Justice League Tries to Lighten Up the DCU, But Droops Instead

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League assembles old and new favorites from the DC universe: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Spider-Man, and Cyborg. They come together to defeat a deadly entity named Steppenwolf, who seeks to gather three powerful boxes that, when merged, will allow him to rule the universe.

To defeat him, of course …. Okay, stop. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. What percentage of Comic-Con types nearly spit up on their computers and are already posting, “WTF SPIDER-MAN IS MARVEL you MORON????” They’d be less incensed if I’d mixed up Jesus and Buddha.

Back to the movie, which is okay, no big deal. The studio has obviously called for the elimination of the bloat that disfigured Man of Steel and especially Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but now (I hesitate to write this) the new superheroes’ backstories go by too quickly. The uninitiated won’t know what’s going on and the initiated will find the introductions of Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash all too perfunctory. You need one of the lineage charts you get in books about the tsars or English kings.

Recall that in the last film, Superman died, which didn’t have the sting it might have had if we’d thought he wasn’t coming back, like, right away, in the next movie. (He’s on the poster of Justice League, so that’s not much of a spoiler.) In the last film, Batman (Ben Affleck) — bummed by collateral damage caused by Superman and his adversaries from Krypton — did his best to kill the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill). Now, he’s bummed the Man of Steel is dead. So is the rest of the world, which has, we’re told, been robbed of hope. Symbolically, the farm of Ma Kent (Diane Lane with smudged, tawny makeup) has been foreclosed on. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has writer’s block. Crime is way up.

Having witnessed insectoid creatures swarming from the Earth to feed on fear, Batman knows he has to come up with five superheroes to maybe equal one Superman. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) he can count on, but he’s disturbed by her overall lack of gung-ho — which is strange coming from someone with only one, morose expression. Bats thinks Wonder shouldn’t have laid low after the death of Steve (Chris Pine), her WWI pilot love. “Superman was a beacon to the world,” he says. “Why aren’t you?” Last time I checked Wonder’s grosses, they were more beacon-esque than Bats’s and Super’s.

Although Snyder has never shown much interest in comedy, the plan was clearly to lighten the tone in Justice League. The joke writers, though, are of lesser quality than the ones in the Marvel stable. Or maybe Joss Whedon (credited here alongside Chris Terrio) was tired, having been through the mill in his personal life and unsure if he was working on Marvel, Buffy, or Firefly. Like most “universe” movies, this one has about five beginnings and then segues into a round-up-the-team section that ought to have been sure-fire. But the banter has a droopy, depressed air, as if the actors know they’re coming from behind.

Batman’s scenes with the effusive young Flash (Ezra Miller) are pale echoes of Tony Stark and Peter Parker, and Miller practically has a sign around his neck reading “Comic Relief.” He’s an intense young actor and here, as a juvenile irritant, he’s intensely irritating. But I liked him. He’s all in. Jason Momoa is an overly dour, musclebound Aquaman, more Dothraki than merman, though he has one good scene in which he parks his impressive glutes on Wonder Woman’s lasso. Ray Fisher might well turn out to be a fine Cyborg, but the character needs to get past the mopey stage. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man adds a delightful touch of chimerical lacunae.

Good action would compensate for much, but although Snyder’s compositions and color palette are often virtuosic, I’m tired of the lyrical, CGI-dominant, slo-mo, almost abstract style in which you can’t tell who’s whomping or stabbing or somersaulting over whom. I’d give up some lyricism for clarity — I’m boring that way.

I enjoyed Superman’s resurrection, in part because it brought back happy memories of Buffy’s return from the dead, and in part because Cavill’s clear face reads better than anyone else’s but Gadot’s. By the way, she is very good.

Justice League Tries to Lighten Up the DCU, But Droops