by Michael Henley
There’s a word I hate to use when critiquing movies, because it invariably denotes a certain level of laziness. But there are some times when it has to be said, and this is one of those times. The problem with Justice League is that it’s…boring.
It’s a superhero team up movie with zero stakes, populated by actors who clearly look miserable, playing people we aren’t given reason to care about, operating against a series of green-screen backdrops so utterly unconvincing that even the inevitable video game version would be embarrassed by the shoddy production values. For a $300 million movie that features for the first time a team-up of some of the most iconic superheroes of all time (not just Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman but also The Flash and a couple others), the film has all the empty obligation of a third-grade dance recital. When it’s not even your kid.
What went wrong here? The first inclination might be to blame director Zack Snyder, but that’s not fair. Snyder, who has cut his teeth on a list of grim comic adaptations including some involving these characters, had to step away from post-production here due to a family tragedy. Enter director Joss Whedon (The Avengers), who oversaw two months of reshoots and script rewrites; the movie is now a hodgepodge of Snyder/Whedon material.
But that’s not the issue. Lots of great movies have torturous backstories. No, the problem with Justice League is that…you can clearly see the turmoil on screen and the movie never involves you enough to make you forget it. Snyder may be pretentious as a filmmaker and inattentive as a storyteller, and he may be unfortunately married to a gritty superhero tone that infects even his depictions of a positivity-first character like Superman. But his movies at least feel definitively his, and speak with a sense of real vision, however muddled that vision may be when applied to story. And he is above all a gifted visual stylist. Whedon is a good storyteller but is more often than not workmanlike as a director. The result here is a marriage made in hell between Zack Snyder’s good looking shots that struggle with telling a story and Joss Whedon’s jokey character interactions that are flat-looking as anything.
The ship has sailed for jokiness in this universe anyway; after the dour Batman v. Superman, the amount of attention paid here to humor feels like a showy, overly reactive course correction. That includes the entire character of The Flash (Ezra Miller), who exists to provide a few quick superfeats but mainly to quip and self-deprecate: his lines come out of his mouth like an embarrassed sneer. This gets old quickly. Other jokes are spread evenly among the rest of the cast, with maybe about a 25% success rate. Compare this to Thor: Ragnarok, which had wry fun with its superheroes but retained their integrity. Here, we have Batman making snarky jokes, even after having his throat nearly crushed by a superpowered being, leaving him writhing around on the ground. Does anybody want that?
Batman is once again played by Ben Affleck, here doing an uncanny impression of an actor playing two roles and being held hostage by both. He becomes the movie’s de facto focal point, picking up stray superheroes and trying to marshall them to fight in a cosmic war. That includes overtures towards Amazonian Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), undersea-dweller Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) and a cyborg named…er, Cyborg (Ray Fisher). The benefits of having an Amazonian warrior and a flying half-robot are obvious. What advantages Aquaman might bring to the table, especially in a final confrontation that is entirely landlocked, are beyond me, but I guess we can’t expect the movie to truly explain its obscure characters that much. Aquaman’s sole scene of backstory (involving a trip to his home city of Atlantis) leave us more confused and uncertain than ever. Remember when Marvel’s Avengers built up to its team-up event by giving all the heroes solo adventures that explained who they were? The advantages of an approach you would think would be obvious, but I suppose not.
The Avengers was a messy movie, too—rudimentary in its story, and more invested in moments than a complex story. But they were fun moments, and at its best it evoked the sense of comic book splash pages come to life (who can forget that joyous oner that tracked multiple superheroes flying, punching and cooperating across multiple city blocks)? Justice League’s fun feels utterly forced, and its story is threadbare—not a single character changes in a meaningful way over the course of this, unless you count Superman (Henry Cavill), who is a given a no-muss, not-nearly-enough-fuss resurrection. (You might say that’s a spoiler, but Henry Cavill is second-billed in the movie’s credits so you tell me.) I know we’re comparing degrees on ultimately empty-calorie superhero fodder, but at least The Avengers gave us characters and the illusion of growth, to make it seem like it was about something. Justice League isn’t about anything, aside from trite statements about teamwork and warriors and whatnot.
I forgot to mention the villain. That’s Steppenwolf (Ciarin Hinds), a clomping CGI monster who looks like he stepped out a junky 90’s computer game. On the grand scale of supervillains, Steppenwolf (yes, that’s really his name) is bush league. His aesthetic drips pixels, not menace. His dialogue is so perfunctory he might as well not have any. He’s one of those villains who is 200% more successful because heroes become stupider when near him. His plan, to re-terraform Earth as a hellscape, is eerily familiar, and since most Zack Snyder movies take place in a hellscape anyway, there’s not much to really make us feel threatened there. In one of the movie’s most hilarious threads, the terror of an entire earth besieged by supernatural menaces is dialed down into the actions of one Russian family, providing a stand-in for an entire imperiled globe, disaster-movie style; no one else in the movie is allowed to have an opinion or reaction to possibly being horrifically destroyed by a monster named Steppenwolf.
By the way, I won’t share with you whether the Russian family lives or dies. The movie’s points of suspense and interest are severely limited and I fully understand the instinct to conserve them.
I mentioned Affleck looking miserable—he clearly wants to stop being Batman, and while that is also sometimes true of the character of Batman, it somehow doesn’t help the performance. Gadot, so charismatic earlier this year in her solo film, is lost in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with her (and yeah, maybe going from being directed by Patty Jekins to being directed by two different dudes didn’t help). Cavill’s Superman remains glum and dull. The newcomers to the franchise, like Mamoa and Fisher, don’t really acquit themselves very well–Fisher is burdened by a mess of CG that affects his weak performance, and Mamoa does an uncanny impression of the guy at a bar whose team just won the playoffs.
Is it time for superhero epics to end? I’ve never felt greater fatigue than after having seen Justice League. I’ve seen comparisons made that superhero films are our modern-day westerns: just as ubiquitous and with much the same varying levels of quality controls. At least westerns, though, took place in the real world with real locations, and spent time on performances and character. Justice League is an entirely artificial construct, meant to give the impression that a movie is being watched, and it’s for people that will give a movie 10/10 just for the fact that Batman and The Flash are together for the first time, regardless of what they do, or how they do it, or why they do it, or what they go through, or whether any of it matters. If this movie was a person, its parents would order it to go outside and get some fresh air.