'Justice League' Review: How Many Superheroes Does It Take to Save a Cinematic Universe

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Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

How do you solve a problem like the DC Extended Universe? (Or whatever Warner Bros. is or is not calling their cinematic universe of DC properties these days, if the plan is even still to build one singular cinematic universe requiring a name, as opposed to pivoting to standalone films?)

In 2014, WB announced a slew of titles and release dates that spanned more than half a decade and would interconnect to form a super 'verse to rival Marvel's benchmark MCU: Suicide Squad in 2016, Wonder Woman in 2017, Aquaman and The Flash in 2018, Shazam with Dwayne Johnson in 2019 and Cyborg and Green Lantern in 2020, with installments in a Justice League twofer directed by Zack Snyder arriving in 2017 and 2019.

In the years since, some of those initial plans have changed, while some have come to fruition: After the meh Man of Steel, oof Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and umm Suicide Squad, the DC universe achieved its first critically lauded, fan approved, bona fide hit in this summer's Wonder Woman, which set records at the box office and boasts a 92 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to BvS at 27 percent and Suicide Squad at 26).

With the release of Justice League on Friday, WB will see whether that success will continue on into what should be the crown jewel of their DC franchise, the comparatively-not-that-long-but-still-years-in-the-making team-up of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill), along with Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller).

Here, too, some things have come to fruition (it is "A Zack Snyder Film," with Snyder receiving sole directorial credit) and some have changed: It's no longer marked as Part One, for one, and Joss Whedon has scooped up a screenplay credit, shared with Chris Terrio, though he also handled directorial duties after Snyder was forced to step away from the project.

Justice League picks up where (sigh...) Batman v Superman left off: Superman is dead, pictured alongside David Bowie and Prince on a tabloid cover that is headlined "Did They Return to Their Planet?" In the aftermath, crime and xenophobia are on the rise, topically so, with only Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince to save the world. (Stopping rooftop shootouts in Gotham, stopping terrorist attacks in Paris, so on and so forth.) So they set out to assemble a team -- or League, as it were -- and the movie cycles through moments with Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman), Victor Cruz (aka Cyborg) and Barry Allen (aka The Flash) to establish the other members. And there is a lot of establishing that needs to be done -- one disadvantage of building an ensemble team-up without a foundation of solo films -- so we get some heavy-handed exposition dumps: Aquaman maybe "talks" to fish, Allen's father is in jail for supposedly "murdering" Barry's mom, Cyborg "died."

Justice League
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Still, it's all edited together fairly tightly as the movie bops around, which is perhaps Whedon's doing, if he facilitated post-production duties. We'll likely never know exactly how much of the final product belongs to Snyder or Whedon, but there is plenty to speculate over. (Like any scene featuring Cavill, though it is fairly easy to tell which were filmed during reshoots because of the uncanny plastic mouth he's left with after his mustache was digitally removed. Honestly, I'd be shocked if it wouldn't have looked better adding a CGI mustache into all of his original scenes.)

Before Whedon came on, Snyder seemed to have heeded criticism of Batman v Superman with a promise to make Justice League lighter. And immediately it is more aesthetically pleasing, still gritty but with splashes of color to break up the darkness. More crucially, though, the mood is lighter, no longer incessantly somber. There are actual jokes!

"What's your superpower again?" The Flash asks Batman. Batman replies, "I'm rich."

Most of the humor is like that, knowing winks that would have been better two movies ago, but they're welcome nonetheless. They also seem very Whedon-y, lending Justice League a bit of Avengers flavor. Of course, that's the point, that we're not supposed to see the seams of where one ended and the other began, and the two styles actually mesh well, each director toning the other down to the betterment of the movie.

