NB: The following contains a spoiler for Batman V Superman if you haven’t seen it yet.
Politicians mope behind their desks. Flags fly at half mast. A group of thugs upset a table of fruit and veg outside a supermarket. A homeless guy sits on a city pavement, gazes forlornly at the sky while clutching a sign that says, “I tried.” Yes, things have started looking pretty bleak since the end of Batman V Superman, and with its beacon of hope gone, humanity has drifted into a gloomy funk.
To make matters worse, there’s another alien threat on the horizon: the gigantic, horned despot Steppenwolf, who plans to unite three ancient Loot Boxes and unleash a devastating attack on the world. Those boxes don’t contain power, as Wonder Woman portentously explains – they are power.
So begins Justice League, the latest – and you might have thought the biggest – chapter in Warner’s DC Extended Universe. Following Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman and this year’s Wonder Woman, it brings together the surviving heroes, along with three new ones, to form a super-powered platoon capable of preventing Steppenwolf’s box collecting antics from getting out of hand. But far from the Avengers-level extravaganza we were genuinely hoping for, Justice League staggers out of the gate in a state of disarray. At times, it barely looks finished.
The film’s behind-the-scenes travails are well documented, but in brief, Justice League’s original director, Zack Snyder, was forced to bow out of the production following a personal tragedy. A filmmaker of a very different stripe, Avengers director Joss Whedon, stepped into oversee some extensive reshoots. Warner has estimated that these newly-shot sequences account for some 15 to 20 percent of the movie, and unfortunately, many of them are plain to see.
Returning to the fold as Batman and Bruce Wayne, Ben Affleck seems gruff, surly and out-of-sorts, his hero lumbered with the thankless, Nick Fury-like task of uniting his team in time for the second act. It’s by-the-numbers stuff, and Affleck seems to be performing with one eye on the stage door exit, but the cast around him give Justice League some much-needed vim. Jason Momoa evidently relishes being in a big Hollywood movie, and gives macho merman Aquaman a certain devil-may-care charm.
Likewise Ezra Miller as The Flash, a character with the ability to move at physics-defying speeds; there are times when his awkward teen schtick grates, but Miller gives the part a modicum of boyish charm. Ray Fisher has less to do as Cyborg, which isn’t the actor’s fault, so much as his character’s casting as the conflicted emo-type of the group: once named Victor Stone, he was terribly injured in an explosion and given cybernetic powers by his father, Silas (the great Joe Morton, apparently cast as a cheeky nod to his role in Terminator 2). Finally, there’s Gal Gadot, back as Wonder Woman and no less charismatic than she was in her solo outing earlier this year.
At times, Justice League gets by on pithy one-liners and character quirks alone, but Steppenwolf, an all-CG creation voiced by Ciaran Hines, has the presence and menace of a welder’s bench. Sometimes punching people, occasionally sending out his army of locust-like flying zombies (or Parademons, as they’re called), but mostly just standing around looking at glowing beams of light, Steppenwolf looks and sounds like the incarnation of Skeletor from 1987’s ramshackle Masters Of The Universe.
Come to think of it, numerous scenes recall that movie, made by the infamously disorganised Cannon Films. Joss Whedon’s zingers are perfectly pleasant, but they’re clearly inserts shot long after the fact: most use indescribably tight close-ups on Ezra Miller with a CG background inserted behind him (“Pet Sematary reference!”). Another involves a cut to Affleck’s Batman lying on what is clearly a patch of fake grass, like the stuff you see underneath vegetables at a greengrocer’s. One of the most bizarre plot threads involves a Russian family who live in a single-storey house in the middle of nowhere; they’re never properly introduced, yet the story keeps pausing to cut back to them, either eating dinner, watching television or looking alarmed at some effects being frantically rendered outside their window.
Some of the big action sequences, by contrast, are clearly of the Snyder variety, as seen in the likes of 300, Man Of Steel or Batman V Superman. Muscles glisten, the camera sweeps, stuff blows up and rocks crumble. Quite a few of these shots look sleek and cool; others seem to have been pieced together in a hurry – which wouldn’t necessarily matter, if the team-up plot built to a satisfying, threat-filled crescendo. Instead, it sort of fizzles – partly due to incoherent, jumbled storytelling, and partly because all the joshing asides start to have a diminishing effect on the tension. Right when we should be fearing for the characters’ safety, along comes another quip to remind us that it’s all just a jolly lark. It all feels strangely, worryingly lightweight.
Flimsy and disjointed though it is, Justice League may still do enough to please the franchise’s faithful core, who’ve already endured the booming fury of Batman V Superman and the neon-drenched dervish of Suicide Squad. But having assembled such a decent – and expensive – cast, it’s disappointing, at least for this writer, to see them all left stranded as the usual blur of special effects whiz around them. At its worst, the film’s mix of glib humour and overblown imagery feel like a studio cobbling something – anything – together in the hope that it sticks.
The superhero genre has undoubtedly seen worse than Justice League. The characters that comprise it – particularly Gadot’s guileless Wonder Woman – arguably deserve better.
Justice League is out in UK cinemas on the 17th November.