There’s a moment early in Justice League where the score swells, and it’s not just composer Danny Elfman’s music: It’s Danny Elfman’s Batman music from the classic Tim Burton movies of the 1990s. That was a simpler time, particularly for superhero movies; the new Batman, played by Ben Affleck, fights flying alien demons instead of Crime Alley thugs. But Elfman’s music still works perfectly in a modern context. His familiar notes gave me chills.

The rest of Justice League gave me chills of a different kind; the kind you feel when you receive bad news about a sick relative, or after you quickly gulp down a big glass of milk and suddenly remember the carton expired two weeks ago. Or the kind you get when talented actors and skilled filmmakers completely botch a movie starring some of the most beloved fictional characters in history.

The roster includes previously established DC Comics heroes Batman (Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), alongside a trio of lesser-known heroes recruited to help combat an extra-terrestrial invasion. There’s Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a great swimmer and ferocious fighter from the underwater kingdom of Atlantis; the Flash (Ezra Miller), whose legs move almost as fast as his mouth; and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who was saved from a terrible accident by his scientist dad and fused with a bunch of robot parts. They will need to put aside their differences and learn to work together if they have any hope of stopping an extremely unconvincing CGI monster named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) from collecting a bunch of all-powerful MacGuffins and conquering the Earth.

Conspicuously absent from that cast list is Superman (Henry Cavill), following his (SPOILER alert for a movie you need to see before Justice League if you want to follow it) death at the hands of Doomsday in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Without the Man of Steel, the Earth is vulnerable, which is why Steppenwolf shows up now, and why the Dark Knight puts together this new team to protect the planet. Superman has been conspicuously absent from Justice League’s marketing materials, and I won’t reveal anything about his possible onscreen role in the movie except to note Cavill is the second-billed star in the film after Affleck.

Warner Bros.

The screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (from a story by Terrio and Zack Snyder) depicts the members of the Justice League as a group of loners and misfits who need to learn the value of teamwork to save the day. But while the story is a tribute to the magic of collaboration, the film itself is a textbook example of too many creative voices pulling a project in too many directions. Snyder, who directed two previous DC Extended Universe movies, began the film and then was replaced by Whedon during post-production. Both men have made good comic-book movies separately; together, their skills cancel each other out, with Whedon’s predilection for self-mocking humor undercutting Snyder’s operatic flourishes. Their styles simply don’t mesh. As the League comes together, the film falls apart.

The only piece of this jumbled puzzle that fits is Momoa’s Aquaman, a whisky-guzzling libertine with a lust for adventure. Justice League’s brief, 120-minute runtime doesn’t allow for luxuries like character motivation, so Snyder and Whedon can’t explain Aquaman’s status quo (particularly as it relates to Amber Heard’s Mera, who shows up in a single, baffling scene and then vanishes). Still, Momoa makes an immediate, charismatic impression as a hedonistic hero with a heart of gold (and a liver of titanium), giving at least some hope for his solo movie, which is due in theaters in the fall of 2018.

Otherwise, Justice League is a collection of missed opportunities and flubbed ideas. Miller’s Flash, who’s never even been in a fight when the film begins, is cleverly different from his television counterpart, but almost none of his nonstop jokes land. Fisher has a commanding onscreen presence (and the perfect voice for a superhero) buried beneath a lot of uneven special effects, and his arc is almost as threadbare as Aquaman’s; his complicated relationship with his father, played by Joe Morton, gets zero resolution. Gal Gadot remains a sturdy paragon of virtue as Wonder Woman, but those who appreciated how her film refused to treat her like a sexual object probably won’t be too keen on the way Snyder and Whedon repeatedly introduce her in scenes butt or cleavage first.

Justice League
Warner Bros.

As for Affleck, he’s lightened up a little bit since the drudgery of Batman v Superman, but the only aspect of Bruce Wayne he seems to relate to as an actor is the part that keeps showing up to save the world out of begrudging obligation. His grumpy, brooding Caped Crusader could work in a Justice League where he’s a key supporting role; the lurking presence in the background. But because of Superman’s death, Affleck’s Batman is the closest thing this movie has to a main character; he drives all the action and anchors all of the group dialogue scenes. And I mean he anchors them, dragging them down with his sullen, one-note line readings.

I am sure I will get angry tweets and comments about this review. I will be told I hate comics, hate DC, hate this movie universe. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I love comics. I love DC. And I want to love the DCEU. I was lucky enough to be 16 and at the peak of my obsession with the medium right as Grant Morrison and Howard Porter took over JLA, transforming the book into a monthly showcase of the very best of superhero comics: Propulsive action, gorgeous artwork, complex characters, and crackling dialogue. Morrison and Porter’s run was so fun and exciting it made that style of epic superhero storytelling look easy. Justice League makes it look hard. Really, really hard.

Additional Thoughts:

-Steppenwolf is maybe the worst villain in a superhero movie since the giant yellow cloud of evil in Green Lantern. He looks like his special effects were never finished  and, in general, Justice League looks unusually bad for a movie of its size and budget. Several of the “biggest” action sequences look like they were filmed entirely on green screens (or inside a computer). I assume that’s because rewrites and reshoots forced the effects artists to work on abbreviated schedules. Whatever the reason, Justice League is a not a good-looking movie.

-Yes, there are post-credits scenes. One of the two is actually pretty cool. Under other circumstances, I could see it making me pretty excited to watch another Justice League movie.


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