It’s difficult to overstate just how much the DCEU needed Wonder Woman. After the dour and mean-spirited Batman V Superman and the full-metal racket of Suicide Squad, Gal Gadot’s virtuous Themysciran warrior was a Wonder-ful leap forward for the franchise, finally placing an endearing superhero at the heart of an entertaining movie that was as witty and inventive and it was groundbreaking.
If the success of Diana Prince’s first solo-outing offered the chance for the DCEU to shift gears, it’s one Justice League fails to take. Visually ugly, boring and repetitive, this souped-up superhero team-up is a return to the murky aesthetic, sketchy characters and chaotic action that have continuously dogged the series since its conception.
Tonally, the movie is all over the place, clumsily attempting to stitch together it’s disparate elements into an uninspiring whole. This is most noticeable during a labourious opening act which swings wildly between a grim and gritty Gotham, the shimmering lands of Themyscira and the submerged ruins of Atlantis as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) grumpily tries to recruit a mis-mash of meta humans and ancient gods to his nebulous cause.
It’s several months after the ‘death’ of Superman and the absence of the son of Krypton has encouraged exiled God Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of buzzing Parademons to invade Earth in search of three cosmic MacGuffin boxes that, when combined, posses the power to destroy the universe. Realising that a seven foot supernatural warrior with a magic axe might pose more of a threat than a bunch exploding wind-up penguins, Batman assembles a ramshackle band of super-beings to help him defeat Darkseid’s right-hand man and prevent the world from becoming an apocalyptic wasteland.
Such a hackneyed plot holds few surprises, essentially following the tiresomely typical beats of a team-up movie – even the idea of an alien baddie invading Earth to unite a trio of cosmic trinkets is ripped straight from The Avengers. Perhaps that’s why the movie is in such an almighty rush to get down to business. Coming in at a trim two hours, it’s a brisk, breezy adventure – further leavened by an abundance of knowing gags, no doubt penned by Joss Whedon, who replaced director Zack Snyder after a family tragedy and here receives a writing credit.
Yet this leaves very little time to get to know our new heroes and to dig down into the team dynamics. Like every other movie in the DCEU, Justice League is so eager to catch up with its Marvel rival that it assumes our connection with its characters rather than earning our affections. As a result, the planned emotional beats fail to pay off and the entire story descends into an underwhelming mess of ropey visual effects and lunkheaded plot developments – culminating an overblown finale featuring giant purple tentacle-things, flying zombie insects and a CGI monstrosity so sloppily developed it’ll make you yearn for the heady days of Doomsday and Superman playing computer-rendered whack-a-mole.
Even so, there’s great fun to be had, particularly in scenes of the League together, bickering and bonding in a rapid-fire exchange of quips, and the cast play off each other extraordinarily well in the circumstances. Ezra Miller is the highlight as a whip-witted and overzealous The Flash, while Gadot once again radiates gravitas as Wonder Woman. Ray Fisher perhaps needs more fleshing out as the brooding Cyborg, though his digitised Frankenstein arch holds promise. Of the new recruits, Aquaman is by far the worst served, Jason Mamoa reduced to bellowing stock-jock phrases like ‘Oh yeah’ and ‘My man’, as if he’s a drunken frat boy rather than the heir to an ancient kingdom.
If Batman feels like an after thought to the team, that’s hardly the fault of Affleck, who brings an enjoyable gruffness that works well with his elder statesman interpretation of the Caped Crusader. The problem is that Batman is simply not suited to the role of inspirational leader to a team of superheroes – a point the movie tries to address, to unsatisfying effect – and his physical handicaps when compared to the rest of the team understandably see him left behind during many of the action scenes.
Justice League is undoubtedly brighter and funnier than any DCEU movie to date. But it remains lumbered with the same flaws that have been dragging the franchise down from the beginning – namely a loose grip of its tone, haphazard plotting and a collection of unengaging heroes who fail to live up to their billing. As long as these problems persist, there’s no danger of the DCEU usurping the big red behemoth as ruler of the multiverse.
Runtime: 120 mins (approx)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher