Maybe Batman just needed to have a few friends around. Through the years, there have been so many movies about the caped hero lurking in his mansion and fighting crime—from the baroque silliness of Tim Burton’s films, to the overt cartoonishness of Joel Schumacher’s, to the thudding realism of Christopher Nolan’s. In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the grumpy orphaned billionaire (Ben Affleck) gets an actual crew to help him beat up monsters both literal and emotional. But that’s about the biggest innovation I can point to in a film that’s frustratingly short on satisfaction.
Some of Batman’s pals are familiar, like the dazzling Amazon warrior Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), whose solo effort was the best superhero film of 2017. Others are relatively new to the party, like the twitchy, superfast Flash (Ezra Miller), the beefy underwater king Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and the moody, mostly robotic Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Another, Superman (Henry Cavill), is sadly deceased ... or is he? That’s one of the few questions Justice League answers in its surprisingly slim two-hour running time, most of which is devoted to getting all these heroes together so they save the day.
Save it from what, you ask? I just saw the film and I can barely remember. Yes, there’s supposedly a looming threat from the devil-horned Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a demonic entity who has designs on annihilating the planet. But he’s a forgettable CGI construct, amounting at most to a flimsy MacGuffin for our heroes to unite against. Instead, I spent most of Justice League wondering if Affleck’s truly ill-tempered take on Batman might finally be mitigated by his new companions. Indeed it is—Justice League is almost pathologically chipper, as if trying to cast off the oppressive bleakness of earlier DC films—but that’s not enough to make it a good movie.
This is Snyder’s third film in the stutter-step DC Comics universe, which began almost by accident with the Superman movie Man of Steel (2013) and kicked into overdrive with the manic Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). The latter was an operatic, rain-soaked, hilariously miserable epic, with a mean, middle-aged Batman getting into a confusing spat with Superman, who died in battle with a gigantic blob monster called Doomsday. Supposedly inspired by Superman’s noble sacrifice, Batman begins Justice League in a much more upbeat mood, trying to corral the world’s heroes so they can deal with other dangers.
In reality, I think the film’s lighter tone owes more to the massive success of Wonder Woman, which dared embrace its character’s altruism and goodness and was much better off for it. But Justice League’s cheeriness comes off as strained, to say the least. Wonder Woman is her usual magnetic self (Gadot’s superstar performances in all these movies are the best justification for their existence), but everyone else is laying on the charm a little thick, particularly Aquaman (a trident-carrying bro with a lion’s mane of hair) and The Flash (whose main power is wittily explaining just how anxious he is at any given moment).
There isn’t enough time to delve deeply into the ensemble’s backstories, making Justice League feel dashed off. This is a film that has to explain the origins of Aquaman (it turns out Atlantis is a very real place), The Flash (he was struck by lightning), and Cyborg (his father’s science experiment went wrong), as well as figuring out whether Superman is well and truly deceased (put it this way—Cavill is second-billed in the opening credits). Which means there isn’t extra time to make Justice League’s villain seem remotely scary, or to develop his demonic plan into anything more interesting than “destroying the world.”
Steppenwolf needs to nab three all-powerful “Mother Boxes” to do that, so there’s ample opportunity for set pieces in which the Justice League takes down his minions (evil man-sized dragonflies called Parademons) and trade jokes with each other. But the action is largely muddy and unclear, a whirling mess of computer-generated bodies zipping around too quickly to have any sense of their weight or impact. There’s no question the Justice League is going to save the world—after all, there are plenty more DC movies on the horizon, and some of them (like Aquaman) will surely be tasked with filling in this film’s narrative gaps.
In the end, the only genuine stakes are over whether Batman will finally win over his new buddies. For so much of the movie, Affleck is in full-on lecture mode, contrite over the death of Superman but still happy to bark at Wonder Woman and the gang over the public duty they’re shirking by not allying with him immediately. By the end of the film, some of his harsher edges have been sanded off; the same should go for the DC Comics universe moving forward. Justice League feels like a pilot episode—it’s half-formed, overstuffed, and narratively a chore—but at least its gotten all those annoying introductions out of the way. And it only took five movies to get there.