Gadot's commanding performance as Wonder Woman assures she'll still be a fan favorite, even if the character feels a bit...off from what Patty Jenkins established. (Also, we get it. She's good-looking.) The real standout is Miller's Flash. Miller plays Barry Allen as gentle and admiring and, yes, funny. But he's not as potentially grating a quip factory as he appears in previews; there is pathos and astuteness there. The Flash's power set also offers up an opportunity for comedic gags between cuts, not to mention the fact that it just looks cool. When, not if, WB gets around to making that beleaguered Flashpoint movie, it will be a success if only thanks to Miller's take on the character.

I imagine plenty of people will take to Aquaman as well, though I personally never quite got a grasp on him. As played by Momoa, the future King of Atlantis is a bro-y lone wolf with ombre hair, another tough guy to enter Batman's d*ck-swinging contest. (Affleck, for his part, is far more winning when he plays Bruce as self-conscious and overcompensating.) The sequences in Atlantis tease Amber Heard's Mera, a hypnotic take on underwater action filming and dialogue that is straight-up nutters. I'm intrigued, but will need to see more -- in James Wan's Aquaman, set to hit theaters in 2018 -- to decide. (Though, in truth, nothing could have stopped me from wanting to see Nicole Kidman as a mermaid queen.)

Jason Momoa in 'Justice League'
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

The problem, which starts to show during the second act, is that when you get all these heroes in one room, the chemistry just isn't there. Excuse another comparison to Marvel's Avengers -- the yardstick by which all superhero team-ups are measured -- but for any quibbles about those movies, any scene where the team is together pops. Even just watching those heroes sit around and chat has a certain thrill to it. Here, the dynamic feels stilted, which, in fairness to the actors, may be a result of being tasked to deliver so much expository dialogue when they speak at each other. The exception is Miller's Flash and Cavill's Superman, an unexpected pairing who end up gelling well.

The league manages to assemble just in time for the Mother Boxes -- a McGuffin that factored into the plot of Batman v Superman in ways too ill-defined to recall here and, anyway, the less talk of Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, the better -- to attract the new big bad, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). As it goes, Steppenwolf was defeated once before during the Age of Heroes and swore his revenge. And so he returns once again with a swarm of Parademons and threatens to turn Earth into a primordial hellscape, because...well, if a villain doesn't want to destroy the world, who are the Justice League supposed to fight?

If the first act of Justice League is genuinely solid and the second act is where things gets a bit iffy, then the third act is a mess. For as much as Snyder and Whedon's partnership aids earlier stretches of the movie, in the end each of their biggest individual flaws eventually emerges. In Snyder's hands, the climactic final battle once again gets too big, becoming a soup of ugly flashing lights and CGI super-punching. It mostly ends up looking like a video game. (Or like the climactic end bit of Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman...) Meanwhile, the action of the movie is repeatedly interrupted to cut away to some irrelevant Russian family. It's classic Whedon, attempting to add personal stakes to the city-leveling battle, as if the world weren't enough.

There is actually a lot I like and am intrigued by here: The Flash and Aquaman, Wonder Woman, of course. (Though a return to Themyscira -- now including metal bikinis! -- just doesn't feel the same without Jenkins.) There is also a lot that I don't: Nearly everything involving Fisher's surly Cyborg is dead on arrival. (More like Victor Snooze.) Most of my issues with Justice League trace backward to a stink still lingering from Batman v Superman, compounded by this movie leaning so heavily into that one. I found it difficult to get too excited about anything having to do with Batman or Superman or Lois Lane, who mostly just makes sad eyes as she pines over Superman. (Amy Adams might have the most thankless role in superhero movie history.)

All of the shiny new heroes and witty one-liners and color, oh, sweet color, draws the eye, but there's still something rotten at the center of all this, keeping it from becoming the epic team-up it sweatily strives to be. It certainly doesn't help that Justice League arrives after Wonder Woman, a breath of fresh air, and Thor: Ragnarok, so goofy and original and dynamic. There's no wow factor here, nothing you'll even remember after the next DC film rolls around. How do you solve a problem like the DC Extended Universe, then? I'm not sure there is an easy answer, or any answer, but there are pieces crammed into Justice League that have promise. And, hey, that's all it takes to keep fans excited about what could come.