Halfway through Justice League, you might feel free to try this little thought experiment, just for kicks. An ideal time would be somewhere between the battle at the memorial for a certain legendary Kryptonian, and the point at which a tiny, unnamed family tries to outpace menacing purple space tentacles as they barrel out of the earth. When you find the right moment, stop and ask yourself this question: how would you feel about Justice League if it had been released a year ago? Would you be focusing on the endless exposition and introductions, the choppy action, the overly slick special effects and underdeveloped characters, the uninspired plot and the aggressively dull villain? Or would that hypothetical past-you be relieved that, at long last, one of these DC movies has a little personality and moves at a reasonably brisk pace? That’s a question any reviewer must ask herself, too, and this one would probably lean toward the latter. But it’s not a year ago, is it?
Put another way: the story of Justice League might have been a different one, but Wonder Woman went and absolutely wrecked the curve. If Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen created a new Flashpoint timeline in which this limp-but-not-lifeless film preceded Patty Jenkins’ massive critical and financial hit, rather than followed hot on its heels, we’d be heralding Zack Snyder’s latest as a tentative but promising step in the right direction. The things one might have said in that alternate timeline, or on Earth-2, or back before Bruce Wayne’s parents got murdered — those things all still apply. There are problems, sure, and many of them, but this is a decent film, with a pack of familiar troubles all lightened by a new sense of play and a blissfully shortened runtime. It’s not good, per se, and it’s definitely not Wonder Woman. That said, it’s better than you may expect, a mostly tolerable movie made occasionally enjoyable by a few lively performances, one good fight sequence, and a solid punchline or two.
That also makes it a win, however muted, for the high-profile team behind the camera, as well as the one in front of it. Directed by Snyder with additional scenes helmed by Joss Whedon — both of whom, along with Chris Terrio, are credited on the screenplay — Justice League feels very much like a film that first had one director’s hands on it, and then another’s. That’s a good and a bad thing. It’s perhaps best described as a Snyder Instagram post with a heavy Whedon filter applied over the top. If Justice League is a photo of your brunch, then it looks, sounds, and feels better than it actually is, because someone tweaked the hell out of it. It’s not as satisfying as it promises to be, but it’s still a passable breakfast.
When an alien threat descends on Gotham City, Batman (Ben Affleck) kills one of them. It explodes, leaving a pattern of three boxes behind it, a pattern that the Dark Knight recognizes. He interprets it as a sign of impending annihilation, and aims to put together a team of heroes to protect the earth in relief of the late Superman: Barry Allen (Miller), a.k.a. The Flash, Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), also known as Cyborg, Arthur “Aquaman” Miller (Jason “Perfect for Aquaman” Momoa), and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the hero who destroyed the curve. They unite, gradually and sometimes reluctantly, to take on Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds and a pack of computers, respectively misused and sorely used), an otherworldly monster here to conquer everything with three glowing boxes. When the team discovers that it’s still outmatched, they resort to desperate measures, putting the world at risk in hopes of saving it. Henry Cavill also appears.
If that sounds vague and exposition-heavy, then it’s the best and most accurate summary one could expect. This isn’t a movie intent on delivering a ripping good yarn. It’s about shoving all the heroes together and making them do cool shit, and the mission is sometimes accomplished. There are a few solid setpieces, including the aforementioned showdown at Superman’s memorial. At one point Aquaman surfs on a dead body; at another, Wonder Woman stops all the bullets from a fancy machine gun by moving really fast, and she totally blows this bad guy’s mind. It’s fun.
It’s also stupid, and there’s no pretending otherwise. Perhaps the biggest issue with the DC films is this: they dress themselves up as though they’re very serious movies. That’s part of why Momoa’s Aquaman is such a breath of fresh air. He’s just dumb, and that’s not a statement about the character’s traits, but a statement about the whole deal. He talks to fish. He surfs on the aforementioned dead body. He goes “whooooooo-hoo!” a lot. It’s delightful, and totally stupid. The same is true, albeit in a more thoughtful way, of Miller’s take on The Flash, a bumbling, socially awkward oddball who’s so grateful to have teammates that he can’t actually contain himself. In another actor’s hands, that might verge on unbearable, but Miller might be the best thing to happen to the DCEU since Wonder Woman appeared in Wonder Woman.
As charismatic and thoughtful as Miller and Gadot are, they’re not a substitute for decent storytelling. By their powers combined, however, they manage to make up for a lot. They make up for the phoned-in performance Affleck turns in, save for a few punchlines he seems to have decided are worth his time and energy. They make up for Cyborg’s lack of development, a deficiency so pronounced that it’s wholly unfair to hold Fisher even partially responsible for the film’s failings. They make up for the fact that nearly all the action setpieces seem to be cut from the same cloth, and they almost make up for the fact that Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) entire existence, personally and professionally, is centered on her man — and now that he’s dead, how the hell is she gonna get that second Pulitzer?
They don’t, however, turn a passable film into a good one. If we’re grading the DC films on a curve — and even ignoring Wonder Woman — then Justice League is something of a winner. It’s the kind of movie you don’t necessarily flip past when it shows up on HBO, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It might be somehow more palatable if the people surrounded by the overly glossy CGI and the uncanny valley stunt-work were kind of dull, but they’re not. Miller, Gadot, and company deserve something solid, but what they get is merely acceptable. And so, what we’re left with is a circus, a well-funded parade of would-be adrenaline-boosters that has almost no interest in ever approaching anything more. See it, if you like. You’ll probably be entertained. But don’t expect greatness. Greatness takes something more. The fictional people who populate this story have figured that out. The same can’t be said for those in charge of it.