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Movie Review: 'Justice League' Assembles a Crack Team But Loses the Stakes

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In the past month, I’ve seen reams of online breast-beating about the titanic struggle between Marvel and DC Comics to control the world of superhero blockbusters. To many comics fans, and to people in the industry, it matters who “wins.” So I want to make something clear: As a comics illiterate, I’m not invested in which superpeople from which universe get the most screen time or whether their depiction is “canon.” I go in hoping to enjoy each movie on its own terms. That’s it.

Last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a terrible movie if you care about things like narrative logic or non-ridiculous titles. As a pure, loopy expression of director Zack Snyder’s grimdark, agonistic vision for these characters, however, it had its fun side.

Now comes Justice League, also directed by Snyder with reshoots by Joss Whedon, who shares a writing credit. This is the DC universe’s version of The Avengers: the movie in which Batman (Ben Affleck) comes down from the high of pounding on Superman (Henry Cavill) and realizes that, since the Man of Steel is no longer protecting humanity (for now, anyway), it’s time to form a super-team.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a super-team without Gal Gadot’s spirited Wonder Woman, who gets a meaty role to satisfy the legions of fans she gained last summer. Then there’s the small matter of recruiting three more heroes: the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), whose powers and backstories must be painstakingly explained to comics illiterates like me.

Once the film has completed all this setup, it’s time to save the world from a dreary CG alien with mommy issues (voice of Ciarán Hinds) and his army of steampunk variants on flying monkeys. The green-screened backgrounds don’t give us much of a sense of global stakes, so, in a laughable effort to create them, the filmmakers cut periodically to a single impoverished Russian family cringing from the advancing evil. We seem to have dropped in on a Béla Tarr film.

Though that would be scarier. More relatable than its predecessor but no more spell-binding, Justice League races through its paces and ends: four hours of exposition and posturing stuffed in a two-hour package. For every solid quip in the script, there’s a hoary mouthful. (“Such harmony out of such horror,” a character declaims. “It was truly the age of heroes.”)

Yet the movie offers some encouraging signs for future Justice League installments. Affleck’s Batman has mellowed; he tolerates snarky remarks about his costume and even cracks a few one-liners himself. The new characters aren’t bad, either. Miller is consistently amusing as a dorky, fanboy-esque superhero, even if his Flash is working the same shtick as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. Momoa’s Aquaman steals his scenes with the brutish charisma of a hair-metal god. He seems to be having fun with his powers, as does the still-awesome Wonder Woman.

Give these characters more room to breathe, and the next movie might be fun, too, in a whole different way from Batman v Superman. Yes, Justice League is more like The Avengers — that is to say, imbued with Whedon’s typical brew of jokey, self-deprecating moral earnestness — than it is like the rest of Snyder’s heavy-handed oeuvre. Leaving it to the experts to debate whether that’s canonical, I’ll simply hope the next DC film has a plotline half as compelling as the drama that goes into raising a tent pole with hundreds of cool millions on the line.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Justice League"

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