Review: ‘Justice League’ can’t loosen its stiff armor
You can see the DC Comics mashup trying to have fun, but things never come together for Batman and his friends
“Justice League” is a supersize snooze, a superhero mashup that is as stiff as Ben Affleck’s upper lip.
To be fair, this converging of comics is looser than last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a numbing, pounding headache that set out to punish its viewers. You can at least see “Justice League” trying to have fun. But there’s a rote joylessness to it that makes it feel more like a work conference than a party. The spark you want to ignite between the cast mates barely registers as a flicker.
It’s no “Avengers,” that’s for sure. When the Marvel good guys all got together in 2012, there was a slickness to it that made it feel natural, cool and yes, fun. It had the right attitude and the right spirit. “Justice League” — despite bringing in “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon to pinch hit for director Zack Snyder, who exited the project following the tragic death of his daughter — lumbers around, clunky and unsure of itself, tossing up jokes that land like bricked free throws.
At least it’s telling jokes though. That’s an improvement. But it’s not until a post-credit sequence that one of them really hits. It’s telling: After the credits, the burden of the story is lifted, you’re free to stretch out, it’s like being out for drinks after work. But in this case, it reveals what a drag things were at the office.
“Justice League” picks up after the events of “Batman v Superman.” Superman is dead, his death mourned globally, and an opening credit sequence places the death of Supes alongside other 2016 losses like Prince and David Bowie (it’s scored by a somber cover of “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen, another titan we lost last year).
Superman’s death has left a void in the world’s consciousness, not to mention its policing. So of course there’s a new bad guy who wants to take over the planet, and that job is left to an oversize dude called Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who looks to harness all of mankind’s power by attaining three magical boxes (feel free to roll your eyes) which will allow him to turn the globe into his own personal hell.
Stopping him calls for more than just the powers of Batman (Affleck) or Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the latter of whom gets a much more leering treatment here than she did in her own movie earlier this year. So they team up to bring in Aquaman (Jason Momoa), whose ability to swim really fast and control the flow of water comes in very handy later when the group is faced with the sudden threat of floods; the Flash (Ezra Miller), who is very, very quick on his feet (if not as quick on his wits as the script would hope); and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is just learning to cope with his evolving electro-cyber-kinetic powers and is sort of like Iron Man crossed with the internet.
Before they can save the world, they must first get along with each other, and “Justice League” is often like a forced group exercise. Aquaman prefers to work alone, you see, and a sequence of him happily zipping through the water while the White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” pumps over the soundtrack is sillier than anything “Entourage” could have come up with back when the mere idea of a big-screen “Aquaman” project was an in-joke about Hollywood’s intellectual bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Flash is all-too eager to hang with his new superhero pals, even though he has the ADD-addled temperament of someone whose social interactions are limited to online gaming. (Miller’s character and his characterization are there for comic relief but feel beamed in from another cinematic universe.)
They’re finally able to come together, but Steppenwolf — save your “Born to be Wild” jokes — is hardly worth their time. He’s a C-grade villain with a generic plot and no personality and he never poses any real threat to the gang or the world at large, no matter how many special effects surround him. A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and this one’s a zero.
The League’s bigger problem, however, is themselves. Affleck’s Batman remains wholly unconvincing, and Affleck seems embarrassed when he has to jaw his way through dialogue like “people think the Doomsday Clock has a snooze button.” The Batsuit is like Kryptonite for Affleck, it robs him of his charisma as an actor — physically it doesn’t even fit him well — and he looks like he’s being held hostage on screen.
Gadot’s Wonder Woman is much better, but she already had her moment in the sun this year. This isn’t so much a sequel for her as it is a B-sides collection, a stopgap until her next blockbuster solo album is ready to go.
As for the other “Leaguers,” “Justice League” doesn’t hold much promise for their ability to shine in individual projects. (Then again, “Batman v Superman” wasn’t much of a crystal ball into Wonder Woman’s future, and look what happened there.)
At least at two hours — brief by modern superhero standards — “Justice League” doesn’t overstay its welcome. But like most all-star games, it’s better as fantasy than it is reality. Level your expectations to the league minimum.
Rated PG-13: for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Running time: 119 minutes