In the end, perhaps the most striking thing about Justice League is its briskness. Clocking in at just under two hours and sprinting like a muscle-bound gazelle, this latest entry in the DC Cinematic Universe – that lumbering, patchwork corporate beast that has sought to merge Marvel’s breezily complicated world-building with the gravitas of DC’s crown-jewel Batman films – seems less invested in portent and mood, and more in movement. The joints show, and the cuts are sometimes awkward — there was clearly a longer, more d-r-a-w-n o-u-t version of this at some point — but what’s left after the cutting is fun and engaging enough, and it’s all anchored by terrific lead performances. There were even times when (gasp) it moved me.
DC, of course, already had one of this year’s biggest and most beloved hits with the rousing and earnestly heroic Wonder Woman. Justice League follows in that movie’s shadow; there were rumors that the filmmakers have belatedly beefed up Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman role, and really, who can blame them? But the new film mostly picks up where last year’s Batman v Superman left off, with the world reeling from the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) back to his brooding, swole, guilt-ridden self.
That’s not to suggest that there’s no room for earnestness in Justice League. The film opens with cellphone footage of some kids peppering Superman with questions. “What’s the best thing about planet Earth?” one asks. Superman cracks a smile, and thinks about it — and the movie cuts to black. The early passages bask in that bleak uncertainty. With the Man of Steel seemingly no more, society has begun to dissolve. Norwegian singer Sigrid’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” plays on the soundtrack (“Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost” — yes, yes, it’s yet another droning cover of a classic pop song used to add weight to Hollywood piffle, but this one actually works). We see a bank foreclosing on Martha Kent’s house, while anti-immigrant thugs harass a hijab-wearing grocer. The despairing collapse of a post-Superman world, in other words, feels quite a bit like our own.
The good news is that there are superheroes still standing, and they’re working together. Well, sort of. Much of Justice League follows Bruce Wayne’s and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince’s attempts to assemble a team of heroes — including manly, gruff loner Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), wide-eyed and lightning fast uber-nerd Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) and constantly changing cybernetic teenager Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — in time to battle the ancient evil Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a Satanic figure who commands an army of winged, fear-seeking parademons. Steppenwolf is searching for the three “mother-boxes” — ancient, buried containers of energy that if joined together will … oh, who the fuck cares. Steppenwolf bad. Boxes bad. Superheroes good. Superheroes call friends. Big boom muscle go bang now.
The somewhat troubled story of Justice League’s production has sometimes made it into the news. Director Zack Snyder, who already seemed humbled after the critical drubbing of his uber-gloomy Batman v Superman, had to step away from the shoot after a family tragedy, and Joss Whedon, who had directed two light-as-air Avengers titles for Marvel, came in to help finish the job. (Whedon has a co-screenwriting credit.) Then there was that whole business about adding more Wonder Woman. This mixed provenance stamps the finished product. Some of her reaction shots look like they were filmed at an office in Burbank last week. Meanwhile, action scenes start and stop and then start again, then go in different directions, and it was a few moments into The Big Climactic Face-Off before I realized we’d arrived at The Big Climactic Face-Off.
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But these off-kilter rhythms actually lend the film a pleasant unpredictability. As does the humor, which often sits uneasily next to the moodiness, but is somehow fast and witty enough to work. As the awkward novice, The Flash often winds up as the butt of jokes. Aquaman sits on Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth and winds up confessing all his insecurities. Batman is a little more self-aware than usual, and the film pokes fun at his self-serious demeanor. (Let’s not forget that Warner and DC have also given us The LEGO Batman Movie.) The actors actually look like they’re having fun, which somehow both undercuts and enriches the gloom.
Not all of it works. A chase in which Amazon warriors on horseback attempt to keep a mother-box away from Steppenwolf has sweep and urgency, but another early scene involving Wonder Woman thwarting murderous right-wing traditionalists is a botch, as if the filmmakers decided halfway through that they didn’t want to shoot it anymore. Later, even as the movie manages moments of stirring grace, with the reluctant members of the Justice League finding ways to work together, the ultimate stakes of the battle never quite get properly defined. (I’m still not sure what Steppenwolf wants. I think maybe he seeks to return to his rightful throne on Earth and enslave its people, but I might just be thinking of Thor: Ragnarok.)
Despite the laughs, everybody is soaked in guilt and regret, and a sense that the failures of the past have obliterated any chance of hope for today or tomorrow. Some of that’s interesting, however. Barry Allen and Victor Stone both have daddy issues — the former with his incarcerated father (Billy Crudup, an inspired choice to play the progenitor of Ezra Miller’s cheekbones), the latter with his obsessive scientist dad (played by Joe Morton, in a possible nod to his character from Terminator 2: Judgment Day) — which are themselves echoed in Bruce Wayne’s relationship with his butler/surrogate-father/aide-de-camp Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Aquaman and Wonder Woman both have ties to glorious past kingdoms that have mostly vanished.
Once upon a time, superheroes spoke to the gee-whiz optimism of science and futuristic fantasy. These days, they glower along with the rest of us and dream of better days. But in a movie like Batman v Superman, such indulgences overwhelmed the story and threatened to bring the whole enterprise down. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, managed to get the mix just right, blending joy and sincerity without totally skimping on the mythic overtones. Justice League can’t quite match that. It dwells on the melancholy just long enough to shade the characters, but its creators know that a little of this stuff goes a long way — that in movies like this, the despair exists to be overcome.