JUSTICE LEAGUE
(**)
"...this film has a lot of heavy background lifting to do - too much to be able to tell a story"

Waiting for Superman

(111817) When Marvel mapped out the trajectory for their Cinematic Universe, they were sometimes criticized for over thinking and over-planning. Nearly every major hero Ė Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor Ė had his own movie. Many of the secondary characters (including the villain) boasted significant screen time in one or more of the first five films. Only once all these things had been accomplished were the characters brought together for The Avengers. The formula worked. The Avengers was popcorn bliss.

DC, however, came late to the party. Riding the critical and popular success of Christopher Nolanís Batman trilogy and smarting from the disappointing performance of Bryan Singerís Superman Returns, they dithered and dallied and didnít begin planning out the post-Dark Knight campaign until the MCU movie count was past the half-dozen mark and rising. The late start resulted in a rushed and un-unified approach. Justice League arrives with three major characters who havenít previously been introduced. As a result, this film has a lot of heavy background lifting to do - too much, in fact, for it to be able to tell a worthwhile story. 70% of the movie is set-up for future tales. The rest is an overlong smack-down between our heroes and possibly the dullest villain ever to appear in a comic book picture.

Marvel movies, for all their flaws, are almost always fun. Yes, the action and plotting follow familiar trajectories but there's usually wit in the screenplay and energy in the execution. Why is it that so many recent DC films (Wonder Woman excepted) feel like work? Why are the visuals so dark and muddy? Iíve said it before: Christopher Nolan understood how to make the darkness organic and necessary to the films, a part of their essential DNA. Not so with the DCEU films. The only one that really succeeds, Wonder Woman, does so in large part because director Patty Jenkins subscribed to a different aesthetic. Even though Zack Snyder was replaced late in the proceedings by The Avengersí Joss Whedon (as a result of a personal tragedy), Justice League adheres too closely to the tone that hamstrung Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Yes, there are more one-liners and some openly comedic scenes but thereís a vast gulf between the oh-so-serious events of Justice League and the antics of Thor: Ragnarok.

Narrative-wise, Justice League is forced to do too many things. It has to re-unite Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), fresh off her own film, with the Ben Affleck iteration of Batman. (Because Affleck hasnít yet gotten his own stand-alone film, we still donít really know this rendition of The Dark Knight, except that his costume is bluer than his immediate predecessorís and his Bat Cave is more high-tech. It would have helped immeasurably if the DCEU had taken the time for a proper re-introduction of a signature character.) To help in that department, it brings back supporting players Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons). The movie also has to introduce Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and provide them with mini-origin stories. Then thereís the necessity of resurrecting Superman (Henry Cavill), because that character remains a key foundation of any DCEU movie even though he ďdiedĒ at the end of Batman v Superman. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are on hand to represent the Superman support section. Cavill in a surprisingly reduced role, to his credit finally brings some of the charismatic humanity needed for the Man of Steel.

As if all this wasnít enough, Justice League also feels compelled to give us a Big Bad Guy whose muddled purpose has something to do with becoming a new god and possibly preparing the way for Darkseid, who might end up becoming the DCEUís version of Thanos. This McGuffin-villain, Steppenwolf (a motion-captured Ciaran Hinds), has a poorly-defined back-story and no personality beyond crush-destroy-burn. He provides the catalyst that brings the Justice League together. In the grand scheme of things, he is inconsequential.

Although screen time is carefully parceled out, Snyder ensures that each Justice League member gets a moment to shine. In the wake of Wonder Womanís success, one might expect to see more of Diana Prince in the final cut but the massive box office windfall from that film hit too late for her role to be substantially beefed up for Justice League (although she still has more screen time than anyone other than Batman). Fortunately, thereís good chemistry among the various actors and the yin/yang friendship/rivalry aspects of The Justice League members work well. Snyder/Whedon get the team dynamic. Of the supporting cast members, Amy Adams and Jeremy Irons are well-utilized. Everyone else is extraneous.

Thereís a lot of battling during Justice League but much of it falls into the been-there-done-that category: explosions, waves of power, bad CGI, superheroes getting knocked down only to get up again, etc. Itís all familiar by now and not all that interesting. Steppenwolf is a lackluster bad guy whose powers were taken from the villain clichť shelf and whose eventual fate provokes little more than a yawn. While Justice League mostly succeeds in assembling the title team and getting the internal dynamic right, it fails in crafting a memorable or imposing villain.

Kudos to Danny Elfman, who went back to basics for his score, drawing heavily on his own theme from Batman (1989) but not ignoring the previous work of other composers (both recent and not-so-recent). I also loved the use of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" as the opening theme. However, it's not a good sign when I have to fall back on the music as arguably the most praiseworthy aspect of Justice League.

Now that Warner Brothers has gotten this movie out of their system, maybe they can take a step back and spend a few movies developing the characters and the DCEU in general. At the moment, Justice League 2 has neither a crew nor a release date, which is probably a good thing. The next time these characters band together, perhaps they will do so with stronger backgrounds, a real sense of purpose, and a story thatís more than a cobbled-together mess. In concept, The Justice League has more potential than The Avengers. Now itís up to the DCEU scribes to tap into that potential and make it real Ė something they have thus far failed at in four out of five tries, including this one.

Directed by:  Zack Snyder
Written by:  Screenplay & story by: Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon. Based on the DC Comics characters by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Gardner Fox, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, William Moulton Marston and Jack Kirby
Starring:   Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa
Released:  111717
Length: 120 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action

JUSTICE LEAGUE ©  2017 Warner Brothers Pictures
Review © 2017 Alternate Reality, Inc.