibrant cinematography by Fabian Wagner, making his feature-length debut after years in television, provides a dizzying assemblage of swooping camerawork that rarely lingers on a single face. When a major D.C. character emerges one hour into the proceedings, he arrives with less fanfare than matter-of-factness, carried along by the pure necessity of keeping the franchise in flux. Then it’s back to business as usual.
Eventually, “Justice League” lines up its new heroes for the expected money shot as they emerge together to face down one final threat. There are some enjoyable barbs thrown, Flash offers some goofy punchlines, and a few exemplary moments find powerful forces slamming together to create digital jolts.
As a pure ride, “Justice League” nicely panders to the lowest common denominator of moviegoing expectations, and Gadot manages to escape unscathed. Now in her third round as Wonder Woman, she elevates the movie whenever she’s onscreen, twirling her lasso of truth and staring down each threat as if her symbolism of feminist rage was immune to lackluster product.
“Justice League” never stays too long with its best characters, eventually squeezing in screen time for intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), no less a half-formed stereotype of her early days. Not realizing that she’s one of the movie’s weakest links, it cedes control to her voiceover in the movie’s closing moments, with a rambling dispatch about how light always returns to show us the way forward. That’s what heroes do, of course, but the challenge for the movies is that they have to earn that inspiring narrative each time out.
Whedon’s “Avengers” was an endearing accumulation of characters whose stories assembled over the course of 10 years and several movies; “Justice League” attempts to speed the process and blurs its appeal. Decades ago, before Spider-Man or Captain America took charge, Batman and Superman protected a war-torn America, forever changing popular culture. It was the D.C. universe that invented this game, so it stings to see it replicate the same old moves.
“Justice League” opens nationwide on November 17.