After the undeniable failure of last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the question was whether a good movie could be built upon the foundation of a bad one? And after seeing “Justice League,” the answer is that it is possible only to make a better one. “Justice League” is hardly a bad movie, but it continues Zack Snyder’s inability to find the magic that makes Marvel films consistent winners.
Where “Wonder Woman” managed to largely divorce itself from “Batman v Superman,” “Justice League” has to fully embrace it. Therefore, much of the busy narrative concentrates on a world without Superman. Opening with Batman (Ben Affleck) engaging with a small time burglar, we quickly discover what he’s really after. By using the thief as bait, Batman lures in a flying, vampiric creature drawn to fear. This is intriguing.
After dispatching this deformed cretin, Batman determines that the death of Superman has created an opening for some kind of alien invasion. Details, however, are as murky as the special effects. We meet the leader of the invaders, a brawny, computer generated monster named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, wasted), whose simplistic motivations are to unite three magical cubes and turn the Earth into a hellish habitat. And to that end, the action zips to the Amazon where a battle over one of the boxes rages.
Realizing that he can’t go it alone, Batman decides to get a team together. But finding the right members and convincing them to play proves to be difficult. Naturally, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is in, which delights Batman/Bruce Wayne, who obviously has the hots for her. In time, Wonder Woman will recruit Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a young man who has been modified after a terrible accident. Batman easily brings the boyish Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) on board. And the Flash provides much needed comic relief, as he is constantly cracking jokes and enthusiastically trying to help the gang out.
But Aquaman, who is also known as Arthur Curry, proves to be a harder nut to crack. Played perfectly by Jason Momoa, an Aquaman stand-alone project might be fun on the same level as “Thor.” In fact, Snyder should be taking notes on the latest Thor adventure, which is how such a film should be mounted. In “Justice League,” Aquaman’s story is muddled and frankly confusing. Because this is a comic character that I know very little about, without a little shorthand, a scene in which he interacts with a character named Mera (Amber Heard) seemed as though something was missing. My thought is that more scenes were shot, but the producers wanted to cut down on the film’s length that thankfully clocks in at just 2 hours.
Once the core team is assembled, they quickly recognize that they are in over their heads. The empty and visually weightless Steppenwolf is an otherworldly demon or alien, who just can’t be killed. Clearly outmatched, they desperately need Superman (Henry Cavill). This inevitably leads Batman to grapple with the possibility of bringing back from the dead the Man of Steel.
Enough potential spoilers, “Justice League” is rushed and pretty messy. Given the troubled production in which director Zack Snyder had to step away from the film for a time due to a personal tragedy, it suffers from a lack of a singular vision. And what works among the schizophrenic story threads can easily be identified as the work of writer/director and fanboy favorite Joss Whedon, who was called in for reshoots and to retool the project.
This is frustrating, because I’ve been a Snyder stalwart standing by his “Watchmen” as the right way to handle mature comic book themes. Here the problem is that this part of the DC universe is just not grown up enough to support a heavy-handed take on the material. Now, before readers take me to task about this, it is clear that Warner Bros. wants it both ways here: they want a watered down fun “Justice League” in-keeping with “Super Friends” that family audiences will embrace, while also including darker elements that will satisfy die-hard fans. Frankly, this balancing act is just too hard to pull off.
Ultimately, the key themes of diversity and cooperation (teamwork among those with differing talents) are present and made entertaining only through limited comedic elements. The Flash is the stand-out, which together with the goodwill associated with Wonder Woman helps “Justice League” avoid the dreck that so marred its team-up predecessor. But just being “better” isn’t enough, and with this installment looking like another relative failure, one wonders whether the DC universe will ever compete credibly with its Marvel rival. At this point, I’ll bet not.