Have you ever seen a film that was both too rushed and too slow? A film that undoes the stellar approach to how its franchise previously melded character and action? A film that runs out of inspiring, emotional pull before the first act is over? Director Zack Snyder’s JUSTICE LEAGUE is all of these things. Wisps of humor add a fun zing, but its intensifying, aggressively poor qualities bog down any buoyancy – like too much butter drenching the popcorn picture’s lightness of being.
Superman/ Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) has died and the world is in deep mourning. Black flags have been hung. Society is left somber and vulnerable. Yet heroes still roam the Earth. And Batman/ Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is determined to get a team together to protect the planet from a future attack – one he knows is approaching. He gathers Wonder Woman/ Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), Aquaman/ Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Flash/ Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg/ Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) to battle the evil Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), a CGI monstrosity bent on banishing everyone on Earth to the uncanny valley.
The first act sets up some thoughtful, affecting sentiments; however, it fails to pull any of this through the rest of the narrative. The existential crisis humanity is thrown into after Superman’s death lasts about five minutes tops. Screenwriters Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, working from a story by Terrio and Snyder, don’t really explore any of it. They also can’t simply show the correlation between Superman’s death and the dearth of hope, one character has to say “Superman is gone, where does that leave us?” While it’s fine to not linger, any emotional thrust disappears once the super friends are introduced or re-introduced. There’s something to be said for these heroes saving an ever-changing world – a world they don’t totally understand – out of duty. It’s just too bad the filmmakers never find what it is they should say. And yet there’s a heap ton of exposition. Go figure.
In stark contrast to the empowering feeling of WONDER WOMAN, JUSTICE LEAGUE’s treatment of female characters comes from a noticeably different place – a darker, mean-spirited one. Motivations behind a few of the action sequences are questionable. Women take the brunt of violence in the battles in Atlantis and Themyscira. There’s a marked change in the way these sequences are realized. A sneakily nefarious undertone becomes a ringing alarm, alerting us to barbed sexist slights. During a genuinely funny bit involving Diana’s lasso of truth, she’s complimented first on her beauty, not her strength. And the gifted Amy Adams is wasted, as Lois only exists here to serve a male character’s story.
Perhaps the worst problem is that this portrait of rousing superheroes fails to arouse. A frustrating, maddening numbness sprouts within the viewer. It’s severely lacking any earned emotions because the material is utterly bereft of emotional stakes. When Wonder Woman’s rescue of hostages in a bank only elicits a half a goose bump, you know there’s a problem. Had the new characters been introduced with a modicum of creative ingenuity, maybe things would have been different. As is, it’s a mess of a hurried outline. Barry, Arthur and Victor are first presented through exposition. The trio aren’t given any iteration of character arcs. Their journeys ring hollow. Victor’s backstory is rushed through clumsily. Barry’s scenes visiting his jailbird dad (Billy Crudup) don’t pop as we’re given a thin, cursory setup of their relationship. We only grow to like him because he makes funny quips every now and then. Arthur’s scene with a loved one (Amber Heard) is laughably forgettable, basically amounting to her reinforcing the male ego/ arc – what little he has. Plus, the film culminates in the most bland, generic, “who cares” climax in DCEU history. Because of the staggering lack of authentic drive fueled by character motivation, the hero shot is rendered moot.
Listen, this may be a slight step up from BATMAN V SUPERMAN and SUICIDE SQUAD, and it’s blessedly brisk (two hours!) for a superhero film – but JUSTICE LEAGUE still manages to disappoint. I can’t help but miss batshit reveals like that “Martha Moment,” or Joel Kinnamen munching on a greasy chicken wing. It’s a sad day when superheroes fail to show you why they are so super.
JUSTICE LEAGUE opens on November 17.