Justice League doesn’t stun

It’s finally here, the long-awaited joining together of some of DC Comics’ most iconic superheroes – Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg and… spoiler alert… Superman. And after some not very kind reviews for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel and more glowing reviews for Wonder Woman, the question is can Justice League ever live up, or down, to anyone’s expectations, especially coming so closely on the heels of the almost universally loved Thor: Ragnarok? The answer is probably no.

The story in a nutshell: Superman is (still) dead and Bruce Wayne kind of regrets everything that went down between them, realizing that Superman was a beacon of light to the people of earth. Without him, it’s just a boring, drab, dangerous world. And now that there are some kind of flying demon things invading the planet, the world more than ever needs the Man of Steel. Without him, Bruce knows he needs to form a team to fight this new menace which is just a harbinger of things to come, namely the big bad Steppenwolf (no, not the band) who has come to earth to collect his Mother Boxes so that he can boost his energy … or something like that (there was also a barely audible mention of Darkseid who is the real Big Bad of the DCU). The Amazons have one box, the Atlanteans have another and the last one is hidden on earth (and just happens to be the power source for Cyborg). Bruce then surmises that if these boxes have so much power, perhaps one can be used to revive Supes, but getting the team on board is a challenge. Of course, with the help of Diana, Arthur Curry (Aquaman), Barry Allen (The Flash), and Victor Stone (Cyborg) suit up for battle.

Justice League is neither great nor awful. It just is what it is. On the plus side, the film incorporates a lot more Avengers-style humor than BvS had, and the movie isn’t so oppressively dark as its predecessor either. Credit that to Joss Whedon who came on board the project after director Zack Snyder had to step away due to a family emergency. Whedon gets a writing credit, but he also directed part of the film too but the transitions are pretty seamless. Nothing jarring between the two directorial styles. Thankfully Bruce Wayne has been lightened up the most, actually cracking a few one-liners and often the brunt of Aquaman’s jibes (like his dressing as a bat). Wonder Woman actually leads the team for a bit as she suggests Batman may not be the best person for Superman to see when he wakes up.

It’s the new additions that really liven things up. Momoa’s Aquaman is a smartass most of the time so it will be interesting to see how his solo movie turns out (we get a brief moment here with Amber Heard’s Mera as well). I was pleasantly surprised with Cyborg, a character I don’t know much about. Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) is not the happiest of characters due to what his father did to save him, so he’s more brooding than Bruce Wayne but Fisher’s performance really helps pull off the character and he’s actually one of my two favorites in the movie (which bodes well for his own solo film). But the main reason to see Justice League is Ezra Miller’s The Flash. The openly queer Miller, whom I praised as the best thing about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, again steals the show in a role that is a complete opposite from Credence Barebone but as he did there, Miller uses his expressive face to say more than words could ever do. Miller’s Barry Allen is an awkward kid who uses humor to make it through this world, someone who enjoys his powers but isn’t quite ready for a battle on the scale of what they are about to face. But the movie gives The Flash some great moments and Miller is perfection in the role. This is one solo film I can’t wait to see.

Where Justice League falls short is with the villain. I suppose they decided to introduce Steppenwolf as a precursor to something bigger down the road (like Darkseid), but I really found him to be the least interesting character in the movie. That also could have been because of the terrible CGI used to bring him to life. Obviously motion captured, but when he speaks it just looks like a big piece of rubber being puppeted. There’s no excuse for bad CGI in a hugely expensive movie like this. If they can make realistic looking apes in the Planet of the Apes movies and bring Gollum to vivid life in the Lord of the Rings series, then there is no excuse for a rubbery looking villain in a DC Comics movie. They would have been better off putting someone in makeup. Battling Steppenwolf probably shouldn’t have been the entire story either. At least give us a tease of bigger things to come. That’s my biggest quibble with the movie.

Everything else is fine, the action is handled well, and with Danny Elfman providing the musical score – and there was nothing wrong with Hans Zimmer’s and Junkie XL’s score for BvS – long time Batman fans will get a little thrill when he slips in a little of the original Batman theme from Tim Burton’s original movie. (I also liked Alfred referencing a time when the worst thing they had to worry about were wind-up penguins.). I’m sure Justice League is going to get the same terrible critical reaction as the other movies that aren’t Wonder Woman did, but it will still make a ton of money. Warner Bros. and DC just really need to hone in on a good story if they’re going to continue to make these movies because what they have at the moment is just adequate, and these characters demand more than that.

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Chuck Duncan
Chuck Duncan has been the film critic for Baltimore OUTloud and its various incarnations for 20 years. He was previously a film and TV critic for CliqueClack.com and now owns the pop culture website Hotchka.com where he reviews films, TV shows and theatre. Chuck is the head judge for the annual 29 Days Later Film Project, and works for Anne Arundel County's PEG Studio