At this point, the current run of interconnected DC movies is starting to feel like a dead horse that’s managing to beat itself. What new criticism can be lobbed at juiceless junk Justice League that wasn’t already applied to last year’s Batman v Superman and/or Suicide Squad? What part of the pitiful problem hasn’t already been exposed? Warner Bros. has employed boundless creativity and enjoyed great success with Superman and Batman franchises of the past and they’ve currently launched a bona fide star in Wonder Woman player Gal Gadot, but their current attempt to expand their cinematic universe is leaden and lifeless.
One can forgive a certain amount of messiness in tone and vision when considering that original director Zack Snyder left the project during post-production to deal with a family tragedy and brought on Avengers helmer Joss Whedon to oversee a considerable round of reshoots that were then integrated with Snyder’s footage, but the big problem here has little to do with any perceived disjointedness caused by splicing the two chunks together.
This is simply a passionless, zombified affair that can’t do anything right. The character arcs are flat, the action is ridiculous, the conflict is generic, and the basic story structure somehow manages to be both flaccid and rigid at the same time. It’s a by-the-numbers getting-the-team-together adventure that cuts every corner it can with as little effort as possible.
The plot is a generic fill-in-the-blanks exercise. Super evil [INSERT VILLAIN] goes on a rampage to procure [INSERT MAGICAL MACGUFFIN] while [INSERT HEROES] join forces to stop the destruction of our world. Events are made even more boring since the inserted villain is a tall horned monster called Steppenwolf that can’t even get a moment’s peace to groove to the rocking sounds of the band he shares a name with. Perhaps Warner Bros. blew their entire music rights budget on the 70s-tunes-playlist-scored Suicide Squad.
Steppenwolf is a humorless jerk that seems to exist mainly to make all the other lame and forgettable antagonists of superhero movies from the past several years feel better by comparison. He lacks personality, presence, and purpose. Not that the heroes fare much better. Jason Momoa makes a workable Aquaman with his imposing physique and comically literal perspective on the proceedings and it’s certainly nice to see Gadot again after her magnificent turn in last summer’s solo effort, but the cast and characters mainly underwhelm.
Ezra Miller aims for charmingly funny as Flash and ends up gratingly gawky instead, while Ray Fisher’s Cyborg proves to be more of a magical key required to open doors for the plot than an actual character. Henry Cavill returns as bland Superman, which means the movie gets a few minutes here and there to waste the talents of Amy Adams and Diane Lane. But as per usual, all roads lead back to Batman and while Ben Affleck works his limited acting chops as best he can, the issues here go beyond casting.
The caped crusader has been cinematically realized so many times that he’s become roughly recycled from his own parts, filtered through a mechanical loop of adaptations. Whereas previous iterations have had unique identifiers to allow each version to stand out, Affleck and Snyder’s take on the character has doubled or even tripled down on the Frank Miller influence that was already prevalent in the Tim Burton and Chris Nolan movies.
This latest appearance has further shades of Burton as well, including an opening reintroduction that’s reminiscent of the 1989 movie that launched Warner Bros.’ decades-long dominance of the character. There’s a reference made to the missile-strapped penguins of Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns and various sets appear to be direct homages. To spread the franchise borrowing around, Nolan’s more militarized vehicles (themselves a byproduct of Miller’s comic work) have a prevailing influence here.
The closest this “new” Batman comes to having its own visual stamp lies in the blatantly added nods to the popular Arkham series of Batman video games. As far as Batman’s media exploits go, only the sugar shock shenanigans of the Schumacher era seem safe from thievery. To be fair, it’s inevitable that a character with such a storied screen history as Batman is going to carry with him the baggage of previous appearances and interpretations. The franchise’s popularity and ubiquity make it difficult for yet another reboot to distinguish itself, but the character’s past cinematic identities have always had clear lines of separation until now.
This Batman is more soupy than ever and it doesn’t help that it’s a limited actor like Affleck under the cowl. Much of the blame should probably be levied at Snyder, who has a knack for robotically transferring comic panels from page to screen while adding nothing new to the images, but it’s clear that Snyder’s replacement deserves his share of scorn. The quips don’t work here the way they did in The Avengers and a subplot involving a besieged Russian family is absolutely Whedon at his worst. Justice League inspires the best in no one.
As the movie arrives at its big super team finale, it devolves into coughed-up cacophonous chaos, heroes that are invincible, villains that are innumerable, destruction that is immeasurable, and forces like gravity that are now irrelevant. If you weren’t emotionally invested in the heroic fates of this Batman or Superman before, wait until you see the former drive his car really fast through a swarm of bug-monsters or the latter prove that the best part of having already died and been resurrected is that there’s really no way the writers are going to kill you off again.
Nothing matters here, not even within the already meaningless sphere of superhero cinema. This is as dull and dumb as cinematic crimefighting gets. With Superman on their side and Cyborg playing the role of a walking, talking deus ex machina, saving the world seems like a pretty easy task for this crew, but they now have a truly daunting mission ahead of them: saving their own franchise. Standing in their way is a wall of dour indifference that not even the likes of Superman can punch through.