If “Wonder Woman” provided a glimmer of hope that DC Comics movies might start looking, moving and sounding differently than before, “Justice League” plops us right back into “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” territory, albeit with a little more wit and humanity. But if you like your superhero battles in deep dark tunnels or under skies purple with alien soot, director Zack Snyder is back with yet another installment that looks the way Axe body spray smells.
Not that there isn’t a little more levity, and a touch more interest in character this time around — and whether or not those attributes can be credited to Joss Whedon’s additional photography can be interpreted by those who will read this sequel like it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls — but much too much of this team-up adventure is given over to ridiculous posing and posturing as our heroes battle a not-very-interesting villain over, you guessed it, the fate of the world itself.
In the script credited to Chris Terrio (“Argo”) and Whedon, based on a story by Snyder and Terrio, the world is still reeling from the death of Superman at the end of “BvS,” and with new threats on the horizon, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) feels called upon to assemble individuals who can pick up the Kryptonian’s mantle. He’s already in touch with Princess Diana of Themyscira, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), of course. Then there’s troubled teen Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), who mainly uses his super-speed powers to work several jobs in the hopes of getting a lawyer for his wrongly imprisoned dad (Billy Crudup).
Bruce also tracks down troubled young adult Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a former college football player who was in a car accident and can now barely control the robot body (featuring Kryptonian tech) created for him by his widowed scientist father Silas (Joe Morton). There’s also Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the king of the seas; Bruce tracks him to an Icelandic village but the Aquaman, at first, has no interest in meddling with land-locked affairs.
That all changes when Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) shows up; the alien has some nefarious plans that call for three Mother Boxes, devices so powerful that putting them together would destroy all life on the planet. Ages ago they were divided up: one went to Themyscira, one to Aquaman’s domain of Atlantis, and one was hidden by humanity. Steppenwolf’s shopping spree is over before you know it, and it’s soon evident that even this team of heroes isn’t going to be enough to stop him. But hey, would one of those Mother Boxes have the power to bring Superman back to life?
On the pages of DC Comics, the Justice League has seen countless permutations, from heroic to gritty to the self-aware and jokey. (The latter, exemplified by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ run from 1986-1992, might be my favorite version of the team, but I’ve enjoyed the print Justice League in a variety of flavors.) What the movie version of this cohort of superheroes will eventually become is anyone’s guess, but Snyder gives us far more set-up than payoff. And when he does finally get everyone together for the big battle, he once again drowns the proceedings in murk. Neither cinematographer Fabian Wagner (“Victor Frankenstein”) nor the army of digital post-production artists lets enough light into these proceedings.
The one note Snyder seems to have taken from “Man of Steel” was “maybe don’t have superheroes destroy densely-populated areas,” so the climax takes place in a mostly abandoned, Chernobyl-like area of Russia. That gets bystanders out of the way, yes, but it also plops the action into a featureless arena.
When “Justice League” comes to life the most is in the interaction of its players, more often than not when they’re out of costume. (Although any fan of the comics will be forgiven for feeling a little giddy at seeing these titans share the screen.) Affleck and Gadot give genuine performances, and their scenes together have real weight, particularly when he grills her about why she spent the century after the events of “Wonder Woman” in hiding. (Gadot also wins the film’s ass-kickery sweepstakes early on, as Diana literally defuses a hostage situation involving a gaggle of uniformed schoolgirls straight out of “Madeline.”)
Diane Lane and Amy Adams, as the two most important people in Superman’s life, also manage to carve out some moments of heartfelt humanity. We’ll soon find out whether or not Momoa’s undersea-bro strutting can be endured for the length of a stand-alone “Aquaman” movie, and if Miller wants to be the comedy relief of this franchise, he might consider bringing the mugging and the double-takes down from a nine to a six.
Meanwhile: Who is Steppenwolf? And why should we care? And who is Victor Stone — who will eventually become known as Cyborg — as a human being, let alone as a half-robot superhero? The screenplay breezes along as though these questions had been addressed, let alone answered. And giving Joe Morton the line, “I’ll never tell you!” in response to Steppenwolf’s demand for the location of the Mother Box plays like a scene from a film about a great actor who gets stuck playing a thankless role in a ridiculous movie.
Warner Bros. doesn’t seem to have settled on a consistent tone — or even a range of tones — for their superhero epics in the way that their distinguished competition at Marvel has, but what works here comes very close to overpowering all the things that don’t. (Believe the rumors about Henry Cavill’s badly-digitally-hidden mustache, though.) “Justice League” may not represent the alchemic assemblage that “The Avengers” was, but now that these super not-quite-friends have saved their universe, they might eventually rescue their cinematic one as well.